What Do We Owe Parents in Old Age?

A reader asks: Do we have a responsibility to help our parents out as they age because they raised us and helped us become adults? I know you don’t subscribe to an ethical system of self-sacrifice, and wonder where you stand on this.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

What you owe your parents in old age depends upon the kind of parents they were.

If your parents neglected or outright abandoned you, then you owe them nothing more than they gave you.

If they provided for you physically and kept you alive, then you certainly owe them that much in return.

Nobody is responsible for the aging process; that’s part of life and nobody who lives long enough can avoid it.

At the same time, if your parent suffers from health problems of his or her own making, you’re not ethically obliged to help with the consequences of those problems. That’s really up to you, but you ought to feel no burden for cleaning up a mess you did not create.

For example, if your parent suffers from the consequences of neglect for his or her health, why should you pay for those consequences now? Of course, in our present society the government accepts responsibility for the medical care of the aged, via Medicare. In practice, this means everyone is responsible for everyone else’s health care. If your parent abused alcohol for thirty years and now has liver disease for it, you’re paying for it through taxes (assuming you work); but you’re also paying (through taxes) for everyone else’s medical care. People call this arrangement ‘moral,’ but it’s actually incredibly unjust. Nevertheless, it’s what we contend with, and as a result the moral issues involved with the aged are, at times, more complex or illogical than they otherwise would be, in a truly free society based on rational principles of justice.

Even so, you ought not go out of your way to assist your parent with problems that were preventable and avoidable, and involved direct evasions of knowledge on your parent’s part. At the same time, with natural aging or illnesses which one could not have knowingly prevented, you ought to help your parents in the same way they helped you.

Some parents take care of their helpless children physically, but neglect them emotionally and psychologically. For example, they give you food and shelter, but little else. They treat you like dirt, perhaps for complex psychological reasons of their own (most likely self-loathing). Or they treat you like an unwanted burden. You certainly ought not feel guilty for refusing to give such a parent moral or emotional support when that parent ages. The standard is simply do for the parent what he or she did for you; that’s all you’re obliged to do.

Sometimes parents blatantly neglect or abuse their children, physically as well as psychologically. Years down the line, when the children grow up, the parents are not remorseful and, in fact, act as if they never did anything wrong. Grown children of such parents sometimes feel a conflict. On the one hand, obvious facts tell them the truth. On the other hand, conventional morality will tell them, ‘You must forgive. You must do for them what they never did for you.’

This is absolutely wrong.

First of all, you never asked to be born. For a parent to take you into life and then willfully evade responsibility for your well-being, or perhaps even assault your well-being via physical/sexual abuse, is unforgivable. You ought to move on and live the best life you possibly can—and you certainly can—but a worthwhile life does not require your forgiveness of the unforgivable. Just call their behavior what it was, and treat it accordingly.

I recognize that most people are not literally neglected or outright abused by their parents. But for people in such a position, it’s very important not to feed them the ridiculous clich about forgiveness or caring for your parents regardless of what they did to you. ‘Honor thy father and mother,’ if they never honored their responsibility for you, when you were most vulnerable? To spout such trash is to make a mockery of ethics as a concept.

At the same time, some people are unduly hard on their parents. Their parents not only didn’t abuse or neglect them; the evidence supports the fact that they honestly did the best they could with what they knew, and with what they had. Some grown children resent that their lives have not gone better to date, and they exaggerate (or even invent) the degree of responsibility their parents possess for their current status in life. Just as it’s unfair to treat neglectful parents as reasonable, it’s likewise unfair to treat decent (albeit imperfect) parents as if they were cruel or neglectful.

The reader is correct that I reject any concept of unchosen duty. That’s why I’m not a socialist, and why I do not subscribe to the alleged glory of self-sacrificial martyrdom. We do not choose to be born, and it’s our parents’ responsibility to do the best they honestly can in our early years. At the same time, if they did so and if you value being alive today, any reasonable standard would dictate that you do for your parents the same they did for you—i.e., the best you can when they’re vulnerable and no longer physically able to do everything for themselves.

Psychologically, if you love your parent(s) for rational reasons, and your parents have earned your love and respect, then you wish to help them out. In fact, this would be the case with anyone—a spouse, a dear friend, a relative who’s like a parent—whom you value.

At the end of the day, justice refers to giving people what they deserve: No more, and no less. With our parents, no more or less than anyone or anything else, reason and facts must decide the issue.


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