Disability and Identity

Susan S Stocker. Frontiers. Volume 22, Issue 2. 2001.

Some of our best moral learning comes through sharing and listening to narrative accounts of how people learn to live well. Narratives convey the constitutive moves that either enable or disable us from thriving in our relationships with others, but ethics are what claim to inform our aspirations with respect to others. In this article, I will draw from my own experience with multiple disabilities while inflecting this narrative with three very different relational stories that are told—and recommended to us—via ethical theories. Relational stories are those that ethicists use to convey what we are capable of within interpersonal relationships. In particular, I will explore the relational stories told in Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of a one-sided obligation in the “face of the Other,” John Rawls’s Kantian construction of the conditions of reciprocity behind the “veil of ignorance,” and Aristotle’s disclosure of genuine mutuality between “noble” friends. Finally, I conclude with the implications of the narrative I tell for living well both as an academic and as a teacher.

Disability as Formative of Identity

As a twelve-year-old girl, I loved to ride my bicycle. I rode for miles, often spending the whole day riding between my grandparents’, cousins, and friends’ houses. When day was done, I had to ride up a very long, tough hill to get back home. I fantasized that I was in a competition, that the event’s announcer was wondering aloud if I had it in me to best my competitors. I was just ahead of the pack, and so I didn’t dare allow myself to let up, even for a moment.

Because both of my parents were avid golfers, I was encouraged to work on my game, and I did. In fact, I tried to perfect it. Carrying a full set of clubs, I often played the entire course by myself. I had insanely high standards for myself. Whenever I hit a bad ball, I chastised myself, furiously reviewing techniques on how to do better with the next shot. This dedication had to do with more than simply my desire to play golf with my parents and be a part of their world; I had something else to prove because I am congenitally hearing-impaired.

When I misheard crucial dues in the drift of a conversation, my contributions were non sequiturs, so I often felt left out of what was going on. This created a lot of pent-up desires and needs socially, emotionally, and intellectually, which fostered a fierce determination on my part to compensate for a keen sense of inadequacy. In the domain of physical activities, where listening was not necessary, I excelled. In school and in certain social settings, though, I felt clearly out of my league. Unable to fully participate, I experienced a despairing acquiescence in what I doubted would ever truly involve or include me. Feeling stifled was in turn translated into an elaborate fantasy life, an imagined form of perfectionism concerning exactly how things ought to be. Together with Walter Mitty, I created a fantastical interior arena in which to enjoy my own agency, always imagining an heroic level of performance.

This mental imaging of “how it oughta be” was also formative of my need for theory. I identify with bell hooks when she writes:

I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.

But the options for expressing this need were at that time rather narrow for me. As a teenager I became a radical fundamentalist Christian. This commitment lasted until my early twenties. The elaborate theological theory of this belief system accomplished several purposes for me. It seemed to explain the guilt I felt over being attracted to other girls, although, in fact, I felt depraved. The Christian doctrine also had the unconscious appeal of allowing me to be better than my parents, or at least “better off,” as we used to say in church, because we felt forgiven. For this, I needed no less of a guarantor than the Creator of the universe.

When I was sixteen, I traveled around the country putting on judo and karate demonstrations and preaching the gospel. One member of our group would sing, especially when we performed at churches. She once collaborated with a local musician, a bass player, performing old gospel songs that lent themselves to being jazzed up, and they did, just a bit. However, it was emblematic of our increasingly spiritualized sensibility that she later regretted having done this. She put this vividly when she said that it is wrong, “whenever the song hits your foot before your heart.” So, tapping your foot is suspect.

As a member of groups disparaged based on the body being both disabled and lesbian, it’s not surprising that I was attracted to a disembodied way of being. But these absolute standards for behavior only accentuated my own perfectionism, tied as they were to my old compensatory need to overcome all challenges because I was partly deaf. Indeed, even after I shed my Christian identity, I retained this drivenness, which was essentially a form of grandiosity.

I later transferred this need for intense achievement from athletic to academic endeavors, working obsessively hard in graduate school, goaded by a relentless superego. But, as Alice Miller writes:

As long as we … overvalue our own achievements… we do not have to mourn the fact that love is not forthcoming without achievement. Nevertheless, if we avoid this mourning it means that we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, and clever. Thus we … despise weakness, helplessness, uncertainty—in short, the child in ourselves and in others. The contempt for others in grandiose, successful people always includes disrespect for their own true selves, as their scorn implies: “Without these superior qualities of mine, a person is completely worthless.”

In my case, grandiosity involved vacillation between this unhealthy drivenness and procrastination, even paralysis, during which I fantasized all kinds of unrealistic achievements. When finally launched into action, my perfectionism took over, so that whatever I did was never good enough, to the point where sleep, health, good eating habits, and personal relationships were sacrificed to achieve my goals. Although my disability played a role in the way I developed this strategy, it’s not that uncommon among academics who are still seeking approval. This is a hollow goal, for approval can always be rescinded.

I finally came out to my parents during graduate school. It took about five years after coming out for me to feel we had all adjusted. I had a family precedent in having a gay uncle. My mother’s brother was a very talented musician who tragically drank himself to death by age fifty-three, when I was a senior in high school. During many intense conversations, I kept insisting to my parents that Uncle Jay could have been happy if only he had come to terms with his sexuality. As it was, he lived unhappily with his parents his whole life. He could never bring himself to commit to a loving boyfriend, a significant relationship I only learned about after his death. Surely they could have found a way to make their lives work together, if only Jay had not been so lacerated by self-loathing. I had tried for years to deny and then to rid myself of my lesbianism, had even subjected myself to an exorcism ministry once, but it obviously didn’t take. When I eventually accepted lesbianism for myself, I finally persuaded my parents that this was where my happiness lay. Part of this campaign involved me portraying to my parents that school was going just fine, when very often it wasn’t.

Besides trying to compensate to my parents for being deaf, I was also trying to be an exemplary daughter, thereby making up for the fact that I was a lesbian. Having internalized homophobia, I was trying to show that not only was I “normal” in every other way, but that I could be superior, and that my intimate relationship was just like any heterosexual relationship, only better, if anything. I felt it incumbent upon me to assuage their doubts by convincing them that years of negotiating my deafness in a hearing world and my sexuality in a heterosexist world had not scarred me.

While still languishing in graduate school, fearing that I would never get through, I had a revealing fantasy. My mother was very involved in running major golf tournaments for women during this period. Compared to my rather solipsistic dedication to my studies, I admired her efforts on behalf of women athletes, for golf was, until very recently, one of only two professional sports open to women. She was a party to this achievement. My fantasy involved winning the women’s U.S. Open. In reality, this was not likely, but I still needed to prove something to her and to myself. I thought I had to be the best at something she could appreciate.

Added to this was the incredibly competitive atmosphere of graduate school, in which I felt so easily replaceable. In the classes I most cared about, I tape recorded all the lectures and then spent many many hours transcribing them, using a machine on which I could crank up the volume. As a result, I was often working in an unhealthy high gear. I had a lot to prove. Yes, I love philosophy, and, yes, I can work hard. But any fear-driven performance does not produce our best work, nor does it come from our best selves.

I started a full-time teaching position two weeks after finishing my dissertation, on which I had been working night and day for two years. My drivenness carried me through five years of teaching fifteen new courses, but my health suffered. I had lots of stress. I developed a sleep disorder. But, still untenured, I pressed on. I loved reading, studying, and talking with students, but I worked too hard for too long. I got plantar facilities, an inflammation of the arch of the foot, from an overuse injury. This condition grew worse and worse, partly because I had no idea how serious it could become, partly because of bad medical care, and partly because I was still too driven to pay attention to what my body was saying.

Eventually, the condition worsened to the point that I needed a wheelchair for about eight months. I found myself suddenly unable to walk, with a diagnosis that predicted that I would never walk again, at least not without great pain. My drivenness, always such a successful characteristic in the past, ceased to work for me. This new disability frustrated the fierce determination and drivenness I had developed to compensate for my old disability. Whenever I exercised too much, my feet became inflamed all over again. Working harder to overcome this new challenge was futile, even counterproductive. Recovery involved a long and painful process of learning not to try too hard, but instead to be both engaged and receptive to what came toward me without my effort, a posture that proved therapeutic both physically and relationally

Levinas and Moral Proximity To the Other

In terms of relationships, a perfectionistic drivenness is a distinctly one-sided affair. Being so focused on ensuring there will be nothing in our own performance to reproach ourselves with later on doesn’t allow us to see others, to be fully present to them. When relating to others, we see mirrored back an array of projected ideals. Against these, we are only too aware of glaring flaws brought to light, both in ourselves and in others. Keeping ourselves on a short leash only prompts us to tighten up on others. We think others should be just as driven. I remember thinking, “Well, I’m working almost every evening and all weekend long, why aren’t my students doing likewise?” Given this type of self-absorption, might Levinas’s notion of moral “proximity” to the Other offer a corrective? What follows is an account of the intellectual journey my need for theory has taken me on.

In order to enter into the ethical scheme Levinas articulates, one has to be receptive to the question of what ethics might look like to postmoderns for whom structures themselves, both linguistic and intellectual, come under suspicion as contingent, though necessary (if only temporarily). Levinas says we become awakened as a moral self when we are responsive to the unspoken moral demand encountered in the face of the Other (autrui). This moral demand remains unspoken because even the project of translating it into words is only a temporary, albeit necessary, scaffolding for moral performance. Being in moral proximity to the Other is triggered by the presence of a persons face. Translators of Levinas’s work read autrui always as referring “to the personal other, the other person.” Levinas is using the Other here in a way very different from common usage, which tends to emphasize that this Other’s status is a function of the othering we accomplish for unconscious or conscious purposes of our own. The presumption in much of social science, for instance, is that we construct the Other in order to form our own self-identity, and this difference is understood to be artificial. The point of this critical examination of othering is to underscore for us that people who are different from us are more like us than we think.

Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of women taken as Other, for example, certainly has this sense to it. Men need us to be part of the casually determined en soi (in itself), to be enclosed within our sphere of immanence always taken up with doing repetitive things (cooking, cleaning, changing diapers), rather than opening up a new future for ourselves. So they construct us as the Other, as not fully free. Beauvoir criticizes men for doing this and women for buying into it, for women are also completely free and completely responsible, subjects whose being as pour soi (for itself) means we also form our own unique identities by the choices we make.

For Levinas, however, the Other is always someone in particular to whom we are obligated and that someone really is different from us. Any attempt to capture her in our own understandings, although necessary in order to be responsive, always runs the risk of being onerous and inappropriate. Even if momentarily apt, these interpretations of the Other are inherently evanescent. Remaining in moral proximity involves being on call, as it were, for continual revision of this unspoken moral demand.

Because this Other is “higher than I” for Levinas, we bear a one-sided obligation to the Other, an obligation that is both unconditional and infinite. This means that ethics is about the Other, rather than about me. When Levinas observes that “the face orders and ordains me,” he means there is something morally nonnegotiable about being face-to-face with the Other. Certainly it isn’t the Other’s specific facial features that accomplish this; as he observes, “The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes!” What makes Levinas’s construct a distinctly poststructuralist and postmodern approach to ethics is that the face of the Other obligates us without recourse to comprehension of any kind. That is, before the imposition of any categories, definitions, strictures, descriptions, structures, rules, or reasons, we are already subjected to the unspoken moral demand in the presence of the face of the Other. For the “signifyingness of the face” is efficacious without explanation.

We see something of the salience of this presence whenever a parent, wanting to up the moral ante, says, “Look at me in the face when you say that!” But we also see it in situations of grave political moment, for example, in the photo of the 1960s flower child putting a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s pointed rifle or in the televised image of the individual protester who faced the other individual driving a tank in Tiananmen Square. Perhaps the most powerful example, immortalized eponymously in a movie, was when Gandhi urged his people to confront the British colonialists face-to-face, thereby posing a more effective challenge than engaging them in argumentation about human rights. Gandhi believed, rightly as it turns out, that the British, “faced” with what they were doing wrong, would leave India at their own initiative. It was evidently not reasoned arguments but the face of the Other that convinced the British to leave.

In order to respond to the Other, however, I must somehow interpret this unspoken demand. But no sooner than I do so, I run the risk of restricting or infringing upon her prerogative to interpret her needs for herself, and of thereby failing to attend. In his book, Postmodern Ethics, Zygmunt Bauman explains the Levinasian notion of proximity as follows:

Proximity involves an attention, a waiting—that is not possessive; it doesn’t aim at dispossessing the Other of her will, of her distinctiveness and identity—through physical coercion, or the intellectual conquest called “the definition.” Proximity is satisfied with being what it is—proximity. And is prepared to remain such: the state of permanent attention, come what may.

But this is “a daunting task,” for, as Bauman points out, “It strains the self to the limits of endurance…. How long can one wait, if no end is promised, if the waiting is from the start denied the comfort of the fulfillment to come?” If morality were instead rule-based, we could relax our efforts as soon as we carried them out. For Levinas, there is never any closure or quitting. His view renders us impervious to the vicissitudes of relationships, for we must keep on going, no matter what the response. This implies that we would be free of the ressentiment that would otherwise come over us when someone we were trying to help or to love only spurns our efforts. Levinas simply says, so what?

In relational terms, I must go on being attentive without concerning myself with, or waiting for, the Other’s response to me. Remaining in such moral proximity to the Other is essential to the one-sidedness of the obligation for, as Levinas puts it, “I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it,” adding, “Reciprocity is his affair.” In contrast to the limited liability sustained by following rules, this demand is unconditional and unceasing. I can never escape from the moral uncertainty by knowing that I have done enough.

Such waiting is morally efficacious in situations that otherwise would threaten us with what I call “definitional intrusion,” where someone tries to define us, which—even when foisted upon us with good intentions—is experienced as a violation. However, this emphasis on one-sidedness is, I fear, also expressive of the postmodern despair over even the possibility of achieving any kind of parity or joint endeavor between people. Not only is such an ethic about the Other, rather than about me; it also is decidedly not about us. Worse, when this ethic is taken on one-sidedly as obliging, it is antirelational. Relational ethics means that if bad behavior doesn’t have bad consequences, we aren’t doing that person any favors. On the contrary, we only make matters worse, both for this individual and for ourselves. When this one-sided obligation isn’t shared by the Other, in practice it allows egregious relational violators to defend their independence from the moral judgments of others, dismissing them as categorical restrictions of their freedom to interpret themselves, a presumably violent form of definitional domination. For categories are not only beside the point, they are considered inexorably oppressive insofar as they try to freeze the Other within the judge’s framework, itself a violation of moral proximity. Levinas is concerned that we never attempt to overcome or undo the Other’s radical alterity.

I appreciate how relationally damaging attempts to dominate us through a perverse sense of definitional entitlement can be. As a teacher of young women, more commonly I see how women often need to learn to trust the moral intuitions they have, rather than hold them in abeyance. I’ve heard and read too many accounts about both seducers and attackers whose technique included some form of verbal cajoling designed to put the intended female victim off balance, to muddy her valid reading of the risk she’s taking or the actual danger she’s in. By overcoming her tentative moral voice, her potential for agency is weakened. Women are already too influenced by patriarchal norms not to consider their own needs and desires. Attentively waiting upon the Other, in the way Levinas suggests, can be relationally exquisite, but only when it’s appropriate.

Coexistence in a Kingdom of Ends

If relational one-sidedness remains problematic, perhaps reciprocity is the answer. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues for these kinds of relationships by posing a contractarian view of justice that provides the proper conditions for achieving reciprocity between members of society. Although, in his more recent work, Rawls has moved away from his appeal to Kantian ethics, in this book his scheme exemplifies it, for he argues that reciprocity has to do with the way each individual’s distinctness and inviolability is respected within “a Kingdom of ends.” This Kantian notion implies that we are each self-legislators who, because endowed with reason, can ascertain the moral law for ourselves and, being also free, can actually obey it. That is, reason shows us the categorical imperative that we are to treat others as ends in themselves and never simply as means. Coexistence in such a kingdom of ends assumes that our relationships are reciprocal between rational, equal, autonomous adults who respect each other. In contract language, I am owed this respect from others even as they owe it to me.

In order to ensure that the initial principles that are to guide us will be fair, Rawls offers us a variant of the Kantian scheme of reversibility. He asks us to engage in a thought experiment in which we imagine ourselves behind the socalled “veil of ignorance,” where we are supposedly unaware of our actual station in society. Not knowing whether we will be female or male, black or white, rich or poor, straight or queer, able or disabled, we will supposedly conceive of fair societal rules. He argues that under these conditions, the rules that eventuate will be designed: 1) to ensure equality for all “in the assignment of basic rights and duties,” and 2) to legitimate inequalities “only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.”

By placing ourselves behind the veil of ignorance, our sentiments are corrected in such a way that we will choose only those rules that can be legitimately universalized for all. This accomplishes what Kant has in mind. For, as Bauman puts it:

Kant’s notion of universalizability implies reversability, viz., that the rules can be willed as applying to all, so that I am content to have my circumstances reversed and still agree to the conditions reason dictates. This is a strategy of fixing erratic sentiments to make sure that whatever happens emotionally, people will not be receiving without giving more and giving no more than the established pattern demands.

It’s rather like telling two children who each want to have the larger share of cake that one has to cut the cake, while the other gets first pick. By thereby ensuring that the original cut is as equal as possible, this fulfills the so-called reversibility requirement. The premise is that because we are all too easily actuated by self-interest, only by imaginatively removing the particular self will our interests approximate the respect and fairness that are due to other inviolate individuals.

However, by focusing exclusively on our protected status as autonomous individuals, this position prompts the now familiar feminist critique that this framework literally constructs us as having no interests in other peoples’ interests. Accordingly, although justice as a value is important, for we often sorely need it, reciprocity is the closest relational bond this scheme envisions. Indeed, contract language, based as it is on respect, implies dealing with each other at arm’s length, and sometimes the best we can hope for is a sort of contractual tit for tat.

Taken alone, the justice perspective actually impoverishes us, for the tender, skillful responsiveness of relational attunement to others is easily trumped by contract language. After all, contractual relations lend themselves to being evaluated by outside parties. When I was using a wheelchair, I wanted people to look out for my situation because they wanted to, not because the law required this of them. Out in public, however, I willingly settled for the state’s insistence upon curb cuts, accessible entrances, and parking spaces.

Interpreted in ordinary language and experience, the normative frame of reciprocity prevails whenever the implicit or explicit agreement seems to be, “You give me what I deserve, and I’ll give you what you deserve.” This contractarian model of relationships, embedded in the liberal paradigm, not only overlooks but gives no moral credit for relationships based on the family or on friendship.

This is, of course, the theme of much feminist thought that critiques the hegemony of the liberal paradigm embodied in Kohlberg’s so-called “justice” perspective in light of Carol Gilligan’s observation of “a different voice,” articulated as the “care” perspective. Taken as competing moral orientations, the justice and care perspectives see the self in very different ways. Appealing to the familiar image that we can perceive (gestalt) as either two facial profiles, when the space between them is backgrounded, or as a chalice, when the space around it is instead backgrounded (but never both at the same moment), Gilligan writes:

From a justice perspective, the self as moral agent stands as the figure against a ground of social relationships, judging the conflicting claims of self and others against a standard of equality or equal respect (the Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule). From a care perspective, the relationship becomes the figure, defining self and others. Within the context of relationship, the self as a moral agent perceives and responds to the perception of need. The shift in moral perspective is manifest by a change in the moral question from “What is just?” to “How to respond?”

This passage, indicative of Gilligan’s more recent work, argues that we need to be able to utilize both perspectives, to be fluent in both moral voices.

As Margaret Little summarizes, the “marriage” metaphor that underlies this dual approach is “Wisdom comes, not in seeking closure, but in alternating between the two gestalts.” But the two perspectives are actuated in response to very different vulnerabilities. Little puts it this way:

In the gestalt underlying the justice orientation, the self is conceptualized as atomistic …. The fear that structures experience is the fear of interference and oppression; the default stance towards others is hence mistrust, which can of course be overcome—but which takes overcoming. In the gestalt underlying the care orientation, the self is conceptualized as interconnected with others …. The fear that structures experience is the fear of abandonment; the default stance towards others is hence trust, which can of course be overcome—but which takes overcoming.”

Because we truly are vulnerable to both interference and abandonment, we obviously need what both orientations supply: We need to be respected as individuals and to be free from arbitrary or unfair discrimination. But we also need to be in caring relationships whereby we avoid indifference and neglect. Moral maturity within the care orientation is also a corrective to the traditionally oppressive feminine virtues of self-sacrifice in and to the relationship. Moral maturity involves caring well both for others and for ourselves.

What differentiates Gilligan’s approach from that of Levinas is the continual back and forth calibration of each individual’s response to the other. The relationship is the figure against which we can appreciate the moral abilities and disabilities of those who partake in it. Disconnection from both self and other is the problem illuminated by her care orientation. For Levinas, however, the solitary individual is still the figure. All that counts for her is to go on waiting upon the Other. Levinas’s scheme would, however, presumably protect her from the definitional domination of others but only if they also felt unconditionally obligated to wait upon her.

Whereas postmodern ethics characterizes the imposition of rules as the very instrument of definitional intrusion, the liberal paradigm wants to establish cognitive rules to prevent the infringement of individuals’ rights. But these rights, based as they are on the respect inviolate individuals are owed as a matter of principle, do not bring us together. In fact, they do nothing, as Annette Baier puts it, “to ensure that the people who have and mutually respect such rights will have any other relationships to one another than the minimal relationship needed to keep such a `civil society’ going.” In short, the relational stories we tell ourselves and each other do matter, for they can either help us to clarify the conditions under which relationships flourish or frame our situation in ways that deter us from making the appropriate relational moves.

I agree with Little’s conclusion that the “care” orientation is just that, an orientation, not a full-blown moral theory. Even so, as she emphasizes, such orientations decisively influence how we frame moral theory, for they determine what preoccupies us and therefore how we select what is important to theorize about. I also agree with her that, given our culture’s thorough development of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and autonomy, what we now need is an ethical theory that honors the preoccupations that emerge from a care perspective. In what follows I suggest that Aristotle’s ethics not only articulates what Little calls “the ethics of normatively substantive relationships” (those norms pertaining to those whom we know well), but also extends to a wider ethic embracing those with whom we are not in close relation.

Vibrant relationality between two good friends is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s ethical theory. Rather than being a traditional prescriptive theory that adjudicates between competing moral claims, however, it is a phenomenologically inflected theory that discloses the moral performance that is always already going on. That is, instead of arguing to first principles that we then subsequently use as moral criteria, he argues from those principles the virtuous agent already possesses by showing how they find expression in moral performance. In his book Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study, Robert Sokolowski spells out this Aristotelian insight,

We do not come to know what generosity is, and what the obligations of giving are, by reflecting on micoreconomic relations, but by having seen generous human agents act, or better still by having acted generously ourselves. Such behavior, always played off against the less excellent and the failed forms, is primary in morals. Virtuous agents acting are the measure of what ought to be done. There is no cognitive substitute for this original display. The genuine is first shown before it is analysed; it is not reached by reasonings.

Aristotle clarifies for us how the display of moral performance is primary, which means that our relational stories matter, for they show us how relationships work or fail to work well.

As the patient literature predicts, my health crisis precipitated relational crises. Some friends turned out to be only the fair-weather variety and evaporated. Still others managed to arrogate to themselves diagnoses that were themselves oppressive, delivered as they were without also hearing and honoring my own struggle. Given the care orientation of my expectations, with its “default stance” of trust and interconnection, these ruptures were disappointing. But they also brought me to an appreciation of the appeal of postmodern ethics and the way it recognizes our vulnerability to definitional intrusion.

With respect to my parents, when I faced my new disability, such is the power of the liberal paradigm that I had already bought into the notion that my own maturation should trace the trajectory of increasing individuation. In other words, because I also embraced (selectively) the justice orientation, thereby seeing myself as an autonomous independent person, I suffered from a self-imposed disconnection. I constructed myself as not needing my parents’ help and certainly as not wanting it.  However, no one ever promises that they will be healthy; we don’t owe it to our families to be healthy or, when sick, to spare them our anguish and struggle with our new situation, or to pretend that our lives aren’t complicated. And so, I eventually turned to my parents, especially my mother, in a way I never had before. I discovered both of my parents to be very loving, empathic, and supportive. I found them to be so supportive that whatever I was trying to prove to them was clearly irrelevant business left over from childhood—not at all of concern to them.

Months of physical therapy eventually cured me, but my relationships healed me, especially of that old performance-driven need to prove myself. (Although I want to be careful not to suggest that I have perfectly overcome perfectionism!) I also learned something of what ethics is all about, which turns out to look a lot like mental health. A theme in several illness memoirs I read is that the conditions for healing are also the conditions for living. What healed me were relationships that actually grew stronger during this period, relationships in which I experienced genuine mutuality despite the fact that I was in a wheelchair and facing what I thought could be permanent disability. Certain people could be with me in this new situation without being overcome with their own anxiety over a similar fate. I also learned that I could have vibrant relationships without being able-bodied. I made the transition from needing to be super-able-bodied, then super-able-minded, to the realization that it is this grandiose need that is actually disabling.

Essentially, I learned how profoundly healing relational mutuality is. Aristotle’s passages on friendship came back to me, where he claims that the achievement of “noble” friendships is the highest expression of the moral life. He observes that we need such friends, for they help us deliberate about how to think and to act. I found what so many other patients have, that genuine mutuality is the condition not only for healing but for living well. We need to credit it in our stories and to clarify it in our theories. Aristotle’s theory discloses moral performance—both of mutuality and of nonmutuality. It is narratives that honor the nuances of these relational performances, for narratives take us into the practice already going on (the nitty-gritty display), that then motivates our subsequent theoretical clarification of this practice. In fact, part of our moral performance is the telling of morally inflected stories, stories in which we praise and blame our performances and those of others precisely because they are praiseworthy or blameworthy. By the stories they tell and the way they tell them, parents teach their children to be horrified by what is horrible and pleased by what is good.

When Aristotle speaks of noble friendships, he describes relationships between people who, because they are good, are first of all friends to themselves. That is, they have so habituated themselves to hitting the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency that the rational part of their souls has persuaded the appetitive part of their souls to obey the dictates of reason. This is why they have psychic harmony; they want to do what they know is right. These are the people who can be good friends to others, for this sort of friendship involves a shared deliberation about how to think and to act and how to avoid the extremes of either underreacting or overreacting to particular situations. With such deliberative practice, they become better people, more able to size up situations and hit the mean.

Speaking phenomenologically, the primordial moral moment (what makes something moral to start with) occurs whenever we take up the other’s good as our own. That is, what shows up to us (the phenomenon) as the other’s good, is taken up as our own. When accomplished mutually, this is a morally responsive form of attuned friendship where we face life together. However, we can also accomplish this moral benevolence toward those whom we either don’t know or hardly know. Even from a distance, we can take up their good as our own by wishing them well. Haven’t we all been to a live performance where the performers are muddling their lines and found ourselves pained on their behalf? Even from a distance, we are already at work—energized, in moral terms. Conversely, in the case of malevolence (where we take up the other’s bad as our good) we actually take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, which again can either be that of someone we know or some distant figure. In this case, we are already at work, but immorally.

When actually accomplished, not just written about as a theoretical possibility, the achievement of genuine mutuality between friends assuages the postmodern fear embedded in Levinasian ethics concerning our vulnerability to have what others decide is “good” simply imposed upon us and to be appropriated by others’ definitions. For genuine friends, even when they don’t know what it is in advance, can recognize what truly is the other’s good and are cheered when their friend achieves it. I’m reminded of an exquisite moment as a colleague and I listened to one of our students read the introduction to her senior thesis, which, because it was a breakthrough piece of expressive, complex, and morally uplifting prose, was profoundly cheering to hear. We rejoiced in her insight, her newfound ability to express it so cogently in writing, and her emergent confidence in reading it aloud to us. We experienced her good as our own.

The tricky part is when a friend or student is going in a direction, either personally or theoretically, that one believes is damaging. However, relationality can certainly persist through disagreements. I can wish you well and want things to work out for you, even though I don’t agree with the direction you’re taking. Being energized morally doesn’t require congruence of opinion. If I am secretly pleased when harm comes to you from your choices, so that even if only in my own mind I can find relish in saying “I told you so,” then I am taking up your bad as my good, and this would be an act of malevolence. Full– blown mutuality must be achieved together.

From an Aristotelian perspective, the Levinasian scheme abandons us in situations of nonmutuality by failing to foster within us protective instincts, while the liberal paradigm ill-equips us to recognize or to honor the subtle relational moves mutuality entails. Because growth-fostering relationships are what we want and need, whatever snags the achievement of genuine mutuality is worth theorizing about. This is why the insights emerging from feminist relational ethics and therapy are so important. They focus on the nuances of what hinders such growth-fostering relationships. We need to understand how we learn nonmutuality, whether emotionally, intellectually, sexually, or socially. Nonmutuality is the source from which oppression springs. Although nonmutuality finds expression in all the moral failures—from racial conflict, sexual harassment, and intimidation to brutality of all kinds—it already occurs as soon as we are not heard in a resonate way, where our struggle is not honored. For our part, our own psychological spaciousness has ethical implications. When we are snared in grandiosity, we are contemptuous towards ourselves and others for being less than perfect.

Most importantly, my recovery clarified for me what I want out of my life. A colleague told me about the excessive quantity of publications expected at her job in a think tank. Upon reflection, we quickly realized that those at her institution who were keeping up with that tally were usually rehashing old ideas over and over. With my new clarity, I realized that she and I will do well to focus on writing the sorts of things that we will look back upon and feel that writing them made our lives worth living. Otherwise, we are just earning points, and there will never be enough of them. In fact, I believe that what we really want and respect, and what others who care for us want and respect, is for us to find and to speak in our own moral voice.

Implications for Teaching

This experience has also changed my vision for teaching. As evidenced by my three graduate degrees, I love theory as much as the next person, but I also take to heart what bell hooks says about liberating education: Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.

She provides a moving account of going to an all-black elementary school whose teachers were committed to their students’ self-actualization. Once racial integration was instituted, however, the black children were bussed to a formerly all-white school where the atmosphere was altogether different. As she writes:

Knowledge was suddenly about information only. It had no relation to how one lived, behaved. It was no longer connected to antiracist struggle. Bussed to white schools, we soon learned that obedience, and not a zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us.

So much of education involves teaching to conform, and this includes those professional norms of our disciplines. In my case, this means writing articles remote from life as it is lived, or merely reproducing myself by training students for graduate study in philosophy rather than caring about the education and well-being of all my students, whatever their grade point average or predilections for philosophy.

I want for my students, as I want for myself, engagement with theory that is liberating, not dissociated from life. For this reason, I have changed the way I teach my course in feminist philosophy. In my syllabus I now describe the objectives of the class as follows:

Because feminism’s liberatory goal is to empower women, as well as to critique and combat the oppression of all peoples, these are also the objectives of this course. And because we can only be effective in overcoming oppression when we work together, another objective is that we become friends, able to think and to work together. Because responsibility always seems to entail a certain loss of innocence, your assignments ask that you come to grips with a feminist perspective on a real world problem. And because feminists believe this world needs to be way better than it is, these written assignments are to utilize any one of several genres: a magazine article, testimony before a political body, an editorial, a newspaper article, or a grant application. So you will have the opportunity to practice writing in four of these genres, a different one for each written assignment. You may also then decide whether to submit these pieces to the magazine, newspaper, foundation, etc. whose audience you had in mind when you wrote them.

The inclusion of the grant application is in response to a former student who said, “If you really want to empower us, you will teach us how to get grants.” By framing the course requirements in this way, based as they are upon my own moral development and in response to the reported needs of former students, I convey to students my own readiness to take up their own good as my own.

Theory that is engaged also honors our individual standpoints, which brings us back to creating our own narratives as ingredient to who we are. Finding our life’s work must allow for and eventually be our expression of who we are and what we see. Honesty is a condition for the achievement of genuine mutuality, and mutuality enables us to flourish as human beings, both to heal and to live well. Our theories and our love of them should, it seems to me, enable us to live better. So how do I engage in this kind of pedagogy? According to bell hooks:

Progressive, holistic, “engaged pedagogy,” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.

Since I want students to find their lives better, fuller, and richer because of my teaching, I need to live well myself. Until my health crisis, what I modeled for students instead was a relentlessly driven studiousness that crowded out time to enjoy my colleagues and friends. Moreover, because I was so busy making sure I performed to the best of my ability, I could not be attentive to what was going on relationally in the classroom. I could not achieve mutuality with my students.

Equally important is the way I run the classroom. I no longer assume that the contents of what should be learned is already in my notes. The students and I must work through the material together, and I must be willing to be put into question by their questions. Rather than continually testing myself as well as my students, mutuality has taught me that living well involves a richly embodied, expressive life. Richly realized relationships are expressive of this fullness.

Learning Mutual Solidarity

I love the phrase by Carolyn Heilbrun that I quoted as my epigraph, the “freedom from fantasy is the beginning of human liberation.” These were her words, but she is paraphrasing Iris Murdoch, whose actual words are also compelling:

The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called “will” or “willing” belongs to this system.

Being free from that “powerful system of energy,” that is, my own driven perfectionist fantasies, enables me to see and to enter into the struggles of those around me. Perfectionist goals only proliferate, thereby internalizing our struggle. “Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will,” Murdoch goes on to say, “but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action.”

For me, this ability to see has meant ceasing to fight phantoms—opponents whom I’ve imagined will overpower me were I actually to confront them. My grandiosity allowed me to feel contempt for them without ever putting them on notice, or challenging them. As a result I was engaging in a strategy of disconnection that, although it felt safe, was actually disempowering. I was, as Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan so aptly put it, sacrificing the relationship for the sake of the relationship. However, this bottled me up and was stressful. When mutuality is simply not possible, we need to recognize this and act accordingly. My anxiety has subsided the more I speak up and the more I embody my objections to nonmutual practices. I’m learning not to acquiesce, not to avoid confronting difficult moral and emotional situations. In finding my own actualized agency, I discover that I’m not powerless, but rather powerful, especially when organized and acting in concert with others.

By critiquing the motives for a contempt that is born of a convoluted grandiosity, I do not mean to suggest that we have nothing against which to struggle, that there is nothing that we should abhor. To the contrary, nonmutuality causes harm, and to condone it is to be complicit in someone’s oppression. By working with others with whom I share this passion for justice, I leave the confines of my own idealizations. I get past that old solitary heroic model that isolated me, which was itself grandiose and a forfeiture of relational solidarity. Together with others, I enjoy my own actualized agency to confront practices of nonmutuality. For mutuality is not only psychologically empowering but also, I want to say, morally normative.