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Jules van Schaijik

If the body is still there, so is the person

Nov. 11, 2010, at 4:03pm

In a recent post I mentioned that I am always on the lookout for good and persuasive arguments against utilitarianism, particularly the depersonalizing aspect of it.

Since then, I’ve come upon two pieces that are very good from this point of view. Rather than constructing a formal philosophical argument, they paint a vivid picture of the essential and precious personhood of even severely handicapped individuals. The first one, The Human Face of Alzheimer’s, by Colleen Carroll Campbell, was published a few years ago. It reflects on former president Reagan’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and shows how, in spite of the language we often use when we refer to victims of Alzheimer’s—“the body is still there, but the person is long gone”—we have a deeper intuition that belies such phrases. Deep down we know, or we would know if we only opened our eyes, that the person we once knew is still there.

The other article, A Life Beyond Reason, was just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is the story of a father’s love for his severely handicapped son. This particular father, Chris Gabbard, had been persuaded by “Peter Singer’s advocacy of expanding reproductive choice to include infanticide.”

But there was my son, asleep or unconscious, on a ventilator, motionless under a heat lamp, tubes and wires everywhere, monitors alongside his steel and transparent-plastic crib. What most stirred me was the way he resembled me. Nothing had prepared me for this, the shock of recognition, for he was the boy in my own baby pictures, the image of me when I was an infant…

So from the start, I had to wrestle with the reality of his condition. Martin Luther held the opinion that, because a child such as August was a “changeling”—merely a mass of flesh, a massa carnis, with no soul—he should be drowned. And Singer reasonably would maintain that my son would not qualify as a “person,” because he would have no consciousness of himself in time and space.

Interestingly enough it was the Terri Schiavo case which took place a few years later that resolved Gabbard’s perplexities and cut through his doubts.

That a Florida court would order the deliberate starvation and dehydration of a woman whose mental disability differed not that much from my son’s struck me as what Gayatri Spivak terms “an enabling violation.” Schiavo’s death served as a turning point for me, and new interests, beliefs, and curiosities began to coalesce.

Both of these articles, then, show that the being of the person is not exhausted by consciousness, i.e. that there is a lot more to personhood than rational activities such as thinking and communicating thoughts, remembering the past, planning for the future, etc.

- - -

In case the reader was as surprised by the above reference to Martin Luther as I was, I add a longer quote which I found here using google:

Eight years ago [in the year 1532] at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: “If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water—into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!” But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore, I said: “Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil.” They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year…. Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.


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