4 November

Family and The Common Good

‘All the Lonely People’, an article published last year in The Economist, highlighted the financial implications of loneliness. What was perhaps most striking about the article was its stressing of the prevalence of loneliness in the developed world. It points out that there is no shortage of initiatives addressing the problem, some of which go beyond mere interaction and seek to provide citizens with shared interests and values. As such, they amount to an attempt to build – or, perhaps we should say, to re-build – community. While such initiatives may help many individuals, it is hard to escape the impression that they are treating symptoms rather than causes. 

The most notable characteristic of the article was, perhaps typically, omission of any hint as to the importance of family, which is, after all, surely the fundamental building block of community. It is through the family that we learn to love, and to be loved, unconditionally. The family is a microcosm of society in which mistakes can be made in a supportive, loving environment, and lessons learned. When families come together for the good of their children, genuine communities are formed from the ground up.

The decline of the traditional family, especially perhaps over the last sixty years, has been dramatic. As the hardly conservative British historian Lawrence Stone observed: ‘There has been nothing like it in the last two thousand years and probably much longer’. The ramifications of so rapid and dramatic a change are becoming fully clear only now, and, because things have changed so much and so quickly, any reversal or part-reversal of these new societal perceptions will be difficult to achieve. The easy availability of contraception and abortion, as well as the rise of divorce and same-sex unions, have left their mark on public attitudes to the institution of marriage. The benefits of marriage and family life have been obscured for many of our fellow-citizens in the West. Weakening family weakens community. Unless we protect and promote the family in society many of our social ills will surely be here to stay, as is attested in research literature. Of the children of lone-parent families – who, at 2010, made up a quarter of all children – 75% are more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to have drug issues, and 50% more likely to become alcohol-dependent.

If families are the building blocks of society, it is the notion of the common good – however inarticulately perceived – that cements them. Thucydides observed that ‘identity of interest is the surest bond between states and individuals’. Without shared interests, community cohesion must suffer.

The Brexit debate and the widely-reported recent clashes between LGBT and Muslim interests in Birmingham have served to illustrate the fragmentation of society in the UK. Alasdair MacIntyre anticipated such a clash of worldviews in his 1981 book, After Virtue, when he wrote that people can no longer debate the truth of moral issues because they lack the common concepts necessary to do so. How can differences like those in Birmingham be reconciled if there is no common basis for discussion? Phillip Blond in Red Tory highlighted the absence of a ‘Burkean ideal of a civic, religious, political or social middle to balance between the demands of individuals and the power accrued by the state in delivering them’. The loss of common principles makes the ideal of a cohesive society impossible; there is nothing to unify amidst the burgeoning diversity of modern Britain.  

How can these rifts in society be mended? Protecting and promoting the family and rethinking our concept of the common good are certainly necessary to the solution, if not in themselves sufficient. Family life is essential for educating the young about the expectations and responsibilities of participating in society and of living for something greater than the individual. Fundamental to this, however, is a clear restructuring and outlining of the common good since no community can develop from a kaleidoscope of competing values. 

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