On Good and Evil in the Things That Afflict Us

What it means to say a condition is a good thing, and what it does not mean.

What is the proper attitude toward the afflictions God sends our way? Are they bad things, or good things? The answer is: “Both, but in respect to different things.“

I want especially here to concentrate on several types of conditions with which, for various reasons, I have some familiarity: 1) physical afflictions, such as Down syndrome and missing limbs, and 2) afflictions that may have a physical component, but also involve one’s choices, such as alcoholism and same-sex attraction. In what way are these bad things, and in what way are they good things? What would it mean to be grateful to God for them?

It would be a good idea to define our terms before we get started. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, something is bad when it does not have what is fitting to it, that is, what properly belongs to it. It is part of a dog’s nature to have ears; not having ears is bad for the dog. It does not belong to the nature of a fish or a tree or a rock to have ears, so their lack is not bad. Similarly, a bad action is missing what belongs to it: reasonableness. So an act is bad when, either because of its object, or its circumstances, or the end to which it is a means, it is not in keeping with one’s nature. In such an action, one moves away from, rather than toward, one’s fulfillment, which is the reason for any action.

A thing or act might be good or bad in itself, yet it may have opposite consequences. A forest fire is bad for the things destroyed, but may prove beneficial to the overall ecosystem. A bear eats a fish, which is bad for the fish, but good for the bear. A boy may tell the truth, which is good, but lots of people are stung by it, which is bad. Good consequences do not make something that is bad in itself to be good.

1. Physical and Mental Challenges
A woman close to me has a son who was born without legs, and with only a few inches of his upper arms. When she found this out during her pregnancy, she was devestated; the time until his birth found her, for the most part, in deep depression. Once he was born, however, she looked at him and recognized her son whom she loved with all her heart, and her fog cleared. A supportive family network has been of great service. The little fellow has since met others who were also born without arms and legs (there are not many, but they are out there), and those contacts will serve him well as he grows from happy childhood into adolescence and adulthood.

This boy is surrounded by people who love him and encourage him, and he can do remarkable things given his condition. However, there is no one in his life who would say that his condition is anything but a disability, that he is missing something that belongs by nature to human beings, and that he would be anything less than well-served had he been born with all appendages. They can do this because they all have had the use of all of their limbs, and know what they would be unable to do were they to lose them. A few are reaching times in their lives when, due to various physical conditions, they are losing mobility, and can easily compare the two conditions in themselves. They know what their limbs are designed to do, and know what the loss means.

At the same time, everyone who cares for him would acknowledge that this child’s disability, and the opportunity it has offered everyone to be better than they ever realized they could be, has been a source of great blessings. Will it prove to be a source of blessings for the boy himself? I think most of them would say that the jury is still out on that. At the moment, though, he is flourishing in many ways.

Let us look at a less simple case. In June 2009, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a commentary piece by a man born deaf to deaf parents, and married to a deaf woman. He, and the entire “signing community,” were worried that doctors would eventually find a way to eliminate deafness. As far as he was concerned, they should stop trying; there is nothing wrong, he claims, with being deaf (nor with being blind, which he had recently become). Indeed, there are great things that would be lost should deafness (or blindness) be eliminated.

Many of us find this kind of declaration both uplifting and upsetting. Let us give the uplifting element its due. The columnist points out that it was the discriminatory attitudes and acts of others, not deafness, that was the problem. For him, deafness seems “natural,” not a disability but merely a difference. He appeals to the great art and discoveries of those who were themselves deaf or blind, or who were spurred on by disability to invent gadgets that have helped everyone. Furthermore, he points to the worrying example of those without disabilities who want to be “reshaped and remade” by surgery, people “not satisfied with being merely well” who long for some elusive “better.” He does not want to be like that.

We should also point out, by way of supporting this man’s argument, that many would also say that, due to developments over the years, those who are deaf and blind have developed their own languages, which further seems to entail that they have begun the development of a deaf and blind culture. Is not the development of such a culture an important good, and would not curing blindness and deafness result in a real loss for the world?

Similar arguments have been made concerning other disabilities, and none more poignant than those about Down syndrome. Both family and friends have children with Down syndrome.

It is impossible to deny the extraordinary discrimination leveled against the mentally disabled; the percentage of babies diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome who are aborted is in the vicinity of seventy to ninety percent (almost one hundred percent in Iceland). The pressure from certain elements of the medical community to cleanse the gene pool of such “defectives” is intense. The fear to take on the care of the mentally and physically challenged can be overwhelming. Yet those who care and shoulder such responsibilities attest to the great joy that those with Down syndrome radiate so much of the time. In what way are they suffering? What would be lost to us if there were no one with Down syndrome?

What lesson, exactly, are we to take from these examples? Are these conditions good things, or bad things? The problem, I believe, lies in what one means by saying “There is nothing wrong with being deaf.” (You may substitute any other physical or chromosomal condition for “deaf.”) In a way that is true; in another way, it is false.

It is true to say that deaf or hearing, blind or sighted, ambulatory or confined to bed, with full or diminished mental faculties, we are all persons created in the image of God. We share the same nature, and thus are all of equal worth and dignity. None of this changes because of a physical or mental shortcoming.

Furthermore, since everything exists because God allows it to be, and sustains it in existence, our diseases, injuries, and disabilities are somehow part of his plan. All the things that befall us, both pleasant and painful, are opportunities by which we can become better human beings, and come closer to Him. Those who embrace this truth are the better for it, and heroic examples for us all.

However, it is one thing to accept a condition over which one has no control, and learn to live well with it. It is quite another to say that something is what it is not: that a disability is not a disability, that healing is actually harm rather than gift. Yes, opportunities for heroic virtue are lost when adversities are absent; other ways of approaching the world are no longer necessary. Still, the adversities remain adversities, or else they would not be opportunities for heroic virtue and new approaches.

Implicit in the attitude that proclaims deafness or blindness to be merely a difference in how human beings exist in the world—like being left-handed or right-handed, tall or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed—is an idea that human beings have no nature. Now, there are two options that could get us to this conclusion. One would be that God does not have in His creative mind any nature that human beings all share; like angels, each human being is a different species, though we might be members of the same genus. Another option says there is no God, and thus there are no natures. If there is no nature to act as a reference point for what is fitting or unfitting for us, each individual is left to his own decisions about what he or she wants to be. What it means to be human is nothing more than a set of desires, and the will to pursue them. There is no nature which one can say is either “working properly” or “disabled.” That being the case, to ask for assistance to become deaf or blind, or to have one’s limb cut off, is as reasonable as having one’s sight or one’s mobility restored, or simply leaving everything as it is.

In response, the sciences are our attempts to name properly the things of the world according to how these things operate, and the goals of those operations. Medicine—indeed, all health care related fields—only make sense if there are such operations and goals discernible by rational creatures, that is, if there are actual natures in Nature. To anyone who would suggest that there is no such thing as a “nature,” the health care professional should promptly respond, “Nonsense. I work with these operations and goals every day. That is the center of my work: to restore human bodies to fullness of operation, so that the person can have as full a life as possible.” If there are no natures, then the entire profession of health care is incomprehensible, in the fullest sense of the term: without natures, it is impossible to discern how anyone ever came up with the idea of health or medicine, or science for that matter. What we call “health care” then becomes nothing more than the work of mechanics, re-shaping the human body according to the desires of their “owners.”

Deafness is a real loss to the person who is deaf, even if that person has learned to live well without hearing. It is our nature to hear. Those who cannot hear are not differently abled. They are disabled. Should it be possible to restore that function to its fullness, it is possible that there are proportionate reasons for refusing the aid. “Loss of opportunity for the particular kinds of heroic virtue I am now encountering” is probably not a proportionate reason. This would be like hoping for a perpetual state of war, because it gives everyone opportunities for virtue and invention that they would not have otherwise. There will always be new opportunities to grow. But one does not grow, or live well, with one’s disability, when one denies the truth of the matter.

There is the further problem for evaluating mental handicaps: What is the standard? When one is missing arms and legs, restoration of function would simply involve getting two functioning arms and legs. If one is blind, the standard of restoration of function would be, not the farsightedness of a hawk, but human 20/20 vision. What is the standard for mental capacity? What point does one have to pass on an IQ test to be fully functional? The range of “normal” is broad. Wouldn’t full operation mean that one had genius-level proficiency—or higher? No one would think it a problem if everyone were a genius. What would it be like if we were all using one hundred percent of our brain capacity? Are we all really sub-standard, and so the person with what we call a mental deficiency is really just a little lower on the scale than all the rest of us who are also deficient?

While it may be difficult to find the edges of the category, it is still perfectly possible for us to recognize that some people are incapable of operating independently in society, or of caring for themselves. These are the standards we use: when a person is incapable of performing many mundane tasks without assistance from others, something that should be present is not. There are opportunities for heroic virtue here, not so much on the part of the persons suffering mental disabilities, but on the part of those who care for them.

Advocates for Down syndrome children will raise one further objection, and it is an important one: People who have this particular chromosomal abnormality are typically joy-filled, easy-going, generous, and friendly. These are positive goods that are part of the “symptoms” of the syndrome. So, while one can say, justifiably, that there is a chromosomal difference between those with Down and those without, the result is not a disability, unless one is willing to say that those without Down syndrome are disabled emotionally. For surely we want to say that being generous, friendly, and joy-filled are virtues for human beings.

This is a powerful argument, but I think ultimately it fails. Emotions are spontaneous responses to the world; animals have them. What sets us apart from animals, however, is intellect—and in the Down syndrome sufferer, that ability is compromised more or less severely. Emotion, to be properly virtuous, must be integrated with reason. Emotions on their own are dispositions to respond to the world in certain ways. Anyone who is readily easy-going and friendly as a child finds it easier to remain so as an adult, when one’s responses to the world are affected by what and how much we know about that world, when we are called upon to take full responsibility for our emotional states. But taking this responsibility for one’s emotional states is compromised for the person with Down syndrome. So, while it is a beautiful thing that a person with Down syndrome is a pleasure to be with in certain respects, we may not will that he or she lack the ability to properly control, and take responsibility for, these emotional responses.

One last objection arises. It is simply not true that all people with Down syndrome are intellectually compromised. Some are indeed functionally rational, and capable of both controlling their emotions and choices, and of living independently. In these situations, where proper human function is not compromised, we could reasonably say that Down syndrome is merely a difference. Insofar as one is also physically compromised in various ways (poor muscle tone, heart problems), however, it is a disability. So, it is correct to say that the simple chromosomal abnormality is not itself a disability, any more than we could say that the chromosomal abnormality that causes someone to have two differently colored eyes is a disability. But a resulting lack of intellectual function that makes one dependent, or not responsible is, clearly, a disability for a human being, as are any physical impairments.

A friend of mine whose brother was mentally challenged found herself pregnant with a baby with Down syndrome. Her mother’s first words to her were simple: “You are going to meet such wonderful people!” She did not deny the disability; she did not claim it is a good thing. Instead, she acknowledged a consequential good, a good that would make the experience bearable, and would be a source of great graces.

Would it be permissible for one human being to inflict these losses, either physical or mental, on another human being? Of course not. This would constitute a grave assault on the dignity and psychophysical integrity of the person, and thus would be a grave moral wrong and assault on the moral integrity and dignity of the perpetrator. It would not be permissible for someone to do these things to another person even if that person wanted it. Since there is an objective standard of physical and mental integrity, and an objective standard of fittingness in terms of human action, it is not simply a question of human choice; there are things I may not choose, even for myself. However, it is entirely permissible, for proportionate reasons, to accept, and cheerfully put up with, physical and mental incapacities—even death—for the sake of another good.

2. Addictions and Attractions
It might seem easy to dismiss our second type of example—physical/emotional conditions that also involve choices—as obviously impossible to accept as good in themselves, based on the argument we have just given. One might even struggle to understand how they can be good in their consequences. Still, I have close relationships with people in these categories, and strive to further understand them.

Let me begin with the notion of the “grateful alcoholic.” You would be hard-pressed to find such a creature in the throes of alcoholism. Alcohol, like other addictive substances, operates on the pleasure centers of the brain. For some people, it has little pleasant effect, and quickly becomes an unpleasant impediment to clearheaded action. To the alcoholic, however, drink is not only pleasant, but extremely so. It is further the case that, in most situations, the alcoholic is a person who has never felt comfortable inside his own skin, making social situations trying. Alcohol relaxes him, helps him to feel comfortable, making the social interactions easier. Since the drink is affecting the pleasure centers disproportionately, social situations are much more fun. Eventually, though, more and more alcohol is required to get the same effect, until at last it is impossible to even reach a state of pleasure; the alcoholic, like any addict, drinks simply to keep from feeling bad. For the alcohol has harmed the pleasure centers, and started to wreak havoc on the body. The body needs its fix just to carry on.

Those in the recovery community call alcoholism a physical disease with a spiritual component. Now it can surely be said that alcoholism is, if not a disease (if a disease is something we catch, like the measles), then at least a physical and emotional condition, a kind of inability of the body, including the brain, to function in relation to alcohol in such a way as to maintain proper operation and flourishing for the afflicted person. However, it would be odd to say it is simply a physical condition, for if that were so, once one were in the depth of addiction, escape would be impossible without a physical cure. There are no physical cures yet, but there are alcoholics in recovery. Indeed, the alcoholic in recovery would say that his main problem is this: If the doctor told him all he had to do to recover from alcoholism would be to take a pill, the alcoholic would say, “Give me two!”

In other words, the recovering alcoholic recognizes that his relationship with alcohol involves character flaws, defects in terms of his ways of relating to things, to himself, to other human beings, and to God. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is successful only for those who can do several things: 1) admit their powerlessness, especially over alcohol (and over many other things); 2) turn their wills over to God; 3) be unflinchingly honest, especially about their own character flaws, and set out to correct them; and 4) do service to others, especially other alcoholics. Mirabile dictu, when they do all these things, they will find that the obsession to drink lifts, and they can lead a normal life. But if they drink, even after many years, the physical aspects of their addiction return in much greater force. So, it is clear that there is a physical and a spiritual component to alcoholism, such that even an addict deep in its clutches can escape its grasp, though the trap remains within the body, ready to snap the moment he drifts from the spiritual program.

So who is the “grateful alcoholic”? It is not the person at the bar who can barely slur out the words, “Thank God for booze!” It is the alcoholic who, because of alcoholism, has had a way to recognize a series of character flaws, and face them honestly. It is not as though such an honest reckoning cannot ever be done without becoming an alcoholic. Still, it is certainly the case that, for this person, it was the crash of addiction that made her life miserable enough to see the character flaws, and set out on a spiritual program to fix them. Having become a flourishing human being (even if still physically compromised) she is grateful for having suffered from the affliction, and even for having it waiting in her, reminding her every single day to stay alert, in contact with God, and in service to others.

Should the alcoholic, therefore, wish that everyone could be an alcoholic? Surely not. It is a grave assault on the person—in this case, an assault that is at least partly self-inflicted. He could not wish it on himself, even for the sake of being better. Having been allowed by God to suffer it, though, he is grateful that God has thrown this opportunity in his path to turn his life around. It is a moment for attaining virtue. However, there are so many paths to attaining these same virtues short of chemical addiction that one could not even be grateful for it were it not for the fact that other chances never presented themselves, or had already passed. One is grateful for it due to its consequences, not in itself. Indeed, the whole point of recovery is to turn one’s life around, to no longer suffer from the evil effects of alcoholism. If we truly thought alcoholism itself were good, one would be hard-pressed to argue for attempting to recover from it. Still, the alcoholic is grateful, with good reason, for the gift of the trial that brings such graces.

A much more touchy subject is the attitude of the person with same-sex attraction, especially the “gratefully gay” person. Now being “gratefully gay” could come in two varieties. There are those who embrace their same-sex attractions as a positive good to be pursued, that is, who not only embrace their attraction but their resulting homosexual acts as well, who view this whole situation as merely a lifestyle difference. Much like the deaf man we talked about above, these persons think of their same-sex inclinations as merely a difference, not a defect, and certainly not a disability. Homosexual acts are taken to be a reasonable response to homosexual inclinations which have arisen in them apparently without choice, and are (by their own reckoning, at least) completely beyond their control, and thus “natural,” or “how we were made.”

A brief response to this argument is all we will take time for here. Homosexual acts make no sense of our sexual bodies, which are clearly designed for the complementary task of the procreation of children. We do indeed, as Aquinas notes (S.T. I-II, 94, 2, c.), have a fundamental drive to sexual acts. Our fundamental drives are the fundamental operational principles which identify us as human beings. Because we are beings with certain fundamental principles of operation, we need bodies that can bring these principles to life. Of course, what we have are sexed human bodies, male and female, designed in a way obvious to any observant being to go together in sexual congress to bring new human beings into the world. This is the sexual act to which we are driven fundamentally. We would not have the bodies we do, nor generally perform the sexual acts we do, if sex were only accidentally connected with this end.

When someone experiences same-sex attraction, this occurs, not on the level of the fundamental drive (what establishes our nature as human beings) but on the level of desire for a particular thing, a particular person, a particular act. They require knowledge of the end, which fundamental drives do not. These desires, as with all human desires in every area of life, go astray all the time. They may go astray because of our choices; they may go astray because of habits formed before we were even aware of them; they may go astray because our bodies suffer some defect that frustrates them or diverts them. The fact that we might not choose such a desire does not mean that it is fitting for us to desire it, or to pursue it. (For a fuller explanation, see my article, “Fundamental Drives and Sexual Desires,” Nova et Vetera (English) 15:1 (2017), 37-52.) We obviously must resist such acts, for such acts are not fitting for us.

On the other hand, there are those who experience same-sex attraction who admit that homosexual acts do not fit into God’s design, and who therefore opt to remain chaste. In other words, this group sees that homosexual acts, at least, are morally unfitting. Does this mean, however, that the attraction is an unfitting attraction, to be fled, or is it instead a peculiar gift to be embraced—carefully, to be sure, but gratefully? Some people with same-sex attraction, wanting to stay within God’s plan, not only refrain from the acts, but also seek a way to change the attraction, or at least hold the attraction at arm’s length, because the attraction itself is unfitting, and leads to unfitting acts. A second group, however, while refraining from the acts, seeks to figure out a way that a positive good has been given to them, such that this thorn in the side is to be embraced fully as a good in itself. The conclusion for such people is either that no “cure” from the attraction is possible, or even if it is, that one ought not to seek it.

The claim seems to be that there is a positive good in same-sex attraction, such as an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the same sex, that is typically unavailable to others, either by the same sex, because they are attracted to the opposite sex, or by the opposite sex, because they are themselves opposite. Thus, a woman cannot appreciate another woman fully and completely if she is attracted to men, and a man cannot fully appreciate a woman because, while his attraction to the opposite sex opens up his vision, he is nonetheless not a woman himself, and so cannot dwell in that beauty and wonder in the same way. There is, therefore, a peculiar access to the wonder and beauty of women that only a woman who is sexually attracted to women can experience and express; a similar argument can be made for same-sex attraction in men.

This is a very intriguing argument. Somewhat like the argument against treating Down syndrome as a disability, but a chromosomal difference with a good effect and a bad effect, this argument sees a good effect, perhaps a unique good effect, of the attraction, alongside the unchosen and perhaps unfixable attraction to unfitting acts. Despite the struggle, there may be something here that is worth the struggle—and by this I do not mean simply not sinning and thus making my way to heaven, but a unique contribution to human society, a peculiar way of being fulfilled as human, something for which to be grateful in its own right.

Intriguing as it is, however, I think this argument fails, for several reasons. First, same-sex attraction is a desire for acts which are admittedly unfitting to perform. Thus, the desire is for something that, by definition, is unreasonable to desire. Second, the fact that we do not at the moment know with certainty how to bring about recovery quickly and with regularity does not mean that the condition is unfixable. Again, by definition, anything broken is fixable, even if only by God himself, but we try our best to discover the paths—and anything that tempts us to wrong acts is something we should fix if feasible. Third, like alcoholism, there is plenty of evidence of paths to recovery, but no evidence that the condition ever entirely disappears; it can fade more or less into the background, but it always remains present. Therefore, there is no reason to think that the unique ability to see and appreciate members of one’s own sex in a particular light will disappear entirely. Even if the desires for sexual joining with one’s own sex were abolished outright, there is no reason to think that the ability to see and appreciate them would also disappear. Recovery would be a case of the repair of a misguided desire, not amnesia.

Thus, whatever it is one can be grateful for in same-sex attraction is not the attraction itself. It can be, at best, having to do with the consequences: the opportunity for heroic virtue, or even the positive ability to appreciate the same sex uniquely. There is no proportionate reason here, therefore, to resist the possibility of recovery from such attractions.

In all these afflictions, then, the condition itself is naturally bad, and it is unhelpful to think it is not. It is fitting and proper to seek to be free of the affliction, to operate at full strength. Still we should be grateful to God for the gracious opportunity we are given as a consequence to grow in wisdom and moral virtue.

Stephen J. Heaney About Stephen J. Heaney

Stephen J. Heaney is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.