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Do parents really have a moral obligation to their children?

Why, exactly, should you die for your child?
Credit: Omri
Key Takeaways
  • Most of the laws we have about parent-child relationships are underscored by an assumed “natural” order of things. 
  • Still, it’s difficult to philosophically ground such a duty. Children cannot be rational signatories to a duty-bound contract.
  • Perhaps we should start to see parenting and parental duties as a social and legal fact, rather than a moral principle. When we do so, however, it raises confusing new questions.

When we read stories about a parent abusing or neglecting their children, it can evoke a peculiarly primal hatred in us. After all, parents are supposed to love and support their children. No matter how hard life gets, parents should strive to be a dependable source of care. When they break that duty of care, we perceive a deep moral violation.

If a country introduces laws about a parent’s responsibilities to their children, they are often underscored by reference to some preexisting moral obligation. It is as if the parental laws we recognize are meant to reflect a “natural order”. It’s thought that parents must care, and sacrifice themselves, for the welfare of their children.

But no philosopher should accept things on assumptions alone. On what grounds do parents have a moral obligation to their children?

A duty of care

The problem when discussing a parent-child “duty of care” is that it doesn’t sit easily in our usual understanding of “duties”. Most of the theories concerning our legal and political duties have developed from Thomas Hobbes and David Hume’s “contractarian model”. This essentially argues that duties exist when two parties come together to agree to some course of action (entirely from self-interest) to produce a safer, happier, and better environment in which both parties can live. In short, you have a duty to someone you contract yourself to (and vice versa). You have to consent and agree to become bound by duty (explicitly or tacitly).

Obviously, children can’t understand or engage in such a rational contract. Young children don’t even know that a fire is dangerous, let alone what amounts to “self-interest”. No court would accept the line “my 8-year old didn’t tidy his room, so I stopped feeding him – as per our contract”. Even more confusingly, parenthood implies a duty even before one of the signatories is even born!

An alternative account of duty might focus on “dependency”. This holds that you are obligated to beings that are dependent upon you. A child is obviously dependent on their parent(s), so there exists a duty. But this risks letting societal and legal norms obscure the underlying moral principle we’re trying to find. Dependency is not a defined or absolute concept when it comes to childrearing.

For instance, many societies today see the child as the responsibility of the entire family, or even the entire village. And so, in these cases children are not uniquely, or even principally, dependent upon a parent. Or, imagine if the U.S. passed a law saying “a new-born is the legal responsibility of the richest uncle/aunt”. Suddenly, dependency has nothing to do with the biological parent. So, we see that the concept of dependency is not necessarily attached to “parenthood”.

The natural way of things

You might find all of this distasteful so far. To doubt and challenge the idea that a parent is morally obliged to their child is repulsive. The parent-child duty of care is a sacred, inviolable, and unquestionable fact — it’s “natural” to care for your children. But here, too, we meet problems.

If it were “natural”, we’d expect a much greater level of universality than there ever has been. As the historian John Boswell put it, from the Romans to the Renaissance, “children were abandoned throughout Europe…in great numbers, by parents of every social standing, in a great variety of circumstances.” Children might be sold into slavery or “donated” to monasteries, and it seems there were few laws against the practice. The moral duty or otherwise we place on a parent-child relationship is largely cultural, not biological.

(While too much for now, the philosopher G. E. Moore also mortally wounded the idea that “natural” can ever equal “moral”, anyways).

Even “contractarian” philosophers are known to revert to a variation of the “natural duty” defense. John Rawls, for example, believed that all adult, rational contractors are be motivated by “goodwill” toward the next two generations. He wrote that it’s “assumed…that a generation cares for its immediate descendants, as fathers, say, care for their sons”.

But assumptions and “goodwill” do not get us closer to answering our question.

The duty to die for a child

Perhaps a more fruitful defense of the issue might come from an Aristotelian understanding of human flourishing. We might conclude that looking after children, and helping them grow into happy, well-rounded human beings, is a basic human good. For those who have children, raising and caring for them is necessary to a fulfilled life. The duty then does not exist between a parent and the child, but the parent and his/herself. The child only serves as an instrumental tool for reaching private flourishing.

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An interesting question for this position, and any parent-child duty of care, is “should a parent die for their child?” Let us present the question as a “life for a life” dilemma — for instance, where a parent donates a life-saving organ to their child even though doing so kills the parent.

It’s hard to see how the Aristotelian model of “private flourishing” can justify self-sacrifice. After all, if you’re dead, there’s no life left to flourish. What’s more, few (if any) parents have only the one duty. Most cases of self-sacrifice would prevent that person from a “duty” to other children, or any other human, as well.

Beyond moral principles

As we have seen, it’s difficult to identify exactly why parents have an obligation to their children. Yet, it remains the case that many of us believe such an obligation exists. Many parents will unthinkingly, instinctively, put themselves in life-threatening danger to help or save their children. They do not moralize or justify the fact. However, “what others do or think” is hardly (and rarely) good grounds to guide your own behavior.

Perhaps, then, we should conclude that the parent-child duty is not something born of moral obligation. It might be beyond philosophy altogether and exist only in our social and legal norms. We could even say a parent’s duty owes itself to a contract with the state, tacitly agreed to before the birth of the child. If this is the case, then it opens up further interesting (and confusing) issues.

For instance, if a parent acknowledges their child would be better raised by the state, or an alternative set of parents, are they obligated to give that child up? Or, if a parent’s duty to their child is almost entirely defined by the laws of the land, ought those laws be more prescriptive and invasive about how we parent?

It seems that parenting is not only difficult to do, it’s difficult to philosophize about, as well.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy. His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.