OUR PARENTS, OUR SELVES
A third way of thinking about our duties to our parents (not considered by English) focuses on the fact that children come from their parents. The extended identity of each includes the other. Nobody wonders why I am prepared to pay for my own life-saving operation. It’s just obvious that I care about myself enough to do so. Likewise, we really don’t wonder why a parent is willing to pay for a child’s operation, or why an adult child is willing to pay for a parent’s. We know implicitly that their identity is fused, so that the problems of the child are the parent’s and the problems of the parent are the child’s.
Duties to parents are thus duties to the self, in an expanded, extended sense. This description is consistent with the way we think about kids who walk away from their parents, failing to call, visit, or help. The distant, uninvolved child of a needy elderly parent seems appalling—strange, unnatural, freaky. Cutting off a parent in that way seems nearly as odd as cutting off one’s own arm. There’s something tragic about the child who self-orphans, a fact not captured by the idea that he simply hasn’t paid off a debt or the idea that he’s doing something akin to getting a divorce.
So what is the truth here? Do we have duties to our parents based on indebtedness to them, based on friendship with them, or based on sharing an extended identity with them? It’s not out of the question that all three descriptions are partially correct. We have some degree of indebtedness, after decades of receiving benefits from our parents, whether we requested the benefits or not. Our parents are also (ideally) our friends, and so we have duties to them that come under that heading. At the same time, there is a fusion of identity that makes us feel entangled with our parents for a lifetime, and unable not to see their problems as our problems. It’s appalling to cut them off, we think, as observers do as well.
All three of these possible explanations tell us what most of us already know: we should be good to our parents. But all three options also allow for exceptions. If we can owe our parents a debt of gratitude, they can also deserve just the opposite—condemnation for the way they didn’t take good care of us. At some point, negative desert presumably cancels out the entire debt of gratitude. Abusive parents can’t reasonably expect care from their children in old age. Likewise, if parents aren’t good friends, but instead relentlessly critical and unsupportive, we stop having duties of friendship toward them.
Finally, even if we have a fused identity with our parents, it can occasionally make sense to cut them off. The real-life case of Aron
Ralston, dramatized in the movie 121 Hours, makes it clear that you might have to amputate your own arm to save your whole life. (He had been trapped in a remote Utah canyon for all those hours, with his arm pinned under a fallen boulder.) Likewise, it’s not impossible to have to break offyour relationship with an abusive parent, in order to live a healthy, happy life. The adult child who self-orphans may do what’s necessary but probably won’t feel entirely whole— this view of the relationship predicts—just as Aron Ralston presumably feels less whole without his arm.