Rights, Families, Clans, and the Origins of Human Community

Tim Murphy

Visiting Professor of Law, Universiti Utara Malaysia

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1 Response

  1. Tim, thanks greatly for this. Leaving you and Jeanne to discuss the nature of Hegel and Kant, I’d ask the following about the network of entitlements that exist within the families that originate the communities you describe. As you understand them, are these entitlements, and the jural relations more generally on which they are based, dependent on the status or place of persons within the family unit?

    As for the nature of the family groups, there are many ways to describe them because there are diverse ways of reckoning kinship and organizing households around the world. But I believe no historian or anthropologist would suggest that the nuclear family, or something close to how it’s conceived in the west, is historically prior to the extended family as the primary unit of social organization (which is not to say that nuclear family relations don’t exist, just that as a unit the nuclear family assumes a far weaker social and legal priority than it does in modern, industrialized, capitalist societies today when compared to the extended family—which I note as a brief response to the logical challenge you pose). The notion that the family is “extended” isn’t meant to describe a historical process.

    Regarding the revolutionary, individuating power of the nuclear family, for most people living in the west, the nuclear family is the smithy in which a characteristic notion of the self is formed, one with special aspirations for autonomy. I call it revolutionary not only because of the radical demands those expectations place on any society—because communities are, after all, groups—but also because the social independence and centrality of the nuclear family emerged from a historical process—the development of modern, industrial capitalism—that was itself revolutionary of a more traditional order.

    The place of the family generally within liberal theory seems to me to be an underdeveloped subject. But leaving that larger issue to one side, my own more limited view in the book holds that the influence of the nuclear family is more consistent with the ideals of autonomy of the liberal Enlightenment than is the influence of the extended family, whether we’re talking about the realm of law, society, or psychology. Revolutionary in every way.

    Time for one more response before we conclude? I fear that by the time you read this in Malaysia, it will be Saturday in the U.S. and we’ll sadly be closing up shop. If that’s the case, let’s continue via email.