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Parental Obligations - An Argument For The Extended Moral Obligation To Adult Children And Grandchildren

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Parental Obligations - An Argument Against Unlimited Support, An Argument For The Extended Moral Obligation To Adult Children And Grandchildren

An argument for the extended moral obligation to adult children and grandchildren

Older parents can have moral obligations to their adult children and their grandchildren that brook few exceptions or limitations. Some argue that if all goes well with adult children and they are raising their children successfully, grandparents still have an obligation to encourage and morally support their adult children and grandchildren. They should show interest, give attention, and supply as much supplementary help as will contribute to the family's flourishing. Nurturing attentions that help, but do not spoil or distort, a grandchild's development should be given. In emergencies the grandparents have a moral responsibility to give more financial and emotional support, and in cases or real crises, they have a duty to provide back-up surrogate parenting and childcare, if they can. These moral claims of families in crises are grounded upon a more capacious, richer ethic of moral responsibility than a highly individual morality limited to fulfilling contracts.

An adequate morality of family obligations affirms the principle that as human beings we have moral obligations and responsibilities for which we do not individually contract. It is not enough to require only that human beings operate as detached selves pursuing self-interests. As human beings we are moral agents who exist in embedded networks of attachment that make valid moral claims upon us. No child contracts to be born a member of a family or of the human community. No one gives informed consent to be a member of earth's ecosystem. Yet we have moral obligations to our families, to our communities, and to protect the earth's environment for future generations. We live in time and will always face unforeseen events and challenges. We could not function outside of interdependent communities' relationships, so we have corresponding moral obligations that transcend individual projects and choices. Modern moral perspectives have overemphasized individual liberty, abstract ethical principles, and the idea that moral obligation is limited to formal legal agreements freely assumed.

Such a truncated moral vision cannot adequately respond to the demands and realities of communal living, especially life in families. For one thing, it assumes that individuals experience goods and duties alone, and ignores the "together goods" that can only arise in interactions and relationships with others. Yes, we have a moral duty to do no harm, and fulfill individual promises and contracts, but we also have an obligation to further the common good.

In an adequate morality, individuals are bound to respect and care for other human beings because they possess intrinsic value and worth as ends in themselves. The moral claims of others must be recognized as equal to one's own. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights expresses the ethical obligation of individuals to treat each other in "a spirit of brotherhood" that entails respecting and responding to their needs and moral claims. In the teachings of the great world religions the demand is also made that persons treat each other with care and compassion. Those in need have a moral claim upon those with resources. A morally mature person must be ready to respond to unexpected events and the unforeseen needs of his neighbors. The Good Samaritan happened to be passing by on the road. In families, the members are always traveling on the road together. Parents are their adult children's keepers and have obligations to grandchildren.

We have special duties to those who are near (and dear) to us. Our duties arise from our state in life, that is, where we live and with whom we are interconnected. Those whom we know and with whom we have emotional ties can be helped most effectively by us. Our families, our neighbors, our fellow workers, our countrymen have stronger claims on our care than others, because they are near at hand and can benefit from our care. The more emotionally intimate and long-standing the relationship, the greater the moral weight of our obligation.

Older parents have moral obligations to their adult children and grandchildren because they can play a special role in supporting them, a role that exists because of a unique irreversible connection between the generations. The biological (or adoptive) relationship links individuals to the past and has consequences for the future. Kinship ties carry responsibilities for support that strengthen the common good in the present and for the future. I was given life by my parents, the argument goes, and my adult children and their children would not exist if not for me. Older generations pass on the culture to the young. Grandparents can intervene if need be on the behalf of grandchildren, with their parents, with other family members, and with outside individuals and institutions. When in cases of need grandparents do not have the means or capacity to support adult children or grandchildren at home, they can still serve as loving advocates within the social service system by maintaining close contact. If there is some bitter family conflict and divisiveness, older parents are morally obligated to work to heal the breach.

Civil society and healthy communities depend upon strong and healthy family commitments. Without experiencing socialization within the family none of the public virtues can be acquired easily. An adequately functioning family engenders bonds of love, altruism, and mutually cooperative behavior. We respect and love those outside of the family, those recognized as the larger human family, because we first learned to feel respect, moral obligation, empathy, and love in the family setting. Families are one place in our society where it is possible to completely follow the altruistic ideal of "from each according to their means, to each according to their needs." The positive emotions of love and joy that arise from giving have been as important to human flourishing as other drives for survival. The altruism of grandparents to their adult children and grandchildren is also supported by an evolutionary analysis of human nature.

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