Ethical interrogations of short stories
This is a post from Rock Humanities Dissertation Fellow, María Izquierdo Miranda. Maria is a 5th year ABD student from Puerto Rico in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at Penn State University. Her dissertation project, “Adaptable Debility: Becoming Human Under Biocapitalism,” addresses the performance of mental debility by middle class individuals of recent Anglo and Hispanic biocapitalist contexts.
Ethics is an entangled word. Here at Penn State we have to be examined annually to prove to people that WE ARE… doing everything we can to make sure that everyone is ethical. While the information within the modules is well-intentioned, the quiz assessment merely shows that we can answer questions correctly. Becoming ethical exemplars is another matter. How can we teach ethics to people who are mostly passed their formative years, including ourselves? How can we show that WE ARE… more than the marketable slogan of a business institution?
This entry for the Everyday Ethics page shares two short stories in the hope of eliciting one or more ethical interrogations, and perhaps, a discussion. The stories, “Bad News” and “Fine” address the current, Western conception of the bioethical subject in relationship to its death, probing on one assumption present in bioethics’ diagnostic discourse: that human life has an inherent worth.
This statement is problematic for a variety of reasons. It implies that there are other forms of living that possess less worth. It also leaves unanswered the question: what is human? From a biological standpoint, it is quite easy to answer, but as we know, our tribal tendencies tend to delimit and hierarchize groups within the human to the point of excluding, exterminating, and completely erasing some from the “human” category. Other animals and living organisms are not even in the “worth” picture.
Why does worth have to be ascribed to any kind of life? In addition, why is human life either worthy or unworthy of living, zoe or bios, excrement or gold? Value or worth ascribed to living itself, to the “struggle” of living as it is usually portrayed these days in the West (e.g., the struggle to find a job, to keep a job, to put food on the table, to battle diseases, to stay healthy or achieve health, to stay happy or try to be, to stay alive as long as a vampire) is as detrimental to life as labelling some types of lives unworthy of living. Ascribing value to human life, which is equally championed by scientific and religious discourses, devalues dying and also devalues, diagnoses, and thereby objectifies closeness to dying and desire to die as things irrevocably out of this world of the living.
Here are the stories. No quiz assessment required.
—And what do you think about the scar, doctor?
—Well, this dark tissue you see on the right skin flap…
—Yes, the scab.
—No, no. It’s not a scab. This tissue is dead.
—Dead? But, so part of the skull is covered with… like gangrene?
—People think terrible things when they hear the word gangrene. Ischemic necrosis is the term that we use.
—So… you would say that she won’t recover from this?
—I did not say that.
—Then, she recovers?
—I did not say that either.
—Could you actually say something?
—One has to wait.
—Wait for what? Just say it.
—Wait for time to pass and see if—
—For time to end, you mean.
—Hope is the last thing one can lose. We gave her Ativan, it’s a sedative, and that is why she is like that, but we want her calm—
—Like a dog that fell asleep with part of its tongue out?
—It is a cruel analogy. I understand why you would say that, but—
—But, doctor, we should add that it’s a dog that you call, but it does not respond. It doesn’t talk, logically, it is a dog. But it doesn’t complain either. It barely opens its eyes. And when it opens them, it gazes with astonishment as if it could not recognize any of its smells. And it lifts the left arm. And it lowers the left arm. Or paw. I should say paw. And it lifts it. And it lowers it. It lifts, it lowers, as if it desired to do something that would take it one second to abandon and another second to long for it again. And it also bites and chews its own tongue as if that mass had never been there in the first place.
—Certainly, all of those are signs of her current neurological state. If we continued using the dog analogy—
—Yes! At last, thank you, doctor. When do we put her to sleep?
Now, holding coarse, spotted hands, gently pecking at their lips and caressing the limited number of hairs still clung onto their heads meant as much as when in the past, almost daily, he would pry and hide inside of her. Now the image of a strong man and a beautiful woman would be discerned only when they would gaze through the dimness of each other’s pupils. Although in youthful antiquity, when summers still did not smother, they never mixed like ocean water, today they did not know how, before long, they would do to learn to live without being in the presence of each other, and without being able to avoid it, stop sharing their somewhat different but inseparable minds. But as more days would turn to darkness, they increasingly felt their deteriorated frames fancy at least a pause in their existence, and their brains, with the hesitation of an arrhythmic heart, began to ponder the idea of not remembering each other again.
One afternoon, lying on the dust mite sofa, as they once named it, from one second to another, one beside the other, without wanting to depart, but not desiring to stay either, the old woman glanced at him without eyelids, or a symmetrical jaw. Observing her so extinct, and himself so nonexistent, in the instant when his eyes clenched, they dripped fleetingly, but as they reopened a second later, they were completely dry, almost dying, of envy.