(Moved to top for article discussion as a featured post – March 12, 2014)
The latest issue of Dao has been released. And in keeping with our new collaboration with the journal, one article has been set to free access:
Filial Obligations: A Comparative Study, by Cecilia Wee
Well, first, I have to thank Cecilia Wee for the very stimulating piece. I hope I have not misunderstood or misrepresented too much of it in the following remarks. I look forward to her comments and discussion by all.
In this comparative study, Cecilia Wee considers some contemporary analytic philosophical discussion of the nature of filial obligations – i.e. obligations that children have to their parents – and argues that Confucian ideas about such obligations are not captured very well by those analyses.
Wee on Western Analytic Philosophical Theorizing
Simon Keller’s (2006) piece, “Four Theories of Filial Duty,” frames Wee’s exposition, for the most part, of contemporary analytic thinking about the topic, though she also draws on a number of others. As Wee explains, there are, in one sort of approach, two types of account (my lettering):
Approach in Relation to other Obligations
A) filial obligations are analogous to other sorts of obligations
B) filial obligations are identical (in kind) to other sorts of obligations
I assume, not having looked carefully at those accounts myself, that part of the strategy of such analyses is to provide understanding of filial obligations through either some better understood category of obligation or (inclusive “or”) some broader, more general category of obligation under which they belong. Candidates for those other categories – which Wee calls RSOs (“relevant special obligations”) include (my numbering):
1) obligations of debt
2) obligations of gratitude
3) obligations of friendship
So, analytic philosophical accounts attempt analyses of filial obligation as either being analogous to or identical in kind with those three categories. As Wee points out, claims of identity (in kind) are stronger claims than those of an analogy – an analogous relationship would involve some kind of modeling, though only through appropriately relevant similarities. Hence, if there are significant reasons to doubt even the weaker claim of analogy to a type of obligation, then that would undermine any stronger claim of identity.
A different approach altogether is one that is not based on relation to other obligations:
C) filial obligations are in their own (independent) category of obligation
That is to say, filial obligations should be categorized in their own type of “special obligation” different from 1-3.
As Wee details, Keller and/or others argue that filial obligations are significantly disanalogous to obligations of debt, gratitude, and friendship. I find those arguments fairly convincing, except with the case of obligations of friendship. We can discuss the exact points of disanalogy that are raised with respect to any of these obligation types if anyone wishes, but I’ll skip here to what I don’t find convincing about Keller’s argument. I’m not sure whether Wee agrees with Keller on this point, so I hope she will say something about it. As Wee reports, Keller thinks the serious point of disanalogy with obligations of friendship is this (Wee 89):
…when friendships end, the nature of the obligations to one’s former friend would change quite drastically. However, this is not true of one’s obligations to one’s parents Keller notes [and here, Wee quotes Keller]:
There are some perfectly legitimate explanations of why you do not have certain duties to your friends which are not respectable when applied to filial duties. You cannot explain your failure to look after your parents by saying “Look, they’re great people…but over the years we’ve taken different paths. I went my way, they went theirs; it seemed the relationship wasn’t taking us where we wanted to go…” You are stuck with your filial duties, in a way that you are not stuck with your duties of friendship. (Keller 2006: 264)
Keller’s argument seems to be appealing to intuitions about filial duties. If so, I can imagine that there is some significant divergence from the one on which he relies, especially in the Western world. The explanation that he dismisses seems like one that lies behind much of cultural practice outside of, say, Confucian societies. In any case, I’m not sure common-intuition based arguments are convincing without some empirical evidence.
Keller’s alternative theory is a form of C above, with the relevant category formed by the obligations arising from “special goods” that are only obtainable through the parent-child relationship. Because some goods are only providable by a parent to a child or a child to a parent, special duties are engendered by that relationship. I have to agree with Wee that Keller’s examples – which seem to do all the argumentative work – are not very convincing (e.g. keeping in touch regularly, ensuring needed care, providing advice based on close knowledge of the other, etc). As Wee points out: “…the examples provided by Keller above, all of which emerge from a long and caring intimacy, may not show sufficient disanalogy with lifelong friendships….” (Wee 89)
Wee on Confucian Filial Obligations
As Wee construes Confucian filial obligations (CFOs), they also differ in significant ways from obligations of debt, gratitude, or friendship but for somewhat different reasons than the filial obligations of a more Western sort that Keller has in mind. Wee takes CFOs to be more formally specified to a significant degree, for example, than obligations of debt (Wee 90-91), taking the cue from texts like the Analects and Mencius and regarding CFOs to be highly ritually circumscribed. More strongly, Wee points out, CFOs require the honoring of obligations to be expressive of certain attitudes and feelings in ways that obligations of debt do not (92). Again, in comparison to obligations of gratitude as well, CFOs differ in requiring expression through specified rites according to Wee. Finally, CFOs differ from obligations of friendship primarily because, unlike those, the appropriate attitudes required in childrens’ honoring of CFOs to parents are reverence and deep filial respect.
Wee seems to favor an account of CFOs that involves special goods as Keller does with analytically understood filial obligations. However, her argument for that (on pp. 94-95), seems to be less about special goods that are only obtainable in a child-parent relationship and more about the “overdetermination” of CFOs by being rooted both in mutuality (as in friendship) and reciprocity (as in gratitude). She cites P. J. Ivanhoe as providing the argument that CFOs may be rooted in both of those rather than one or the other.
But suppose we grant Ivanhoe and Wee that CFOs are overdetermined in that way, through the following “very distinctive elements that make up” the child-parent relation:
- “mutuality” – not between friends as equals, but shaded by guidance and admonition from parents, and respect and reverence in children
- “boundless gratitude” – borne of both the gift of life and parental care
Wee thinks this allows us to conclude that “Given the very distinctive elements that make up this relation, there is nothing else that it is like” (Wee 95). It isn’t clear to me, however, that this is the right conclusion. It seems more sensible to conclude, given the ways in which CFOs are, by hypothesis, overdeterminedly rooted both in mutuality – as in friendship – and in reciprocity – as in gratitude – that CFOs can be analyzed either as significantly analogous to friendship or to gratitude, while allowing the caveat that the mutuality involved is slightly different from that of friendship (in the case of gratitude, there doesn’t seem to be any difference from other cases of gratitude). That would leave the specificity of ritual form and the appropriateness of accompanying attitudes as the remaining marks of difference between CFOs and obligations of gratitude or friendship. They may make for a difference – but do they make for significant differences? Here I’m not sure any more what we’re after in the exercise and I’ll finish my comments with following questions:
Q1) If we analyze CFOs by modeling them on either obligations of friendship or of gratitude, while providing adequate caveats about the special expression-forms and feelings of friendship or gratitude that seem to characterize the child-parent relation, haven’t we done enough to understand CFOs adequately?
Q2) What is gained by claiming instead that CFOs should be regarded as belonging properly in their own category of obligation if in citing their “overdetermination” as obligations, we make references to obligations of friendship and gratitude that help to explicate their status as obligations?
(I have not included discussion of Wee’s points about CFOs being “role-obligations” (in pp. 95-96). Of course, if they are relevant to trying to answer my questions at the end, or if anyone is interested in discussing those, that would be great.)