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Free From Duty or Filial Duty?

Filial responsibility involves special duties and actions expected from the children, to provide for their parents simply because they are their offspring. It is a topic of increasing practical relevance in today's time, yet far from being explored in detail. In most countries, the number of old people relative to the rest of the population has been increasing and is expected to increase significantly in the coming years, raising the question of who will and who should care for dependent elderly people and ensure that their needs are met. It also takes into consideration the nature of the filial obligation, of what is owed (eg. respect, gratitude, intimacy), what children are bound to provide (eg. keeping in touch, caregiving, financial and emotional support), and its extent (limited/unlimited, depending on ability, equal to what parents did for them) etc.

Filial responsibility laws require that children have to provide financial support to parents who cannot afford their bills. Although the extent of this responsibility can differ by state, the result is an increased burden for the children- financially, emotionally, in terms of time and energy. Nursing homes and other facilities for long-term care can use these laws as a method to seek reimbursement from adult children for unpaid bills.

A common response to population ageing and the attendant increase of expenditure on the elderly, by the Government, is to shift some of the burden of care-taking for (and financially supporting) the elderly to a third party. Many countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have increased the pension age.Concerning the care of the elderly, the general trend in Europe is to shift from institutional care to (formal or informal) home-care, and from transfers in kind to in-cash transfers.

The Maintenance And Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007 legally requires children and grandchildren (adults) to maintain the health and well-being of an ageing family member, where “maintenance” is defined as the provision for food, a residence, and medical treatment; and “senior citizen” as any person who is of age sixty or older.

Senior citizens are not particularly well looked after in India, so this is probably an attempt by the government to place responsibility on family members. This is interesting as it is contrary to the American approach which places more responsibility for elder care in the hands of the government, and not family. In some cultures, caring for ageing parents is viewed as the obligation of children, and that if an ageing parent is cared for poorly, it’s a disgrace and an embarrassment for the entire family. The Indian approach appears to set the latter through legal requirements, although perhaps it is more based on fiscal limits on the part of the government. For instance, India has no social security as opposed to America.

Different views

The filial obligation is a controversial and complicated notion that makes one question who counts as a “parent” and as “children” and whether or not a parent can lose their right to claim filial obligation by abuse or negligence. Various issues such as what exactly is included under filial obligation, the duties that children are obliged to perform, and why such obligations should be recognized in the first place are left in the gray, with little light thrown upon it.

Two moral arguments for Filial Responsibility which try to reason and justify their view from a moral perspective are The ‘Past Parental Sacrifices’ model and the ‘Special Relationship’ model. The former also known as the ‘traditional’ model simply states that since parents make sacrifices for their children to promote their health, education, and well-being, children are expected to return the same sacrifices when their parents are older and become dependent on others. It holds that children have duties of reciprocity or indebtedness and duties of gratitude. The ancient philosopher Aristotle argued that "nothing a son may have done [to repay his father] is a worthy return for everything the father has provided for him, and therefore he will always be in his debt" (Nichomachean Ethics, section 1163b).

To say that all their sacrifices count for nothing seems odd to many. On the other hand, objections raised against this model claim that parents choose to make these sacrifices and children get no say in this when they are born. Parental sacrifices are motivated by love and affection and do not ask for the favour to be returned. Hence it is not right for children to be expected to return such favours.

The ‘Special Relationship’ model as the name suggests refers to a special parent-child bond. It suggests that children have an obligation towards their parents as long as they share a special relationship. The intimate love that parents have for their children is very special which may create a right to be cared for by their children. Callahan (1985) emphasizes the biological relationship and proposes intimacy as a source of obligation. This view is problematic as the fact that a certain kind of relationship is a great good is not in itself enough to establish an obligation on the children. This model also leaves out ‘toxic’ parent-child relationships, which would imply that children are not obliged to filial duties.

The questions that are raised by filial obligations are essential not merely because family members can be confused or troubled about what they should do for one another, but also because social policies that target older people sometimes presuppose that their children, rather than the state, are bound to provide certain kinds of support. While providing moral justifications for the same, one must do in-depth study and research for the same before providing any justifications. There is not a lot of literature available and research is still lacking for such a crucial topic that is relevant in today's date. Various factors need to be taken into consideration before forming policies and laws. With little clarity about the nature and limits of filial obligation, both families and societies might rely on/expect the other to take the lead in supporting older people, with the consequence that their important needs go unmet.

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