Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Whatever Happened to ‘Honor Thy Mother and Father’?

So many are brain-dead on this subject right now because in a liberal society, the concept is hardly taught.
Family Members Barely Allowed to Visit Dying Relatives

From the start of the coronavirus outbreak, media reports have emphasized that most of the deaths occur among the elderly. These reports have badly misrepresented the reality of a savage disease that is in fact flooding intensive care units with adults of all ages: according to the CDC, 48 percent of coronavirus admissions to ICUs in the United States are between the ages of 20-64. True, these younger adults are more likely to survive the disease, but that’s only if there’s an ICU bed available to treat them, often for a period of more than 15 days. In northern Italy, hospitals have reportedly been refusing treatment to patients over 60 years old—precisely because they are inundated by younger adults undergoing respiratory failure. 

Eventually, commentators will wake up and stop spreading the dangerous falsehood that COVID-19 is mostly dangerous for the elderly. But in the meantime, the belief that younger individuals aren’t really at risk is revealing some unpleasant facts about the way too many of us, and especially “conservatives,” think about the older members of society.

In late March, for example, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, told a national television audience that he and other older citizens would be willing to risk their lives so America could emerge from lockdown and go back to work. “Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” Patrick told Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “But don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that. Don’t ruin this great American dream…. It’s worth whatever it takes to save the country.” 

I can admire Patrick’s willingness to take risks for his country. But his words were misconceived, sending precisely the wrong message about our obligations to our parents and grandparents, and leaving the impression that it would be a mistake to damage the economy if the motive is to protect the elderly.

Similarly, a recent essay by the sociologist Heather MacDonald in The New Criterion noted that “approximately 89 percent of Italy’s coronavirus deaths had been over the age of seventy,” before going on to comment:

Sad to say, those victims were already nearing the end of their lifespans. They might have soon died from another illness…. Comparing the relative value of lives makes for grisly calculus, but one is forced to ask: … If the measures we undertake to protect a vulnerable few end up exposing them, along with the rest of society, to even more damaging risks—was it worth the cost?

MacDonald, 63, says she would “happily” choose an increased risk to herself over the destruction being brought upon the U.S. and global economy. (“We have already destroyed $5 trillion in stock market wealth over the last few weeks.”) Like Patrick, she thinks older people should take more risks to save the country.

To be sure, public policy involves trade-offs, including those that balance economic considerations against human lives. Every time you decide how much to spend on highway improvements, you’re making a decision about how many lives will be saved and how many will die. This is no less true in the current crisis, in which decision-makers are being forced to strike a balance between potential hospitalizations and deaths by COVID-19 on the one hand, and the potential consequences (including deaths) of a long economic downturn. 

However, there is a third factor to be considered, which has received almost no attention during the present crisis. This is the harm that is done by utilitarian pronouncements about the “relative value” of the lives of people “already nearing the end of their life spans.”

In fact, for some of us, the calculation runs in precisely the opposite direction: many of us are willing to make sacrifices to avoid new regions sliding into medical system collapse—with untreated patients dying in hallways while sick, desperate doctors working around the clock doing triage to save those they think are fittest (e.g., those under 60). And we’ll still be willing to make these sacrifices even if the utilitarians succeed in showing that letting old patients die untreated in hallways is financially beneficial for the rest of us. 

This is not because we are panicking or irrational. It’s because we’ve spent 3,000 years exposed to a Jewish and Christian teaching that we are supposed to honor our parents and the aged (Exodus 20:11; Leviticus 19:32; Deuteronomy 5:15, 27:16; Proverbs 23:22). And there’s no way to honor your parents and the aged while you’re calculating that, really, we can live with the collapse of the hospitals and ICUs because, after all, the younger people will get off with only minor flu symptoms. 

The reason that so many are so brain-dead on this subject is that in a liberal society, the idea of owing honor to our parents and grandparents is taught almost nowhere. Many people don’t seem to even know what would be involved.


The basic issue is this: the commandment to honor your parents and the aged isn’t primarily about doing easy things like buying presents or giving compliments to older people when they’re healthy and eager to show they appreciate what you’re doing for them. Rather, the commandment to honor parents and older people is mostly aimed at getting us to do things that are really hard to do, and that we really don’t want to do. Like taking care of sick, miserable older people who don’t necessarily appreciate what you’re doing for them—and doing it even when you yourself can’t remember why you’re doing it.

Look at it this way: if it were an easy thing to honor your father and your mother as they get old, it wouldn’t have made it into the Ten Commandments. There were lots of other moral principles jockeying for that slot. But they didn’t make it in because this one is very hard to do.

It’s at least a question whether our current habit of dumping our aging parents into old-age homes where someone else takes care of them even puts us in the ballpark of honoring our parents and the aged. But even if it does, this doesn’t mean we’re allowed to take the next step and say: “What’s another two or three years of life to him anyway?” 

Or: “What does it really matter if she’s got a ventilator? She’s a goner soon either way.”

Once you’re thinking this way, you’ve really been reduced to some kind of vicious animal. It’s not just your selfishness that’s the problem—that is, your deciding that you don’t want to sacrifice your time and wealth for someone else. 

It’s a lot worse than that: the problem is that you’ve shown yourself incapable of the simplest responsibilities to those who gave you life, protected you and sacrificed for you, and taught you everything you know. Everything you’ve got is because of them, but you can’t be troubled to protect them in their last days.

Many “conservative” politicians, academics, and journalists have built careers on the party trick of showing how every problem really reduces to economics: to GNP growth and how the market is doing. But not every problem reduces to economics. Some problems reduce to questions of loyalty, and to what you are willing to give up in order to be loyal—and I mean truly loyal—to people who were loyal to you a long time ago.

For this reason, we cannot take that final step of letting “Those of us who are 70-plus…take care of ourselves,” as Dan Patrick proposes that we do. That’s just not something our parents and grandparents have a right to ask of us. Because when we agree to let our parents and our aged die like beasts—it is we ourselves who are reduced to the level of animals. 

Being a decent person means that there are lines you don’t cross. And one of those lines is crossed when the current, young, strong generation feels it has been freed from its obligations to the older, weaker, dying generation that brought them into the world.

That’s exactly what is implied in all these grotesque comments about how the coronavirus is killing people who probably would have died soon anyway. When you say they would have died soon anyway, what you’re really telling us is that we’ve been freed from our obligations to them. 

But you forget that we’re all going to die soon anyway. The only open question is whether we act honorably, or not, while we’re here.  

Yoram Hazony is chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and author of The Virtue of Nationalism. He is currently in lockdown in Jerusalem with his family. Follow him on Twitter at @yhazony.