Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 3.: Filial Beneficence - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 3.: Filial Beneficence - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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439. Many years of childhood have to pass before there can be entertained the thought of naturally derived obligations to parents–whether those which justice imposes or those which beneficence imposes. The obligation to obedience is indeed perpetually insisted upon; and while in some cases ignored, is, in other cases, duly recognized. But in any case it is conceived as established by arbitrary authority. There is little or no idea of its natural fitness.
Here and there, however, even before the teens have been reached, especially in families having narrow means, predominant sympathy produces a constant helpfulness–an endeavor to lighten the burdens which fall especially on the mother; and in such cases there perhaps arises the thought that such helpfulness is but a small return for the fostering care received in preceding years. But more generally this praiseworthy assistance is due to the direct promptings of affection, and resulting kind feeling, rather than to recognition of parental claims.
In many cases, however, and it is to be feared in the great majority, not even the approach to maturity brings any idea of filial gratitude, as sequent on the idea of filial indebtedness. Feeding, clothing, and education are accepted as matters of course for which no thanks are due; but rather there come half-uttered grumblings because many things desired are not supplied. When, occasionally during an expostulation, a father points out to a youth the sacrifices that have been made for his benefit, and indicates the propriety of recognizing them, and conforming to a reasonable parental wish if nothing more, silent admission on the youth's part of the undeniable fact, is often not accompanied by the feeling which should be produced. Parents are in most cases regarded as ordained fountains of benefits from whom everything is to be expected and to whom nothing is due.
And this is, indeed, the primitive relation. Throughout the animate creation in general, this is the connection between each generation and the next. With untiring energy and persistent care, parents rear offspring to maturity; and the offspring, incapable of conceiving what has been done for them, are also incapable of any responsive feeling. This brute form of the parental and filial relation, still, to a considerable degree, persists in the human race. Often at an age when they should be capable of complete self-maintenance, the young continually claim aid from the old; and express in no very respectful words their vexation if they do not get what they ask. Recognitions of the immense indebtedness of child to parent, and of the resulting duties, have indeed been occasionally expressed from the earliest ages; as witness the words of the Egyptian sage Ani:
“Thou wast put to school, and whilst thou wast being taught letters she came punctually to thy master, bringing thee the bread and the drink of her house. Thou art now come to man's estate; thou art married and hast a house; but never do thou forget the painful labor which thy mother endured, nor all the salutary care which she has taken of thee. Take heed lest she gave cause to complain of thee, for fear that she should raise her hands to God and he should listen to her prayer.”
[The Hibbert Lectures, 1879, by P Le Page Renouf, p. 102.]
But though theoretically admitted by all, the obligation of child to parent has been in fact but little felt, and is very inadequately felt still; and there is still a very inadequate consciousness of the duty of discharging it as far as possible.
440. Filial beneficence as currently conceived is not wide enough in its range. Except the utterly brutal, all feel that it is imperative to save parents from want or direct physical privations; but not many feel the imperativeness of those constant attentions, and small kindnesses, and manifestations of affection, which are really due. The reciprocity called for includes not material benefits only but moral benefits–such endeavors to make the old age of parents happy as shall correspond with the endeavors they made to render happy the early days of their children.
In few directions is existing human nature so deficient as in this. Though, among the civilized, the aged are not left, as among various rude savages, to die of bodily starvation, yet they are often left to pine away in a condition that may be figuratively called mental starvation. Left by one child after another as these marry they often come at length to lead lives which are almost or quite solitary. No longer energetic enough for the pleasures of activity and not furnished with the passive pleasures which the social circle yields, they suffer the weariness of monotonous days. From time to time there comes, now from one child and now from another, a visit which serves nominally to discharge filial obligation, and to still the qualms of conscience in natures which are sympathetic enough to feel any qualms; but there is rarely such an amount of affectionate attention as makes their latter days enjoyable, as they should be. For in a rightly constituted order, these latter days should bring the reward for a life well passed and duties well discharged.
Insistence on filial beneficence is a crying need; and there is no saying in what way it is to be met. It cannot properly come from the aged themselves, since they are to be the beneficiaries. From the young we cannot expect it in adequate measure, since the need for it implies their deficiency in the sentiment which makes it needful. And by the official ex pounders of rectitude the subject is but rarely dealt with, or is dealt with ineffectually.
If those who are appointed to instruct men in the conduct of life, fail properly to emphasize filial beneficence in the interests of parents, still more do they fail to emphasize it in the interests of the children themselves. Neglecting to enforce the claims of fathers and mothers on their offspring, they leave these offspring to suffer, in declining life, from the consciousness of duties unperformed, when there is no longer a possibility of performing them–leave them a prey to painful thoughts about the dreary latter days of those they should have tenderly cared for: dreary days which they begin to realize when their own latter days have become dreary.