In this post I’m going to deal with a couple commentaries on my recent posts on the ethics of marriage and illness.
Steve Hays of Triablogue
The first is a brief response to Steve Hays of Triablogue. I feel obliged to respond to Hays, however briefly, because the poor fellow seems desperate for some attention. He keeps saying outrageous things about me. And even though I ignore him, he keeps prattling on like that persistent rattle in an aging Chrysler van.
First the background. I wrote a sympathetic commentary on Pat Robertson’s commentary on Alzheimer’s Disease which focused on Grant’s dilemma (from the film “Away from Her”). In the scenario the Alzheimer’s of Grant’s wife Fiona has progressed to such a degree that she no longer knows her husband. To make matters worse, she is now in a romantic relationship with a new beau at the extended care facility. I asked whether Grant was morally obliged to maintain his matrimonial ties to Fiona under these conditions and I suggested that he need not be.
Steve Hays summarized my position under the heading “Dump your ailing spouse.” I never said “dump your ailing spouse.” But I do advise dumping Mr. Hays’s moral commentary. And I also think that a three year chaplaincy internship at a busy hospital would do Mr. Hays a world of good. Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing for all the poor patients that would be subjected to his “care” during those three years as he slowly worked through all his personal demons.
A much more nuanced and useful commentary is to be found at “Steven’s blog” which focuses on my follow-up post on a PVS patient. In that subsequent post I discussed the case of a spouse who suffers a massive stroke and becomes a PVS patient who, as such, has lost all higher brain function. If this individual could live in this state in the hospital for fifty years is the new husband obliged to remain marriaged to her?
Steven responded like this:
“I am reminded of the story of Benjamin Warfield, who experienced something similar:
…in 1876, at the age of twenty-five, he married Annie Pierce Kinkead and took a honeymoon to Germany. During a fierce storm Annie was struck by lightning and permanently paralyzed. After caring for her for thirty-nine years Warfield laid her to rest in 1915. Because of her extraordinary needs, Warfield seldom left his home for more than two hours at a time during all those years of marriage.
“Who shows a greater godliness, a greater selflessness, a greater imitation of Christ: Warfield, or the one who puts his paralyzed wife in a care home, as good as the care home may be, and gets married with another, and lives a nice pleasant life, having a few young kids, a nice house with a picket fence, country club membership, eats fancy meals and has sex with his wife often? What does either possibility suggest about the motivation of the man in getting married? Doesn’t the former show that the husband generally loved his wife for her own sake, regardless of the benefits conferred to him by their relationship, and the latter shows that the husband was principally concerned with enjoying a pleasant life lead with another?”
I’m familiar with Warfield’s story. It is unfortunate that the PVS patient case I mentioned reminded Steven of Warfield’s case because the two are very different. Not only was Warfield’s wife sentient, she was aware of her own existence. She had aches and pains, hopes and fears. And she came to depend enormously on Benjamin and to love and cherish him all the more deeply through her great hardships. By contrast, the spouse in the case I mentioned is a PVS patient. That means that the spouse has no sentient awareness and thus no self-identity, no aches, pains, hopes or fears. If that spouse were treated lovingly by her husband for fifty years or by a machine she’d never know the difference. So for Steven to appeal to Warfield’s case as a suitable analogue is, to say the least, inappropriate.
This brings me to a really important underlying theme in Steven’s blog. It is important because it seems to be far more widespread than Steven’s blog. Let me be blunt: Steven’s view looks a lot like the moral rigorism of the fifth century ascetics. In short, the more unpleasant your life, the more christlike it is and thus the more morally praiseworthy. Consider again the scenario that prompted Steven’s comments. A couple of twenty year olds are honeymooning when one of them has a massive stroke and is left in a coma with all higher brain function permanently lost. The one that is in a coma will now live for perhaps the next sixty years in a hospital bed with no conscious life at all. Is the other spouse morally obliged to stay with the spouse that is in a coma? And if not obliged, should we tell the spouse that the higher, truly Christ-like path is to forgo remarriage, companionship, parenthood and all the rest in favor of emptying the bedpan of the comatose spouse?
I think not. To be sure, if anybody chose to remain married to an irreversibly comatose spouse I would count that a noble thing to do. But I wouldn’t count it any nobler than one who divorced the irreversibly comatose spouse in favor of a new life. After all, with all higher brain function lost that spouse is essentially dead, even if the bodily organism still grows toenails and hair.
By the same token, in principle I admire an ascetic who can choose to sleep in the desert while using a rock for a pillow. But that doesn’t mean I admire that individual more than the Christian who chooses to live in the city while using a pillow and a Serta mattress.