Professor of Philosophy Rivka Weinberg on the Ethics of Parent-Child Relations

Rivka-Weinberg-on-Parent-Child-RelationsAfter recently completing a book on procreative ethics, The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible, I worried I’d never have another idea again. After all, it’s not as if I know where ideas come from, so how can I know that the well of ideas will not run dry? I’m relieved to report that the well didn’t run dry, at least not yet. Right now, I am working on papers on the definition of death, on our asymmetrical attitudes regarding various aspects of procreating versus not procreating, on the appropriate response to the realization that we cannot achieve ultimate meaning, and on parental obligation to grown children.

Familial obligation is something most people think about at some point, so let me say a bit more about it here. We often hear people talk about raising their children “until they are 18,” as if that magic number releases parents from the obligation to support their children. But, if we consider why parents are obligated to their children in the first place, it is not clear that parental obligation to children comes with an expiration date.

In my view, one reason why parents are obligated to support their children is that children exist because their parents engaged in procreative acts that exposed the children to life’s risks. And when we expose other people to risks, we are often held accountable if the risk ripens into a harm. For example, if we crash into another car, we may be liable for the damages. Because life is very risky, children are very vulnerable, and some of the risks and harms of life are unpredictable and/or unavoidable, our standard of care for our children is very high. As children grow, their vulnerability usually decreases, and they usually become able to care for themselves. As parents, we try to encourage our children’s autonomy and self-reliance because that’s good for them. People tend to feel good and fare well when they are independent and autonomous. That works well for children and the adults into which they grow, and it often frees parents up from the job of caring for their (now adult) children.

But sometimes things don’t turn out so happily, and sometimes the maturation process doesn’t proceed smoothly. When adult children encounter illness, disability, addiction, or other significant life challenges, it seems to me that their parents are likely obligated to help, at least to the extent that they can. On a recent episode of the radio program This American Life, a woman in her early twenties, who was in and out of an abusive relationship since she was a teenager, explained that one reason why she stayed with her abuser for so long was that without him she was alone, since her mother spent weekends and holidays with her own boyfriend. The young woman was even alone on Christmas. I found myself angry with the mother for not being there for her daughter, regardless of her daughter’s age. Why leave your young adult daughter alone for the holidays when you know her abuser is waiting in the wings? To me, the fact that over the course of her years in an abusive relationship the teenager had grown into a young adult did not do away with her mother’s obligation to care for her as needed.

This is a complex topic, and I am just beginning my research on it. When I mentioned it to my teenage son, he wondered what this might imply regarding obligations that adult children may have to help their parents. That is something I am thinking about now, as well.

Rivka Weinberg is a professor of philosophy at Scripps. Her work focuses on ethics—particularly procreative ethics, bioethics, and theories of moral obligation—and the metaphysics of birth and death. Her most recent book, The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, avid Why Procreation May Be Permissible, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.


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