2 min read

What do we owe our parents?

Nothing, says philosopher Jane English
What do we owe our parents?

For the longest time, I have wanted to gift my mom a car. A cute bright-red Honda Brio.

It's not about luxury or convenience. It's about freedom, because I think that's what freedom looks like for a middle-class, middle-aged woman in a small town. It's the ability to get out of the house to sit at a cafe with a book or take a carefree stroll in the market. Alternatives exist, but none are painless enough to feel like real freedom.

I often dream of the day I will be able to give her this gift. Right now, I cannot afford the expense. That is the result of choices I've made, at every juncture choosing passion over a lucrative salary. As long as I keep making similar choices, these are sacrifices I must make peace with.

Going home for Diwali means confronting these sacrifices head on. I can see all around me things that I could do for my parents if I only earned more. I could ease some stress, give them more comfort, allow for a little more luxury.

These things I could do make me wonder if I'm being selfish in refusing to compromise for my ambitions. After all, I owe an infinite debt to my parents for making the sacrifices they did in raising and educating me. They must have foregone many a dream to do so. Am I not obligated to do the same for them?

They must have foregone many a dream for me. Am I not obligated to do the same for them?

In this essay from 1992, Jane English offers an alternative way of seeing this dilemma. We must care for our parents, English says, but that care must come from our love for them, not out of a sense of obligation.

Friendship is the best framework for our relationship with our parents, according to English. And friendships intuitively are not about debts and obligations, but doing what we can out of love:

Friends offer what they can give and accept what they need, without regard for the total amounts of benefits exchanged, and friends are motivated by love rather than by the prospect of repayment. Hence, talk of "owing" is singularly out of place in friendship.

If we apply this friendship framework to parents, there's a lot we might do differently. We might, for one, work to deepen our relationship with them just as we do with friends. We might not live under the weight of obligation and instead do what we can out of love.

For a philosophical essay, this is a fairly accessible read. English writes with a clarity around concepts around reciprocity and debt that's hard to come across.