Over the last couple of months, I’ve had a number of ideas and concerns banging around in my head, clamoring for expression in some kind of post. They’re difficult thoughts because they have largely to do with my brother and his recent passing, so I’ve been reluctant to sit down and do the hard work of putting them down on the blog. In addition, I’ve been focusing my energies on getting over the last major hurdles of my PhD program before I can start the research phase. Now that I’ve done that (and also have tentatively secured funding from the NSF for the research I want to do), I have a little space to start working through these issues in the way that has always worked for me – through speculation and writing.
Basically, my concerns revolve around the question, “did my brother deserve to die?” It’s a harsh and a hard question, I know. And of course my answer is that he didn’t. But the fact is that we live in a world in which people’s individual choices are the basic moral determinants of the value of one’s life. Tim drank excessively, used illegal drugs, choose to work in a harsh and unforgiving field, and chose to neglect the illness that would ultimately take his life. That is the narrative that this world understands and accepts. It doesn’t matter that he was overworked, underpaid, had no health insurance, was often mistreated by employers, had no time or money (because he was overworked and underpaid) to go to the doctor or ER, and was ignored and ultimately misdiagnosed by the doctors when he did go. Those factors come up – obviously if he had been properly diagnosed he would still be alive, if he had had proper health care he might have been better taken care of, if he had had a stable job and better pay he would have had the time and money to go to the doctor – but in the end, it always comes back to those bad choices that he made.
I don’t want to downplay those choices. Tim could have taken better care of himself, could have done any number of things to get out of the harsh world in which he was living. He stayed because he loved what he did, enjoyed cooking, cared about making people happy, and generally wanted to be the best chef he could possibly be. So when you tell me that his choices were what ultimately lead to his death, what I hear you saying is that my brother deserved to die. It reminds me of Donna Haraway’s injunction in When Species Meet – the basic moral imperative underlying her approach to life and the relationships we have to others (human and nonhuman alike): Thou Shalt Not Make Killable! These explanations for my brother’s death that revolve around personal choice and not around the social and structural causes that are at their base, they make my brother killable. They tell me that his death was the inevitable consequence of the life he lived.
It makes me wonder, what would the world look like if we didn’t base the value of an individual’s life on the choices that s/he makes. What would happen if, instead, we started from the assumption that everyone deserves a life regardless of the choices they make – if no one could be made killable? Would we work to ensure that everyone has the basic necessities of life – health care, food, shelter, education, etc.? Would we care less about the choices people make and more about the people themselves? Would we fight the forces that would deny people the life that they deserve? I would hope so. If that were the case, I’m sure my brother would be alive today.