Saturday, December 08, 2007

Because you're worth it

My first attempt at a proper post in about a month...

This is a kind of Bare Bones of Equality post. During my recent brain-plummet I read this post at Screw Bronze! Elizabeth writes,
"Which gets me to my question, what use am I as a human being? Why should anyone come to help me eat, or help me to the bathroom, or help me to bed when I can’t move? Why should I be taken care of? What purpose do I serve in our national and social framework? The plain fact is that I am not well loved by many people: my family whether immediate or extended isn’t interested in assuming the burden. The reality is that care isn’t coming from family. So it falls to society. And I, as a rational member of society (albeit only barely rational in this level of pain) don’t see the gain."
Finding myself to be rather less active and productive than Elizabeth, I decided to climb into the compost bin so that at least my decomposing corpse could nourish the plants. Only [...] pointed out that it would take ages, it would smell really bad and in the meantime, he'd have nowhere to put the old teabags.

In any case, I do know some of the answers. Of course, what we know doesn't always hold sway over what we feel, especially when we're in great pain and/ or feeling particularly frustrated by our limitations, and I've felt, said and written this sort of thing often enough. I want to emphasise that I'm not criticising Elizabeth for writing such things. However:

The founding assertion of egalitarianism is that every human being is of equal value. From this, it follows that everyone should be given equal opportunities in life and equal respect.

Like all fundamental moral tenants this (a) demands lots of qualification and (b) goes against a small but significant part of our human nature. Naturally, I consider my friends and family much more important than anyone else in the entire world. Most of us are, to some extent, attracted to convenient groupings and hierarchies. But as with our murderous inclinations, we must not bring these feelings into the way we behave in society. We don't have to send everyone a Christmas card, but we do have to give everyone the same chances in life - and indeed for life.

In fact, the only issue about my life which can be called into question is its viability, rather than its value. There are often rumblings along the lines that disabled people can only possibly be seen as equal when a society is affluent enough to indulge us. This isn't true; our value does not change. However, if two of us catch deadly Umbungo Disease and there's only one dose of cure, then the chances are that the best possible outcome (a life saved) can be achieved by giving the dose to the other person. If I am on a sinking ship with a shortfall of life-jackets, well someone else probably has a better chance of staying alive and swimming to safety than me. Morbid, but extremely unlikely events.

Those who disagree are often drawn to even less likely Desert Island scenarios. If I am one of a party stranded on a desert island with very limited resources, then I am going to be much less useful than everyone else. I will make no contribution. Worse, I will actually take resources from other people. The best possible outcome is only achieved if I am strangled and roasted for dinner (although cook me very thoroughly or you might catch something).

In fact, perhaps I could be very useful; the first thing I could do is seize the conch and solve tricky moral dilemmas like this one, reassuring my companions that I should be kept alive - advice I'm sure they'd all appreciate. But why?

This is not about sanctity of life. Capital Punishment is an absolutely ludicrous idea in a society that can well afford to imprison people for life, but on our desert island it would be impossible to secure a person who poses a threat to the rest of us, so they'd need taking out. Their existence effectively becomes inviable.

Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne-JonesNor is this isn't about arguing that whilst I cannot contribute physically, I may be able help put imminent starvation and death into perspective with daily poetry-readings. It doesn't matter if I can play no useful role at all. I remain of value because I am a human being. This doesn't mean that people should abandon raft-building and start constructing ramps so I can get about all over the island; even the most modern disability law, adjustment made to enable people with impairments to access the world must be qualified as reasonable given the circumstances and the resources available.

The alternative isn't a situation where we settle into some sort of "natural" hierarchy with those who are most useful at the top and those who are apparently useless being left by the wayside*. The alternative is a perpetual and bitter argument in which everyone attempts to argue for their own indispensability. Not only is the usefulness of an individual quite impossible to measure, but it is constantly changing and inextricably connected to the activities of other people.

Let's float our rudimentary raft away from that accursed island and back to the real world. In terms of contribution weighed against consumption, living in the West just now poses a small problem for everyone, and ecologically, the very richest people use the most resources. But we were talking about individuals within single societies as opposed to geopolitics, weren't we?

Let's take someone useful - a doctor, perhaps? A medical doctor is always useful, right? I wouldn't argue with that. However, even their usefulness is subject to variation. In the absence of technology, medicines and other resources, a doctor's powers to heal are very limited indeed. Then again, in a society where everyone enjoys good hygiene, nutrition, safe living and working conditions, a doctor's usefulness is somewhat less than it would be, say, in a war zone.

Also, in order to be as useful as possible, a doctor also depends on several other roles to be fulfilled. People who organise paperwork, who make appointments and so on. Nurses who perform less expert but no less essential roles (that's the theory). People who keep things clean. Then everyone who helps to provide equipment, medicine and so on and probably half a dozen other roles I haven't thought of. All very important, very useful.

So the reason doctors are so useful is that they can save lives and improve quality of life. Teachers don't directly save lives, they do the quality of life thing, but that's a little more complicated. What about lawyers? Or accountants? People who work in telesales? The prime-minister? The Beckhams?

And how do these roles - which people are paid to do - compare with those roles which people are not paid to do. How does a fire-fighter rate against an excellent parent? How many of us feel we owe our happiness, sanity or even our lives to our friends? Might it actually be the case that lots and lots of people are far more use outside of the thing they get paid for?

Nobody is without a role. Even the most severely impaired person plays some role in the lives of others; should we suppose that this is negative? That anyone truly takes more than they give? Economically, they may - I do, and because of the stage of life that I happened to get sick, I always have**. However, I do help support the existence of others; I am a patient, a client, a customer. People like me provide a convenient scapegoat The Scapegoat by William Huntfor an incompetent and corrupt government. And then there are all the other things I do for people which matter terribly to me but are kind of irrelevant, being conditional on how sick I happen to be.

Now, all this doesn't mean we don't have responsibilities towards one another, and that we shouldn't all aspire to live a virtuous life and all that. Only our value cannot be diminished by involuntary limitations on what we are able to do.

That having said, it's bloody frustrating and changing levels of dependence and loss of self-sufficiency are a rock solid git to come to terms with. So everyone is allowed to feel like a waste of space from time to time.

The other day, Fluttertongue referred back to a post she wrote about being "done to" which offers a spiritual perspective to the frustrations of inactivity and is well worth a read.

* When something is by the wayside, well surely the wayside is at the side of the way already? I lose sleep thinking about that sort of thing.

** None of us should be ashamed of this because, as I've said before, it is a universal insurance policy from which everybody has an equal right to claim should they find themselves in need. Medical, practical and financial assistance is provided for us as it would be provided for the most economically productive person should they have a nasty accident tomorrow (which might well happen). It is the (bad) luck of the draw who finds themselves in this position, however much they have paid into the system through tax. Meanwhile whilst voluntary and family carers get a very raw deal, most are making a choice; care provided by the state is unequivocally consensual and indeed, renumerating. People who do this work deserve respect and appreciation, but this is not charity.


Maddy said...

Now how do we go about converting the US system?
Best wishes

This is my calling card or link"Whittereronautism"until blogger comments get themselves sorted out.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Milton refers to those who "sit and wait" and I guess being blind in a society which values physical labour from men must have been pretty shitty so he found a balance.

Theologically and as a researcher I know my value. The purpose of a doctorate (if you look it up) is to find original materials or insights in some way relating to the human conditions (at least in the humanities). And I feel, that I have done better observation and better work so far in the last year than I did in my dissertation. HOWEVER, we are in a society in which this information is seen to have no value, in which I am not sure whether the rest of society want to really claim us AS HUMAN - to incorporate our exprience into the "human condition" and learn from its diversity (albiet kinda SCARY diversity) - a woman in her fifties told me yesterday that she had never been sick in a significant way, never planned to, could in no way feel a connection with me and that thus what was the point of disability rights. Sure she was ablist, but only in the way the entire value system of north america is set up in the same ablist way.

Good post, I did like the compost idea. But I want more! I want more articulation (I do like the picture of the Azezel goat - which is, in many ways, what I feel some days). My problem is that if the only way we "give" is in ways without our choice or consent; that our very being requires care thrust upon us, have we not lost the very aspect which is supposed to make us human: choice?

Maddy said...

Email, email,email where is it? Nevermind - tagged you today dearie.

Lady Bracknell said...

So good to see you back in the land of the living - a quintessentially Goldfishy post, there :-)

Gone Fishing said...

Well what use are some people?

Jan walking along heard "Hello Sweet Pea!"

An lad branded as Autistic who people with practical experience of such things say is not autistic.

I have heard even a Doctor ask what right do such people have to be at school.

What importance do such people have in the world?

After many years him "waddling" past and saying "Helllo mrffs x" brings a smile and a deep enjoyment to know after all these years he holds her dear, being told he greeted her brings to me memeories of him holding my hand as witha s chool group we conqured the top of the castle point Light House rock, no mean feat for a "normal Child let alone him, and yet until we got back down I did not consider taking him up there to be a risk.
he wanted to go, we got there, he smiled, head teacher was pleasantly shocked what value can you place on such moments?

I am abit stuffed up, complex multiple inuries and dissabilities yet the system always tries to pigeon hole me into one simplistic view, mainlyu of having a good imagination!

What value are we, even those who are barely able to think or move?

Nobody can ever estimate quantatively calculate or economically statistically work out what value we all have.

Everybody at some time come sinto conact with others, be it physically or electronically and I BET every such encounter has for the other or ourselves some hugely valuble emotive result which can never be quantified or is beyond calculation.

Sorry to be a bit long.
Never doubt your value and never feel sorry for yourself we are, we can, we do! Never let anybody else devalue your existence!

Gone Fishing said...

Which all goes to show why one really should read the orgional post first!

How does one explain that one eventually discovers that when you don't fit the pre conceived "potential value" that you "Should have" Well then the "System" simply sets about defending tis beleifs and posturising reasons why you don't "fit" their "future intentions"
Seemingly it is all your own fault, or your "devaluing paradins" are entirely of your own making and imagination (Classic example "Peter read about his type on injuries on the internet in 1998 and since then, through information he provided to us that diagnosis has filtered into expert reports"

I guess our "Value" to the world is simply to be a "currency" and not toa s we seem to do question and create massive puzzles and problems for others trying to justify their Legislated ability to "Farm" you for as much as they can possibly screw the system for.

Sit back and be as independent as you possily can and not ask for help and you must be a fraud to be slapped visciously down as a warning to others.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the desert island scenario is that it doesn't take intelligence, creativity, humor, or love into account, only physical fitness. Someone of your wit is a morale builder. Someone of your intelligence is a solution finder and a natural magistrate, things every community needs, yes, even on a desert island.

That's why the theory of egalitarianism says every person is of equal value, because of wildcards like intelligence and dormant genetic material and goodness knows what other strange, non-obvious characteristics each of us contains that can insure the survival of a group, or at least make it worth having.

Or so say I.

So if you do ever find yourself in such a scenario, please don't be so quick to offer yourself up as a meal. Maybe instead think of a creative way to harvest and cultivate more food for everyone. I have absolute confidence that you could, and that you would keep people laughing while you did it.

Anonymous said...

The whole debate about who should be eaten on a desert island unnerves me; I was once on a walk with a group of uni students who decided I should be eaten first, on the grounds that a mathematician could not contribute anything to society. It made me smile when you mentioned accountants; being one I can honestly say that we do nothing of any use at all, and an argument for our continued existence could be problematic :(

In any case, physical ability should be irrelevant in such a scenario; more could probably be achieved by one disabled but educated person giving sensible instructions to a group than by 99 able bodied chavs from my local estate :P

Cusp said...

Good to see you up and running and seemimgly up to speed (oh and by the way, that Xmas cake is amazing and a real work of art).

In my view everyone has value in some way. Everyone contributes. It may be that someone cannot communicate, is not mobile etc etc --- whatever it is. They may be seen as being a demand of the resources of others in terms of money, energy etc but they still ultimately contribute because they bring something to the table in terms of understanding the human condition and the value of humanity in some way. They present a way of being in the world which leads others to question their own existence and value.

Being alive and sentient for the person who has difficulties with communication,mobility etc may be very demanding -- who can say if they cannot and it is likely that their way of 'being' is demanding on their own resources but for whatever reason, that is part of their role in society and that's partly why they have value and deserve respect and dignity.

Its the old argument about 'to do' or 'to be' and there's nothing wrong in just being if that's how things are for you. We can all learn from each other.

excentric said...

The thing about value is you never really know how valuable you are to others. My life was saved by a bipolar man who told me what to say to be kept in hospital, when I was going to be sent home, where I most surely would have done myself in. He had tried to kill his own self at some point, but the gun misfired. Had it not malfunctioned, I would not be here, I am sure. His value to me is inestimable, even though I am sure he is completely unaware of it. Never sell yourself short. Illness is discouraging, depressing, and crappy, but we still have much to offer, however incidentally it may seem to us. We probably never know the impact we have on others, but that doesn't mean we don't have an impact. Illness does not devalue us, it devalues those who think we are 'less than' because we are ill.

salad days said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
salad days said...

I'm writing a defintion paper on worth. I'm still working with it, but I assumed worth ought to be viewed as intrinsic dignity. I don't think worth can be added or detracted from by what you can or cannot do. Dosn't our worth transcend content and form? Worth is constant and stagnant-since we're new borns we have all the dinity we'll ever have. You don't lose or add dignity based on eternal factors or how others define you. That dosn't mean happiness is constant, beacuse worth and self-esteem arn't the same. Self-esteem flunctuates depending on our PERCEPTION of our worth (which is constant and stagnant). Outward forces affect our perceptions sometimes when they try to define who we are and what we're worth.
I don't think we could ever express or verbalize our worth because it's part of the formless- and we shouldn't try to conceptualize it (because it's too grand and etheral for us to wrap our brains around). Every living being (humans, animals, plants, bacteria, etc.) has this formless soul or worth, whatever you want to call it- regardless of ANY definiton or denomination society tries to accuse or attribute the being in question of. It does not matter if a being has no utilitarian value whatsoever,even algea, is "worthy" because inherently it has dignity. I don't think we need to validate pople by tring to find a way how they are useful. If a being wasn't useful, would it not be worthy?
P.S I hate using that word "worthy"-because it feels like we all have to offer something in order to be given common respect.
I LOVE this discussion. You all are wonderful, etheral, intrinsic dignitaries.