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?


The Duties of Parents

Amid all the clamor for and against Sarah Palin, a few doubts have been expressed, sotto voce, about her as a mother. Her five children are supposed to be a plus, but what’s she doing trying to run Alaska and campaign for national office when she has a new infant with Down syndrome and four other kids, including a 6-year-old, a 14-year-old, a pregnant 17-year-old, and a son on his way to Iraq? The McCain-Palin crowd are quick to assert that such a question would never be asked about a male candidate. But is that so obvious?

Before I reveal the dark depths of my judgmental soul, a few general points. I think we do have special duties to our children. I think of it this way—there are bits of the world to which people have special connections of various kinds. The connections make some bits of the world more “my responsibility” than others. The connection in this case, of course, is that parents create their kids. That generates special duties.

Before I get around to examples, I also want to stress that parents needn’t sacrifice themselves to their children. My life counts no less than my two children’s. Furthermore, it’s absurd to “go nuclear” and think of oneself as living inside a family bubble. Yes, I have special responsibilities to my kids, but there are another seven billion people out there who aren’t less worthy, objectively speaking. Finally, when I doubt someone as a parent, that’s just one judgment among many, not necessarily the final verdict “all things considered.”

All that being said, I do find it odd that Sarah Palin wants to turn over such a huge chunk of her time to politics, leaving (presumably) so little time for her newborn and the rest of her kids. But I don’t reserve my skepticism for mothers. Before Sarah Palin burst onto the national stage, I had thought the same thing about Barack Obama. His little daughters cannot have seen a whole lot of their father in the last two years, and if he wins the presidency, they’ll see even less of him.

So yes, I do make these kinds of judgments about fathers as much as mothers. It’s not just political parents who have duties to their kids, of course. An avid reader of books about mountaineering, I wonder about all the parents who venture up Everest, knowing they have a pretty high chance of not coming back down (something like 10%, I think). Rob Hall was one of the climbers who lost his life in the ill-fated climb Jon Krakauer recounts in his book Into Thin Air. He went up the mountain with a wife very pregnant, creating a considerable risk of having fathered a fatherless child. Closer to home, I wonder about academics who drag their children from city to city as they climb the ladder a few rungs at a time to greater prestige and success. I’m not at all convinced they’re doing the right thing by their children.

Would it be dreadful if I worried just a tad more about ambitious mothers? It seems unfair, but maybe it’s simply realistic. If Barack Obama is a semi-absent father, it’s pretty safe to assume his wife makes up for it. That’s what women do. Even in two-career families, 85% of mothers take primary responsibility for children. Is it equally safe to think Sarah Palin’s kids will have a devoted father who fills in for her? It’s possible, but no, it’s not as safe an assumption.

I don’t think doubts about Sarah Palin as a mother are unfair, outrageous, or sexist. Do they loom large though? Should they determine your vote? These things fall very low on my list of criteria by which the candidates ought to be judged. The parenting issue, then, is very small potatoes. Still, not quite nothing. Apparently The New York Times agrees. There’s an article about Sarah Palin as a mother on the front page today. A strong, gutsy, unconventional woman, if you believe the article, but if it’s proper to look into her role as a mother, we can’t be required to think exclusively positive thoughts.