Duties to Aging Parents

Abstract
"What do grown children owe their parents?" Over two decades ago philosopher Jane English asked this question and came up with the startling answer: nothing (English 1979). English joins many contemporary philosophers in rejecting the once-traditional view that grown children owe their parents some kind of fitting repayment for past services rendered. The problem with the traditional view, as argued by many, is, first, that parents have duties to provide fairly significant services to their growing children, and persons do not owe repayment for others' mere performance of duty; second, even where parents go above and beyond duty in their loving and generous rearing of their children, the benefits are bestowed, at least on young children, without their voluntary acceptance and consent, and so, again, fail to generate any obligation of subsequent repayment on their part (see Blustein 1982: 182-3). Moreover, the entire idiom of obligation and repayment, in English's 1 words, "tends to obscure, or even to undermine, the love that is the correct ground of filial obligation" (352). English's alternative, however -- that children strictly "owe" their parents nothing except what flows naturally from whatever love and affection exist between them -- also strikes many as problematic. Christina Hoff Sommers offers examples of what seem to be clearly delinquent adult children, who simply don't "feel" like sharing their lives with their aging parents, or providing any emotional or financial support to them, and so don't (Sommers 1986: 440-41). Sommers points out that we need some talk of obligations in order to fill in the cracks in human relationships where love and affection fail: "The ideal relationship cannot be 'duty-free,' if only because sentimental ties may come unraveled, often leaving one of the parties at a material disadvantage'" (450-51). Sommers proposes as her alternative to English that legitimate duties arise out of special relationships defined by social roles: being a father or mother, a son or a daughter, "is socially as well as biologically prescriptive; it not only defines what one is; it also defines who one is and what one owes" (447)..
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