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Life Issues

by Mark J. Cherry
Transaction Publishers, 2016
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D. on May 30th 2017

Sex, Family, and the Culture Wars

Welcome to the 1950s, when men were men and women were women, and everything was just fine. Then, according to Cherry, various social movements of the 1960s happened, especially women's liberation, and things stating going downhill. This was exacerbated in subsequent decades by new rights movements, like the one fought by the LGBTQ community, and the advent of new philosophical movements, especially secular liberalism, post modernism and social constructionism. According to Cherry, this has brought about a truly dire crisis which has attacked, most prominently, the sanctity of the 'traditional' family defined as a marriage between one man and one woman with the purpose of having and raising children where parents have (unlimited?) dominion over their children and men have a similar dominion over their wives. Unfortunately, Cherry opines, "in many quarters the traditional family has become politically incorrect" (6).

Cherry employs a two-pronged attack to defend his position regarding the traditional family. On the one hand, he attempts to show that "nominalist" views of the family, where a family is viewed as a social construct, are inadequate and, moreover, lead to limits on the traditional family that Christians, for example, find deeply troubling. On the other hand, Cherry attempts to show the traditional family is real in a non-constructivist sense; i.e., it is not simply the product of a particular socio-historical period and set of beliefs.

In Chapter 2 (27-66), Cherry advances his argument that the traditional family is a sociobiological fact because such a grouping has evolutionary advantages in that it passes along greater numbers of the parents' genes to future generations.  It is, thus, an adaptive trait, according to Cherry and a number of sociobiologists that he cites. One reason for this is the "altruism" expressed within family structures through the process of "kin selection." In this process, individual members within a biologically related group, like a 'traditional' family, will put themselves as risk, and sometimes even die, to protect members of their family since by doing so, they save their genes in the next generation. Non-related people in non-traditional families, such as step parents, are not as likely to act altruistically toward their non-related 'children'. Indeed, "post traditional" family units, such as ones containing step-parents (either within heterosexual or homosexual pairings) or single parent families make worse parents. For example, Cherry argues, non-biological parents typically are less willing to invest resources in children (59) and stepparents are "greatly overrepresented as child abusers, and even greater in terms of child homicide" (39).  "Together," Cherry concludes, "sex differences and reproductive strategies provide a biological ground for traditional sex roles and family paternalistic structures. They offer a sociobiological explanation for the authority structures within families as well as for sex roles within the family. Women prefer to care for children more than men do; women prefer to do housework much more than men do" (55). The traditional family, then, has a 'natural' hierarchical structure with husbands having ultimate control.

Cherry belittles his opposition by suggesting that their complaints are based solely on their dislike of 'traditional' family structures. Thus, their complaints are political only. As he puts it: "The fact that the science does not support a conclusion some feminists prefer neither impugns the science nor otherwise calls it into question" (58). This is unfair in part because lots of feminists in particular and scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences in general believe that biology has some part to play in the behavior of humans, even if they don't accept the specific, very conservative claims of many sociobiologists. Moreover, on a political level, some sociobiologists (and some evolutionary psychologists) have promoted some truly deplorable positions. This extends from the claims of early evolutionists in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries regarding what they claimed was the inferiority of women to more recent claims about the biological basis of rape (Thornhill and Palmer, A Natural History of Rape, 2000) and to claims about the 'natural' inferiority of some races (e.g., Herrstein and Murray, The Bell Curve, 1994, and Ruston, Race, Evolution and Behavior, 1995).

But there are scientific concerns here as well: many biologists also reject many of the claims made by sociobiology. Thus, Cherry vastly overstates his case that sociobiology, or more particularly, his version of it, is a settled biological/scientific fact. When the originator of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, spoke initially of the biological basis of very specific human behaviors, as opposed to the behavior of such species as bees and ants, his words were directed to a general audience, not a specifically scientific one. More importantly, his discussion was preliminary and speculative, and hence very far from definitive, contra Cherry's views. Two main criticisms of this branch of sociobiology made by such eminent biologists as Stephen G. Gould and Richard Lewontin are that sociobiology assumes both strong genetic determinism and strong adaptationism. To make a very complicated story short, these complaints suggest that sociobiologists investigating human behavior ignore the contribution made by culture and learning on behavior and overstate the case that all traits are the product of genetic adaptations. As such, "according to Gould and Lewontin, adaptionists tell purely speculative, untestable 'just so' stories and present them as science fact" (Catherine Driscoll, "Sociobiology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/sociobiology/ ).

Given that the claims made by Chery about the biological, genetic support of traditional families are not as firm as he would like us to believe, we can legitimately question whether there are alternative explanations of human behavior, such as those produced by our culture and by learning various behaviors. Hence, for example, though men have been historically dominant over women within traditional marriages, this isn't necessarily the result of unchangeable biological and genetic factors, but rather the result of the socialization of men and women. As such, they are amenable to change.

In Chapter 3 (67-92), Cherry moves beyond sociobiological considerations of the 'family' to present a philosophical argument that the 'family' is "a central category of experience, being, and knowledge" (67). His experiential argument is phenomenological. That is, he claims, the "family is a part of the fabric of social reality that is phenomenologically immediately given; it is given before any judgment and even before one explicitly categorically thinks its unity" (67). As it stands, this claim isn't especially controversial, but it becomes so when Cherry translates "family" in the above passage to mean "traditional family." As we have seen, however, the sociobiological support for this position is highly contested. Hence, Cherry must look elsewhere for support, which he does by arguing for the necessity of a "God's eye perspective."

While Cherry maintains that the ontological, epistemological, and social priority given to the traditional family does not depend on whether traditional families are in fact superior in raising children than non-traditional families (87), it is clear that Cherry in fact thinks that traditional families do empirically provide a superior environment in which to rear children, and presents lots of statistics to try to substantiate his point. But these claims are also highly debatable. First, he ignores the socio-political injustices that pertain to our world and that these injustices might well contribute to less than ideal child rearing conditions. Second, the data about successful child rearing is incredibly varied. Moreover, there is some data that suggests that children raised by two lesbian mothers fare best (N. Gartrell & H. Bos, "U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study," Pediatrics 2010). We must be wary of making too much of this type of data, however. From one perspective, if we knew fairly specifically what made good parents and good conditions within which to raise children, from a public health perspective we might be justified in licensing parents. Though this is what currently happens with respective to perspective adoptive parents, I suspect that Cherry would be opposed to such intrusive government interference with respect to the reproductive choices made within traditional families.

In Ch. 4 (93-134), Cherry attempts to demonstrate that a "God's Eye Perspective" is a necessary condition for a fully adequate morality, and, concomitantly, the inadequacy of secular ethics. His argument is Kantian, broadly construed. But there are a number of points he makes about Kant's position that are at least misleading. First, Kant's ontology and epistemology is not religious per se. As Kant argues in the Critique of Pure Reason, and the Prolegomena, while we can come to know phenomena under the assumption that space and time are categories of the mind, we cannot know noumena or "things in themselves," whether those be the 'reality' behind the experienced phenomena that we perceive, or of things like God. This was thought to be the solution, in the modern period, of the failure of Descartes' attempt to provide a rationalist account of knowledge on the one hand, and Hume's empirical skepticism on the other. (It's interesting to note here that Descartes' attempt required that he provide an a priori, ontological proof of the existence of God that has been widely discredited.) Now, Kant did maintain, in his ethics, that the possibility of that moral enterprise needed the assumption of a number of things, including, most importantly, human autonomy. He also maintained that a fully grounded ethics involves the postulation of the possibility of God. But, as Cherry himself notes, Kant's argument doesn't prove the existence of God (98). Kant's argument here is far more hypothetical and conditional. That is, if we want to have the type of absolute authority for moral action that he wanted, we must act as if there is a God. Moreover, even if we accepted Kant's argument here, there is no necessity that we accept the 'traditional' Christian view of theism that Cherry espouses.

So, while secular ethics may not provide us with the type of moral certainty Cherry wants, in the absence of good arguments for a theistically based ethics, secular ethics may be the best we can do. Here, we can follow the good advice of Aristotle who said at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that some subjects, like ethics, are not as precise as other subjects like mathematics or the natural sciences and that in ethics "the discussion will be quite sufficient if it attains as much clarity as the subject allows (1094b 11-12). We also have the good advice of Wittgenstein, who said at the end of the Tractatus that of those things about which we cannot speak [like noumena, ends-in-themselves, or God] we ought to pass over in silence.

In Chapters 5 (135-176) and 6 (177-216), Cherry seeks to castigate the "liberal social-constructivist" and "libertarian social-constructivist" views of the family. While Cherry believes that both accounts of the family, like all nominalist accounts, are ultimately inadequate, he finds libertarianism far more acceptable than liberal egalitarianism. This stems from the libertarian acceptance of all consensual arrangements between people. While this means the libertarian will certainly not give preference to traditional, Christian notions of the family, they at least do not disparage such traditional families, as he believes liberal egalitarianism does. Libertarians, then, would allow, e.g., families with unequal power relationships within it so long as such relationships are consensually agreed to. He is also happy with the libertarian position regarding such things as what he sees as the illegitimacy of redistributive taxation and state run universal health care. These, though, are debates well beyond the main scope of this book review.

One of Cherry's main targets against the liberal social-constructivist view of the family is its emphasis on both individual autonomy and the ideal of the equality of persons. Equality is problematic, Cherry claims, because, on the one hand, it denies what Cherry takes to be the sociobiological fact of sex differences (see, e.g., 135). Moreover, he claims, the autonomous choices of women are not taken seriously in the contemporary world when they choose lifestyles inconsistent with 'liberal values' – for example, if a woman chooses "to be submissive to her husband, of a woman to forgo an independent career in favor of dependence on her husband's income so as to engage in raising children, of men and women to convert to traditional patriarchal or hierarchical religions, to educate children in a gender-essentialist manner are seen as potentially heteronomous expressions of a false consciousness" (140). Arguments from the right about being victims of the liberal left are by now old news. The main problem with it, however, is there is little to no evidence to support it. Where, for example, are such victims to be found? Are they restricted by any laws to make choices for a conservative life? Are people in the U.S. prohibited by law to practice Catholicism (at least in the private sphere)? Claims made by Cherry that what he calls the "fundamentalist secular state" (which we apparently live under in the Western world) is essentially the same as a "Mohammedan fundamentalist state" (232-235) are completely implausible to say the least.

Cherry is also concerned with the affirmation by the liberal state of the autonomy of adolescents. Such affirmation, he claims, infringes on parental rights over children and also runs counter to the 'fact' of the not fully developed adolescent brain. Indeed, he claims, liberals are inconsistent on this later point: while the liberal state protects minors from the health risks of smoking, and disallow teens from buying cigarettes, they do not protect adolescents from the dangers of sexual experimentation (161 ff). This is a curious argument in a number of ways. Most importantly, there is no way to make smoking cigarettes safe (or safer), but there are ways to make (consensual) sex safer. However, by pushing abstinence-only-until-marriage sex 'education' in public schools rather than truly comprehensive sex education, conservatives have actually made teen age sex much more dangerous than it otherwise would be. Indeed, American teenagers know less about sex than any other developed nation and have rates of teenage pregnancy and teenagers contracting STIs that are more similar to developing world countries than to Western developed nations where comprehensive sex education is a part of the public-school curriculum (see, e.g., L. Shrage and R.S. Stewart, Philosophizing About Sex, 136, 140-142.)

The last two chapters in the book add nothing essential to Cherry's defense of his position that contemporary secular morality, such as John Rawls' conception of "justice as fairness," are insufficiently grounded because they fail to adopt a God's eye view. Also included in Ch. 7 (273-298) is a discussion, once again, of the evils of promiscuous sex, and the availability of abortion. Given the importance of the subject, one might have expected a long discussion of how we are to square he desires of the Christian right in a modern, heterogeneous state. But his discussion of this issue – in a section called "living honestly with significant moral pluralism" is a scant 3 1/2 pages long.  And even there, Cherry mostly describes, once again, the ways in which a secular morality is at odds with a traditional Christian view. He does add, however, that he thinks that were we to adhere to the type of Christian view he advocates, that not only public policy and the education of children would be different, so too would be "the direction of science" (287)!

Hence, we are left at the end of Cherry's book with some fundamental problems – such as a reliance on controversial science and dubious philosophical-theological arguments – and unresolved issues. For example, are there any legitimate limits to the authority of parents over children, or of husbands over wives? These are particularly important questions in the contemporary world where fundamentalist theocratic states have instituted policies where, e.g., girls are not allowed to go to school and where they are subjected to various forms of female genital mutilation and where woman are subjected to such atrocities as being stoned to death for committing (or having been accused of committing) adultery.

Sex, Family, and the Culture Wars will no doubt appeal to and indeed be applauded by the Christian, fundamentalist right, whether Catholic or Protestant. But there are lots of suspect arguments in this book and there is virtually nothing here to address the issues of how we are to live in a heteronomous modern democracy. As such, non-fundamentalists should give it a pass.


© 2017 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University (Canada). His most recent book, Philosophizing About Sex, was co-written with Laurie Shrage and published by Broadview Press in 2015.