March 13, 2005

The ethics of deception

Category: Personal — Biella @ 9:17 pm

The quarter is over and I am for now, done teaching. It had been years since I had taught, the last time being the summer of 2001 when I taught a version of the hacker course as well as another one on medical anthropology. This time around, I confronted new challenges that layered a subject already quite idiosyncratic. Instead of having 8 students, there were over 20. While my students before were all mostly anthropology majors or geeks, this time I had students from 5-6 departments, ranging from economics to gender studies, anthropology to classics, and of course a few inquiring computer science students.

But during the last ten weeks probably one of the hardest parts was seeing my mom take a irreversible plunge, for the worse. Knowing this, there were days I had to perform when it was the last thing I wanted to do. But human psychology I guess is remarkable; resilient and in some ways remarkably warped. I could for the most part, for at least an hour and twenty minutes, shove it aside and act as if everything was ok.

Though most of her problems are perceptual, my mother is now afflicted with more of the classical Alzheimers symptoms: she has a lot of difficulty recalling words which leaves her more angry and frustrated than ever. Some of her friends have stopped calling her and I had to call her brothers to let them know that if they would like to have her sister recognize them, they should think about visiting sometime soon.

There have been at least some positive developments. We convinced my older sister to move back with her which was great to see (both for my mom and my sister) and my father and his current wife who have been in PR for months have helped out a lot.

But as she gets worse, a routine reaction to her situation is deception. Since she refuses to get outside help we have gotten help for her, pretending the woman who comes over is a volunteer, although she works for a wage. My mother is also the one footing the bill though she has no idea because she “trusts” her daughter’s to manage her money because she can’t see and she is having more trouble than ever dealing with numbers.

It feels awful to deceive, to break her trust, but I guess it would also feel awful to get the phone call where I am told she has been hit by a bus since crossing the street is a life or death challenge. It would also feel pretty awful to take her to court to make her get help. I think this would rip away at the last shreds of her dignity, which she is clinging to hard, because she is so humilated by her loss of mind, of sight, of self, of independence.

My mom of course thinks that a 6 day a week, 8 hrs a day volunteer is a bit odd. She is not that gone and she has always had a good 6th sense, a bit too good perhaps. So, to address her suspicions, we have had to layer upon another swath of deception: “Why not pay her a little money Mami?” to which she assented, although her top price was $5 a day. My mom is pretty confused about the value of money too, thinking somedays, for example, $100 is $1000 dollars. It is sort of humorous and cute that she thinks she is paying this woman $5 a day (which could for all I know mean $50 because it is hard to tell what she means by numbers but it is probably $5), all the while it is pretty depressing too. And I wonder how long the arrangement will last.

But while deception often feels pretty wrong (at least if you find it generally questionable), it is never so clear cut because context, the living moment of the situation, is essential to making ethical choices, to understanding what role deception may or may not take. To take ethics as a set of abstracted norms that bear in the same way and directly across time and place, is what Bakhtin called ethically

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