Toward An Ethic of Aging III

By Stuart J Whitley | Bio

In my last post I wondered about whether or not there was an ethic of aging. Again, by ‘ethics’ I mean simply some general consensus or agreement about what is good about the way we relate to one another. This is a group or communal expression of belief, rather than an individual or moral outlook. The distinction is thus simply drawn between morals and ethics, terms which are often interposed. I should be more explicit and ask whether there is a reasonable consensus around obligations associated with the process of aging. One needs to be clear about such things because there are many ethical issues relating to this subject: the diminishment of worth of old people and their relegation to institutional repositories, the abuse of the elderly, the genetic or pharmaceutical tinkering with the aging process, and so on.

What I’m talking about is whether ethical obligations arise as one draws toward and enters the last quarter of one’s natural life. A duty, perhaps. It is necessary to consider the nature of ‘duty’, to whom it is owed, its relationship with responsibility, and moral decision-making (and the nature of compromise and courage and blame as dimensions of this discussion). The very idea of duty has a quaint ring to it these days; sometimes that is the best that may be said for it. After all, concentration camps abound more than one hundred years after the Boer War (during which they were introduced as a weapon against civilians who might offer succour to the enemy), where internees were encamped in brutal conditions by those who later asserted that they were only doing their duty. The debasement of the term in this way has diminished its currency. The call to one’s countryman to ‘do one’s duty’ can be seen in both positive and derogatory terms. What is one’s ‘duty’? This will almost always be contextual.

The Oxford definition of ‘duty’ is a moral or legal obligation to which one is bound or ought to do. This would be something to which one is committed or obedient to because of the rightness of the thing moving within oneself as a binding force.

In “The Duties of a Citizen (Larchwood, Ontario, 1913)” cited by John Ralston Saul in Reflections of a Siamese Twin (1997), the Duties of a Citizen as a lesson for recent immigrants were expressed as follows:

•    Understand our government
•    Take active part in politics
•    Assist all good causes
•    Lessen intemperance
•    Work for others.

Saul describes this as a participatory obligation in a process that is democratic and cooperative. As character is developed by experience, it follows that a richer contribution could be made by someone who has lived long. As the social welfare state has a duty to care for the elderly as they become frail, so one might argue that there is a concomitant obligation on the part of seniors to invest their accumulated wisdom in the transmission of values and knowledge to the subsequent generation.

In the context of Biblical tradition, elders were required to perform several functions as a matter of duty. They resolved disputes, drawing on their acquired knowledge and skills. They attended to the sick. "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil …” (James 5:14). Elders in the religious community were role models for righteous behaviour: they are to watch out for the church in humility. "I exhort the elders who are among you, I being also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. Feed the flock of God among you, taking the oversight, not by compulsion, but willingly; nor for base gain, but readily; nor as lording it over those allotted to you by God, but becoming examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-4). Elders are the designated leaders of the church who act not for pay or reward but because of their perceived duty to serve. Clearly, the role of the aged in leading, as a matter of moral duty, the vertical process of cultural continuity is an ancient one.

There was a contemplative and teaching role, which reflected the accumulation of wisdom borne of an exemplary life. Eldering was a position to be sought but not taken lightly: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). The role of elder was one to be taken very seriously, which inherently assumes a moral content, a duty, if not a sacred trust.

Of course, cultures that prized elders and their contributions were aboriginal. The skills and knowledge essential for survival had to be transmitted from one generation to another, and for understanding of the ways of the world—especially the inexplicable events that beset humans—elders had an obligation to explain, lead and inspire. While wisdom is not necessarily the sole purview of the grey beard, nevertheless, with age and experience comes the weight of authenticity. Examples abound: when Ahtahkakoop, notable Chief of the Plains Cree, was asked toward the end of his life about the decisions he had taken during the transition from hunter to farmer under increasingly repressive policies of the Canadian government, he said that decisions must have the long view: “Let us not think of ourselves but of our children’s children. Let us show our wisdom by choosing the right path now, while we yet have a choice.”

The plains Indians had a concept that generally captures the idea of ‘duty’ as a reciprocal obligation: it is the idea of wechewehtowin, which loosely means ‘partnership’ in Cree. There is a distinction between wisdom and knowledge, meaning that everything is one as created by the Great Spirit, and has four aspects: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. Ancient wisdom is learnt from experience and taught by wise old people; it has equity with other knowledge systems. Wisdom lies mainly in the acquiring, sharing and application of knowledge. Through use of the Cree concept of ‘partnership’, it has been argued that both Aboriginal wisdom and western scientific knowledge could be accommodated, and one way to approach it was to view it as a puzzle whereby each knowledge system supplied certain pieces (see WIDENING THE CIRCLE, Newsletter of the Native Mental Health Research Team, Volume 2, Issue 2 Winter1999).

I do think there is at least a vestigial obligation in elders, regardless of culture, to impart wisdom. In a democracy, this may be taken as a given, for a democracy without participation cannot sustain itself, and informed participation makes for a richer discourse.

© 2009 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.

Reflections of a Siamese Twin, John Ralston Saul (1997), "The Duties of a Citizen", Larchwood, Ontario, 1913, cited at p.130.

Duties of elders in the church; see for example –; also Wikipedia; and

WIDENING THE CIRCLE Newsletter of the Native Mental Health Research Team, Volume 2, Issue 2, Winter 1999.

Aboriginal wisdom; see for example –;;; Ahtahkakoop, D. Christensen (2000), Ahtahkakoop Publishing, Shell Lake; and the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Vol. 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back; esp. at Chapters 15 & 16).