Jul 28th 2009

Do We Have Inalienable Responsibilities to One Another?

by Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni served as a Senior Advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, and is a University Professor at The George Washington University. He served as the President of the American Sociological Association, and he founded the Communitarian Network. A study by Richard Posner ranked him among the top 100 American intellectuals. He is the author of numerous op-eds and his voice is frequently heard in the media. He is the author of several books, including The Active Society, Genetic Fix, The Moral Dimension, The New Golden Rule, and My Brother’s Keeper. His latest book Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy was published by Yale University Press in the Spring of 2007. His regular blog is Amitai Etzioni Notes.

I have a confession to make. I am an avid reader of personal advice columns. When I read those published generations ago, I feel that they provide a great insight what life was really like in those days--and what the prevailing norms were regarding what was considered right and wrong. Contemporary advice, by the likes of Carolyn Hax and Jeanne Phillips ("Dear Abby"), provide similar sociological fodder. In addition, they allow me to play a little game. I first read the question and ask myself what I would counsel, and only then read the advice the columnist gives. I am often stymied. The advice columnists "solve" most difficult problems by sending the reader to see a shrink.

Anyhow, I was reading the Carolyn Hax column the other day. A woman wrote that she was asked by her sister to serve as the guardian for her sister's kids in the event of her and her husband's death. The woman refused on the grounds that she and her husband did not want any children of their own, but she was troubled by the rift her refusal caused in her relationship with her sister.

Carolyn Hax took my breath away when she pronounced that responsibility for children lies with the parents, and that extended family are under no obligation to accept this responsibility for themselves. (She did, however, note that this is not the case in many cultures, but asked if, even in these cultures, it would be in a child's best interest for a guardian to accept the responsibility only because of societal pressure.)

She added that the sister who refused to be the guardian had her reasons for making the choice, even if they were reasons others may deem selfish, and the sister with the children should accept that choice. She also rejects the notion that only option is that family takes responsibility or the children go to foster care, as guardians do not have to be family.

As I see it, family bonds do lay obligations on the members for the good of one another. We are not--to our siblings, parents, children--like causal acquaintances, and even friends have some obligations to their friends. Indeed, the very essence of the family is that its members do things for one another they feel they ought to do, even if they do not enjoy them. True, agreeing to take in someone's children is a very big commitment, but it typically merely entails providing a peace of mind for the parent. If death does strike, it does call for heroic measures, for the sake of the children.

In my view, even if the refusing sister is so hostile to children that she truly cannot take care of them, she still should accept the guardianship, with the understanding that she will make other arrangements for the children and ensure that these work better for the kids than her home. Family is more than chicken soup. I would love to hear what others think, would do, or have done.

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