Friday, 26 October 2012

Filial Ingratitude

I've recently started to work on a book on (the virtue of) gratitude. One of the questions I intend to address is whether gratitude can actually be owed to someone, and if so, in what kind of situation exactly.

Take for instance the gratitude that a parent expects from their children. Filial ingratitude is one of the great topics of literature. Think of Shakespeare's King Lear, who gives his kingdom and all his power to his two daughters who swear they love him more than anything else in the world. But, predictably, as soon as they have got what they wanted, the erstwhile king becomes a bothersome old fool to them, neglected, abused, and despised. Lear, of course, bitterly complains about their "monstrous" ingratitude, which is seen as almost as bad as patricide, which in turn is seen as very bad indeed. Shakespeare suggests that what makes Regan and Goneril's ingratitude so abominable is not the fact that they are not properly grateful to Lear in his role as a benefactor (who has given them power and riches), but rather that they are not properly grateful to him as their father. Similarly, in Balzac's Pere Goriot, the title character is a once wealthy man who has literally given his last penny to his rich and spoilt daughters, who then cannot be bothered to visit him when he is dying and has only one wish, to see them one last time. He is buried like a pauper, his daughters nowhere to be seen. So this seems to be another clear case of filial ingratitude. But then again, it is the great sacrifices that Goriot makes for his daughters that prompt the reader to think of their ingratitude as monstrous. Would they appear any less monstrous if Goriot had not been their father? Perhaps, but why exactly? Is there a gratitude that they owe to their father for the simple reason that he is their father?

So the question is, do we owe our parents gratitude because we owe our existence to them? After all, we wouldn't be if not for them. However, even if we value our being alive, we didn't exactly ask anyone to give us life, and it is not clear that our parents have actually benefited us by bringing us into existence. You can benefit someone who exists, but not someone who doesn't exist. But if my existence as such is not something that I owe my parents gratitude for, perhaps I owe them gratitude for feeding me, providing a roof over my head, and not letting me die when I was too little to fend for myself. However, it may be argued that by bringing us into existence they have incurred a moral obligation to look after us until we no longer need them. It is they who owe us, rather than we who owe them (just as we owe our children, rather than they us). It all depends whether we think that children have a right to be fed and taken care off and even (as some philosophers have argued) to be loved. If there is such a right, then they don't owe gratitude to those who do nothing more than what is their moral duty.

So again, is there such a thing as filial ingratitude?

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