A Nation Born Blind

Being too lazy to write a new essay on the occasion of today’s anniversary, I take the liberty of cribbing from my own blog from last year on this day. There are some interesting comments on the original post–check them out here.

In the Gospels Our Lord is sometimes portrayed as healing the blind, as though that were a remarkable thing to do, as though restoring sight to the blind were an act of kindness, the relieving of a malady. Imagine how strange it would have seemed, both in antiquity and to our own ears, were one of these blind people to say to Our Lord, “What are you doing? I don’t want my sight restored, I’m happy just the way I am!” Blindness has two vectors: one is either born blind, or one becomes blind after being born with sight. I find it very difficult to believe that a person who became blind after being born with sight would actually prefer to remain blind; but I also find it hard to believe that, if offered the capacity to see, someone who had been born blind would refuse the gift. Even without knowing what it is like to see, I think, a person born blind would be unable to think of any rationally compelling reason to remain blind if sight were in the offing.

Aristotle, famously, remarked that vision is the most precious of the sensory modalities:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things (Metaphysics 1.1 980a21-26)

This would appear to be a nearly universal human sentiment, and so it would seem strange, not only if a person born blind were to refuse a gift of restoration of sight, but also if we, who have sight, were to refuse to give such a gift, were it ours to give. Suppose you had the capacity to restore sight to a person born blind. Would you say to him, “You’ve never had sight, so you can’t possibly know what you’re missing, you can’t possibly feel slighted by being sightless, and so you have no right to complain if I refuse to give sight to you.”

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

And yet that is what we do say, all of us, and we have been saying it for thirty-five years now. Only we’re not saying it about sight; we’re saying it about life itself. We say to the unborn: “You’re not fully developed, you’re a mere potentiality. You have no commitments, no web of relationships, no similarity to the rest of us who can walk and talk and reason among ourselves. You are totally alien, you have no cognition, no sentience, and since you have no nervous system to speak of, you can’t even feel pain as yet. And so you have no right to complain if we refuse to let all of these things develop in you.”

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

A person who has other commitments. A person who already has as many children as she wants. A person who thinks that the economic burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that the psychological burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that there are already enough children in the world. Or, perhaps, a person who never wanted any children to begin with, who got pregnant by mistake. Or against her will.

All of which are perfectly reasonable worries. And yet, none of the people who offer such reasons as these for killing a child in the womb would think it reasonable to offer the very same reason as justification for terminating the life of a child outside of the womb. Why not? We comfort ourselves with the abject Otherness of the fetus. It is so very unlike us, after all, and it has none of the same capacities for social interaction that we have, it has none of the self-awareness, none of the “personhood” shared by those outside the womb. Very convenient for us, really, that the fetus is so very different.

Oh, sure, we learned a long time ago that it’s not right to treat other persons differently if they seem to be different from us. We don’t hold slaves anymore on the basis of racial differences, because that would be wrong. We don’t discriminate against women in the workplace anymore (or we try not to) because that would be wrong. That person of the other race may appear to be very unlike me, but really he isn’t all that unlike me, he has all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. If I am a man, I may think that women are rather different from me, but they aren’t, really, they have all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. But a fetus–well, of course it does have all the same capacities that I have, but it cannot yet actualize them, and if I act quickly enough, it never will be able to actualize them, and that is enough to comfort me in the thought that it differs from me in a significant way: it is not a person, and I am. So I may treat it in any way that I desire: it has no duties, no rights–only persons can have those.

In this way do we lie to ourselves. Because we don’t want to think about what kind of a person would kill a child for the reasons given above. It’s better to pretend that what we’re killing is not a child at all.

We prefer to say to the person born blind: “I don’t want you to see what I see, it is inconvenient for me to share with you the faculty of vision, and so even though I have the capacity to give you sight, I am not going to do it.”

What kind of people are we?

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