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Hitting Bedrock, Practicing Ethics

The birth of his son forces Miguel Martinez-Saenz to find out if being philosophical helps when it really matters.

In late May last year, approximately eight weeks before my wife was due to give birth to our second child, I received a call from her asking if I could leave work to meet her at the hospital for an ultrasound. A visit to her obstetrician had prompted the doctor to recommend taking a closer look at the baby. As images of what could have ‘gone wrong’ went through my head, I could never have imagined the news the doctor would share.

He told us that the sonogram analysis showed that our son had a form of skeletal dysplasia that affects the bone growth in his arms and legs. He explained that there are over 200 forms of this condition: he was fairly confident our son had achondroplasia, more commonly known as dwarfism, where his arms and legs would be disproportionately smaller than his average-size torso, with his head being disproportionately larger. Achondroplasia, he continued, is acquired from a mutation that takes place at conception, so it’s not a gene either I or my spouse carried. It is also extremely rare: only one out of every 25,000-40,000 babies are born with it. The positive side of the doctor’s diagnosis was that achondroplasia is a non-lethal form in this family of syndromes. In addition, he reassured us that our son could have a normal life span, at least average intelligence, and a high quality of life if the proper medical attention was given to him as he developed in infancy, childhood and his teen years. Thanks to this early diagnosis, we could make sure our son began seeing the necessary specialists on a regular basis as soon as possible, giving him the best chances for the highest quality of life.

I remember getting tearful as soon as I got in the car: I couldn’t sob because my three-year-old daughter was with us. I was scared. Would I be able to handle this? Could I create the appropriate environment for my son to flourish? And I remember the anger. Why me? Why him? He can’t possibly have a good life – I can’t have a good life, for that matter. My poor daughter: What will this mean for her?

But why was I so disturbed? This was my son – a little person, but a person nonetheless: my son. Hadn’t I always, in my engagements with otherness, taken into account a person’s humanity? Once again, why was I so disturbed?

And so the musings began: as a philosophy lecturer hadn’t I always talked about society’s role in inhibiting people’s development by imposing a desire to be normal – a desire to conform? I was quite adept at blaming society for not being sympathetic to the plight of those who are different. The real questions could not be avoided, however: how would I respond when I had him in my arms? Did I myself have deeply rooted assumptions and desires concerning what it means to be ‘normal’?

It’s relatively easy to sidestep these issues when one speaks only in hypothetical terms – inside the classroom, say. But what about now? Would my training as a philosopher enable me to respond compassionately? More importantly, would philosophical reflection help me cope with a circumstance that was both unexpected and shocking?

Philosophical Counsel

I like to think of myself as a trained ethicist, a humanist, and a vocal proponent of the importance of a liberal education. I’ve often extolled the virtues of moral theory and ethical reflection, but was my theoretical approach to the world going to be beneficial as I confronted this new situation?

Upon reflection, I recognized that my feelings were foundational to my moral reasoning and judgment. I didn’t have to go as far as Hume and claim that “reason is… the slave of the passions” (in A Treatise Concerning Human Nature, 1739), but I was forced to understand that emotions are, at times, not easily tamed, and more importantly, sometimes have a life of their own. What would I feel for my child?

Recalling my multiple encounters with Aristotle, I wondered whether I would have the courage to do the right thing to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive – the Aristotelian ethical response. I was fairly confident I could make the appropriate decisions about providing the necessary conditions so that my child could have the best life possible. But, again, what would I feel? Would I be motivated out of love and care for my son; or would I be making decisions out of some deep-felt guilt, or even pity?

I also soon examined my commitment to moral universalism [the same morality applying to everybody] and person-centered ethics. It seemed clear to me that since the ultimate focus of moral concern is the human being, and such concern should be assigned equally to all human beings, I should accord the respect and dignity to my son consistent with these moral beliefs.

What about the potential conflict between my desire for a normal life and my desire that society allow people to live the lives they have reason to value? Here, Pierre Bordieu’s notion of habitus caused me to ponder the ways we are shaped by our environment and the ways my reactions would be conditioned and, therefore, not freely chosen. My desire for a ‘normal life’ was socially conditioned and shaped.

I couldn’t help reflecting on my espoused liberal commitments, understood in part through political theorist Judith Shklar’s claim in her essay ‘Putting Cruelty First’, that the worst thing in the world is to be cruel. Much like others before him who were different from the norm, my son would inevitably experience humiliation. I would not be able to completely shelter him from a world that is at times cruel. But would I be cruel myself? I remembered James Baldwin’s analysis of oppression in his novels and essays, and his uncanny ability to capture the discriminatory gaze in prose. While strangers would undoubtedly look upon my son as disabled, would I have the wherewithal to appreciate my standing as my son’s father, rather than as the father of a disabled child? I thought about the possibilities. I cried. I sobbed. I was – all too human.

Suddenly Wittgenstein’s celebrated phrase from Philosophical Investigations came to mind: “If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” While Wittgenstein’s remark was undoubtedly intended for a different purpose, it allowed me to understand that philosophy and my liberal education would after all enable me to focus my attention on that which was relevant, and enhance my ability to cope adequately, to respond with love, and to react humanely.

Reflective Understanding

Philosophy may not have provided me with a neat solution to everything; but ethics in particular was at least furnishing me with a way to frame the situation. Ethics was also challenging me to confront rather than control the new. Reality had taught me that everyday judgments aren’t as neat as those in textbooks and classroom discussions, but that aspiring to be virtuous still means trying to do the right thing, to the right person, with the right motive. I also appreciated from Aristotle and his thoughts on akrasia [acting against one’s better judgement] that we don’t always do what we think we should. This doesn’t mean we’re wicked; it simply means that trying to do the right thing isn’t always straightforward or easy.

Is the study of philosophy useful? Further, as Socrates and Protagoras once deliberated, can virtue be taught? Let me, in Socratic fashion, answer with a series of questions. Does philosophy – specifically, the art of ethical reflection – enable one to understand the nuances and complexity of a sometimes overly-sterilized and homogenized world? Does it help one to experience joyfully and sorrowfully – in other words fully – what life offers us? Does it help us to understand, as Michael Sandel suggests in ‘The Case Against Perfection’ in The Atlantic April 2004, that life is a gift, and all our attempts to control it are completely unwise? Most of all, does it challenge us to become people who value friendship and community, and live humbly, caringly, compassionately and generously?

How useful are the ideas of philosophers in this situation? Aristotle teaches me to seek only as much precision as the subject matter allows; Kant makes me appreciate the universal humanity of our fellows; James Baldwin and Toni Morrison help me to understand difference in a way that Levinas cannot; Stephen Hawking teaches me more about courage and resilience than he does about black holes; and from Thich Nhat Hanh, I discover that if one hopes to cultivate loving kindness, compassion, deep listening and loving speech, one needs to practice these oneself.

All in all I continue to learn that these ethical ideas are made clear in my encounter with the everyday. They become discernible in my monthly meetings with a group combating the ills of poverty in Springfield where I live, and in discussions with students over universal suffrage, child labor, the degradation of the environment and our overall commitment to leave the world better than when we arrived. These ideas are manifest whenever I travel with students to Nicaragua to live with farmers in communities outside of Ticuantepe ; and yes, when I attempt to practice loving my wife and children. My philosophical sensibilities and my liberally educated dispositions are being made manifest in my encounters with my now born son – a child who has already taught me more about life in four months than I might have dreamed.

It is not so much ethical theory as the combination of theory and practice that prepares us to deal with the unexpected. Anxiety, sleepless nights, and the occasional surge of unexplainable emotions that lead to sobs and tears are not going to disappear. But I can also anticipate the joys that my son will bring to all who are fortunate enough to encounter him on his journey. As my wife put it in a letter to family and friends: We will strive to offer him as much as we know he will offer us, all of you, and society in general, with his uniqueness and a different approach to life

© Miguel A. Martinez-Saenz 2009

Miguel Martinez-Saenz is Assistant Provost for the First-Year Experience and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio.

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