Filial Piety, Fathers & Sons Revisited

Manyul Im is always good for a thought-provoking read. While I’m a little slow on the punch in posting this one, what do people think about this post:

I’m particularly interested in the bolded portion. What contemporary moral theoretic approaches could render such a formulation acceptable? Bonus points if you can incorporate the Euthyphro dilemma :wink:

I know that Smears has a nice essay that is an ad absurdum on non-proximal ethics/morality. So I think it is fair to say that we all recognize that we owe our family in a manner that we do not owe some stranger down the street. But at the same time, we do still seem to owe some random schmuck that we hit with our car, right? We shouldn’t just drive away because we don’t know them so it isn’t our problem. Confucius’s position here would seem to advocate doing just that.

But that can’t be right.

Even the most generous reading of this passage (in isolation, of course) seems to advocate mafia ethics. Protect your family/in-group, be loyal to them and fuck everybody else. If there is ever any conflict of interest, protect the in-group first.

I can see good ol’ egoism having no problem saying of Confucius’ position that it is permissible, and perhaps even obligatory. Here’s why: Seeing the father harmed, even in the name of justice, is something way more devastating than letting the misdeed committed by the father go undealt with by the state. We suffer through those we love. Seeing the father suffer, the son, too, would suffer, assuming that the father-son relationship is not strained or otherwise abnormal. By ratting his father out, the son would remedy the pain caused by his social conscience, but he would suffer with his father when the father is punished, and the son would also cause himself (perhaps undue) feelings of guilt for being responsible for the father’s pain. The pain caused by turning the father in (guilt + sympathetic suffering) would be greater than the pain caused by not turning the father in (bite of social conscience). Hence the son is not only permitted to not turn his father in, because insodoing he would decrease his own pain, but he’d also be obligated because turning his father in would be impermissible because turning in the father would increase pain and suffering.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t take into account the unique relationship between a father and a son, because as you know, the son becomes the father (assuming it’s not a strained relationship between the two). If the father is a crook, and if he is a dad to his son, then the son will not feel any bite in his conscience whenever he learns his dad did something illegal or immoral anymore than the father does when he’s committing the acts. And so the son would suffer even less were he to do nothing about his father’s misdeed.

If on the other hand the father is not a dad to his son, and if society becomes the son’s dad, meaning if the son internalizes the virtues healthy for a society instead of the virtues healthy for the dad, then the son will will feel the bite of his conscience when he sees his father do something immoral or illegal, and this pain will be worse than the pain the son would feel watching the father suffer at the hands of the justice/social system. Also, I imagine the son not being all that sympathetic towards the father, and so the pain he would feel watching his father suffer would be even less. In this case it would be permissible for the son under egoism to turn in his dad. Indeed, it would be obligatory of him, because it would be impermissible of him to not turn his father in.

Some might say that by not turning in the father the son would suffer indirectly, because by letting criminals uncought makes society a worse place, but I doubt that the one father getting away with his misdeed will cause the society to collapse to the point that the son would suffer indirectly because of it, although if this was the case then even egoism would have to say that it is impermissible for the son to let his father’s misdeed go undealt with.

So to summarize, egoism can see Confucius’ story as moral, depending on the relationship between the father and the son…and also depending on the relationship between society and the son and the father.

PS. What I’m saying actually makes some sense. It fits in with the story of Erik von Brunn. Brunn said he was not close to his dad, meaning that he probably did not share the father’s values, nor probably his pain. You can see how it becomes possible for Brunn to condemn his father, because his father to him is just some guy. He wouldn’t feel any great pain or personal tragedy in hearing of his dad’s passing…or, I should say, any pain greater than the one dealt to his reputation for being the father’s son.

PSS. About the relationship between society and the son bit: I can see a society like that in America, where the family unit is composed of a bunch of individuals only vaguely more similar to eachother than to their neighbor next door, posing less of a problem for a son than a society composed of family clans. This fact is very clear for me, because for the greater part of my life I lived within a ‘family clan.’ We had our own mores and reputation. Anyone around the country who heard of a person with my last name knew exactly what kind of person they were dealing with, because we were all pretty much the same. I chalk this up to the constant presence of family forces in the daily life of a kid. When the parents went to work, there was always someone else from the family to give guidance or impose sanctions or otherwise to make a [insert last name here] out of the kid. Here the parents are off to work for 10 hours of the day, and either asleep or tired and grumpy for the rest of the time. Grandparents or other blood relatives do not live in the house, so the kid receives his values from TV and internet. The father has very very little to do with the rearing of the son, and so the son hardly sympathies with the father, and he doesn’t share the father’s values, at least not to the degree in these other societies I’m talking about. This is why you see every generation in America being significantly different than the last. Curiously look at any American sitcom and you’ll see what kind of role the grandparents play.

To add to this point, there is also the matter that in clan based societies, one’s name is one’s credit. You will get the contract or the job based on what reputation your family name has. If anyone from one’s clan fucks up, then the reputation and standard of living of everyone in the clan suffers. You can see how this can be more incentive for a son not to rat out a father or anyone from their clan. Hell, you can probably even get utilitarianism to squeal ‘permissible’ when you’re dealing with clan based societies.

Even if egoism is not a good normative theory, it is still an excellent descriptive theory.

Holy crap!

That is an awesome way of looking at it.

Hey I’m glad you think so. I was afraid I killed your topic with that reply.

It seems rather evolutionarily hard-wired, no? Survival of your immediate support system is of primary survival concerns.
Mommy and dad will give their lives for our continued survival without a moments hesitation. Mom and dad are our means of survival, at first, anyway.
As we age, our immediate support groups expand; brothers and sisters expands to include cousins and then to friends.
We take care of our own like no one else would. Family never goes without while any have. There is no homeless as long as there is one roof amongst us. Etcetera.
Like one body.
with a cancer…
So, what about the cancer?
Perhaps we lock it in the attic and feed it through the door, or perhaps a ‘good night kiss with a pilow’, but we take care of our own.
Thats evolution, one gene’s means of reproducing. And a support group that aids survival is evolutionarily superior to turning your father in to the SS for smoking a doooobie!