Moral responsibility in relationships

The comment thread on my previous post raised some questions about the nature of values in a relationship and what it means to owe something to somebody. In this post I intend to explore these issues deeper.

A person can be a value to me merely by virtue of existing (so can things). As an example, a baby is a value to the parent in just this way. A person can be a value to me by virtue of his actions even when those actions are not personal. Sachin Tendulkar is a value to me because of the way he bats. Ayn Rand is a value to me because of the works she wrote. The latter is an example of a person no longer alive. Clearly there must be a difference in what (if anything) I owe Ayn Rand as compared to what I owe my parents. This difference arises from the nature of values I receive in these two cases. The values I receive from a hero or a role model with whom I have no personal interaction are non-exclusive. The production of those values is not directed towards me and my consumption of those values does not cost anything to the producers of those values. In contrast, the values that I receive from my parents or in any inter-personal relationship are exclusive. They are directed towards me. The time and money spent by my parents on me was spent on me. It cost something to them.

Exclusive values can be traded. Non-exclusive values cannot. A personal relationship – in as much as a relationship means something more than the existence of two people – is based on the long-term trade of values. This is not to say that non-exclusive values are not important. Many personal relationships would be impossible without non-exclusive values. But it is the trade of exclusive values that makes a relationship personal.

In the context of values, one owes something (exclusive values) to somebody when one is the recipient of exclusive values under mutually acceptable terms (the mutual agreement is usually implicit).

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.

Moral Responsibility

Arguing that government should fund education T.R asks (somewhat rhetorically),

Isn’t it our social and moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?

Even if it were, that does not necessarily mean that government should fund education. Note that government funds come from taxation – they are not voluntary. Using the force of law to take my money and spend it without my consent can only be justified if I have a legal responsibility (such as the collection of a fine). A moral responsibility is not enough. For example, it is my moral responsibility not to spend all my money on drink. If I were to do so however, the government would not be justified in putting me in rehabilitation or preventing me from buying drinks. This is because I am not legally responsible for not spending all my money on drinks. However, I do not wish to get into the differences between moral and legal responsibilities. My point is that I do not even have a moral responsibility to “give” equal opportunity to all.

What does moral responsibility mean? The moral qualification restricts the scope of the term to those actions that are open to choice. Clearly that which is outside my power of choice cannot be a moral issue. Since it is individuals who have the power of choice, moral responsibility refers to the responsibility of individuals for the consequences of their choices. A collective can never have a moral responsibility. Only individuals can. Therefore the question should actually be “Isn’t it my (or your, but not our) moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?” (I have dropped social responsibility from the question. More on that later.)

Put this way, the question becomes much easier to understand. The simple fact is that it is not within my power to give equal opportunity to all. That men are born and live in different environments (geographical, social, political, economic) is an unalterable fact outside of my power of choice. Different environments necessarily mean different opportunities. Moreover the very concept of an equal opportunity is quite shaky. If A is taller than B, could they ever have an equal opportunity to succeed at basketball? Even if A and B are equally tall and are brought up in similar environments, suppose A works harder and becomes rich as a star player while B does not. Do A and B now have an equal opportunity to buy a house? Clearly not. You may say that this is not what you mean and A earned this so this is OK. Now take it further. Do A’s and B’s children have an equal opportunity in their lives? Would taking away part of A’s money and giving it to B make their childrens’ opportunities equal? No. A’s children would still have the advantage of being brought up by a hardworking and successful parent. There is no way to make the childrens’ opportunities equal. Equality of opportunity is merely a watered-down version of the concept of equality of outcome. As such it might appear more plausible on the surface but is just as unrealizable. Opportunities come from previous outcomes or from chance. Neither of those can be equalized.

You might argue that even if it is impossible to equalize opportunity, it is my moral responsibility to reduce inequalities as much as possible. But that arguement is worse than the previous one. A doctrine that holds the impossible as a moral standard is extremely destructive since it can never be successfully practiced. Consider what it means when put into practice. It means that I should redistribute values from the wealthy to the poor, from the hardworking to the indolent, from the wise to the foolish, from the talented to the ordinary, from the strong to the weak, from the fortunate to the unlucky – in short, from the “haves” to the “have-nots” – because the former have more opportunities than the latter. What can be more destructive than that? Most people realize (at some level) that putting the doctrine of equality into practice fully is destructive. And so they practise it inconsistently. But that is destructive too in another way. It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.

Where does this incredibly destructive doctrine come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. That men are unequal is metaphysically given – outside the power of choice of any individual. It cannot be right or wrong, just or unjust. The metaphysically given forms the basis for concepts such as right, wrong, just, unjust etc. Labeling the metaphysically given as unjust is a perversion of all moral concepts. The existence of inequality, like the existence of the sun, simply is. It is neither right nor wrong, neither just nor unjust, neither fortunate nor unfortunate.

So, it is not my moral resposibility to give equal opportunity to all. What about social responsibility though? To me, it is an empty term, devoid of meaning. It is usually used to obfuscate an arguement rather than to clarify one. I have moral responsibilities (as long as I choose to live – moral responsibilities are always chosen) to act in a certain way. I have legal responsibilities to act in accordance with laws (atleast when the laws are just). Beyond that, I have no responsibilities to some nebulous collective.

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