THE BLOG

Visiting the Folks

With some exceptions, our parents tend to be the most loving, supportive and influential people in our lives and we depend on them for resources, both physical and emotional. When we are young this dependence is readily apparent -- we need them to put roofs over our heads, shoes on our feet and food in our stomachs. However, as we age, become teenagers, move out, get married, and have kids of our own, we begin to rely on them less and less, at least in tangible ways. As this perceived dependence wanes our interest in visiting them may also diminish. We'd rather go spend the weekend with a (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend on a rigorous investigation of Michigan's Precambrian rock formations, or on a fraternity-sponsored spring break trip to Acapulco that promises the necessary amounts of both skin cancer and music at a volume that induces uncontrollable hemorrhaging from the ears. Either way, as we age our parents tend to get left by the wayside -- relegated to the obligatory holiday visit, and even those become shorter and shorter.

The Chinese have found a way to fix the problem. Recently the National People's Congress enacted a law on the "Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People." In brief, this law requires children to regularly visit their parents, and employers to allow their employees ample time off from work to do so.

Such an idea seems like a good one -- at least in principle. Barring exigent circumstances, we have an obligation to our parents for all that they have done and sacrificed for us. It makes sense to repay such a debt, especially at a time in their lives (old-er age) when they may value our company more than ever.

Moreover, there may well be a cost-benefit analysis behind the Chinese statute. Though it's hard to know what the National People's Congress thinks, arguably, one reason it has taken this position is to reduce the cost of geriatric care -- health and other social costs. If children visit their parents regularly, presumably they may shoulder some of their parents' care, anticipate their parents' needs, perhaps decrease their parents' loneliness and stress, and thereby ultimately reduce the cost of an aging population to the state. Or, at least this is more likely to be true as parents' reach the last decade or two of their lives.

One might wonder if this is the right way to go about it. While most of us certainly have an ethical obligation to visit and look after our parents in their old age, is this a relationship that needs to be policed by the state? Put another way, should the state look to reduce its own costs by dictating family relationships and interactions? The answer -- at least according to the Chinese government (if not according to all Chinese citizens) -- seems to be, unequivocally, yes. It is worth mentioning that the Chinese government has a history of inserting itself into the family dynamic. After all this is -- at least ostensibly -- the same government that enacted the one-child policy in 1979.

Now, for the moment, this debate has been relegated to the hypothetical because, regardless of one's views on visiting the paterfamilias, there is an issue of enforcement. How will anyone -- especially in a country as vast both in terms of geography and population as China -- be able to keep tabs on who is visiting their parents, and who has been shirking their duties? Such a law has the potential to become a bureaucratic nightmare of epic proportions (one is reminded of Kafka's The Castle). The law does not currently outline any explicit penalties for those who shirk their duties, and it seems that such legislation must inevitably be more of a guideline, and perhaps a legal recourse against employers who won't give them enough time off to see parents.

It's worth noting that China isn't the only country that is currently wrestling with the appropriate role of government in the family. The United States has been tussling with much the same underlying matter in the form of both marriage equality for LGBT couples and abortion rights for women. No one would equate the right of a woman to control her body, or two people who love each other to get hitched with an obligation to visit the folks. Nonetheless both cases deal with questions of government intervention and paternalism within the realm of what could conceivably be labeled private relationships within a family.

Going beyond legal obligations, is there a corresponding ethical obligation to visit the folks? Probably not. Kant says in The Metaphysics of Morals, "after the process of education is complete, they [the parents] can only appeal to the children, by way of any claim, on the ground of the obligation of gratitude as a duty of virtue." Kant points out that parents don't have any ability to mandate visits from their offspring, and if the parents themselves can't ethically demand visitation rights, what moral ground could the state possibly stand on? If any moral obligation to visit is based on much weaker claims, it seems silly to enforce this through government legislation.

Where and how one defines the line between moral and legal imperatives and when the former should be enforced via the latter is an interesting, albeit incredibly complicated, question. Large books by smart men (Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Mill's On Liberty, Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty) have been written about this very issue and still the water is rather murky. It is perhaps best to stick with the present, if obvious, solution. Visit your parents as often as possible. As Aristotle said, "when children render to parents what they ought to render to those who brought them into the world, and parents render what they should to their children, the friendship of such persons will be abiding and excellent." (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Sect. 7), and that sounds about right.