Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thinking Of You, Harriet McBryde Johnson

Harriet McBryde Johnson died yesterday. That's a picture of her book above; that's a picture of her, on the cover. She was 50.

HBJ was a disabled activist and lawyer who wrote a fascinating piece in the Times Magazine some years ago about what it's like to be disabled and why everyone should stop being so patronizing, dumb, and basically evil about the way they think about disability.

Link to Times Obit is here; Magazine article by her is here.

Her Times piece had a big effect on me when I read it. Partly the piece describes her response to Peter Singer, who argues in his philosophical writings that if a baby is destined to live a life of great pain and suffering, it is ethical to bring about its death. She and her colleagues say such decisions are never appropriate.

It wasn't so much that she convinced me that there was something fundamental mistaken about Singer's line of thought. It was more that her description of her life, and the way she thought about her life, made me think that we have no clue, whatsoever, about how other people feel and live.

In the essays she describes her life as a lawyer, and the range of very ordinary pleasures she enjoys, like doing her work, walking around town, hanging out with her pals. She makes vivid and clear that even though she's all bent over in a wheelchair, and can't get up to pee, and has to have her food mushed up for her, her life is just a really ordinary and happy one.

It goes to show you, people are really bad at making sense of other people's lives. She explains in her essay how often people would come right out and say things like, "Oh, how can you live like that!" Duh, people.

You can philosophize all you want on either side of the mind-body problem, or what it is to have mental states, or how we know about other people, and then you get this brute fact: a person many people would immediately judge to be feeling awful all the time and terribly depressed is really just, you know, a normal person.

You can philosophize, too, all you want, about where to draw the lines when it comes to making decisions about health, and life, and so on, but this total inability we have to judge the quality of someone's life suggests to me at least one rule: if there's a person can make a decision for themselves about whether, and how, to live, we should trust them, enable them, to do so.

HBJ was an atheist, and certainly a rabble-rouser, so I didn't want to title this post "RIP HMJ." But yeah, I'm thinking of you.

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