As parents of a young woman who very much resembles Ashley, we recognize the way her parents speak of their daughter’s preciousness, and of the love and joy she brings into their life. Ashley is a girl with severe intellectual disabilities who will remain in a childlike body because of hormone treatment and surgery her parents elected for her. As we can know the full account of Ashley’s condition, her parents’ situation, and the hospital ethics committee’s deliberations only through the media – through a glass darkly – we will not pass judgment on what is in Ashley’s best interest or the best interests of her parents. We know too well the hardships associated with rearing a child with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, especially in our own society, unyielding as it is to the medical needs even “normals” have. We would not have our daughter Sesha undergo similar interventions. We do not believe she is a perpetual child, even if her intellectual capacities do not exceed those of a child, for she has lived for thirty-seven years in this world and with that has acquired knowledge, sensitivities, and sensibilities that no child of “comparable” capacities could have.
In Sesha’s case, her development and memories are made manifest especially through her love of music, a joy she shares with Ashley. Music always permeates our house, and Sesha has responded differently to various genres as she matures. The children’s songs that completely engaged her as a child elicit only momentary expressions of pleasant recognition now. As a teenager, she picked Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” from a background radio program. Now her passions run most deeply to love songs and symphonies, and especially Beethoven.
The body in which she lives, with all its developmental changes, has been part and parcel of that store of information and affects. We cherish that body as it is. Whether or not Sesha does, we cannot say, but can only presume. That “we cannot say” will be at the heart of what we wish to say.
Peter Singer, in writing about the negative responses to Ashley’s treatment, challenges the argument that such measures violate Ashley’s dignity. Singer thinks that neither a very young child nor an older human with comparable intellectual capacities can have dignity. A baby is cute. But dignified? And, argues the philosopher, we don’t attribute dignity to dogs and cats, “though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants,” so why should we attribute dignity to infants or those who have an infant’s intellectual capability?
A philosophically naïve reader might wonder: what does intellectual ability have to do with dignity, anyway? Isn’t dignity something that we should give to all human beings regardless of how smart they may be? We don’t give IQ tests to determine if a person is entitled to the things that go with human dignity, such as human rights. We might also question whether Singer is right that we don’t attribute dignity to animals. We may recall our own unease at the sight of a circus elephant dressed in a tutu and led in a “dance.” Doesn’t that discomfort stem from an intuitive sense that an elephant has dignity? And finally, the philosophically untutored might well ask: How do you compare the mental level of dogs and cats to human infants? Isn’t that comparing apples and oranges? True, there are quite a number of intellectually challenging things that both humans and dogs do – such as hunting. But what counts as clever human hunting is different from what counts as clever dog hunting. We humans lack that clever nose, and the dogs lack the capacity for strategic planning. Different strokes for different species.
The philosophers, however, have made the capacity for rational thought a criterion for dignity. Deftly, they have fashioned a single yardstick against which to line up all the creatures of the world. At some place along that rule is a mark. Those creatures who don’t reach the mark are “without dignity.” With one stroke, the Ashleys of the world and the elephants in tutus are placed below the line. Or so thinks the philosopher, for neither the philosopher nor the parent of the disabled child knows for sure what either the elephant or the child knows. And as Socrates told us, knowing that we don’t know is the beginning of wisdom.
Now, full disclosure: One of us is a philosopher, but we both stand with those who look at Singer’s proclamations with perplexity. We have learned the lessons that Ashley and our daughter Sesha have to teach those who create false idols of intellectual capacity: Life is precious; all individuals have intrinsic worth, the source of their dignity; and joy, like the human body, comes in many varieties. To assume we know more is hubris. And hubris, as the Greeks taught us, leaves us friendless in the universe.
– Eva Feder Kittay teaches philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and is the author of Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency. Jeffrey Kittay founded Lingua Franca, the Review of Academic Life, and teaches the journalism of ideas at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University.