Should I owe my parents something?

Why we don't owe our parents anything


"It's exciting to watch the philosopher figure out a problem that is as everyday as it is tricky." Adrian Daub, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 14th, 2018

5 questions for ...

Barbara Bleisch

Ms. Bleisch, everyone has parents, that's part of life. As a philosopher, why do you devote an entire book to the normally common relationship with your own parents?
Family is indeed a part of life, and the relationship with our parents is an important part of our life. It is not only the central importance of the parent-child relationship, but also its supposedly self-evident fact that interests me as a philosopher. Because it is far from clear what constitutes an ethically successful relationship with one's own parents. You don't have to study world literature first - a conversation with friends is enough to understand: Families can be places of happiness, but they are also prone to betrayal, hurt and resentment. And even in families in which one is well-disposed towards each other, the question arises what we owe our parents as children: How much loyalty is required, how much should one look after one another and what sensitivities must be taken into account? Unlike friendships, family relationships are also heavily overlaid by conventions. Accordingly, there are also high expectations of parents and children from outside. It is inconvenient to critically examine conventions, but it has always been one of the core concerns of philosophy.

The title of your book is provocative: First of all, everyone assumes that they owe their parents a lot!
When I started working on the book, that was exactly what I believed. And by the way, I didn't throw them completely overboard. What I wanted to know, however, was how exactly this intuition was founded. And the longer I thought about it and familiarized myself with the philosophical literature, the clearer it became to me that the conventional reasons for the thesis that children owe their parents morally are not convincing: Neither the reference to the gift of life nor the blood ties , nor on parental care impose moral obligations on children. Children never asked for their existence and it was the duty of the parents to raise them. In addition, children have usually given their parents a lot - in terms of meaning in life, admiration and love. To see children in adulthood as moral debtors of their parents in general, I therefore now consider completely wrong. In addition: Separate feelings of guilt; they don't connect. The normative force that obliges us should be a living interest in one another or, at best, mutual love.

So children are completely free how they behave towards their parents?
No certainly not. We are always obliged to respect our counterparts, not willfully harm others, and to be considerate of them and their feelings. In other words: Of course, children owe their parents something, for example basic respect - and many children lack this respect for their own parents. But it is important that we do not have this duty because it is our parents. It is not the fact that I am someone's child that obliges me, but rather humanity as such: We are not allowed to exploit, betray or willfully harm anyone - including our own parents. It is important to emphasize this, especially with regard to intimate relationships, such as family relationships: Because you were and maybe still are so close, you know the sore points of the other person and can easily get hurt. To do so would be disrespectful. Moreover, respectful people do not carelessly ignore the needs and expectations of others - especially not when these needs arise from their shared history. However, recognizing parental expectations as fundamentally justified and taking them seriously does not mean doing what parents want without questioning. We can disappoint our parents because we all have the task of living our own lives.

But are you not attacking the family as one of the most important pillars of society?
I am not concerned about the family as a pillar of society and I have not the slightest interest in attacking them. As a philosopher, I pursued the ethical question of how the feeling of obligation that many people have towards their parents can be justified. And my work has led me to the result that it cannot be justified simply by being someone's child: mere childhood is not morally obligatory to anything! If I have a socio-political concern about parent-child relationships at all, on the contrary, my aim is to strengthen the family by freeing them from overloaded ideas. It is a mystery to me how the family should be protected by insisting on an obligation of all things. Parents generally want attention that children give of their own free will and not out of fear of disappointing their parents. If we see the family as an important pillar of society, then we should open up to the idea that society in turn has reason to support the family and thus also the parent-child relationship. This includes taking the pressure off each other if necessary, for example when it comes to looking after family members in need of care. Anyone who has ever taken on this task with a view to their own parents or grandparents knows how intense this experience is, how connecting and precious and how separating and threatening at the same time it can be. A society that relies on family ties as a supporting pillar should be ready to support adult 'children' in this task instead of leaving them alone with them by asserting corresponding obligations based on childhood.

Why are people so worried about their relationship with their parents?
As the writer Peter Weiss once wrote, parents are the “portal figures” of our lives. No matter how much we can keep our distance, family has become part of our identity, if not flesh and blood. We therefore have good reason to strive for a good relationship with the family of origin - and still have to find our own way. Moreover, parents are the people through whom we get to know the idea of ​​duties in the first place. It takes a long time to emancipate before we understand that not everything our parents want us to be is our duty. Many people are unsure about this, and so the question of what we owe our parents hits a neuralgic point. My book does not want to decide this question, but rather to help us think about it. In this I see the task of philosophy. My aim is to show that the answer to the question of what children owe their parents depends on their relationship with their parents and not solely on the relationship.

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