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Today we are investigating our moral obligations to our parents and our families. Do we owe our parents anything as adults? Would it be a good idea to license parents? We’ll explore these questions as well as the ethics of care, and some potential problems that type of approach to morality carries with it.

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For most of you, your parents brought you into this world. They also fed you, and changed your diapers, and wiped away your tears. They raised you. Yet, according to contemporary American philosopher, Jane English, once you’re grown, you don’t owe your parents anything. Not a single thing.

Now, this might sound a little selfish. A little ungrateful. A little mean. But let’s hear her out. Because, you’ve learned by now that many of your default attitudes – the attitudes that you think you have about other beings and your relationships to them – have a hard time standing up to philosophical scrutiny. So, let’s scrutinize one of the most important relationships you have in your life; the one that you’ve had the longest, and probably the most intimate one you’ll ever have. Let’s talk about your folks.

There are three basic views about the obligations you have to your parents. One is the unconditional view. This is the view that, simply by virtue of being your parent, that person is entitled to certain things from you: at a bare minimum, your presence and attention in their lives until one of you dies.

By contrast, the conditional view says that you owe your parents based on what they gave you. So, really terrible parents might not deserve anything from their grown children, but good parents deserve quite a lot. So, your level of obligation is based on the amount of benefit that you received growing up.

And finally, there’s English’s view, known as the friendship view. This says that you don’t actually owe your parents anything once you’ve grown, regardless of how much you benefited from their parenting.

Many of us take it as basic that we owe our parents a lot, what with all of the feeding and nurturing and driving to soccer games and acting like they enjoyed our macaroni art. But English makes a couple of observations about this assumption.

First, she says, if anything it’s the parents who owe their kids.

After all, if you choose to have a child, you incur a huge responsibility to raise that child or to give it away to someone who will. So, it’s basically a contractarian relationship. If you agree to do something, then you have a duty to see it through or to extract yourself from the contract. And that is the line of reasoning that leads English to conclude that grown kids don’t owe their parents back. Because, none of us chose to be born. And you can’t have an obligation if you didn’t do something to incur that obligation.

Now you might be thinking, fine. If you want to think of family relationships in terms of contracts, then isn’t there still an implicit contract between child and parent? If you’ve reaped the benefits of being raised by good, loving parents, doesn’t it mean that you’ve implicitly accepted the contract and have therefore incurred obligations?

The problem with that is, children can’t really enter into moral contracts.

If, as an adult, you enter into an agreement with your parents – like, you can live at home for free as long as you maintain your grades in college – then you’ve got yourself a contract.

But any benefits incurred while growing up don’t count, because, back when the relationship started, you were just a baby, and you didn’t have the rational capacity to be held to a moral contract.

And what’s more, your parents didn’t provide for you with the expectation of a payout. They had you – or they kept you or adopted you – because they wanted you, and they gave to you because they wanted to.

Good parents give unconditionally. So no matter how much you receive from them, you simply don’t incur debt, because that’s not how family works.

Now, to be clear, English isn’t giving us a pass to freeload off our parents. She thinks that, if you have a good relationship with your parents, you’ll probably want to help them out when you can, but that’s not an obligation. Instead, she says, the appropriate model is friendship. Friends don’t keep score. They help each other out of love. And in loving relationships, no one’s keeping a hidden tally of who helped last and who’s due to help next. You don’t have to keep score; you give simply because you want to, out of love.

So English argues that once you’re an adult, your relationship with your parents should model that of friendship. And the thing about friends is, if the love isn’t there, the friendship dissolves. You have no underlying obligation to remain friends with someone.

And likewise, if you had bad parents, or if you simply don’t care about them once you’re an adult, you have no obligation to give them anything, including your time.

You didn’t incur a debt by being raised, she says, so just like with friendship, you can choose not to maintain a relationship with your parents. It’s up to you.

Now, this attitude might seem scandalous to some people. I mean, isn’t blood thicker than water?
Well, many philosophers challenge the idea that you have special obligations to someone just because you share some genetic material with them.

By that logic, a person who was adopted at birth would have obligations to biological relatives that they’ve never met – and they wouldn’t have any obligations to the family that raised them.

And I think most of us can agree that that doesn’t make any sense. We tend to think of adopted families as being no less familial than biological families.

So if you think families are built through love and not blood, then it follows that families lacking in love can’t make moral demands on its members, because they simply don’t have the standing.

While we’re talking about parents here, let’s stop by the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

Before you’re trusted to do something that has the potential to cause harm, you have to demonstrate that you can handle it. In most societies, this is done through licensing: driver’s licenses, hunting licenses, wedding licenses, heck, barbers even need to be certified before they can cut your hair. So, contemporary American philosopher Hugh LaFollette thinks that there’s another group of people who should be licensed, parents. That’s right, LaFollette thinks potential parents should be required to apply for and obtain a license before being permitted to reproduce. This sounds kind of ridiculous, right? But think about it.

Most activities that require competence to do well, and that can cause harm if done badly, are regulated by society.

There’s no question that parenting isn’t easy, and you can really mess up a kid if you do it badly. But right now, we wait until a parent has abused or neglected a child before the state intervenes. So, LaFollette asks, wouldn’t it be better if we took preventative measures instead? After all, adoptive parents undergo heavy scrutiny before they get to have kids. So, just like driving a car, in LaFollette’s plan, you’d have to pass a test before you could get a parenting license. There’d be classes for those who need it, and you can always reapply. But if you can’t demonstrate a basic ability to raise a child, then you just don’t get to have one.

What do you think? Would society be better or worse if you needed a license to raise children? Does everyone have the right to be a parent? Or should you have to demonstrate that you’re up to the task before you’re allowed to bring a new human being into the world? Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Now, here’s yet another perspective on the philosophy of family obligations. Contemporary American philosopher, Claudia Mills, argues that there’s something truly special about what you have with your family.

Your family members are the only people in your life that are permanent and unchosen, she says, and because of that, there’s value in maintaining a connection with them.

Mills points out that we live in a world where we’re constantly changing. Most of us will have many different jobs, and live in lots of different places, and go through a great many friends, maybe even a couple of spouses. But there will come a time when there are very few people left in your life who have known you since the beginning.

Mills thinks that your family allows you to stay connected to the person you once were, before all those changes happened. And even if you aren’t really that person anymore, that connection can be grounding, and valuable. So go ahead, call your brother on his birthday! Remind him of the time he tried to dry his socks in a frying pan! In addition to getting a good laugh out of it, your brother might appreciate re-connecting with his roots.

Now, you might have noticed that this is the first time our discussion of ethics has focused on personal, individual connections – on feelings of love, rather than on impartiality.

This is characteristic of a school of moral thought known as the ethics of care.

Contrary to most of the theories we’ve studied, this view says that morality demands that we pay attention to the special relationships we have in our lives. The ethics of care says that morality goes wrong when we emphasize impartiality, because it’s our most caring relationships that make our lives worthwhile. And we want our friends and family to care more for us than they do for strangers, right?

So ethicists of care often reason that, even though we might have a general love for humanity itself, you just can’t beat the unconditional, I-would-literally-die-for-you love that we only have for the people we know best, the ones with whom we share an intimacy that we simply can’t feel with strangers. What could the harm be in that? Well, ...

Many ethicists worry that showing preference for the people you happen to like opens up the door for prejudice.

Because it’s easy to be kind to people you like, you don’t need morality to tell you that. The hard part is being kind to people you don’t like, or who are different from you, or who you simply don’t know or understand very well.

It would be great if everyone had a support network of people who love them, so we’d just all take care of our own loved ones, and life would be perfect.

But the problem is, there are a lot of people who aren’t lucky enough to have support networks of care. And there are others who have people who care about them, but their loved ones lack the resources to actually provide for them. If we rely on ethics of care, it looks like those people will get neglected. So we’re going to talk about this next time, when we discuss poverty, and the moral obligations we have to strangers in need.

But today we talked about moral obligations to family. We considered the possibility of licensing parents, and we talked about the ethics of care and some potential problems that type of approach to morality carries with it.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like Coma Niddy, Deep Look, and Gross Science.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.