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Giles Fraser: Family love is a model of injustice

26 June 2008

My ELDER daughter needs braces for her teeth — or so she argues. She sat me down in front of a cringe-making American promotional DVD for a “revolutionary new design in orthodontic technology”. Plastic women with perfect gnashers insisted that buying these braces, and hence perfect teeth, was the most important investment I could ever make in my child’s future.

More persuasively, our dentist has said something similar. My daughter looked up at me, wide-eyed. Pleeeease. Then I looked at the cost. How much? You must be joking. The price was astronomical.

Yet my wife and I agreed, not knowing where we would get the money from. Thankfully, the grandparents have stepped in with their chequebook — for which I am enormously grateful. But I cannot help reflecting on the morality of the whole thing. The money spent on these braces could feed a hungry family for months.

By coincidence, I have just been reading a brilliant essay by the American lawyer and philosopher Paul Kahn. He makes the following striking claim: “Love is a model of injustice. . .

“As a father, I am unresponsive to a claim that other children may make a more just demand upon my recourses. I remain unresponsive, even as I acknowledge that those resources are the product of social and legal constructions that are themselves unfair” (from an essay, “Evil and European Humanism”). This was exactly my situation with respect to these expensive braces.

Christians often work under the assumption that there is an easy compatibility between the claims of love and the demand for justice. But it is not so. Justice demands that we treat people without favour or bias; that there must be a basic fairness in the way we distribute resources. Yet families are fundamentally not fair. We spend most of their resources on ourselves. In The Republic, Plato argued that we ought to reorder the very idea of the family on the basis of justice, and he proposed communal families. There speaks a man who had no children himself.

The Christian task is to press towards a state of affairs where we combine the universalism of justice and the particularism of parental love. Yet we know, realistically, that that is the God’s-eye perspective — to love all people with the passionate love of a father.

For most of us, the demands of love and justice are never going to be fully integrated. The best we can do is to expand the range of our love by constantly seeking to exercise it. Marriage must not be selfishness for two, or families selfishness for three or more.

Yet young Miss Fraser will have nice teeth, and some children will have no food. Lord, have mercy.

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