Fifth Annual Undergraduate Ethics Symposium, April 12-14, 2012
Ethics and Relationships was the topic of the fifth annual Undergraduate Ethics Symposium. We did not limit the student submissions to this theme but invited ethics-related works on any subject. We did, however, ask that our visiting scholars address this theme in some way and encouraged students to do so as well. Over the course of the three days, we explored these ethics-related issues in the heart of the symposia: the workshops focused on the student submissions. Students served as readers, of course, making suggestions for improvement, but they also served as critics and reporters, continuing the conversation of the workshop on to the general sessions, as well as in small-group conversations. The scholars provided a framework which enriched and enlivened the discussion of the individual students’ work.
Dr. Claudia Mills, Frederick Visiting Professor at Prindle, and Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, began the discussion of Ethics and Relationships on Thursday evening with her keynote address, "The Ties That Bind: What Do We Owe to Our Families - and Why?"
Over two decades ago, philosopher Jane English posed the following question: What do grown children owe their parents? Something some of you may be thinking about as you now enter adulthood. And here's the startling answer Jane English gave: What do grown children owe their parents? Nothing. Nothing, she said. And she said this in part because she was rejecting a certain kind of view of filial obligation that has been pervasive not only in philosophy, but also as probably the view that would occur to most of us. That what we owe our parents is some sort of duty of gratitude for all that our parents did for us, and some sort of payment of all the efforts they made on our behalf--they took care of us when we were young and helpless, now as they age, and perhaps become old and helpless, it's our time to care for them, as they gave us financial assistance through paying for our college education, now it's time for us to try to help them financially as they move into expensive assisted living facilities at the end of their lives.
And so we think in these terms of debt and repayment, but there's a number of problems with this view that Jane English and others have pointed out. One is that, while I think we're drawn to this view--that we want to pay our parents back for what they've done for us, there's also the claim that what they did for us was actually what they were supposed to be doing. That by agreeing to become our parents, they took upon themselves certain obligations, in fact if they had failed to do those things-- if they had failed to change our diapers, and dress us, and feed us, and take us for health care visits-- they would have failed in their duty, and we don't generally think that debts of gratitude are owed when others have done their duty by us. Now we do often express gratitude to those who have done their duty. In Boulder we have wonderful buses with names like, "The Hop", "The Skip", "The Leap", "The Jump", "The Bound", "The Dash"--and everyone who gets off the bus calls out to the bus driver, "Thank you! Thank you!" It's really a wonderful litany of gratitude expressed for people who are just doing their job--the paid bus driver. And I think that's a lovely thing, but we still wouldn't probably feel, even though it's polite to express this kind of gratitude, we don't feel we owe an awful lot to the bus driver, aside from fair and respectful treatment.
So there's a sense in which the benefits that our parents gave us, they gave us because it was an obligation on their part. And even when parents go above and beyond what's merely required of them, (I think most of us with good parents feel our parents did considerably more than the bare minimum,) at least at the time, when we were very young children, these were benefits that were conferred on us involuntarily on our part and without our consent. You know we can say to our parents, "I never asked to be born," "I never asked to have piano lessons," "I never asked to have the extras that you provided," and in general, we feel in life also that we don't owe debts of gratitude for benefits we never asked to receive, and actually in some cases, might have preferred to avoid.
But most important for Jane English, isn't these two thoughts. It's that the whole conversation in terms of debt and payment is an idiom that seems inappropriate for loving and intimate relationships. And this is true for her, not only in family relationships but of friendship as well, to sort of keep a little ballot sheet in your head--you did this for me, now I'll do this for you--is really not a natural and graceful way to think about how we interact with those we love most dearly in our lives.
To watch Claudia Mill's keynote speech, click here.