Fililal Piety Law

Interesting New York Times piece about the new law in China that requires filial piety.  Here’s a snippet:

The government enacted a law on Monday aimed at compelling adult children to visit their aging parents. The law, called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” has nine clauses that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly.”

Children should go home “often” to visit their parents, the law said, and occasionally send them greetings. Companies and work units should give employees enough time off so they can make parental visits.

The law was passed in December by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress. It does not stipulate any punishments for people who neglect their parents. Nevertheless, that officials felt the need to make filial duty a legal matter is a reflection of the monumental changes taking place throughout Chinese society.

8 replies on “Fililal Piety Law”

  1. Manyul, thanks for this post. I am curious to know what is new in this legislation. In 2000, the NYTimes reported that Chinese law requires adult children to “perform the duties of financial support and emotional comfort of old people.” It highlighted the case of a woman who successfully sued her sons to take better care of her. And it talked about judges lecturing defendants to visit their parents more often.

    There’s a parallel history of interest in Singapore, which enacted “Maintenance of Parents” legislation in the late 1990s, amended in 2010. There was strong opposition initially, and one of the objections (as readers of this blog would expect) was that filial piety cannot be legislated.

    Exploring the details of both cases provides occasion for realizing that the relation between law and morality is more complicated than one might believe at first.

  2. Ken – interesting; I wonder what happened with the 2000 law. As the current article points out, this new law could serve to enable employees to ask for travel time in order to go visit their parents. Legislating filial piety (or any moral virtue) provides a host of legal connections that help to promote the child-parent relationship, much like legislating marriage does for spousal relationships, I suppose: “You can’t legislate pair-bonding” — well, you can, and it’s ensconced in legal practice that involves benefits, access, and property.

  3. Manyul, I agree with your point that laws can do much to support personal bonds.

    One might object to the comparison with marriage laws. Marriage laws can be seen as – approximately – merely giving individuals facilities for binding themselves should they choose to do so. (Only approximately, because such laws are written to apply to married people in general, not just to those who marry thenceforth. And I suppose someone could argue that empowering people to marry is like empowering people to sell their body parts.)

    But if the underlying worry about the filiality law is that e.g. visits lose their meaning if they’re compelled, there’s the reply that (a) the parent-child relation isn’t optional in the first place, and (b) if lack of spontaneity hurt relationships, the last thing a couple in love should want to do is trade vows.

    I find the BBC article (linked in the CDT article) most informative. The new law is vague, toothless, and noisily despised by many.

    Those who argue that it’s not impractical stress that it is mainly an “educational” device.

    I’m almost inclined to object that the sort of person who disrespects her parents is hardly likely to go to the absurd extreme of looking to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for moral guidance. But on the other hand, almost any enforced rule carries some moral suasion, and probably many people who grossly disrespect their parents are mindless enough to be susceptible to such influence.

    But a larger effect of the law might be to obscure the ideal of Law and to teach disrespect for putative laws.

    * * *

    I wonder how far the law was a response to a genuine need, and how far it should be seen as a hand-waving response to a few shocking cases. In a country the size of China, how could there not be a few shocking cases? It’s hard to support parents who are far away, but I wonder whether the bigger problem for China is still people’s sense of dependence on their own children, so that security depends on having several.

    • Yes, Bill; maybe the right analogy is to laws that govern the care of (and claims over) children by parents, which seems like a near universal category across legislated communities.

      There’s an asymmetry, of course, in that there’s some expectation – particularly in modern western societies – that the parents try to plan and prepare for their old age. But I don’t think it makes for a lot of difference. My wife and her siblings are currently involved in trying to care for their parents. Even with financially sound status, their care still requires managing by people who are personally concerned and who keep track of their needs at a fairly constant rate. Institutions are paid to care but don’t have as much at stake in prolonging the lives of their clients. As children, we like to hold on as long as possible…

      Population issues, especially the effects of the one-child law, must have some special effect on China’s situation, I would guess.

  4. Good points, Manyul.

    Laws requiring parents to care for children are rightly largely uncontroversial. To your comparison, someone might object: “But those laws are mainly to get the children fed and clothed, and to protect them from active abuse: not to support relationships.” And as you point out, one reply is that filiality laws may be needed for similar reasons. (There might be a problem assigning someone to the day-to-day concern of people who aren’t genuinely concerned and who are burdened by the project; and I would think that institutions would be primarily or exclusively concerned about lifespan, and that burdened offspring might have the opposite bias, unless laws attempt to check them by objective standards, as laws check institutions; but still I suspect you get the broad picture right.)

    Further, someone might pile on in an effort to defend you, “Isn’t the main point of pair-bonding itself to make sure everybody is being taken care of?” That person probably goes too far – encouraged perhaps by the term ‘pair-bonding’.

    Of the various uses of a child’s care&respect for parents, beyond getting them fed and the like, one use that’s stressed in the Confucian tradition – though not of course by Confucius himself – is the idea that filiality is the root of general virtue: the root of care&respect for people in general and for organized society.

    Near the end of the discussion Steve has brought to our attention,
    a student in the audience poses a question to Daniel Bell:

    “Nowadays there’s a very severe issue here [in China]. That’s the degeneration of morality. We cannot deny it. Although I am a Chinese girl, I still want us to confront this question. I think it’s very serious in our today’s society. So, as a son-in-law of China, what do you think the real problem is, and what can we do as a Chinese people, and what can our government do to stop this problem?”

    Bell’s reply:

    “I think once the government provides more of a social safety net, and once there’s less of a kind of idea that to make it you have to have this ultra-competitive relationship to other people, then I think it’ll be easier to extend family love and empathy to non-family members.”

    This reply expresses a Mencian view of filiality, and recalls the Mencian point that virtue needs material security. Thus a law requiring people to support their parents might help today’s 40-somethings and 50-somethings feel more secure and thus be better daughters and sons all around.

    But while the law would remove a general obstacle to virtue, there’s still the question whether it would also interfere with a positive root of virtue. The broader question raised, which has presumably been addressed by Confucian thinkers, is: what is the mechanism by which filiality roots general virtue, so what kind of filiality would do the best job?

    I have got the impression that Mengzi had not quite worked out a view about how one’s filiality supports one’s broader virtue: the mechanism by which that works. (And I know where to look to bone up on the controversies about that.) What I’m specially curious about is this: what views on that were developed by Confucians after Mengzi? What’s the mechanism by which filiality is the special root of broad virtue, according to whatever Confucian after Mengzi may have addressed the point?

    I’ve asked this question before and got no answer.

    For everyone who doesn’t answer, I have a follow-up: If the Confucians didn’t work on this question, why didn’t they?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.