Filial Obligations

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The phrase "filial obligations" is generally understood to refer to special dutiesspecific kinds of actions, services, and attitudesthat children must provide to their parents simply because they are those parents' offspring. Influential in many human cultures throughout history"Honor thy father and thy mother" is a widely known example from Judaeo-Christian culturethe idea that children have duties to their parents remains familiar today. But filial obligation is also a complicated and controversial notion, involving questions concerning who counts as "parents" and as "children," whether parents can lose their claims to filial obligations by negligence or abuse, just what children are actually obliged to do for their parents, and, most fundamentally, why such obligations should be recognized at all. The questions raised by filial obligations are important not simply because family members can be confused or troubled about what they should do for each other, but also because social policies targeting older people sometimes presuppose that their children, rather than the state, ought to provide certain kinds of support. Without clarity about the nature and limits of filial obligations, both families and societies may expect the other to take the lead in supporting older persons, with the consequence that important needs go unmet.

The focus in this entry will be on duties of adult children to parents. Younger children are also generally thought to have filial obligations primarily to respect and obey their parentsand such duties are at least somewhat controversial, as the "children's rights" movement attests (Purdy). However, duties assigned to dependent children raise fewer practical or theoretical problems than does the claim that independent adults have obligations to provide not solely respect, but also goods and services, to the people who bore, begot, or raised them.

Threats to filial obligations

The continued recognition of filial obligation is threatened in two general ways, one practical, the other theoretical. While surely many adult children continue to care deeply for their parents, and express their care in how they live their lives, there are signs that children may be finding the needs of parents beyond what they canor should be expected tosupport. In practical terms, adult children and their parents now face a world in which there are, relatively speaking, fewer children to respond to growing and persistent needs of aging parents. Social and technological changes have allowed people greater control over family size, social insurance schemes have made "provision for one's old age" a less compelling reason to have many children, and medical advances have helped more people to live longer, and consequently to face the possibility of prolonged periods of ill health or reduced abilities. Spiraling health care costs in general, and inadequate social support for long-term care for the elderly in particular, indicate that there may be increasing pressure on adult children to take on extensive responsibilities of caring for their parents at a point in history when the burden of care may be heavier and more prolonged, when there are fewer children to do so, and less in the way of cultural supports for undertaking care. A striking illustration of the possible consequence of these trends is provided by The American College of Emergency Physicians, which has reported that as many as 100,000 to 200,000 elderly people are abandoned in emergency rooms in hospitals throughout the United States annually (Pinkney).

Changes in cultural support for filial obligations introduces the more theoretical threat to filial obligations. There is, to start with, concern over how caring responsibilities are handed out within families. "Hands on" care of aging parents has been a task assigned more to daughters and even daughters-in-law, than to sons (Brody); in a culture awakening to the unfairness of disproportionately burdening women, this sexist distribution of labor has made some people suspicious of the very idea of filial obligation. But even more fundamentally, the predominant theoretical understanding of obligation in contemporary Western societiesperhaps particularly in the United Statesrests on the ideas of contract and consent, and today's most influential ideas about morality prominently feature the ideal of impartiality. If we owe obligations only when we have agreed to make contracts or promises, it is hard to see why we have any obligations, much less possibly burdensome ones, to our parents. If we should regard all persons with equal moral respect, as the ideal of impartiality seems to require, it is difficult to understand why we have particular responsibilities to help those who just happen to be our parents, when others may have greater needs.

There are other cultural shifts that have made filial obligations more difficult to take with the same seriousness they have enjoyed in the past. Apart from basic questions of fairness in the distribution of the tasks of care across the genders, the latter part of the twentieth century has seen an expansion of possible social roles for at least middle-class women in Western societies; in the United States, for example, more women have full-time, demanding jobs and careers outside the home than has previously been the case. At the same time, young children are dependent on their parents for longer periods of education than had been the case in previous centuries. These developments have strained the caring capacity of adult children. Perhaps, too, the greater prevalence of divorce, resulting in many children not residing with both parents throughout their developmental years, may make it harder for some children to feel a sense of obligation to a parent who has been a missing or distant figure during their youth (although it should be borne in mind that families have always been somewhat unstableif less threatened by divorce, than more threatened by premature death).

If people are to continue to recognize a special set of obligations to their parents, some kinds of social support may be necessaryfor example, more flexibility in the scheduling of work done out of the home, and greater recognition of the significance of the work of children in responding dutifully to the needs of their aging parents. It may also need to be better acknowledged that many older parents continue to make significant contribution to the lives of their grown children, and to those children's families. It would be a mistake to think that older parents are always or even typically on the receiving end of the flow of care.

Moral justifications for filial obligations

However, if society is to provide greater support for the ideal of filial obligationas opposed, say, to dealing with the needs of vulnerable elderly citizens in more institutional, less family-focused waysthere 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 vieweven in its modern formulationtends 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 morea 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 needsneeds that concern the person in her intimate particularityfor 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.

James Lindemann Nelson

See also Caregiving, Informal; Intergenerational Exchanges; Intergenerational Justice; Kin; Parent-Child Relationships; Parental Obligations.


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 351356.

Feinberg, J. "Duties, Rights and Claims." American Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1966): 137139.

Nelson, H. L., and Nelson, J. L. "Frail Parents, Robust Obligations." Utah Law Review 1992 (1992): 73463.

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): 446447.