Are basic duties justified

Family ethics : The duties of love

A big table, the family is gathered. Petrified faces behind steaming bowls. But then a single word is uttered - and everyone bursts out laughing. How well they know each other! How joyful closeness can be. What holds the members of such a family together? And how can you still lead your own life well?

The family has always been a material for dramas, novels and films. It has also been discussed philosophically for around three decades. First in English-speaking countries, gradually also in this country. Two volumes with essays on family ethics published in the Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft series provide an exciting overview: “From Person to Person”, edited by Beate Rössler and Axel Honneth, and “Family Obligations”, in which Monika Betzler and Barbara Bleisch comment on the texts.

People want to lead their lives morally

A cool wind of analysis blows in both books. It is about moral norms, about the justification of mutual claims, about family rights and, yes, actually also about obligations. The frowned upon term even appears three times: as a parental duty of the parents towards their children, as a branch of the children towards their parents and as a fraternal one through which siblings are connected. If one takes the blanket talk of an aging society seriously, the clarification of branch duties should have priority: Life expectancy is increasing, and more and more older people have very old parents. Is it justified that they have special expectations and that their children have special responsibilities? Assuming that all people are equal, why doesn't universal morality also apply in the family?

Because not all, but only some people mean so much to us that they have a special value for our lives. In the sense of this logic, Samuel Scheffler, who teaches at New York University, justifies the extra morality. He sees people as social creatures with values. And because what they value most of all is their personal relationships, they also accept the duties that concern them as “participants in meaningful relationships”. They want to lead their lives morally.

Coercion and voluntariness

But it can't be that simple, otherwise the concept of duty would not be so unpopular. It does not fit in with the freedom of self-determination. Branch duties contradict autonomy, one of the most important values ​​of contemporary people. Scheffler also pleads for reconciliation with the fact that there are things that are decisive for one's own life - without them being chosen and wanted. No contract was signed, no promise made, no one asked, and yet everyone is family-related.

In philosophy it is the so-called voluntarists who wish that their own will should be the guiding principle for everything they do or not. The familial trapped party becomes a challenge for her, which Diane Jeske accepts. The self-confessed volunteer from Iowa makes it clear that branch duties only apply if they are voluntary. "Family relationships as such are involuntary," she writes, "but close, intimate relationships between family members are not, and it is these relationships that establish special obligations between family members." Obligations of love, familiarity, friendship, should that is, are acceptable. They are affirmed and wanted. But are they duties at all, without the sting of internal resistance?

When do duties end?

In any case, emotional motives can convincingly explain why people want to care for one another. Biology alone, Jeske is right, is not enough. Her example is drastic: If a daughter (as in Costa-Gavras ’film" Music Box ") learns of her father's war crimes that have been hidden for years, then she no longer owes him anything, he has abused her trust.

And yet - because it is not uncommon for two souls to beat one murderer's chest - the father may have touchingly cared for his child. Then the emotional closeness would have arisen, which could serve as a breeding ground for binding obligations. How difficult it is to draw a line to limit branch duties.

The positive determination is not easy either. To stay with the intact family: When the day comes when old parents can no longer cope on their own: What exactly should the children do for them? Simon Keller, who teaches in Wellington, New Zealand, criticizes three theories of filial duties: that of gratitude, debt, but also the friendship theory in order to develop his own, the so-called special goods theory.

Children know what needs their parents have

Again, familiarity plays a crucial role. It's not just parents who know their children. The children also know what interests, desires and needs their parents have. The branch duties are associated with this fund. This involves special goods that can neither be delegated nor bought. This means that the children can bake their favorite cake, for example, do not forget their birthday and take time to talk on the phone.

Keller's suggestion is well and good and a useful guide. But should the duties really be limited to looking after only the relationship with the frail parents and not their bodies as well? Claudia Mills initially surprises with a completely different view of the involuntary aspect of family ties: it is a fact that should be valued. Isn't it good to be relieved of having to choose and decide for yourself? As a member of a family, you simply belong together.

There is no recognition for care

Mills agrees with Keller that children are only required to keep in touch with their parents. But parents should also do their part to keep the relationship alive. And what if you are demented or otherwise unable to do so? Then the children are in principle relieved. They owe them "no services that can easily be provided by others, such as basic nursing and care or financial support".

An uneasiness grows when reading it. Apparently, not only in society, but also in these philosophical texts, there is no recognition of those who take care of the elderly, privately or professionally. A dark point that Ursula Wolf notices. The philosopher, who teaches in Mannheim, rejects the trend of "emotionalization and dematerialization"; she refers to a judgment of the Federal Court of Justice. According to this, children have to support their parents materially, provided that they have taken care of the toddler.

The children's obligation to return would be against the goals of the parents

Ursula Wolf admits, however, that the question of branch duties is one of the "most difficult and contentious" issues in family ethics. Not least because of a paradoxical circular structure: What can parents expect from their children if they were good parents? Nothing. Because then they just want their children to live as they were raised by them - autonomously and self-determined. A return obligation on the part of the children would draw a line on the parents' goals. Above all, children would then no longer have the “time and resources to take care of their own children intensively”. What answers will future generations find to the question of branch duties?

The suggestions of the philosophers stimulate thought. And your own inner voice becomes audible. Why shouldn't one follow her? It has no rights, debts or obligations that can be enforced by third parties. Also not a rule that requires baking cakes and forbids changing catheters. In the best case scenario, the use fits your own life, and therefore it feels right.

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