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‘Life without preconceived expectations’

| Thursday, December 4, 2014

aquinas lecture by caitlyn jordanCaitlyn Jordan
Eva Feder Kittay, distinguished professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York, addressed the Saint Mary’s community in the Student Center’s Rice Commons Wednesday evening with a lecture titled, “Normalcy and a Good Life: Problems, Prospects, and Possibilities in the Life of People with Severe Cognitive Disabilities.” The presentation was part of the College’s annual McMahon Aquinas lecture and speaker series, which values the qualities of sincere questioning and truth wherever it can be found, assistant professor of philosophy Michael Waddell said.

Waddell is also the endowed Edna and George McMahon Aquinas Chair in philosophy, which selects the annual lecturer related to the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Kittay is the first lecturer in the series who is an alumnae of a woman’s college, Sarah Lawrence College, Waddell said.

“I do think there is an enormous value in a women’s college,” Kittay said. “By the end of a couple years, we are able to think without all the craziness that goes on in co-ed situations.”

Her work has encompassed the ideas of feminist philosophy and history, and she has authored numerous books in her field, Waddell said. Her contributions have earned her nationwide recognition as a distinguished philosopher and professor.

Kittay’s lecture stemmed from her most recent work study in the area of disability, normalcy and the idea of the good life.

“An op-ed in the ‘Washington Post’ wrote, ‘having a child with a severe disability makes every parent a philosopher,’” Kittay said. “What if you are already a philosopher and are raising a child with multiple and severe disabilities, including severe cognitive disabilities? You become a humbler philosopher.”

Kittay referred to her lecture as a story and an argument from the perspective of a parent who has experienced first-hand, life as a parent raising a disabled child.

Many who watch from the sidelines see a disabled child, and they see a family condemned to struggle, Kittay said.  Her goal was to convey how these families and these children can experience a good life without the element of supposed “normalcy.”

“Severely cognitively disabled individuals process their world and experiences atypically,” Kittay said. “[They] experience a range of human possibilities only partially available to or not salient for others. [They] have a greater degree of dependence on the care of others.”

Kittay posed the question to her audience as to if these people with disabilities could live a good life. She quoted Aristotle in saying, “The activity of the divinity which surpasses all others in bliss must be a contemplative activity … happiness is coextensive with study.”

“The philosophers, of course, have much to say about the good life,” Kittay said. “A more contemporary view is held by Martha Nussbaum. What’s normal for ‘a truly human life’ include play, closeness to the animal world, must include the ability to be autonomous and to act rationally and reasonably. These are presumed to be at the core of conception of moral personhood.”

Kittay quoted Socrates’s famous statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” before addressing how she applied this philosophy during the birth of her daughter.

“By the time I had given birth to my daughter, and yet once I became her parent, there was no question in my mind that her life was worth living,” Kittay said. “I would love her as the child of mine she is. This was foundational, the love of reason. The capacity to act rationally [was] not at the center of a life of meaning and value.

“How can one argue that moral worth [is] predicated on the ability to reason,” she said. “One can argue life itself is of estimable value.”

In speaking about her daughter, Kittay emphasized she did not want her daughter to merely live but to have a life worth living.

“This conception of a good life may mean they do not have a life worth living,” Kittay said. “We need not engage in disputes if the aim is to see a good life, nor do I want to speak of a minimally acceptable life. A good life should be much more than minimally acceptable.”

Severe cognitive behavioral problems can often cause high levels of pain, which may make life harder to endure. In the case of autistic children, this may make ordinary sensory experiences intolerable, such as physical affection, Kittay said.

“As I read and hear from parents with children with severe cognitive disabilities, it’s like being part of a special club,” Kittay said. “Even in the midst of pain, there’s a terror we will lose this child. Many of us has come to appreciate a life without preconceived expectations.”

Love, joy and the gift of just being able to ‘be’ encompass the idea of the good life for these children and families, Kittay said.

“It’s not easy being not normal,” Kittay said. “Normal is such a benign word. The term is deceptively descriptive. When used against an individual, it can feel like a blunder.

“Why does the news that your child is not normal send such a shock,” Kittay said. “The worst fear is that the impairment will affect the child’s thinking. We want health for our children. How will this child grow into an adult who will be valued, not merely as a pitiful charity case?”

Kittay said she experienced a great amount of anxiety for her daughter in that she knew she would not live a normal life and always be very vulnerable to the world around her. Though her daughter, Sesha, is now grown, some concerns remain strong for her wellbeing and safety, Kittay said.

“She will not be able to have an intellectual life,” Kittay said. “[There’s] her extreme vulnerability to harming herself [and] her vulnerability as someone’s victim.”

Kittay also has concerns about what important and “normal” desires of her daughter’s will remain unfulfilled, including romantic love and the desire for young children.

“Does this mean that a good life is impossible in the absence of the normal,” Kittay said. “In our own development as parents, the two concepts seemed inseparable in the early years, prying apart ‘a good life’ from the ‘normal life.’”

According to Kittay, acceptance in our society is directly linked to self-worth, and therefore affects the desire for normalcy.

“We require the affirmation of community that what we are is valuable. We are in danger when we are held in contempt,” she said. “Yet, as much as each of us desires normalcy, we cheerily say, ‘we are not normal,’ and take a certain pride. Claiming normalcy is admitting to a lack of distinctiveness, a banality. We desire to be recognized as individuals.”

There are two senses of normal which include an objective judgement of reality and a subjective judgement of value, Kittay said.

“It remains puzzling why we should ever desire what is most common,” Kittay said. “So, why should we desire what is a judgement of reality? What deviates from the norm, maybe either a variation or an anomaly, but they need not be pathologies. It’s far more puzzling why anomalies are considered as desirable.”

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