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What should our grown children do for us?

As I come close to finishing this book, two roles take up a lot of my time and energy. I am a parent to children in college. I am also a child of elderly parents, called on often to be helpful to them (especially my father). When I think about what grown children should do for their parents, I find myself thinking about what I do for my parents and about what I hope my kids will one day do for me. But I also think about the matter as a philosophical parent. What do we really have to do for our parents?


The Confucian ethical tradition regards filial piety as the key virtue—one that not only enters into the parent-child relationship, but makes us live rightly in other contexts as well. Honoring, respecting, and obeying our parents is incumbent on us starting at an early age, and of course we can never orphan ourselves, breaking off contact. Filial piety will mean different things at different ages, with the child finally becoming a caregiver to his parents when they are very old. But why? Why is filial piety a virtue?

In the Xiaojing ("Classic of Filial Piety”) filial piety is explained as follows: "The son derives his life from his parents, and no greater gift could possibly be transmitted. His ruler and parent (in one), his father deals with him accordingly, and no generosity could be greater than this. Hence, he who does not love his parents, but loves other men, is called a rebel against virtue, and he who does not revere his parents, but reveres other men, is called a rebel against propriety.” The root of our duties to our parents is the fact that they created us.

In my view, it doesn’t really make good sense for children to think they are indebted to their parents for giving them life. For one thing, parents almost never pick a particular child to create; a specific embryo forms by sheer accident. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to think that creating a child saves him from anything that would have been worse for him. A merely potential child is not doomed to languish in some cosmic orphanage, as I argued in chapter 2, because merely potential children simply don’t exist. We usually make the world a little better by creating a child, but we don’t make the child better off than he otherwise would have been. On the first day of a child’s life, a child has not yet accumulated any debt of gratitude to his parents.

Now, having given them life, the things we do for our children do make them better off than they otherwise would have been. The child could have been hungry, but we fed him; he could have been cold, but we clothed him; he could have been illiterate, but we educated him. So now there is at least the potential to speak of a debt of gratitude. But should we?

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