“Everything in life is luck,” my grandfather used to say, “and the first, and most important luck is who your family is.”
If I become tedious in repeating this it is because both halves have stuck with me.
Virtue is the skill of active living, and this activity is embodied; embodied in the physical acts involved and in the objects of our activity. It is embodied in our relationships, especially the closest, dearest ones.
There is no relationship more natural, more dear than that of family. When we talk of “making your own family”, or of friendships that form the “family you choose” rather than the one you’re born into, we’re implicitly acknowledging the force and centrality of family in a human life. Nowhere are we more vulnerable to luck than in the family we are born into; no open wound festers so much as living with a toxic relationship to one’s family, no scar aches so painfully as cut family ties.
Like philosophers since time immemorial, Andrew Cohen set to work conquering luck at Bleeding Heart Libertarians this week. Channeling a scene from an old Steve Martin movie, he suggests (not for the first time) that we ought to have parent licenses. In other words, you should have to ask some government body for permission before you are allowed to raise a child. But don’t worry! You don’t have to have permission to have a baby—you just better hope you can convince a government official you’re worthy to raise that baby, or into the system they go!
Let us put to the side for the minute just how truly awful child services are already without flooding them with children of willing but “unworthy” parents. What I find truly distasteful in Cohen’s argument is that his default seems to be that family must be justified externally—it’s not a natural state, it’s not the starting point; family must prove itself worthy to the Cohens and the administrators who Cohen would make arbiter of their fates.
I sympathize with the desire to minimize child abuse, but to radically alter the terms of parenthood in order to do so is unconscionable. There is nothing more insidious and technocratic and—frankly—despotic than thinking of family relations something contingent on the approval of a central planner. We are surely most vulnerable to bad luck in the family we are born to, but family is also where we have the best chance of developing genuine, warm human relationships, and attempts to engineer that vulnerability away come at a very steep price. Nearly always, it means making us much more vulnerable.
It is no more worthy to cut off one’s arm to avoid injuring it in the future than it is to tear family relations apart and rebuild them rationally in order to avoid getting hurt by them.