Do you remember your parents telling you to respect your elders? Possibly this was one of your earliest lessons in ethics. In Australia this idea can be traced to Christian ethics based on the biblical commandment to 'honour thy parents'. Honour in this context can be interpreted to include love and respect; and there is a strong tradition within the Christian faith to care for those in need, which includes the elderly.
A similar ethic can be found within the Chinese Confucian tradition where a fundamental principle is filial piety, which is profound respect for your parents. This duty is expanded to include treating your friends' parents as if they were your own, and Confucian teachings are quite clear that this principle needs to guide our relations with all elderly people.
Here's an interesting Western definition of respect: 'A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.'
If we apply this definition to the elderly then to achieve deep admiration we will need to find out about an elder's abilities, qualities and achievements. At that point we may experience deep admiration; or maybe not. If we don't experience admiration, that doesn't relieve the obligation to care for those in need, to listen to their views and recognise their rights to a comfortable, secure life.
There are many different approaches to ethics. One is to develop clear rules which are to be followed in all but exceptional circumstances. 'Respect your elders' is an example.
However there is always a problem with rules where the logic underpinning them is not clear. Personally I don't want respect from a younger person because they were told by their parents they must respect me because I am old. I would prefer respect along the lines of the definition above. Of course the risk is I won't receive that kind of respect and maybe it is not warranted.
A key point here is how should we communicate and teach ethics? Some simple rules are certainly appropriate at primary school age, although the logical reason for the rule should be given in all cases.
In university ethics courses we discuss the complexities of applying more general ethical principles such as the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated), the utilitarian rule (choose the action which leads to the greatest good for the greatest number), and Kant's duty ethic (ensure the ethical rule which authorises your action can be made a universal law for everyone to follow).
The advantage of applying these general rules is that if the ethical analysis process is followed correctly, the reason underpinning an ethical decision is always clear to the decision maker; hence we refer to these approaches as 'rational' ethics. I think an ethical society where we understand the reasons we should be good people would be preferable to pursuing rigorous adherence to predetermined rules.
Referring back to respecting our elders, I've observed within the Confucian tradition profound respect including the continuing role of parents making important decisions for their adult children, such as what careers they pursue, where they live, whom they are allowed to marry. The children are required to respect the decision of the elder parent.
I can think of many situations where the accumulated experience of parents would lead to a wise decision, but surely freedom of choice is more valuable than deferring our important life decisions to someone else? Within Western culture, parents either gradually let go of control over their children as they approach adulthood, or control is taken away by assertive teenagers. (Kadina High teachers who remember my daughter will understand what I mean.)
Whilst this prioritisation of the ethic of freedom is our cultural priority, it does lead to the reality of learning by our numerous mistakes. The difficult balancing act for parents is that some mistakes threaten irreversible harm, so we can never really let go completely.
Maybe lifelong devotion to the wellbeing of our children is deserving of unqualified respect?
Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.
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