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Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Marry an Amnesiac?

posted by Joshua on April 16, 2017 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Marry an Amnesiac?

My sister suffered a brain injury two years ago that left her with severe short-term memory loss. She has made a very good recovery, but she still requires full-time supervision and cannot work. On a typical day, she wakes up unable to remember how old she is, what city she lives in or what she did the previous day. Thankfully, she has retained most of her original personality; however, she is very easily confused, and her maturity level is similar to when she was a teenager.

About a year ago, a distant friend of our family learned of her condition and began a closer friendship with her. Their relationship has now turned romantic, and they are planning to move in together and are also discussing marriage. While I’m very happy that my sister has found someone to love and care for her, and I have no reason to believe that this man would ever cause her any harm, I’m having a very hard time accepting their relationship. He is a successful, well-educated man who is several years her senior, and I find myself questioning his motives—she’s very beautiful and sweet, but she finds it very hard to follow a conversation for any length of time.

A psychiatrist has deemed that she is able to make her own personal decisions (but not financial decisions). However, I don’t think she is able to make an informed decision in this situation.

My response: It’s ethically acceptable to someone who accepts it ethically and it isn’t to someone who doesn’t.

It’s as simple as that. You’re asking about people’s opinions. Some feel one way, others feel others.

I suspect your greater concern is if you can live with the consequences of your choices if you choose for someone else. One way you risk depriving her of possible joy, intimacy, support, and all that comes with a closer friendship, though you may protect her from being hurt. The other way gives the opposite risks and rewards.

Accepting that there is no book in the sky with absolute answers means you alone are responsible for your choices, including ones that affect others.

You may not have asked to take responsibility for someone who can’t choose for herself, but now you have it. If you could change the past, you probably would. You can’t, so I recommend coming to terms with your responsibility and what comes with it.

The New York Times response:

Your sister’s brain injury — and the fact that she can’t manage a checking account — make her vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. And yes, there can be something slightly creepy about falling for someone who is not capable of sustained conversation. You may be wondering whether this man is erotically engaged by her vulnerability.

Still, all this could be quite aboveboard. Maybe this man is indeed making her happy. As the pop song has it, “People fall in love in mysterious ways.” Judging from the psychiatrist’s assessment, too, the issue of autonomy here is complicated.

And people can have conflicting intuitions about these matters. Consider a couple of news stories from the past few years. An Iowa farmer was physically intimate with his wife, an Alzheimer’s patient at a nursing home, and charged with sexual abuse; a physician at the nursing home maintained that because of her dementia, she wasn’t equipped to give consent. A jury found him not guilty. In an article published in this magazine, jurors were presented with the case of a New Jersey philosopher who believed in “facilitated communication” and who, evidently convinced that she could converse with a nonverbal, mentally disabled man, became physically intimate with him. The jurors convicted her of sexual assault.

The situation you sketch is different from these: a newly romantic relationship, but with a woman who probably has more of the ingredients of autonomy than the Iowan’s wife had and certainly more than the nonverbal New Jersey man had. Our intuitions are formed by analogies — our minds go to a story of sexual exploitation or to a story of unlikely love. But those analogies never fit very exactly; typically, they’re more like mittens than gloves.

You ask if it’s ethically acceptable for an able-minded person to date someone with a cognitive disability. The answer is, sometimes, yes. What’s not so clear is whether it’s O.K. for this man to be dating your sister. The desiderata of protecting and respecting can be at odds. So it’s a fraught situation. Without putting aside your sense of watchful caution, though, you might want to give it the benefit of the doubt.

A year ago, I started a job as a clerk at a State Supreme Court. I love my boss, really like the people I work with and am satisfied in the work that I do. I am currently in school obtaining a second degree and studying to become an intelligence analyst. This job gives me the flexibility to work full time, support my family and still go to school.

When I interviewed for the job, the chief clerk stated that he knew he couldn’t keep me forever but asked that I give him at least two years. (No contracts were signed because my state is an “at will” employment state.) He did tell me that if another job came along sooner, he would understand.

Fast-forward to today. A position has opened up on the floor below mine for a court analyst. It pays twice as much and is directly related to what I am about to graduate with a degree in. When it opened up, I desperately wanted to apply, but the following considerations have stopped me: I have been in my current position for only a year; my direct supervisor in the position is going on maternity leave in another month; and if I don’t get the job, I do not want my boss (the chief clerk) to think less of me. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to work here at the court. I do not want to be disloyal to my boss or leave anyone in a difficult position during my supervisor’s maternity leave. I also worry that if I apply and do not get the position, I may be passed over for internal promotions or other positions because I will be perceived as neither a team player nor a reliable employee.

My question is: What is the ethical answer here? Do I stay at my current job for another year, hoping for a similar opportunity to work in a field related to what I am studying, and keep my reputation as a hardworking, loyal and reliable employee? Or do I apply for the job (which would provide a better opportunity for my family as well) and hope for the best? Name Withheld

My response: I wish people would read my answers to earlier questions, since the answers to past installments apply.

Your strategy of asking for judgment on an abstract philosophical point and yes/no questions distracts from coming up with alternatives. I suggest that instead of looking for judgment and a small number of options that you create more alternatives, in particular involving people affected by your actions in the process. Then to pick what you do not by abstract philosophical concepts but by considering whom you will affect, how, and how you expect they’ll feel—that is, through empathy and compassion.

Developing your social skills will reveal more options and increase their chances of success, liberating you from the false constraints now restricting your ability to see alternatives that could improve your relationships as you take on a new position.

The New York Times response:

I am not an expert on whether your chief clerk holds grudges or on attitudes to loyalty in your office. So on the prudential issues, your guess is as good as mine — better, actually. But you also raise the ethical question of what your obligations are. Your boss asked you to take your current job only if you were willing to commit for two years, which, at the time, you were. It would be wrong to break that undertaking simply because it has become inconvenient. But wait: Your boss explicitly said he would “understand” if something better came along in less than two years. Presumably, he meant something like: “It would be reasonable if you took a better job.” He didn’t say he expected you to stay given those circumstances. So what you’re contemplating may not violate the understanding you have.

I’m thinking about the issue as one between two freely consenting adults. In the context of employment at will, your boss has no legal duty to keep you on, and absent a contract, you have no legal duty to stay. Yet you two were obviously in very unequal positions when you had your original conversations. You might be tempted to say to yourself: “He knew that if I wanted the job, I was bound to say that I’d stay for a couple of years, whatever I actually felt. So he was exploiting my weak bargaining position. The deal I made was, in effect, coerced. I shouldn’t regard it as morally binding.” But again, wait! It can’t be O.K. to make an insincere promise just to get a job you want. What’s more, you clearly don’t feel exploited, given that you speak of gratitude for having been employed. And your boss has apparently earned your loyalty in other ways since. Even if you felt pressured when you took the job, then, you’re not excused from taking his interests into account now.

There is, in any case, an ethical way to sort out the situation between you and the chief clerk. Explain to him what you’ve explained to me. You’re grateful to him for the opportunity he provided you. And you don’t want to be disloyal by inconveniencing him while your supervisor is on maternity leave. So ask him what he expects of you. Whatever he asks you to do — and whatever you finally decide to do — you’ll have taken seriously your responsibilities to him and let him see that you’ve done so. You might still decide that this is an opportunity too good to pass up. But having the conversation is a way to be sure that you’re taking the boss’s needs into consideration.

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