Family matters

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Philosophers love to enlighten and debate, and coffee’s as good a reason as any to get the conversation going.

At the start of Friday (Oct. 4) afternoon’s philosophy coffee, Department Chair Steve Vogel mentioned that he’d just received an email from Jonathan Maskit, visiting assistant professor of philosophy. Maskit wrote that he had been looking forward to attending the meeting — which would focus on the obligations of parents to their children, and vice versa — and expressed his belief that parents and children don’t owe each other anything. He then when on to say he couldn’t attend because he had to stay home to care for his flu-stricken son.

The department’s philosophy coffees allow faculty and students to engage in discussion about complex issues and questions, like “Is income inequality a moral dilemma?” and “What is the self?” Big topics to be sure, but last Friday’s conversation was particularly interesting, since it was Big Red Weekend, and many students were theorizing about the obligations of parents to their children — with their the parents sitting right next to them.

“Children do owe their parents pretty much everything, because they raised them,” argued one student. Ron Santoni, professor emeritus of philosophy, had this to say, “From an existential point of view, children didn’t choose to be born … Often, parents talk about loving their children unconditionally. If we’re serious — and I think most of us are — then it’s all on us.” Christina Hambleton, a sophomore from Bellville, Ohio, suggested that, in a way, being kind to one’s parents is symbolic — that if you can’t treat the people closest to you with love and respect, how can you live an ethical life in other areas?

Parents and professors tended to focus on parents’ obligations to their children, while students talked more about what they might owe Mom and Dad. Antrim Ross, a sophomore from Charles Town, W.Va., brought up the importance of defining even seemingly straightforward terms like “parent” and “child.” Certainly, she agreed, we have obligations to people who are deeply emotionally invested in us — but that’s true of friends, mentors, and many other people in our lives.

If we seem to have a special sense of obligation to our parents, perhaps that’s not necessarily because the relationship belongs to a unique category, but because of its duration and intensity. In many cases, Ross pointed out, children are raised by people who are not their biological parents; is there any particular reason for biological parents and children who’ve had little or no contact to feel that they owe each other anything?

At 5 o’clock, it was time to wrap up, and although participants had tossed around many interesting ideas, there wasn’t much of a consensus. “It’s our tradition to end with a question,” explained Vogel. “Of course, usually, it’s the same question we began with.”

And as students stood up to embrace parents who’d trickled in during the talk, no one seemed to mind.

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8:10 PM October 16, 2013

tIM rOSS wrote:

I am Antrim Ross’ father and I approve her message. I have always been of the opinion though that Antrim chose to be born and I was lucky to be able to assist. I am not sure that anyone owes anyone anything, but I do know that the more you pay, the more it’s worth.

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