Family Ties

Watching American politics today is more fun than a barrel full of monkeys, but enough already. (Or, if you haven’t had enough, I think you’ll enjoy this.)

I’ve been thinking about family ties. It seems as if people do have special obligations to family members. You could reject that entirely, in good utilitarian fashion, but suppose it’s true. It strikes me that there are a couple of ways to think about those obligations.

The obligation of a parent to a child seems particularly clear and understandable. You brought the kid into the world, so the kid is more your responsibility than someone else’s. It’s a parent’s job, more than a neighbor’s job or a stranger’s job, to feed, clothe, educate, etc. the child, and generally to put the child on course to live a good life.

(Note—it strikes me that we have an extra layer of obligation to our offspring, beyond the basic obligations we have to everyone else. I’m not saying we’re entitled to indifference to everyone else.)

If you think about the obligations of parents to children this way, then it turns out that children’s obligations to their parents must have a different basis entirely. It seems to be a matter of reciprocation. “You did all that work to bring me up, so now I owe you something you in return.” Not that we think that way all the time. Parents and children spontaneously like and care for each other, but there’s obligation too, sort of like an extra layer of glue.

So far, pretty good. But if I’ve got the duties between parents and children right, they don’t extend to cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. All are more or less like old friends, people you share an especially long history with (which makes a difference, but not the same diference.) If that’s too counterintuitive to bear, there’s another way to think about family ties. You could think that sheer kinship generates extra obligations to family, though the closer the kinship the stronger the obligation. On that way of thinking, there are obligations to siblings, cousins, etc., though weaker obligations the more distant the relationship.

It seems dangerous and pernicious to accept sheer kinship as a source of obligation. If it really is a source, then it’s a basis for obligation across the board, and it’s OK for members of the same race to give each other higher priority. Sharing genes just doesn’t seem to have any moral import that you can put your finger on. But it makes good sense to think creating a person engenders special responsibilities, and that we ought to reciprocate to our parents, if they have met them. This is not essentially a matter of genes.

I’m thinking about these things because I’m trying to write some essays about parenthood, but also because they’re relevant to animal issues. Some say we have special obligations to members of our own species like a mother has special obligations to her children. But if parental duties aren’t based on sheer biological relatedness, then that point falls through. My kids are my responsibility because I created them. I no more created all the human beings around me than I created the cats and dogs. So I have no special duties to other humans, as opposed to animals, on a par with my duties to my children.

So what do you think? Do all family ties create special obligations, based on sheer kinship, or is the tie between parent and child a unique one?

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