The family, the basic cell of society, is under considerable stress today, both from ideological assaults, as well as from the economic pressures of a capitalism that has created an economy in which for many years fathers, and now most often both parents, must leave their homes in order to earn a living, in contrast to earlier economies in which shops and workshops were often adjacent to their owners’ dwellings. The negative effects of this on family life are obvious. One suggestion that has been sometimes proposed in order to mitigate or eliminate this harmful separation of parents’ work from their families is the creation of home-based internet businesses. Such businesses, it is argued, will help to restore that unified way of life that characterized earlier centuries and strengthen the family by not requiring parents to be separated from their children during the workday.
Is this opinion correct? Are internet-based businesses a wonderful and unexpected result of recent technological developments, or are they at best a sometimes useful stopgap measure, but a stopgap which at bottom is contradictory and can even contribute to social decline? While I do not deny that such small web-based businesses can allow parents to work where they live, with numerous obvious benefits for family life, nevertheless I am afraid that without careful discernment the logical result of such businesses can be harmful to society and the culture.
Numerous people have pointed out that the virtual contacts that people have via the internet and social media are no substitute for real physical interaction. But the end result of online businesses is that the more commercial transactions that take place electronically, the fewer face-to-face encounters we will have with those who live in the same locality. The logical end of more and more internet commerce is that we will buy almost nothing from local stores, which will often cease to exist, but sit at our computers, ordering everything possible from online venders, often located far away. This would very obviously reduce the amount of actual face-to-face contacts that take place in a community.
But, cannot one argue, that even if this is true, will not the harm done by the decrease of what are often superficial contacts with store clerks more than be made up for by increased time spent with family members? Is it not by far more important to foster this kind of family human interactions, even if there is an unfortunate reduction in other kinds of social interactions?
It is certainly the case that home-based internet businesses do allow for more family contact, and this is all for the good. This is why a society in which most workers work in physical proximity to their homes would be more healthy than one in which most people work at a distance and commute. But while web-based businesses would tend to promote family life, they would also tend to detract from the necessary kind of social interactions that constitute community or civic life.
This is not to say that an actual physical store or shop should never have a web component. There are many products for which a sufficient market does not exist everywhere, for example, a bookstore in a rural area, and if a brick and mortar bookstore sells books over the internet, this can fill an important need in many localities. But even in such cases there is a possibility that such web commerce will cut into the sales of physical book stores. Therefore we should realize that even in these cases there is need for caution.
God created human beings as social beings, who live not only in families but in societies, in fact, in what Aristotle called the polis, an organized political society. Although the family is prior in time to the polis, the latter has logical priority. Aristotle writes that “it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” and “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part….”1 Josef Pieper stated the special place of political society in this way.
The state, we may note, occupies a unique place in the scale that extends from the individual to the whole of mankind; more than anything else, it represents the “social whole.” The idea of the common good is its distinctive attribute. A nation (in the midst of other nations) ordered in a state is the proper, historically concrete image of man’s communal life. Communitas politica est communitas principalissima—Political community is community in the highest degree. In the fullest sense the state alone incorporates, realizes, and administers the bonum commune. That does not mean, however, that the family, the community, free associations, and the Church are not important for the realization of the common good, too. But it means that the harmonizing and integration of nearly all men’s functions occurs only in the political community.2
In fact, Catholic theologians and philosophers traditionally have termed the political community a perfect society, perfect not in the sense that political societies are without fault, but in the sense that such a society has within itself all the means to fulfill its proper ends. But the family is not a perfect society in this sense, for it lacks not only a fullness of material means, but also of intellectual and social.
There are two natural societies directing man toward the attainment of his natural end here on earth—the family and the state. The family is an `imperfect’ society, whereas the state is a `perfect’ society. A society is said to be `perfect’ if it possesses within itself all the means necessary for the attainment of its proper end, so that it is not dependent on any society of a higher order for the attainment of its end; it is `imperfect’ if it does not possess within itself all the means required for the attainment of its end.
The family of itself is incapable of providing for peace and prosperity in any full measure. The family cannot ward off a concerted attack on the part of a band of individuals or families, as is evident; it needs the active assistance of others. Nor is the family, by itself, sufficient to furnish all the means necessary for the complete physical, intellectual, and moral development of its members…. These means must be supplied by the organization of civil society or the state. Since the family is thus dependent on the society of the state for its complete protection and the full attainment of its end, it is an `imperfect’ society.3
The entirely justified reaction against state promotion of evils, for example in public education, brought about a turn inward toward the family. Much of this was perfectly legitimate. But I fear that many began to consider the society of the family as nearly all-sufficient in itself, and consequently sought to minimize as much as possible the role of political authority and of society as a whole. It is entirely correct to emphasize the proper tasks of the family, including its educational and economic functions, but we should be careful to remember that the family necessarily exists as part of the larger society, which ultimately has responsibility for the welfare of the whole. In his Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens of May 1971, Pope Paul VI wrote,
Political power, which is the natural and necessary link for ensuring the cohesion of the social body, must have as its aim the achievement of the common good. While respecting the legitimate liberties of individuals, families and subsidiary groups, it acts in such a way as to create, effectively and for the well-being of all, the conditions required for attaining man’s true and complete good, including his spiritual end.4
Because of the obvious evils so often promoted or permitted by governments, it is a temptation to try to reduce their role as much as possible. But while certainly governments can and often do extend and amplify their powers beyond any reasonable limit, still we should seek not to reduce governmental power as much as possible, but to make sure that it both performs its proper functions and keeps within its proper limits. As an essential part of the social life of mankind, the state or political community cannot be written off as merely a necessary evil.
The family is the first human society, both in the historical sense and in the sense that it is within the family that human beings first become aware of other persons and learn to love: “it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.”5 But for the full development of human personality a larger society is required. Any tendency which works against the necessary interactions that ought to characterize that larger whole ultimately works against the goods of human social existence, even ultimately against the welfare of the family. So while within bounds home internet businesses can contribute to family welfare, they cannot be the means of rescuing the family from several centuries of capitalist attacks. Pro-family activities that endeavor to resist the pressures that our economic system imposes cannot contradict the philosophical and theological principles upon which society rests. If we try to promote family life by taking away from community life, in the end we will hurt both, and certainly not contribute to the revival of the family that should be one of our primary spiritual and political goals.