Family Ties

Family Ties


Obligation to Familial Intimates in Titanic and Lion 

"Family Ties" by Olivia Boreham-Wing
Left: Still from Lion (2016), directed by Garth Davis; Right: Still from Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron.

Our lives are defined by responsibility. Responsibility to work, responsibility for our health, responsibility for our pets and dependents, and responsibility to our family and friends. This idea of feeling responsible for those close to us is defined in philosophy as “obligation to intimates.” Philosophers such as C. D. Broad and Christina Hoff Sommers have written extensively on why we feel we have a duty to serve those close to us. Immanuel Kant argued that there were two types of this feeling of responsibility: pathological love, which is defined as love based on inclination, such as a mother’s love for her child; and practical love, which is love based on duty, such as the imperative to “love thy neighbor.” Why do we feel obligated to look after our sick family members but not each homeless person we pass on the street? Why do we sacrifice for our loved ones? Through films that focus on the pathological love such as James Cameron’s Titanic and Garth Davis’ Lion, and through the writings of Sommers and Broad, we can better understand the theory of “obligations to intimates.”

James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic is a film that has been very popular from its initial release. It is still widely regarded as one of the most heart-wrenching, romantic films of all time. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater, a wealthy, high-class passenger traveling aboard the Titanic with her family and much older fiancé, Cal Hockley. Paralleling Rose’s story is the story of Jack Dawson, a starving artist in the lowest class on the ship. The film traces Jack and Rose’s forbidden relationship until the ship’s infamous sinking. The relationship is forbidden by Rose’s family, as she is engaged to Cal—a marriage that would be very lucrative for the Bukater family. Jack is lower class, and according to Rose’s parents, would never be good enough for their daughter. However, Jack and Rose fall in love, experiencing all of the highs and lows of young forbidden love. As the ship sinks, people begin to board lifeboats—women, children, and the rich boarding first. Cal tricks Rose into boarding a boat, assuring her that Jack will also be saved. When he reveals that Jack will not be joining her on the lifeboat, Rose jumps back onto the ship and she and Jack ride the stern of the boat until it is in the water. Jack helps Rose onto a plank of wood in the water, assuring her that she will die as an old woman. Jack quickly dies of hypothermia, having sacrificed his own life to save Rose’s.

This tragic sacrifice can best be described by C. D. Broad’s “ethical altruism.” In his essay “Self and Others,” Broad discusses the different types of ethical effects we have on those around us (ethical egoism, ethical altruism, and ethical neutralism) and sacrifices that are made within each. He defines ethical egoism to be the feeling that “each person has a special obligation to benefit himself” (384) and defines ethical altruism to be the feeling that “each of us has a special obligation to benefit others.1 Finally, he defines ethical neutralism as a rejection of both egoism and altruism, finding a common ground in the middle. By applying Broad’s essay to Titanic, we can deduce that Cal practices ethical egoism (perhaps minus the “ethical” part) by saving Rose. Saving her obviously benefits him—he walks away from the near-death experience with a wife, and her illegitimate lover dies in the process. Jack, on the other hand, practices ethical altruism by sacrificing his own life to save Rose’s.

While ethical altruism is not explicitly defined as a sacrifice, sacrifice is often included. We are motivated to sacrifice, according to Broad, because “it is commonly held to be permissible or even obligatory for a person who stands in certain relations to others deliberately to sacrifice his life, is certain very valuable results can be secured for them.”2 Here, Broad suggests that sacrificing one’s life for others, or practicing ethical altruism, devolves into egoism—that one practices ethical altruism for his or her own benefit. Indeed, he makes a similar claim when he says “Each person is under a direct obligation to benefit him self as such. He is under no direct obligation to benefit any other person . . . only so far as that is the most efficient means available to him for benefiting himself.”3

In the case of Jack in Titanic, it is counterintuitively beneficial for him to sacrifice his life. If Rose had died and he stayed alive, he would live his life just as he did before—as a starving artist who must live with the guilt of killing his lover, and if they had both stayed alive, (which would have been very difficult given the size of the wooden plank,) I imagine they would live together as starving artists, as Rose’s family likely would not support them financially, remorseful that their daughter did not marry someone wealthy like Cal. Therefore, if Jack had practiced ethical neutralism in that situation by jumping on the wooden plank with her, it would turn into egoism, as while Jack’s life would improve greatly having Rose in it, it would worsen Rose’s “personality,” or quality of life, therefore doing her a disservice.

Garth Davis’ 2016 directorial debut Lion follows the story of Saroo, starting from his boyhood in Khandwa, India. He lives with his older brother, Guddu, and his mother and sister. His family lives in poverty—Saroo and Guddu often steal coal from trains to sell for food. One day, five year old Saroo follows Guddu to steal coal and falls asleep at the train station. When Guddu tries and fails to wake him up, Guddu disappears. Saroo awakens alone and boards a train, assuming Guddu is on board. He wakes up in Calcutta, extremely far from home, and unable to speak the local language. Saroo lives on the streets for several months until he is taken to the police office and sent to an orphanage. From there, an Australian couple takes interest in him and adopts him. He adjusts well to his new home and parents, who end up adopting another boy from India who has more difficulty adapting. Twenty years later, Saroo moves to from his adoptive home in Tasmania to Melbourne to begin university. He begins a relationship with an American student, who encourages him to find his family in India. Saroo considers this, suddenly feeling a wave of sympathy for his family, who must have been worried when he disappeared. He feels guilty, never have made an attempt to contact them, even though he has always had the means to. Through Google Maps, Saroo finds his hometown. He confesses his interest in his birth family to his adoptive mother, who fully supports his search. Saroo goes to his hometown and with the help of a translator has a tearful reunion with his mother. He discovers that his brother Guddu died the very night Saroo went missing. His mother reveals that she never moved or lost hope that her son would one day return home.

The film is extremely emotional. It explores the true meaning of family, and what we would do for our family. Sue, Saroo’s adoptive mother, reveals that she was never infertile (as many expect an adoptive mother to be) but simply wanted to do good—she believed that there were already enough children in the world, some with no parents at all, so why bring in more? She is a strong practitioner of ethical altruism in her desire to save children from poverty while honoring her other inclination towards motherhood. While Sue sincerely thinks of Saroo as family and as her son, Saroo feels as if he has a duty to his biological family. His feelings of filial morality are complicated by his perceived responsibility to both his birth mother and his adoptive mother.

In her essay “Filial Morality,” Christina Hoff Sommers discusses why adults feel that they have to fulfill a “duty” to their parents. She claims children feel this duty because they must repay their parents for the life and nourishment they gave them. However, Saroo didn’t receive that nourishment from his birth mother (or at least has no memory of it), so why does he feel so inclined to meet her? Is it a sense of duty, or a genuine curiosity about his past? We know that throughout his life, he is plagued with the memories of his brother, but what about the rest of his family? Where do adoptive versus birth families stand in filial obligation? Sommers touches on this: “There are many varieties of just institutions, and so, in particular, there are many ways in which filial obligations are determined within different social and cultural contexts.”4 Saroo stands in a unique place between nature and nurture, with his adoptive parents symbolizing nurture and his birth mother symbolizing nature. When he meets his birth mother, Saroo realizes that they don’t even speak the same language, which makes the stark division between them—perhaps aligning him more closely with his adoptive family. Saroo’s adoptive family understands the desire to meet his birth mother; she is a part of his history as well. However, as Sommers would predict, Saroo does not abandon his relationship with his adoptive family in favor of one with his birth mother. Even though his birth mother gave him life, his adoptive parents gave him the privileged life he now lives, his education, and unconditional love. Saroo arguably “owes” more to his adoptive parents than he does his birth parents. Sommers draws from Jeffrey Blustein, a philosopher who focuses in studies of the family, from his book Parents and Children: the Ethics of the Family, to pinpoint what children might reasonably owe their children: “‘If parents have any right to repayment from their children, it can only be for that which was either above and beyond the call of parental duty, or not required by parental duty at all.’”5, By this logic, Saroo does have an obligation toward his adoptive parents, as what they did for him was not required by them in the first place. According to Sommers thinking, Saroo would not have an obligation toward his birth parents, as they gave him less than his adoptive parents did.

Sommers gives an example of the parental acts or figures for which a child would owe a debt: She takes the circumstance of a live-in nanny, Miss Tate, who worked for a certain family for thirty years, and although she was paid for her time, the children she cared for neglected to come visit her when she was sick, and she died without seeing them after the end of her work for the family. Sommers argues that “although Miss Tate was duly salaried throughout her long service with the judge’s family, it seems clear that the children of that family owe her some special attention and regard for having brought them up.”6 Although the case of Miss Tate is quite different from that of Saroo and his Australian family, Sommers argues that adults owe some sort of service or gratitude to those who brought them up—biological parents and adoptive parents alike. Perhaps they also owe those who brought them into this world, but we can feel a filial obligation to more than our birth parents. It is the nurturing that most clearly demands reciprocation. It is this reciprocation that makes us feel like we are doing a good thing by caring for our aging parents—it gives us the feeling that we are practicing ethical altruism, when we are most likely only practicing ethical neutralism, by returning the favor of care we received.

It is also worth noting that put in the middle of a disaster, Rose did not feel any sort of filial morality for her own family. She makes an intentional choice not to take a place in a lifeboat with her family—whether that is to avoid marrying Cal, break away from her family, or simply just choose Jack is up to interpretation. Rose knows that there is no situation in which she, Jack, and her family all survive by jumping in the lifeboats, so she makes the choice to either die with Jack or survive with Jack, and reject her family’s help. Rose commits the ultimate act of egoism—the rejection of her obligations to her family—when she jumps off of the lifeboat containing her family. But had the damage already been done? Rose makes the choice to orient her obligations toward Jack, rather than to her family. She has overridden her obligations to her family, completely ignoring them in favor of what she wants. She expresses no guilt abandoning her family for Jack. So is her love for her family less than what Saroo feels for his adoptive family? Rose’s parents never went “above and beyond” the expectations of parenting for her—in fact, they set her up to be engaged with someone she deeply disliked. So according to both Sommers and Broad, she did the right thing by abandoning them—she was simply practicing ethical egoism, which isn’t inherently a bad thing—and she had no obligation to her parents anyway.

In Saroo’s case, he does have an obligation toward his adoptive parents, but not his birth parents. His adoptive parents went above and beyond the average scope of parenting by taking him in from poverty and supporting his efforts to find his birth family. However, what was the motivation behind their altruism? Were they truly being altruistic, or were they expecting Saroo to one day return their care? This leads us to question the reason why we, then, “give back” to our parents. Is it our duty—ethical neutralism—or is it that we feel guilt that they gave us so much or loved us so much? Our “obligations to intimates” could be motivated by egoism, neutralism, or altruism. This also leads into the question of what motivates us to act altruistically, and does the motivation matter? Whether we are acting out of guilt, out of an act of simple repayment, or an act of expecting something in return, if we are doing a good thing, does the motivation matter?

In both “Titanic” and “Lion,” children are faced with large decisions surrounding their obligation to their families. However, each characters acts opposite from the other. Through the works of Broad and Sommers, we can understand why they act so differently. Rose acts against a family who acted egotistically, putting themselves before their daughter. Her parents having not gone above and beyond the basic call of parental duty, Rose, in return, does the same, just as Sommer’s would have predicted; her parents gave her nothing worth repaying, but Jack did. Saroo, on the other hand, acts in accordance with his adoptive family’s permission to find his birth family in India, and ultimately makes the decision that he feels more obligated toward his adoptive family than he does toward his birth family. He learns about his origins, including the meaning of his own name (“lion,) and then goes back to Tasmania. The trip back to India was just that—a trip.

We make sacrifices for the ones we love. It is our way, through action, of telling those close to us how much they mean to us. We like to show our loved ones that we care. However, we also have an obligation to ourselves—to honor our own wants and needs and live our lives untethered. All we can hope for is reciprocal love, but in honor to get that, we must give it.

  1. C. D. Broad, “Self and Others,” in Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussions, and Film Selections, edited by Richard Fumerton and Diane Jeske (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 384; 385.
  2. Broad, “Self and Others,” 388.
  3. Broad, “Self and Others,” 385.
  4. Christina Hoff Sommers, “Filial Morality,” in Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussions, and Film Selections, edited by Richard Fumerton and Diane Jeske (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 402.
  5. Jeffrey Blustein quoted in Sommers, “Filial Morality,” 400.
  6. Sommers, “Filial Morality,” 395.
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