Special Relationships, Duties and Obligations
Following up on some things we discussed about filial piety on a previous post, I’ve had some thoughts about the nature of family relationships and their moral relevance, particularly with respect to filial piety, but with some hopes for expanding the thoughts more systematically to other aspects.
The Confucian ideal seems to be that the duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are central, in at least two ways:
1) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are overriding — they override any duties or obligations that derive from other relations, be they standing relations (subject and ruler, ruler and minister, subject and subject, etc.), or incidental ones based on circumstances (sheep-thief and sheep-owner, chariot-driver and someone run over by chariot-driver, etc.).
2) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are paradigmatic — they provide the paradigm, or model, for thinking about what our other duties or obligations are like and how we should think about them. So, for example, the ruler should think about his relationship to his ministers or to his subjects in ways that are modeled on the parent-child relationship.
That represents, I think, a common portrayal of the Confucian view. The questions I have are about how such a view might be justified. There are so-called “special relationships” that some contemporary moral theorists like to talk about, that are based on more or less standing relationships we find ourselves in, sometimes not entirely out of choices that we may have made. But these relationships can involve important moral aspects like trust and deep emotional bonds based on instinctive and cultivated care. The most obvious relationship like this is the parent-child relationship. But in that relationship, it’s always seemed to me like there’s an important asymmetry. As parents, we bring children into the world and it is most often out of some choice or other that we made. But of course the children had no such choice (that’s not the asymmetry I’m interested in) and for many years of their lives, they are in most ways “at our mercy” — they tacitly trust us to take care of them and to prepare them for a relatively happy adult life. Most parents love their children and so the point about trust might seem to without saying, but that’s not always the case and even loving parents don’t always feel particularly fond of their children. So, care is something that we owe to our children, as Kant (through Barbara Herman, among others) might say, even when we don’t on occasion feel like caring for them.
The moral asymmetry, I think, is when we look at the relationship from the side of the children. What is it that they owe to us? (Or, more pressing for many of us, what do we owe our parents?). I’m not so sure how to answer that. One way to characterize the Confucian view is that children owe their parents obedience, allegiance/loyalty, and gratitude — as I suggested about Analects 13.18 in the aforementioned post. But let me introduce Analects 17.21, which says:
Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough….The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s [i.e. Zai Wo's] want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?” (Legge translation)
One way of expressing filial piety is through this expression of mourning. But it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. “I’m really glad that I was lucky to have such caring parents” and “I’m really grateful to my parents for caring about me” are slightly different sentiments, but of a kind. Call them the “fortunate child” or “grateful child” sentiments; they are of a kind because they recognize the virtues of the parents but don’t imply that those virtues then create a debt on the child’s part.
I think for filial piety, at least, to be plausible the view has to be understood in ways that aren’t tied to the duties or obligations of children to their parents. As someone who grew up in a fairly traditional Korean family and in traditional Korean diaspora communities, I get the sense that “on the ground” the Confucian view does require a heavy sense of duty and obligation from children toward their parents — not so much of gratitude or fortune. But what should the sense of duty and obligation toward parents be based on? I don’t think it can plausibly be based on gratitude toward them; being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense. Or does it?
As always, discussion is welcome!
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