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Filial Obligations

Moral Justifications For Filial Obligations

However, if society is to provide greater support for the ideal of filial obligation—as opposed, say, to dealing with the needs of vulnerable elderly citizens in more institutional, less family-focused ways—there needs to be some convincing reasons why filial obligations should be recognized, despite the apparent contrary tendency of some contemporary ethical thinking.

It is convenient to divide the kinds of moral justifications for filial obligations into two categories. The first sees filial obligations as based on the marketplace idea of quid pro quo: children are indebted to their parents for the many services and goods provided to them in their youth, and perhaps most fundamentally for their parents' having brought them into life in the first place. The ancient philosopher Aristotle argued that "nothing a son may have done [to repay his father] is a worthy return for everything the father has provided for him, and therefore he will always be in his debt" (Nichomachean Ethics, section 1163b). The influential medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas claimed that since after God our parents are "the principles of our being and government," we owe them respect, reverence and service (Summa theologica, Part II-II question 101, article 1.) Some contemporary writers, blending the notion of contract with this sort of "natural indebtedness" have argued that, in our culture, the care that parents provide the young is understood to involve an implicit promise on the part of children that they will provide parents with care in their own turn (see, for instance, Sommers).

But the quid pro quo view—even in its modern formulation—tends not to seem very persuasive today. People are perhaps more inclined to say that it is parents who owe children weighty duties of care since in at least many cases, they have chosen to be parents, while children, famously, "didn't ask to be born." Further, it is parents who have, in effect, brought it about that children are vulnerable to many kinds of possible harm; someone has to step in if that harm is not to occur, and who more appropriate than the adults who have put the children "in harm's way" in the first place? These thoughts tend to support the view that filial obligations arise, not from a quid pro quo relationship ("I cared for you when you were dependent; now it's your turn") but rather out of affections and attitudes that children typically have for their parents. The contemporary social philosopher Joel Feinberg has written in support of this view. He believes that filial obligations are based on the gratitude that children should feel to their parents, claiming that gratitude "feels nothing at all like indebtedness." He continues to argue that "my benefactor once freely offered me his services when I needed them. There was, on that occasion, nothing for me to do but express my deepest gratitude to him. . . . But now circumstances have arisen in which he needs help, and I am in a position to help him. Surely, I owe him my services now, and he would be entitled to resent my failure to come through" (Feinberg).

However, the connection between gratitude and robust duties of care for parents still strikes some observers as shaky. If parents are merely doing what they are obliged to do in caring for their children, how does gratitude for performance of duties to their children create an obligation for children to provide care to parents that may be equally burdensome in return? The philosopher Jeffrey Blustein claims that when we are grateful, we are not concerned with whether our benefactor owed us the good, but rather what the benefactor's motive was for helping us. This move is interesting because it focuses squarely on the fact that parental duties proceed out of love; ultimately, for Blustein, filial duties are a response to the fact that parents have loved their children. Extending the spirit behind this idea, philosophers Hilde Lindemann Nelson and James Lindemann Nelson have argued that parents are obliged not merely to provide their children with requisite goods and services, but to love and "share themselves" with their children. In other words, parents are obliged to establish not simply a relationship that reliably provides goods and services to their children, but something more—a relationship of intimacy (Nelson and Nelson). In so loving their children, parents make themselves extremely vulnerable; if their children do not respond by maintaining an intimate relationship with them, parents are likely to suffer significantly. Young, well-nurtured children love their parents "naturally," so to speak. However, when those children mature, and are able to express their own characters through their decisions, the choices they make about their parents represent an opportunity to endorse the loving, noninstrumental character of their earlier relationship. Adult children's choices can also, in effect, declare that, so far as they are concerned, their parent-child relationship was only of value for what they got out of it. If their parents indeed shared themselves with their children, the adult children's ability to repudiate that intimacy by rejecting the relationship will be harmful to the parents, and children's action can be morally assessed as defective if they repudiate the relationship for insufficient reason.

Among the attractive features of accounts of filial obligation based on affection or intimacy is that they provide some basis for understanding what limits there may be to such obligation. Gratitude can be expressed, not in a quid pro quo fashion, but in the maintenance of a relationship that affirms the special significance of those to whom a person is grateful. Adult children can affirm their understanding and acceptance of the intimate character of their relationship with their parents by conveying to their parents a kind of love and concern that reflects their shared history. As an illustration, consider an elderly parent with a terminal illness receiving home-based hospice care. Such a person may have many physical needs: problems with pain control or hygiene, perhaps. But she may also have a need to take stock of her life, to try to come to grips with her own mortality, to celebrate and reconcile with those who have been most important to her. A parent's specifically physical needs might well be seen to by her children, and perhaps would thereby gain a special value. But they are the latter needs—needs that concern the person in her intimate particularity—for which children may be especially required, and for the performance of which they may have a special duty. Generalizing from this example, it might be argued that, while children have filial obligations to attend to their parents' needs, nothing about those obligations makes it inappropriate for citizens to decide, as a social matter, to make other provisions for them. What filial obligations particularly concern are those parental needs that may not be satisfiable in any way apart from the maintenance of a relation of intimacy with their children.



AQUINAS, T. Summa theologica. Allen, Texas: Thomas More, 1948. The Blackfriars edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.

ARISTOTLE. Nichomachean Ethics. Edited and translated by Martin Ostwald. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

BLUSTEIN, J. Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

BRODY, E. M. Women in the Middle: Their Parent-Care Years. New York: Springer, 1990.

ENGLISH, J. "What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?" In Having Children: Philosophical and Legal Reflections on Parenthood. Edited by W. Ruddick and O. O'Neil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Pages 351–356.

FEINBERG, J. "Duties, Rights and Claims." American Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1966): 137–139.

NELSON, H. L., and NELSON, J. L. "Frail Parents, Robust Obligations." Utah Law Review 1992 (1992): 734–63.

PINKNEY, D. S. "Elderly Straining Emergency Departments." American Medical News 12 (October 1990): 3.

PURDY, L.. In Their Best Interests? The Case against Equal Rights for Children. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

SOMMERS, C. H. "Filial Morality." Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 446–447.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Filial Obligations - Threats To Filial Obligations, Moral Justifications For Filial Obligations