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Pat Robertson and the duty to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s

September 19, 2011 17 comments

In a recent article from the on-line magazine slate.com William Saletan asks whether Pat Robertson’s statement that Alzheimer’s can justify divorce because your spouse is “gone” is right. I encourage you to read the article before continuing reading this post.

On the surface, Political Science appears ill-equipped for answering the question of whether you should leave your spouse if they have Alzheimer’s. After all, what do you care if x% of Americans would leave a spouse with Alzheimer’s for someone else, or if a spouse who watched x number of hours of “The Jersey Shore” had an x% increase in the likelihood of leaving his or her spouse?

Alternatively, for a more definitive empirical measurement of the problem, the following cartoon provides a clear answer to the question posed by one of Robertson’s callers: should you leave someone based on an objective measure of how much happiness that person provides you?

To many people (at least the one’s who can correctly read a line graph) the above cartoon will provide a simple solution to the dilemma of whether you should leave your spouse because your spouse has Alzheimer’s and has no idea who you are. As your happiness goes down, you should “find someone else.”

What I find intriguing about Saletan’s article is that it invites people to rethink their previously held opinions about Pat Robertson, conservatism, liberalism, their marriage bonds, adultery, and their own ethical and moral values. And it is in this capacity that Political Theory, as a subfield within political science, can provide ways of moral reasoning that might help sort through the complexity of Robertson’s response.

Consent as the Foundation of the Social (and Marital) Contract

In 2011 we take it as axiomatic that people consent to the relationships that define their lives. The social contract tradition of political theory, which includes Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and The Declaration of Independence, values the ability of people to freely choose their obligations and commitments. Commitments that people choose are legitimate. However, each of the thinkers (and document) listed above has a slightly different understanding of what consent requires of the person doing the consenting. And this is at the heart of Saletan’s article about Robertson’s comment. Consent, like the subtleties of an enduring marriage, is complicated.

On one level a marriage vow is an oath and a pledge binding two people together: a union of two separate entities into one. Marriage vows appear as a variation of the following:

Groom/Bride: I,____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Wife/Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.

Bride/Groom: I,_____, take thee,_____, to my lawful wedded Husband/Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.

While egalitarian sensibilities often lead couples to delete the “to obey” from the second passage, few couples delete the passage “in sickness and in health.” If you consent to marriage, then you have pledged to “hold from this day forward . . . in sickness and in health” to love and cherish the person you married.

So what does “in sickness and in health” mean to different people? And how might two people come to a common understanding of what “in sickness and in health” means? When is a spouse no longer a spouse? Or, alternatively, when have the obligations of matrimony been violated to the point where one spouse is justified in leaving another? And here is the larger political question: when do the obligations to others outweigh the claims to one’s own happiness? Political theory tries to answer such questions through discussion of justice, virtue, and whether there is a duty to care between people who are spouses, friends, and even strangers.

Questions for you to think about:

  1. As you read the Saletan’s article ask yourself what you would do?
  2. What kind of information or knowledge would help you make the decision Robertson’s caller is trying to make?
    1. How does your education, particularly in political science, help you morally reason through this question?
  3. Or, if your college education has no business in trying to educate someone about how to handle the situation Robertson’s caller describes, who—if anyone—should educate people about their duties and obligations?
    1. Should we even bother with such questions in a political science class?
  4. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse with Alzheimer’s from financial abuse by the other spouse?
    1. Does the state have a duty to protect the spouse without Alzheimer’s from financial, or physical abuse from the spouse with Alzheimer’s?
  5. Finally, since you have been asked to comment on this blog post by Professor Klunk, I would ask that you read some of the commentsposed on slate.com about Saletan’s article, and then think about the following questions:
    1. How would your comments differ if your posts about this article were 1) anonymous,  2) if your name, picture and home address were attached to your comments, 3) you had to read your comments face to face to your classmates?

Pacific@MPSA: Ambition, belonging, and the moral community

Late 19th century view, the Puritan stereotype...

Image via Wikipedia

Ed. note: This is the fourth in our series on papers presented at the Midwestern Political Science Association meeting. Today is Prof. Jeffrey Becker’s paper, “The Ambition of Moral Citizens: Belonging and the Limits of the Moral Community.”

This essay argues that democracies face an elementary challenge of building a sense of belonging out of a diverse and heterogeneous population. Socially, people inevitably separate one another into exclusive categories of “us” and “them.”  Yet, politically, when democratic citizens seek political power by claiming the mantle of moral righteousness, and in turn demonize their political opponents as immoral, they undermine the capacity of democratic institutions to build political unity and consensus.  Political ambitions to build a community of moral purpose by dividing “us” from “them”, when adopted as a strategy for ambitious citizens seeking political power, end up demanding that citizens who have no immediate reasons to despise one another-sort themselves into coalitions defined by increasingly polarized worldviews. By connecting a case study of the American Puritans with contemporary political debates I show how claims to political power which center on determining the moral purity of citizens end up expanding and entrenching an authoritarian politics hostile to democratic practices. Left undeterred, this polarizing of citizens undermines democratic practices essential to forming a collective responsibility for public life.

Keith Smith Communicates about New Media

April 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Pacific Political Scientist Keith Smith participated on a recent panel about the importance of new media (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  in the 2008 elections.  The panel was part of the 6th Annual Communication Symposium organized by University of the Pacific’s Communication Department.

Professor Jeff Becker and SPSA

December 28, 2006 1 comment


Professor Jeffrey Becker has been named Political Theory Section Chair for the 2008 Program Committee of the Southern Political Science Association. In that capacity he will be responsible for selecting all the political theory panels and papers for the 2008 conference of one of the main annual political science conferences.

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