Can illness make me a better person?

Ian Kidd writes: There is a long and venerable precedent for the claim that certain experiences of illness can be morally improving. A diversity of religious and philosophical figures, ranging from the Cynics and Stoics of ancient Greece through Augustine and Boethius to contemporary writers like Arthur Kleinman and Oliver Sacks, have maintained that illness can afford a person opportunities for the cultivation and exercise of ethical virtues – like courage, fortitude, patience – and can therefore be edifying. One also finds similar sentiments in more idiomatic discourse, including the abundant body of pathographic literature, which often involves talk of a person ‘learning’ from their experiences of illness, such that they become ‘better people’ – kinder, more compassionate – as a result.

Although such edificationist sentiments are both familiar and enjoy precedent, care ought to be taken when one tries to articulate and explore them. Many problems present themselves, but the following strike me as the most important. First, not all ill persons find their illness edifying, with some persons passing through even sustained periods of illness without any significant change in their moral character, while other persons are – by their own accounts – in fact, made worse as a result of illness. As the cancer patient Christina Middlebook vividly puts it, if edificationist talk is accurate, it turns her ‘ugly as Medusa’. Second, it is unclear what sorts of processes – cognitive, psychological and social – are involved in edification. What does edification entail, how can it be encouraged, is it active or passive, individual or social, and should it involve the contributions of moral or medical practitioners, and so on? Third, what contributions can ill persons themselves make to the development of a mature edificationist conception of illness? I take it as axiomatic that one should incorporate the first-person lived-perspective into our understanding of illness – a point well made by Havi Carel – and there is, perhaps, truth in Nietzsche’s striking remark that the healthy cannot understood illness, ‘for they are an interested party’.

These three problems indicate some of the central questions which an edificationist account of illness must address, and they bear on moral, medical, psychological and existential issues, amongst many others. It should also be clear that those questions will invite, if not demand, the insights and expertise of a diversity of scholarly disciplines – from philosophy of medicine to medical humanities, psychology to the sociology of medicine – and the contributions of many communities, most obviously including ill persons and healthcare professionals. For the edificationist asks how a person’s experience of their illness can be located within a tenable conception of the good life, and so any sophisticated answer to that question must incorporate all aspects of that life – surely a worthy task, for, to recall Nietzsche’s remark, on matters of illness, we are all an interested party.

Ian Kidd will present his paper ‘Can Illness be Edifying?’ in the Philosophy Department Seminar Series, 11am on 23 February. All welcome; details are here.

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