Threats To Filial Obligations
The continued recognition of filial obligation is threatened in two general ways, one practical, the other theoretical. While surely many adult children continue to care deeply for their parents, and express their care in how they live their lives, there are signs that children may be finding the needs of parents beyond what they can—or should be expected to—support. In practical terms, adult children and their parents now face a world in which there are, relatively speaking, fewer children to respond to growing and persistent needs of aging parents. Social and technological changes have allowed people greater control over family size, social insurance schemes have made "provision for one's old age" a less compelling reason to have many children, and medical advances have helped more people to live longer, and consequently to face the possibility of prolonged periods of ill health or reduced abilities. Spiraling health care costs in general, and inadequate social support for long-term care for the elderly in particular, indicate that there may be increasing pressure on adult children to take on extensive responsibilities of caring for their parents at a point in history when the burden of care may be heavier and more prolonged, when there are fewer children to do so, and less in the way of cultural supports for undertaking care. A striking illustration of the possible consequence of these trends is provided by The American College of Emergency Physicians, which has reported that as many as 100,000 to 200,000 elderly people are abandoned in emergency rooms in hospitals throughout the United States annually (Pinkney).
Changes in cultural support for filial obligations introduces the more theoretical threat to filial obligations. There is, to start with, concern over how caring responsibilities are handed out within families. "Hands on" care of aging parents has been a task assigned more to daughters and even daughters-in-law, than to sons (Brody); in a culture awakening to the unfairness of disproportionately burdening women, this sexist distribution of labor has made some people suspicious of the very idea of filial obligation. But even more fundamentally, the predominant theoretical understanding of obligation in contemporary Western societies—perhaps particularly in the United States—rests on the ideas of contract and consent, and today's most influential ideas about morality prominently feature the ideal of impartiality. If we owe obligations only when we have agreed to make contracts or promises, it is hard to see why we have any obligations, much less possibly burdensome ones, to our parents. If we should regard all persons with equal moral respect, as the ideal of impartiality seems to require, it is difficult to understand why we have particular responsibilities to help those who just happen to be our parents, when others may have greater needs.
There are other cultural shifts that have made filial obligations more difficult to take with the same seriousness they have enjoyed in the past. Apart from basic questions of fairness in the distribution of the tasks of care across the genders, the latter part of the twentieth century has seen an expansion of possible social roles for at least middle-class women in Western societies; in the United States, for example, more women have full-time, demanding jobs and careers outside the home than has previously been the case. At the same time, young children are dependent on their parents for longer periods of education than had been the case in previous centuries. These developments have strained the caring capacity of adult children. Perhaps, too, the greater prevalence of divorce, resulting in many children not residing with both parents throughout their developmental years, may make it harder for some children to feel a sense of obligation to a parent who has been a missing or distant figure during their youth (although it should be borne in mind that families have always been somewhat unstable—if less threatened by divorce, than more threatened by premature death).
If people are to continue to recognize a special set of obligations to their parents, some kinds of social support may be necessary—for example, more flexibility in the scheduling of work done out of the home, and greater recognition of the significance of the work of children in responding dutifully to the needs of their aging parents. It may also need to be better acknowledged that many older parents continue to make significant contribution to the lives of their grown children, and to those children's families. It would be a mistake to think that older parents are always or even typically on the receiving end of the flow of care.