I had never heard of Randal Rauser until a week or two ago. Turns out he's a Canadian theologian/philosopher and blogger. Also a Christian of sorts. He signals his place on the evangelical spectrum at the top of his home page by endorsing a "generous orthodoxy"--a reference to Brian McLaren.
I first learned of Rauser's existence through a link to a post criticizing him when he came out in support of Pat Robertson's appalling comments on the subject of ditching your Alzheimer's spouse. Rauser found it in his heart to do this despite being apparently well to the left of Robertson and therefore finding it difficult to say anything positive about him, but hey, when it comes to defending something really important, the time has come to set mere political disagreements aside. A man has to step up to the plate sometimes.
Except, apparently, when it comes to standing by your cognitively disabled spouse. In a follow-up post, Rauser defends his position and explains it further.
A couple of twenty year olds are honeymooning when one of them has a massive stroke and is left in a coma with all higher brain function permanently lost. The one that is in a coma will now live for perhaps the next sixty years in a hospital bed with no conscious life at all. Is the other spouse morally obliged to stay with the spouse that is in a coma? And if not obliged, should we tell the spouse that the higher, truly Christ-like path is to forgo remarriage, companionship, parenthood and all the rest in favor of emptying the bedpan of the comatose spouse?
I think not. To be sure, if anybody chose to remain married to an irreversibly comatose spouse I would count that a noble thing to do. But I wouldn’t count it any nobler than one who divorced the irreversibly comatose spouse in favor of a new life. After all, with all higher brain function lost that spouse is essentially dead, even if the bodily organism still grows toenails and hair.
There is so much that is shocking and offensive about these paragraphs that one scarcely knows where to begin, but one obvious place is with their narcissism. Marriage, evidently, is chiefly about satisfying one's own needs. This is what makes it so unreasonable, to Rauser's mind, to ask someone to stay married to a spouse who has a stroke on the honeymoon. That would mean forgoing a whole lifetime of all the things one was hoping to get out of the marriage! It makes one wonder: If your wife had a stroke after fifty years of marriage and you could be sure she would live for only a few years, then would it be wrong to leave her? After all, by that time you've already gotten what you want out of her--companionship, parenthood, and "all the rest" (c'mon Randal, go ahead and say it: S-E-X).
Related to the narcissism is the adolescent contempt for the weak and sick and their needs. What a terrible thought--you might be called upon by your commitment to your spouse to change a bedpan! How dare God or man ask such a thing? Note: B.B. Warfield's wife was struck by lightning on their honeymoon and paralyzed for life. One respondent to Rauser discussed Warfield's devotion to her in response to Rauser's original post. Rauser dismisses the point by noting that she was conscious, or "sentient," as he chooses to put it. But of course that didn't change the fact that Warfield had to forgo parenthood and remarriage to stay with her, and you never know--he may even have had to change a bedpan or do other unpleasant tasks that were part of her care.
Then, of course, there's the hateful reference, very much in Robertson's vein, to a severely cognitively disabled person as "essentially dead" (even though "the organism" continues to "grow hair and toenails"). Now, here's an interesting thing: Robertson is not a philosopher, but Rauser is. On the top of his home page Rauser has a list of self-characterizations that are evidently supposed to be endearing. One of them is "rigorously analytic." I feel obligated to point out that when "rigorously analytic" philosophers (or any philosophers, one would like to think) use the term "essential" or its cognates, they usually mean something by it. "Essential" is one of those philosophical words that's supposed to carry fairly heavy baggage with it. To say that someone is "essentially dead" is a strong statement.
However (see the thread), when one of Rauser's readers apparently seriously proposes that the organs of a person in the state Rauser describes should be taken rather than "wasted," Rauser is shocked and rejects the idea. From that reaction I think we can fairly conclude that by "essentially dead" he doesn't mean "really dead," which of course takes us directly to The Princess Bride.
Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya: What's that?
Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
It looks like by "essentially dead" Rauser means what Miracle Max means by "mostly dead," which is "slightly alive." And since it's only when we get to "all dead" that it's okay to go through the victim's clothes and look for loose change (or go through his body and look for loose organs), the "essentially dead" person is safe on that score, though not safe from being divorced and abandoned, given Rauser's ethics. Phew!
All of which leads me to comment that perhaps mostly rigorous is slightly fuzzy.
Rauser implies that if you oppose leaving a cognitively devastated spouse you are advocating a "new asceticism." His argument for this conclusion is, shall we say, rather brief, but here is the nub of it:
[Ascetics believe that]...the more unpleasant your life, the more [C]hristlike it is and thus the more morally praiseworthy.
Now, to be fair, in the immediate context, Rauser is discussing a blogger who actually did say that it might not be wrong to leave your disabled spouse but that it would be more praiseworthy not to do so. But it doesn't seem a stretch to guess that Rauser would also apply this characterization to those who take the stronger position that one must stay with the disabled spouse.
So if I contemplate a husband in the above scenario--whose wife has a stroke and becomes permanently comatose as a result--and say that he has an obligation to stay with his wife, does that mean that I think that the more unpleasant your life is, the more praiseworthy it is? No, that would be what we rigorously analytic types call a non sequitur. If those of us who disagree with Rauser thought that, then presumably we would think that the husband would be less praiseworthy if he sought and obtained a complete cure for his wife, because then his life would be less unpleasant. Yet neither I nor (I'll wager) anyone who advocates not ditching your spouse in these circumstances would endorse that conclusion.
Suppose I help Rauser out and (though I am a Protestant and not especially sympathetic to asceticism) give a less tendentious characterization of asceticism: Asceticism, we might fairly say, is the view that one can and sometimes should gain spiritual strength and spiritual concentration through physical self-denial, by deliberately seeking out and creating situations in which one's physical desires are not met, even though satisfying those physical desires would not be intrinsically wrong. On this understanding, it is not an ascetic position to say that you should not have sex outside of marriage, because having sex outside of marriage is intrinsically wrong anyway. It is ascetical, within marriage, deliberately to refrain from sexual relations between husband and wife for, say, a special period of prayer or in observance of a particular part of the Church Year. The view that you should not eat so much food that you make yourself vomit is not, particularly, an ascetic view. But it is ascetical deliberately to fast from normal meals. It is not ascetical to refrain from bashing your neighbor over the head and taking his money. It is ascetical to give away your highly valued personal possessions to the poor. And so on and so forth.
So is it asceticism to say that one should not leave one's severely cognitively disabled spouse? One can say that it is only if one believes that leaving the spouse is not intrinsically wrong. Now, obviously, that's what Rauser thinks. But a disagreement over that very point is at the heart of most people's negative reaction to Rauser's and Robertson's position.
There's a small matter here of keeping one's promises and not putting an asterisk after "in sickness and in health" followed, in small print, by "unless I conclude that you're mostly dead."
Not abandoning one's sick spouse, yes, even one's very, very sick spouse, is not asceticism. It's mere decency. And if you think (as I, for one, should be loath to think) that non-Christian man cannot rise to that level of decency, then we can go up a level: It's mere Christianity.