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The Moral Incoherence of “Family Privilege” Ideology

We should endorse true claims of value—especially those related to marriage and the family—and reject specious ones. But discussing different family forms in terms of “privilege” smuggles in conclusions before the discussion begins.

“Family privilege” ideology is the next cause célèbre among those who seek to dismantle the nuclear family. Family privilege activists argue that society should not distinguish between relationships based on their structure, composition, or stability. To “privilege” one form of family above another sends, in their view, an exclusionary and harmful message about those who don’t fit the mold. They say it provides unfair legal and social advantages to certain families at the expense of others.

Speaking in an interview, family scholar Bethany Letiecq states that, “By not recognizing and valuing diverse family configurations under the law, some family forms are delegitimized and marginalized—they are disadvantaged—while other family forms—in this case, married couples—are the beneficiaries of privilege and, in my opinion, are unduly and unfairly enriched.”

The desire to foster greater social inclusion and advancement for all people is certainly noble. But marriage simply won’t survive in any recognizable form if “family privilege” ideology prevails. Marriage is by definition a kind of relationship that society identifies as uniquely dignified and valuable. To argue that marriage is no more valuable than any other relational form is therefore to undermine the notion itself. It was precisely for this reason that many same-sex couples objected to the idea of civil unions, even though they were legally identical to marriage.

And so “family privilege” ideology is self-defeating. By seeking to raze all privileges and distinctions (all value hierarchies or moral judgments), the movement deprives itself of the very resources it needs to defend its cause. It cannot explain on what grounds we should take its claim seriously.

Family Privilege Ideology Also Makes Moral Distinctions

Consider the basic argument that it is wrong to “privilege” certain kinds of relationships above others. Why is this wrong?

The answer seems to be that, by giving special respect to one kind of relationship, we simultaneously disrespect all others. The underlying premise is that no kind of relationship could matter more—that is, be more valuable—than another. This assumption is an instance of what political theorist Philippe Beneton called “Equality by Default”—not a recognition of substantive value in certain relationships, but a conviction that no relationship or choice could ever be better than any other.

 

This position views moral judgment negatively, as something that “privileges” certain choices above others and disrespects those who choose otherwise. To avoid this disrespect, the view tries to prescind from moral evaluation or judgment altogether—to reject privilege outright and treat all relationships the same. But this still amounts to a moral judgment, the very thing we are told is the problem. This reasoning does not abolish moral judgment at all; it rather redirects it.

But why should we “privilege” a new moral judgment over more traditional moral judgements tied to marriage and family life? The think tank Family Story, which seeks to “address and dismantle family privilege in America,” is fundamentally inconsistent on this question.

It envisions a world in which “any individuals bonded by love, support, or care for each other, who by choice or circumstance are interdependent, can be recognized as family.” It sounds open-minded, but the statement still makes qualifications—and therefore moral judgments—about what counts as a “family.” Those “bonded by love, support, or care for each other” are in, while relationships that do not share these features are out.

And yet, other statements on Family Story’s website suggest that there isn’t really anything special or important about family relationships. Everyone, they say—those who are or are not part of a family, by any definition—should receive the same benefits and social approval. This approach, they argue, “respects the equal value and legitimacy of different kinds of family arrangements and believes the legal rights, benefits, and privileges of marriage should be available to unmarried people as well.” Whether people are married or unmarried, in families or out of families, they should all receive the same benefits and esteem. In other words, there is nothing special about marriage or family.

But, again, there are implicit moral judgments in this approach. It creates a new class of moral insiders and outsiders: those who treat all relationships and lifestyle choices equally are now better than (or privileged above) those who do not. Moral judgment has not gone anywhere; and now it is being used to “dismantle” purported conceptions of the good, even while suggesting that moral judgment itself is bad.

 

The central mistake, then, is to believe that valuing one thing above another is wrong. One cannot engage in moral reasoning without valuing some things more than others, even when one is trying to argue against making such judgments. Once value judgments are recognized as necessary for any moral claim, including the claims of Family Story, “family privilege” ideology loses its rhetorical force.

Some Things Are in Fact Valuable in Ways That Others Are Not

“Privilege” in contemporary discourse almost always suggests illegitimate advantage or benefit. But there is nothing illegitimate about claims of value that are as well supported as those about the family. Some things ought to be evaluated differently because they are, in fact, valuable in ways that others are not. Recognizing some claims of value as true is not prejudice.

It is easy to see why even “family privilege” advocates slip into language that suggests value. Relationships characterized by love, support, and care do seem more valuable, in important ways, than relationships that lack these features—such as relationships marked by abuse, hostility, apathy, or contempt.

Of course, claims of value have to be justified. The claim that marriage is fundamentally a union of a man and a woman or, by contrast, that it ought to be a union between “any individuals bonded by love, support, or care for each other, who by choice or circumstance are interdependent,” has to be defended by evidence and reasoning.

To be sure, we can learn from family privilege activists. After all, although we ought to esteem things of real value, we ought not be proud, condescending, or contemptuous toward those who do not fit the ideal. Whenever we make claims of value—even in matters beyond marriage and family—we must also be humble and kind toward others.

The goal of moral reasoning and discussion should be, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said of nonviolent resistance, not “to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” Genuine moral truth belongs to all and enriches all. We should endorse true claims of value—especially those related to marriage and the family—and reject specious ones. But conducting these discussions in terms of “privilege” smuggles in conclusions before the discussion begins.

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