What does one owe one’s parents?

Context: A delightful discussion on email, delightful because this is the first time I am engaging in serious personal discussion in a written medium.

Intuitively, one owes quite a lot to one’s parents. But in a matter as important as morality, one cannot rely on intuition alone. These matters must be examined rationally, ground up.

Choice is a crucial aspect of morality. The unchosen is not subject to a moral analysis. Being born was not a choice I made. I do not owe anything to my parents merely because they gave me birth. Asserting so would be subscribing to the duty view of morality. On the other hand, giving me birth was a choice they made. And this choice does impose moral responsibilities on them. This is a special asymmetry in a parent-child relationship as opposed to other relationships.

If one’s parents have fulfilled their responsibilities – and most parents at least try to do so – then one owes them respect for being moral people. The better they fulfill their responsibilities, the greater this respect should be. The same kind of respect is due to any person who acts morally. The respect due to one’s parents is just a specific application of the principle of justice. However, by virtue of living together, one has far better knowledge of the actions of one’s parents. And so, one has better grounds for respecting one’s parents than people about whom you do not know as much.

When a child is still a baby incapable of doing anything on his own, the flow of values is completely one-sided. The parent gives, the child receives. The responsibility too is entirely on one side. It is the parent’s responsibility to give and the child’s right to receive. The parent deserves nothing more than respect for fulfilling his responsibilities. The child does not owe anything specific to his parents up to this point in the relationship.

As the relationship develops, as the child grows and becomes capable of exercising choice, the initial asymmetry reduces and eventually disappears. The relationship becomes a normal relationship based on an exchange of value. The exchange of value in any relationship between adults is conditional. Both parties must provide value, else the relationship cannot last. Moral responsibilities are the terms on which values are exchanged. Sometimes these terms are explicit, most often they are not. Particularly in a parent-child relationship which only develops into a normal relationship over a long time, the terms are overwhelmingly implicit. But it would be a mistake to believe that the terms do not exist, or that different principles apply to a parent-child relationship than to one between adults. A child begins life with no moral responsibility towards his parents (or for that matter towards anyone else). As the child becomes an adult, he acquires moral responsibilities towards his parents over a period of time by participating in the implicit terms on which values are exchanged between him and his parents.

Because the terms on which a parent-child relationship is built are overwhelmingly (and inevitably) implicit, one experiences the moral responsibility towards one’s parents emotionally rather than rationally. Yet – borrowing Rand’s words – emotions are not tools of cognition. When one is faced with a dilemma, emotions are not enough to enable one to resolve it. One needs a full, explicit understanding of all relevant facts and principles. And that is the greatest responsibility any person has – to try to attain such an understanding. The specific application of this to the parent-child relationship implies that the child, once he grows up, should evaluate his childhood, evaluate his parents and then decide what he owes them.

Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.

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