My mother-in-law hates me, so do I have to invite her for Christmas?
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Our agony uncle, UCS Bury St Edmunds lecturer in Ethics gives a fresh perspective on your problems.
Christmas is coming and we face the inevitable family gathering. My mother-in-law has made is abundantly clear for years that she dislikes me and spends most of Christmas complaining about my cooking, decorating, gift buying, and anything else she can think of. My husband is her only child, and she has nowhere else to go. Would it be immoral to just not invite her?
Robin writes: Dear Mrs Spencer,
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I expect there are a lot of people in this sort of situation right now!
Back in the 1600s John Locke and Thomas Hobbes developed the idea of the Social Contract, which they mainly applied to ideas of government – the notion that an implicit agreement of mutual support exists between a government and the populace, which the people are free to challenge if their leaders fail to live up to their side of the bargain.
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I doubt Hobbes or Locke ever applied their ideas to awkward family gatherings, but we could argue that an unofficial contract exists between guests and hosts. When people come to our homes we expect a certain standard of behaviour, as they in turn may expect kindness and hospitality from us. Failure of one half to fulfil their duties could be said to let the other half off the hook too. Many cultures have had (and still have) the concept of Guest and Host Law, laying out the duties of both participants. A guest who did nothing but complain would be unlikely to receive a future invitation. However, such guidelines were mostly developed to regulate the behaviour of friends, neighbours and strangers ~ people without the ties and obligations of blood.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius placed tremendous emphasis on the role of family and devotion to one’s kin as the bedrock of a moral, stable society. The 20th century scholar Lin Yutang advises that, even where aged parents are less than the vision of benevolent wisdom envisioned by Confucius, nonetheless duty to support them overrides annoyance at their shortcomings.
A second moral issue arises – where a person’s behaviour causes misery to others, do we have a duty to challenge them? It is, arguably, moral cowardice to allow someone to go on behaving badly without an attempt to help them improve. The supreme virtue of Confucianism is Jen, philanthropic love for one’s fellow human.
To love someone is to want the best for them, and of them. Not only does Jen exist in regards to comparative strangers, but most certainly towards our nearest and (theoretically) dearest.
Another thing about philanthropic love, which the Greeks called philia, is that it is impersonal. You don’t actually have to like someone to have their greater good at heart. Ask any teacher, social worker, or GP! This is, perhaps, just as well when it comes to irascible in-laws! If mother-in-law gives offence, challenge her and make it clear that she is upsetting her son and grandchildren too.
An additional virtue cited by Confucius was Yi, devotion to duty and doing what is right even when there is no great passion for it.
So, for the greater good of society and our own moral characters, we are all obliged to cope with difficult relatives at Christmas (or other times) but that doesn’t mean we have to allow poor behaviour to pass unchallenged.
In fact, the more we care about someone the greater the need to help them improve.
Do you have a dilemma you would like Robin to solve in his inimitable way? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him c/o 30 Lower Brook Street, IP4 1AN