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.

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