How much do ‘traditional family values’ really matter?


In its joint statement opposing the repeal of Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) claimed that “(homosexuality) is not only harmful for individuals, but also for families and society as a whole, and that it is “committed to upholding and promoting traditional family values”, having urged “Christians to pray that God will protect the institutions of marriage and family because they are indispensable for the well being of the future generation and the flourishing of our society.”

As such, it appears that the NCCS’ justification for condemning homosexuality rests on one key assumption: that traditional family values are indispensable for the well-being of our society – but is this truly the case?

As an Asian society that tends to think conservatively, we have a tendency to give things that we consider ‘traditional’ more credit than they necessarily deserve, simply because they are traditional. But this thinking is flawed – tradition tells us nothing about whether something is good or bad, and at the end of the day, that really should be what matters.

I argue that whether a family value is traditional is unimportant; what matters is whether it is good or bad for our society. This makes sense – if our objective is to improve the well-being of society, why should we continue doing something harmful just because we have been doing it for a long time? Similarly, why should we avoid doing something good just because we have not done it before?

Therefore, unless defenders of 377A can show why certain family values are worth protecting, other than simply because they are ‘traditional’, they will continue to be on the weaker side of the debate.

Hold on a minute, you might say – but aren’t there many good traditional family values?

Of course. There are traditional family values that are beneficial to our society – but they are beneficial because of what they bring to society, not simply because they are traditional. Let’s take filial piety for example. Many would consider filial piety a ‘traditional’ family value. I argue that filial piety is good for our society, but not because it is traditional. Who cares if it is traditional? I argue that it is good for society because it fosters a relationship between parents and their children that is based on appreciation and reciprocity, and which leads to stronger, more meaningful connections between them.

So yes, some traditional family values are good for society, such as filial piety, and we should preserve these values. Hence, if conservative groups, for example, can show that homosexuality threatens filial piety, then they might have a case. But filial piety is not incompatible with homosexuality – both heterosexual and homosexual people are equally prone to filial and unfilial behaviour.

On the flip side, there are ‘traditional values’ which are non-beneficial to society. For example, in many Asian societies, it was ‘traditionally’ the case that women did not receive an education and were expected to conform to gender roles that placed them in an inferior position to men. This ‘traditional’ treatment of women not only undermined their dignity as individuals but harmed society by ‘locking up’ their potential to contribute to their societies. Today, nobody would oppose the decrease in gender inequality over the past decades on the basis that it eroded a ‘traditional’ value, simply because we acknowledge (correctly) that that tradition was bad.

Now that we have explained why just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it is indispensable, and that the goodness or badness of a value is really what matters, we can proceed to ask ourselves: what exactly is the traditional family value that conservative groups like the NCCS care about? Is it beneficial family values such as filial piety or being faithful? No. It is the traditional idea that sexual relations should only occur between a man and a woman.

Is the traditional idea that sexual relations should only occur between a man and a woman beneficial? Is it really a ‘good family value’? Conversely, will the existence of sexual relations between men cause harm? A conservative person who has not been reading this article very carefully might say yes, because sexual relations between men will erode traditional family values – and by saying this, this person would have taken us in one full circle, right back to where we started. This is neither helpful nor intelligent.

Yet, this is exactly what the NCSS is arguing. They cannot show how homosexuality is harmful, and so they have to rely on the argument that it ‘erodes traditional values’ in the hope that that would be enough to show how bad it is. But that is not enough – complaining to me that something is not traditional doesn’t tell me anything about how bad or good it is. It just shows that you cannot tolerate change.

There is such a thing as ‘good family values’. But family values do not need to be traditional in order to be good. Good family values, such as treating each other with respect, caring for one’s elders, being faithful to one’s partner etc., are not good because they are traditional, but are good because they help build strong, healthy relationships. More importantly, all of these good family values are capable of existing within a homosexual family unit, and do exist, even now.

It is therefore not enough for groups like the NCCS to argue against the repeal of 377A because it harms ‘traditional family values’. There was a time when many people argued that allowing the mixing of different races and allowing people to divorce harmed ‘traditional’ values – and they were right since, at the time, they did. But who cares?

By Rio Hoe


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Photo credit: TODAY

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