On of the intangible tangibles of my humble job is seeing a book move from an idea to a published product. A little bit of joy rained down on my day yesterday as my first Routledge book appeared. It also helped that this is an important book and no matter what the reader feels about the conclusions, it will be crucial in getting the question out in the open. John Portmann’s The Ethics of Sex and Alzheimer’s places a face squarely on an issue that will only increase as time without a cure for Alzheimer’s grows. As a culture, we don’t like to acknowledge aging. We know it’s happening constantly, but we somehow think if we avoid it long enough, it might somehow, miraculously, disappear. Portmann, an ethicist and religious studies scholar at the University of Virginia, puts the question boldly: what happens to marriage when one of the partners no longer recognizes the other? This is a thorny issue. And that’s an understatement. We are conditioned to assume that wedding vows, with their origins in an era before people lived long enough for Alzheimer’s to become a plague, must still apply. Portmann isn’t so sure.
I won’t spoil the book for you by giving away the conclusions of his carefully argued case, but I would like to consider for a moment the importance of ethics. The religion in which I was reared knew little in the way of uncertainty about right and wrong. Gray areas were scarce, and often diabolical. I’ll never forget when I took my first ethics course as a religion major. It was if someone had thrown open a door to a sunny Arctic day while I was seated in a warm, dark den. It was blinding. And disorienting. I hadn’t thought of issues in that way before. Simple answers wilted and died by the thousands. Figuring things out, ethically, was costly and required an awful lot of mental energy. No matter which answer I chose, there was a good case for an alternative choice to be made. Morality is seldom black and white. That’s why when Dr. Portmann pitched me his book, he had my attention from page one.
Ethics is the process of trying to figure out the best way to decide on the right course of action, given any alternative. Little ethical issues crop up constantly: should I pretend I didn’t see that homeless person stealing an apple? Should I tell that person who got the job that I wanted when he’s got a mustard splotch on his beard he can’t see? Should I hold the elevator for that woman down the hall when I really want to get to work a few seconds early today? Issues-issues everywhere! Alzheimer’s forces the issues. We know it is right and good to continue to care for the sufferer. It’s no sin to forget who you are or when you are. But what of the partner who’s not ill? Immediately our moral sensibilities kick in. And with a population rapidly aging (I know I’m doing my part in that department) the question will likely continue to press on our collective consciences. Ethics reaches its fingers into those dark spaces we’d rather not put our hands. There might be spiders in there, or bugs. It might be something far worse. Not everyone will agree with Portmann’s answers, but I think we can all agree that he has raised a very necessary, if prickly question.