I know a person when I see one
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a class about Ethics taught by a professor of Philosophy at a respected University. I was pleased that the organizers of this event thought me worthy of one of the spots in this class. In this class, however, the instructor presented something that caused me angst and personal moral distress.
Before I go any further, please accept that my distress over a specific piece of academic content by NO means reflects any disrespect for the Professor, his University or the organization that made the class possible. In a secular setting, I am absolutely sure that any of 100 professors from 100 schools given in 100 different places would have contained this content or something similar. So while I reflect painfully about “The Issue of my disagreement”, this is not a criticism of aforementioned Dr Philosophy Professor (he is actually quite a nice fellow), Respected University or Nice Hosting Facility. To be hostile with them would be “shooting the messenger” and its the message I have issue with. I truly think this experience could have happened anywhere.
We were being taught some principles of ethics and I was happily bouncing along trying to figure out a way to not again forget what “deontological” means (having already learned it and forgotten it 3 or 4 times over the years) and then a specific piece of information was shared…the “ethical” definition of “person” (as defined by John Locke, Benjamin & Curtis with a bit of Peter Singeresque thinking).
Locke says a person is a “rational, self aware being”. Benjamin & Curtis say that a human becomes a person when they demonstrate “having ability and right to formulate various projects and make various commitments” & having “values and life plan that guide his or her conduct” (page 59 Ethics in Nursing Oxford University Press 4th Edition, 2010 ).
My snarky sarcastic self will tell you that using these definitions, half the people who live in my house are not “persons” since they are currently failing in the “life plan” and “commitments” stuff, but the less snarky more respectful self realizes that this instructor just told me that (in using their definitions) many people that I might interact with in my life don’t qualify as being called “a person”.
Oh where to start?
During this actual lesson, I did speak up and asked about this and I was assured that “not being a person does not mean that the human does not have standing” which feels like hollow reassurance to anyone being told they are not a person. I will admit that I have a pretty inclusive definition for person and I fear that a narrow definition is a fast-track to the slippery slope of deciding that anything goes for those we deem not “persons”. During the class, I was the only one who spoke up at first and I told the collected group that I reject this definition. Another individual chimed in a bit later with a concern based on having a disabled relative, they thought he might not be considered a person.
At a later time, I spoke both to my sons and to the Professor and was told that I really didn’t understand.
There is a possibility that those I was speaking to might have thought I was having a strong reaction only because I have a reputation for respecting unborn life and that is an easy leap for why this type of thinking is fraught with peril, but I already expected those values of mine to be challenged; this went past what I had expected. What if we (for the sake of argument just for a second) accept and agree that the issue of personhood in the unborn is a disputed topic in our society and set it aside and ONLY look at personhood of already born humans?
Using that definition, newborn babies, some mentally ill folks, those with some dementia, and those in comas (among others) are not persons. I would even be OK with using a qualifier like “mentally impaired PERSON” or “dependant PERSON” but to deny personhood is a horrible thing.
I was mortified in my research to learn that Joy Curtis (of the above quote) was a practicing nurse early in her career; how the heck did she get from the bedside (I assume giving care to all sorts of persons with varying levels of ability) to deciding that some humans aren’t persons and writing books that tell everyone so? I searched other nursing theory for definitions of personhood but everything I found assumed a wider definition and didn’t actually define it well. I even emailed Jean Watson (world famous Nursing theorist) and she emailed me back politely with some research leads. None of them gave me a specific definition to counter the ethics definition but again the Nursing literature seemed to assume a wider definition.
Where is Nursing theory when you need it to counterbalance an argument made by other disciplines who make assertions that are contrary to our shared values as Nurses (or people)?
I imagine that there will be people who will read this and they may agree with my sons that I simply don’t understand.
Apparently Philosophers are allowed to say anything they like (did anyone miss the recent article proposing “afterbirth abortion” infanticide as prefferable to adoption for unwanted babies?) and if they have a PhD and can get something published our society seems to go along like a bunch of stupid sheep accepting these ideas unchallenged. To what degree, however, are boring normal people socially pressured (obligated?) to submit to these kinds of ideas. As soon as we take out a student loan to send out children to Colleges and Universities where these books are required reading, we are fully subsidizing and sponsoring them.
I willingly admit to you that while I started thinking about this during the class and afterword with the calm of having participated in a rational academic argument, on my way home I began to weep bitter tears for all the beautiful beings I have cared for and loved who are marginalized by this kind of thinking. I felt marginalized myself for valuing ideas that others don’t share. I felt weary that we have to fight for an idea that seems so obvious to me…and knowing that I can never make people see the beauty in front of them.
I am going to go stand in this corner all by myself…the stupid person who doesn’t understand what well educated people are trying to tell me, the gal who believes that all sorts of folks are persons. I think I have already forgotten what “deontological” means again. I believe that if being considered an uneducated simpleton is what must be for me to hold fast to my inclusive definitions of personhood then that is a price I am willing to pay. Who is with me?
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