filial piety and ea
there are hidden benefits to living up to two roles
Last week I read Dion’s post about how her relationship with Effective Altruism has affected her relationship with her family.
The post is (I hope) the first of many where she describes EA culture, her family culture, and how she’s trying to find a middle way as she is pulled between these two loves in her life. I was particularly interested in the “legal and social expectations of filial piety that I felt obligated to fulfil” in her lower middle class Singaporean Chinese family. Filial piety is the virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors, especially in East Asian cultures. It can look like serving your grandmother the best piece of fish at dinner, but it can also look like moving into your grandmother’s apartment to care for her during the last decade of her life - it’s a way of life.
My husband’s family is Chinese, from Shanghai, and he was raised with this expectation that family comes first. I was raised as an evangelical Christian, following the teaching of Jesus who says you should love him more than your own family (Luke 14:26) and it’s better to give to the poor than to family members who might one day repay you (Luke 14:12). Together we’ve had to agree how to divide our resources between parents, ourselves and our children, and giving to others.
There’s an obvious tension here, between giving to family and giving to strangers, but I recently realized there are hidden benefits to living with both sets of values. I’ve been reading “Work, Parent, Thrive” by Yael Schonbrun who talks not about work-family conflict but rather about work-family enrichment. In most of our lives, it’s better to have multiple roles than just one; we can enjoy being both an enthusiastic events coordinator and a loving father, for example, and we can learn things from parenthood that help our career (and vice versa). I think the same is true about being a loyal, filial child and being and altruist - we can live richer, more meaningful lives with these two roles rather than trying to fit ourselves into just one.
And perhaps our faithful attendance to our parents can make us better at caring for strangers. Respecting our parents can give us the skills to treat everyone with dignity (no matter how frustrating or undeserving they might occasionally seem); it can teach us to give generously while still setting boundaries; caring for our parents allows us to see the impact of our giving and adjust when we make mistakes. Perhaps our altruism can also make us better children.
I think the tension between caring for family and caring for strangers is a common one in the Effective Altruism community, but I rarely hear it discussed. If you feel comfortable, please leave a comment sharing your own perspective - what tensions have you faced, how have your resolved or lived with them, and what benefits have you gained from being both a loving child and a committed altruist?