Do Grown Children Owe their Parents Special Obligations?
Although the tradition holds that grown children owe their parents special duties, Contemporary philosophers like Jane English suggest otherwise. They argue that the duties of adult children to their friends are by far stronger that the duties to their parents (Jerker 34). In this paper, I am going to argue that there are a number of duties that grown children ought to perform for their parents, but it does not mean they owe them these duties. Empirically, the sacrifices made by parents as they raise children are not debts that they have to be repaid later in life. A major argument by Jane English is that if the sacrifices made by parents’ results into friendship with their children, then parents could be fortunate as they may be repaid when their children grow up. Therefore, it means that if parents fail to create a friendship with their children, then children owe them no obligation.
Unlike in the past, the family structures have changed as a result of wide and confusing arrays of family types (Rossini and Robert 101). Consequently, determining the social roles as well as the social obligations related to and defined by these social roles has become extremely difficult. Furthermore, the life expectancy in most developed economies has become significantly longer than it was few years ago, so providing care for the elderly parents is becoming a long-term commitment. In addition, birth rates have considerably declined so that parents now have fewer children to provide care as opposed to the previous years. It means that elderly parents have fewer children to share the increased caring burden and the changing family structures obscure instead of clarifying the roles of each family member (Jerker 37). Parents need care in their old age and the grown children must make a decision about the kind of care they should provide, to what extent they should finance, to what extent they ought to sacrifice their own happiness, financial security, wellbeing, among others for the sake of their parents. The changing family structures, fluctuating closeness both present and past between children and their parents as well as the conflicting obligations make it difficult to answer these questions.
The idea that people have special obligations to others by virtue of their friendship with them is rather a philosophical problem. Jane English argues that special obligations are puzzling and if they exist, thy have striking features. In most cases, special obligations come from non-voluntary circumstances not necessarily involving a child-parent relationship (Sommers 195). For example, if you save a drowning kid in a deep pool, you develop a more stringent obligation, although the relationship is non-voluntary. The relationship between parents and their children is voluntary and children have a choice either to engage or not with their parents, either to exchange benefits or not with their parents. If the parents made incredible sacrifices on behalf of the child, most of which the child never requested and was never aware, then in response the child owes the parents something. However, the parent and child must be in a good relationship for the parents to benefit in return.
Additionally, if children owe their parents some duties because they sheltered, clothed, and fed them, then it is like they have special obligations in response to all morally required acts. Parents are required to provide clothing, shelter, and food for their children until they become adults (Rosmini and Robert 107). Jane English wonders why children would owe them in response. She observes that, after remitting taxes, citizens do not have the obligation of thanking the government for the services it renders. Likewise, the government has no obligation of thanking the citizens for paying taxes. According to Jane English, the obligations that children have to their parents is not different from those they owe their friends with whom they have a non-voluntary relationship with. Empirically, the obligations are shaped by the abilities and needs of the parent as well as the existing status the relationship between the parent and the child. If the child and the parent do not share a loving and voluntary relationship, it means the child has no special obligations. In fact, the debt theory is, strictly speaking, problematic since children owe their parents nothing. The child-parent relationship is fundamentally different from the debtor-creditor relationship because it is characterized with feelings of love. Obligation between two friends does not necessarily come as a result of one friend being indebted to the other. For instance, if one friend extends a favor to the other, the favor beneficiary owes repayment in response. Jane English however argues that although the favors create debt, they are significantly different from what friends do for one another. Likewise, favors are significantly different from what parents generally do for the children.
Contrary to Jane English view, the traditional view as suggested by philosophers such as Christina Hoff Sommers shows that the immediate duties of children to their parents should be stronger than duties to their friends (Sommers 193). Children owes their parents gratitude in response to the kindness parents showed them. As long as the gratitude seeks to support instead of undermining mutual respect and the parent-child relationship, it is worthwhile. The obligations owed to parents are based on appreciation and fulfilling them is an expression of the child’s gratitude. Providing care for the parents during the old age is not much a question of if they should be taken care of but the question of who should provide them with the much-needed care. Caring for your aging parents is the morally right thing for children to do. Although states have programs for providing financial support to the elderly, it is the moral obligation and primary responsibility of children to provide care for their parents during old age.
However, the traditional view that children owe their parents special obligations that are stronger that those owed to friends is not persuasive enough. According to contemporary philosophers such as Jane English, Simon Keller, Joseph Kupfer among others, the traditional view fails to take into account fundamental aspects such as the changing family structures, the fluctuating closeness between the parent and the children both in the past and the present, the conflicting obligations like those to the grown adult’s own children, or parent or both. Although this phenomenon is comparatively new in the philosophical literature, very few, if any of the contemporary philosophers have articulated a theory to indicate the specific obligations that children owe their parents.
In conclusion, although there are a number of duties that grown children ought to perform for their parents, this is not a debt on their part. Although taking care of their parents may give the grown children peace of mind and happier marriages, there are no documented special obligations that they owe their parents (Jecker 72). Grown up children are motivated by factors such as closeness, abilities, and needs the parent. The current state of friendship between the child and the parent plays a great role in determining whether the child extends gratitude to the parent especially during the old age.
Jecker, Nancy A. S. Aging and Ethics: Philosophical Problems in Gerontology. Clifton, N.J: Humana Press, 1991. Print.
Rosmini, Antonio, and Robert A. Murphy. Introduction to Philosophy. Durham, U.K: Rosmini House, 2004. Print.
Sommers, Christina H. “Philosophers against the Family.” Morality in Practice. (2000): 192-197. Print.