A Yalie graduates and acquires a well-paying job. Over the next two years, he settles in a large city, finds a place in a social network and begins to pay back his exorbitant debt. Then tragedy strikes. His parents are in a serious car crash, and his father dies; though his mother lives, she requires regular medical attention and enjoys little personal contact with close friends and family. Does her son have an obligation to support her?
On the one hand, his mother did devote much of her life to his well-being, sacrificing daily for his education, his virtue and his happiness. She carried him inside her own body for nine months, forging the eternal bond that connects every generation to its ancestors and its descendants. Her example of altruism is a powerful force; it spurs others to similar action.
On the other hand, like many Yale alums, his understanding of man follows Locke: Man is a free individual for whom obligation exists only after consensual contract. He did not consent to the relationship with his mother; rather, the relationship was forced upon him. Nor could he have given tacit consent for the relationship, for tacit consent only exists in the context of a legitimate alternative. Indeed, any non-contractual obligation is an imposition on his essential nature, for, according to one intellectual, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In the final analysis, then, the Yale alum may have been powerfully affected by benefiting from the self-sacrifice of his mother, but he has no obligation to a sacrifice of his own. This is a shocking conclusion because it is contrary to instinctual understanding.
Many parents will arrive on campus this weekend. They are eager to see their children, participate in the excitement of Yale, and help wherever possible. Students, for their part, are eager to see their parents, share the excitement of Yale, and accept help wherever possible. And if students were asked whether they would have an obligation given the situation outlined above, almost all would respond in the affirmative. So how can we justify this position?
Lines of authority are natural to human association. The Lockeans among us would insist that human associations are illegitimate unless founded upon contractual consent. Under this view, legitimate authority derives only from consent.
But on the contrary, authority does not derive from consent only; authority also derives from creation. Parents do not have authority over their children because the children consented to enter the family. Instead, parents have authority over their children because they create the conditions under which their children may flourish. And though parental authority is not completely analogous to civil authority, the same principle is at work in the growth of civilization. Leaders of early cities did not acquire the consent of those living in the cities. Rather, they acquire legitimate authority by creating the conditions under which the inhabitants could flourish.
The common term used to indicate a respect for this kind of authority is loyalty. Loyalty is a commitment made out of appreciation for unmerited goods received. Further, it is a commitment not easily broken, for though it rises out of an appreciation of goods, it persists through many evils. Loyalty facilitates critique without risk, allows for change without revolution, and maintains diversity despite conflicting differences — all because selfish concerns are mitigated and subsumed under a higher allegiance.
Because loyalty entails the recognition of non-contractual authority and non-contractual obligation, it can provide a justification for the self-sacrifice required by the hypothetical outlined above. Yet loyalty presumes that humans must sometimes exist within boundaries they do not choose. Though humans have freedom to do many things, they do not have freedom from all things. Regardless of whether nature or nurture is stronger, an individual has no freedom from the former and little freedom in the latter.
To justify loyalty, then, Yalies must reject their dominant assumptions: moral autonomy, Lockean contract theory and obligation by consent. It may be difficult, however, to reject such assumptions without another coherent intellectual system to which to subscribe. The system may have to wait for another column, but for now, the example of the mother’s altruism shines forth, calling all to a reality beyond themselves.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College.