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Ethics and human rights in intergenerational relationships

 ‘First, do no harm’

 By Dr Frans Gieles

In: Ipce newsletter E 14, October 2002

Since the mid-1990s, Ipce members have held discussions about ethics. I have listened to the members. In this article, I will summarize the salient points of several opinions I have heard.


 “Ipce is a forum for people who are engaged in scholarly discussion about the understanding and emancipation of mutual relationships between children or adolescents and adults. In this context, these relationships are to be viewed from an unbiased, non-judgmental perspective and in relation to the human rights of both the young and adult partner.” (Ipce Mission Statement) 

 Human rights and a reasoned discussion are a fundamental basis for the following ethical ideas about intergenerational relationships. One of these rights is that of choice of contacts and relationships with other humans. Contact is necessary for humans, and relationships can enrich life for both partners. This is the basis of reasonable ethical thought about intergenerational relationships.   

How much intimacy a contact or relationship has is in the first place a free choice for both partners. This may differ according to the individuals and the situation. There is only one general rule or principle that counts in every relationship: Do no harm.    

But there is more to say. What follows are no general rules, nor commandments on tablets of stone for eternity, but guidelines or thoughts, points to take into consideration, together with the local mores, laws and customs in a given society and era. The result, an ethical idea about an actual relationship, will differ with the people and the situation.   

In the course of years, Ipce members have developed the following main guidelines or principles.  

Some main guidelines

 Freedom of choice

 In any intergenerational relationship or contact both partners, the adult as well as the young person, have it in their power to regulate their own lives, their relationships and the grade of intimacy. 
Each partner has the right to self-determination and the responsibility to acknowledge this right in the other. Therefore, both partners in open communication will choose the grade of intimacy at any moment. 

In friendship relationships or contacts, both partners have the freedom to withdraw from the relationship at any moment. Love and dedication are unconditional; they bind partners who are free and independent.

In dependency relationships or contacts, (such as parent-child or teacher-pupil) love and dedication should also be unconditional, but freedom to withdraw does not exist in practice. So, extra attention should be given to the right to the self-determination and responsibility of both partners. Here, the grade of intimacy has two limits: complete distance is not possible nor wanted, complete intimacy will interfere with the dependency: complete intimacy asks for complete freedom, which does not exist in dependency relationships. 

The grade of openness 

Openness is a typical western value; many other cultures respect and maintain secrets. Openness within a relationship is a good value. Openness to others is a good value as long as they respect one's right to self-determination. So, openness to others may be good, but it is not always necessary and not always possible. For example, intimacy between males is still a great taboo, for instance, in most schoolyards. Or, in many families, the very existence of any form of sexual life in a young person is taboo.

Many young people prefer consciously to have their own secrets. They make their own choices and do not want to be protected. ‘Don’t treat me as a child’, they say. It is their right to have this freedom, the freedom to say no and the freedom to say yes. There is also a right of privacy.
The other side of the coin is that young people should not have to carry too heavy or unreasonable secrets. One has to take into consideration how the young person lives and how his environment may react.

Do no harm 

Harm can come from feelings of shame and dirtiness, learned from society. Harm can come from a society that uses power or violence to force the end of a relationship. One should consider this risk, as well as the risk of blackmail. The adult as well as the young person is vulnerable in this society nowadays. 

Concluding remarks 

My conclusion, and that of several members, is that intimacy in intergenerational relationships in our society nowadays, has the risk to harm both partners - perhaps not through the relationship itself, but by society's reaction to it. Taking this into consideration, I suppose that such intimacy, maybe ethically correct in itself, will be quite uncommon these days. 

‘Platonic’ relationships may be a reasonable choice, but these relationships still include the hidden implication that sex is dirty and taboo.  

Not only young gays and lesbians, but also young people in a phase of hetero- or homosexuality, need relationships to explore their orientation and to develop self-knowledge and self-respect. It is their right to have them. They do not deserve rejection. Harm may result from a relationship and society’s reaction to it. Harm is also possible by rejection and by not having relationships at all. One should as honestly as possible estimate if any harm might arise. The leading principle remains Do no harm.

Every person and situation is different. Young people change in the course of their development from child to adult. Use your own best judgment and that of your partner in any individual case.


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