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Family Relations and Objectivism

Family Relations and Objectivism

3 Mins
June 29, 2010

Question: What sort of relationship should a person have with his family?  

Answer:  Objectivism holds that the fundamental standard for all relationships is the trader principle. This principle holds that we should interact with people on the basis of the values we can trade with them - values of all sorts, including common interests in art, sports or music, similar philosophical outlooks, political beliefs, sense of life, and more. Trade, in this broad sense, is the only proper basis of any relationship—including relationships with members of our families.Many people are indoctrinated with the belief that we must automatically love family members simply because they are family. This is the view expressed in bromides like "They're still family" or "Blood is thicker than water." This view is not compatible with the trader principle, since we may not gain any values from certain family members, and hence may not love—or even like—them.

There is a distinction between the family that we are born into and have no choice about—parents, siblings, relatives—and the family we can choose for ourselves—a spouse. Since the former relationships are unchosen, it would be a rare coincidence if we could truly love each member of our family for who they are. The likelihood of being born surrounded entirely by people with whom we share core values is not very high. Affection for our family members would be a genuine reflection of shared values only if we could imagine feeling this affection even if they weren't family.

The only familial relationship in which love is the norm, is one in which we have complete choice in determining who comprises our family: the person we marry. Since we can choose our partners on the basis of mutual love, this is the only relationship where it is natural and not a coincidence that the relationship is a positive one. Because the choice of spouse reveals the values a person considers important, it is usually an accurate reflection of his personality.

Relationships with unchosen family members, on the other hand, do not necessarily reflect a value-based choice. So while emotional bonds between these family members can be strong, they are not obligatory. Accordingly, other moral obligations toward family, too, are fewer than what many imagine.

One clearly identifiable obligation is that of parents towards young children, who need to be looked after until they develop the ability to think rationally and independently. In having children of their own free will, parents take on this moral responsibility. Their reasons for having children may range from rational motivations such as the enjoyment of watching a new life develop, to irrational ones such as carrying on their family name. But whatever their reasons, in order to be good parents, it is necessary for them to invest emotionally and financially when their children are young and incapable of taking care of themselves.

This investment however, does not give parents a lifelong claim on their children. When they become adults, children may or may not appreciate their parents, depending on the type of relationship they have had. They should recognize that their parents are the source of their lives, but also realize that this does not constitute an obligation to automatically love their parents. There is also no reciprocal obligation for children to look after their parents when the parents are old. Such a demand or expectation is irrational, since this arrangement obviously cannot be settled on before the child is born.

Obligations on the part of the children arise if they continue to have an emotional and financial relationship with their parents once they are adults. Parents often attempt to provide long-term support and guidance, even when there is no longer need for it, because of the value they gain from seeing their children succeed in life. Similarly, children often choose to care for their parents during old age because of the values their parents have given them, over and above the obligatory minimum. Such actions exemplify the trader principle of offering value for value.

Sometimes misunderstandings arise due to differences in expectations from these relationships. One such mistaken expectation is that of automatic love or respect. Another is the tendency of parents to assume that their children will follow their philosophical, political or religious views. But ideas cannot be forced on people and each individual must make such decisions for himself. In that respect, parents can have no guarantee of how their children will turn out, only a reasonable hope. A good upbringing can impel children towards a more rational outlook, but it cannot make their choices for them.

Finally, it is important to realize that despite the large amount of time we usually spend with our families while growing up, family in itself is not a crucial determinant of our personalities. It can make some superficial differences to who we become, but in the long run it need not affect the essence of our personalities—that is a matter of our own choice. Barring extreme cases of abuse which can have permanent effects, we are all individuals of our own making. While rational parents can be helpful and inspiring, the absence of such parents is not an excuse for any shortcomings or later failures.

Thus the only rational basis for family relationships lies in shared values. Positive relations with family members are not obligatory or necessary for one's happiness, but they can often be enjoyable, and sometimes be the source of unique and long-lasting friendships.

Malini Kochhar
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Malini Kochhar