If you would have told me yesterday that I would find myself in sympathy with a controversial ethical position taken by Pat Robertson I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. Christian Post blogger Olabode Ososami’s article “Divorce and Pat Robertson’s Alzheimer’s Gaffe” has changed all that. In an interesting article Ososami points out that Robertson defended divorcing a spouse stricken by Alzheimer’s Disease because, as Robertson says, it is “a kind of death”. Ososami goes on to quote Robertson as follows:
“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s [the husband] going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her….”
Robertson then added:
“Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer.”
Ososami was not sympathetic to Robertson’s controversial position. And it is easy to understand why. This seems to be precisely the kind of situation covered in the “for worse” part of the martial vows. Thus divorcing a spouse at such a stage seems to be a cruel abandonment, like the cancer-stricken wife who finds her politician husband cheating on her.
I am sympathetic with that reaction. It may be right. All I am saying is that I am sympathetic with Robertson’s reasoning as well. This is what ethicists call a moral dilemma, one which is more complex than Robertson’s critics are recognizing. Why? Well Robertson asked for an ethicist to give a defense of his position so I’ll give it a try. Yes, I’m defending a controversial ethical position taken by Pat Robertson.
It helps enormously if rather than discussing this case in the abstract we turn to a concrete scenario. The 2006 dramatic film “Away from Her” chronicles the horror of Alzeheimer’s as it decimates the mind of Fiona (played by Julie Christie) eventually forcing her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) to institutionalize her for her own protection. Over time she eventually gets to the point where she no longer recognizes Grant. Shortly after that time Fiona becomes romatically linked with a new companion at the home, a mute, wheel-chair bound resident named “Aubrey”.
Of course Grant finds this new state of affairs enormously painful. But he also recognizes that this new relationship gives Fiona some emotional stability in her ever worsening situation and so during his visits to the home he mostly keeps his distance, watching Fiona from across the room as she sits with Aubrey, oblivious to the fact that she had ever been married. (When Grant does attempt to refresh her memory she becomes distraught at this strange man telling her strange things.)
Like Grant, the viewer is forced to wrestle with feelings of fidelity and betrayal. We want to judge Fiona and Aubrey for their intolerable behavior. And yet we know there is no betrayal here. Fiona no longer knows Grant is or was her life-companion. She may be committing adultery by a narrow, legal definition (if we understand “adultery” to encompass a broader range of activity than sexual intercourse), but it is not defensible to say she his committing adultery by a moral definition.
Now let’s think about this. If it is not possible for Fiona to be unfaithful to Grant, is it still possible for Grant to be unfaithful to Fiona? Perhaps. It may be that there is a radical asymmetry here which is rooted in Alzheimer’s. Thus, it may be that Fiona can have a romantic relationship with Aubrey (emotionally if not physically) which is non-culpable and thus non-adulterous because of her loss of mind, but it is not possible for Grant to do the same.
But given this radical asymmetry, is it possible for Grant to dissolve the union? After all, if a spouse can have a romantic relationship with a third party with moral impunity, one might think that is evidence that the marriage has ended. Even if you do not ultimately conclude that Grant would be correct in divorcing Fiona, I hope you can see why others, Pat Robertson included, might disagree.