Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Few Stray Notes, Here and There

with 12 comments

First, let me say that I’m likely to be distracted over the next few days.

My mother, who is ninety-two and has been in a nursing home in Florida for many years, was apparently taken to the hospital sometime Wednesday and is now very ill.

This does not come as some kind of enormous shock.  I call her on a regular basis, and I insist on talking to her even though it’s been years since she knew who I was.  It’s been obvious for some time that she’s been getting more and more out of it with the passing weeks.

What bothers me here–besides the obvious–is that it took at least a day before anybody bothered to contact me, and it might have been closer to two days.   The news came in an e-mail late on Thursday afternoon, from the legal guardian who had never once before in all the past four years bothered to return a single one of my phone calls.

Even then, I got less than no information from him except the number of her attending physician.  I called the doctor, I called the hospital, I called the nursing home.  The nursing home hasn’t returned my call yet–and it’s been almost three days now.

When I got to the doctor, I found that there was no record on any of my mother’s paperwork that I existed, or that she had any living relatives at all.

When I got to the hospital, I found that her hospital records listed my brother as a contact person–my brother died four years ago.

I’m close to exploding here on some fundamental, visceral level that seems to skirt any form of reason. 

If she dies in this little stretch, it will happen before I have a chance to see her.  I don’t think the extra day’s notice will have changed that, but the people in Florida had no way of knowing whether it would or not. 

From what I can figure out about what’s been going on, they already knew, when I called last Sunday, that there was something going seriously wrong.  And yet, when I asked, all I got was, “oh, she’s doing fine.”

Between what happened to my father and what is now happening to my mother, I’m frantically trying to make sure that if anything ever happens to me, I’ve got enough people with my power of attorney, with their names on my accounts, with my health proxy and all the rest of it so that they can control what happens to me without ambiguity, and not get stuck in a mess like this.

And maybe I should listen to King Lear, but I trust the boys. And if I can’t trust them, I don’t care.

So there’s that.


I was going to get around to making some comments about the comments of the last few days, but I really don’t have the heart for it.

Let me just put in this, because it’s the most important part.

I don’t think “social science” is going to come up with a science of human nature.

I don’t think “social science” is science of any kind–and I include in that most of clincial psychology.

“Social science” has always been normative, not descriptive.  It has always existed to put scientific-sounding jargon around previously determined desired social outcomes. 

To ask, though, what would happen if we found that X was immoral and lots of people thought X was unjust seems to me to be just plain silly.

Lots of people find evolution objectionable–but that does not change the fact that evolution occurred.  The same is true for anything else.  Anybody can object to anything.  Facts are facts.

That said, I think part of the problem here is that we’re thinking of a science of human nature as providing laws of human nature that are moral laws.

But it’s at one remove.  The laws of physics and chemistry are what they are–engineering takes those laws and uses them to produce practical applications.

Moral law is like engineering, not like physics–first you find the laws of human nature, then you find the technical adaptations of them that work in real life.

Will everybody agree on the worthwhileness of these?

No, of course not–but you can’t get them to agree on the worthwhileness of air conditioning systems or SUVs, either.   So what?

My guess is, in fact, that lots of people will object to any moral system derived from an actual science of human nature, because most people have at least some incentitive to try to deny reality on one level or another.

But that’s for another time, when my brain is actually functioning.

Written by janeh

July 10th, 2010 at 8:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'A Few Stray Notes, Here and There'

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  1. I’m very sorry to hear about your mother. People really need an advocate, in or near them, for any run-in with any medical system, and it doesn’t sound like like the guardian appointed for your mother is fulfilling his duties as a kind of advocate-substitute.

    You might end up having to go to Florida yourself. No wonder you’re in a rage with all this boiling up!

    Back to the blog – you have denial, and then you have honest disagreement on what the reality of human nature is. Go one step further – there are plenty of people who will argue fervently that there is no reality; that what we think is reality is merely our own construction of an explanation of a world that makes the world seem real to us. I don’t think that way, as I think I’ve made clear, but it’s a popular assumption, and possibly one that underlies all those ‘There’s no right or wrong, there’s just what’s right for you’ claims.


    10 Jul 10 at 8:41 am

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your mother. And how very infuriating not to be told!



    10 Jul 10 at 11:49 am

  3. I’m sorry to hear about your mother, Jane, and I can understand your frustration. I’m just grateful that Dad signed his POA and is deferring more and more to my brother and me.

    I hope you do at least get to see her.


    10 Jul 10 at 1:42 pm

  4. Oh Dear! All I can do is make sympathetic noises. Consider them made.


    10 Jul 10 at 2:58 pm

  5. Nothing like combining medicine and bureaucracy. Just feel the synergy!

    As for social science, the various disciplines can do two things. First, by study and experiment we know how to pursie various goals–to encourage atrocities or discourage them, how to maximise income or equality, how to expand the power of the individual, the family, the church, the race or the state. We understand the sorts of cultures which have promoted great art, or advanced scicnec and engineering.

    We can get a certain amount of negative information out of study. We know the flaws in each of our tools–that direct democracy falls prey to those who set the agendsa, that representative democracy is prone to corruption and so forth. I think we now have enough information to extablish that certain goals are beyond us. Absolute equality of status or income, for example. The powerful state needed to pursue the goal inevitably makes the servants of the people more equal. (Don’t look to find that in a college textbook any time soon.)

    But while rigorous study and careful thought may tell you how to reach a goal, they will not tell you what goal to pursue, either individually ar as a society–and while Keans accused certain people of being in the thrall of dead economists, no one with any hope of tenure will point out how much these sociologists, political scientists and ethicists are still in the grip of religions and philosophies they formally abandoned long ago. What we need most–how to know which of these things we ought to do–is not something we can discover with these tools.



    10 Jul 10 at 3:20 pm

  6. I want to comment on something Robert said about “Brilliant”. He wrote that conservatives believe change should be slow and gradual.

    Sociologists have the law of unintended consequences: All human actions have unintended consequences.

    The military say “No battle plan long survives contact with the enemy.”

    And engineers have Murphy’s law: If anything can go wrong, it will.

    They all seem to be saying the same thing. Human beings can not predict or control the future.

    The NY Times has an editorial (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/opinion/10sat1.html?hp)about redefining marriage. I am sympathetic to the problems of same sex couples but we have 5000 years of recorded history. Every complex society that we know of has the family as its fundamental unit and has defined the family as a couple of opposite sex. I have strong doubts about the wisdom of refining any thing that fundamental.


    10 Jul 10 at 4:10 pm

  7. Jane, I’m sorry your mother is in difficulty. Here’s hoping you’ll cope as well as you always seem to. Depend on your boys. They’re family too.

    Responding to John’s comment about redefining family… I think you’re too narrowly defining (as in the last 100 years, perhaps fewer) what we think of as family. For millennia, human families were more likely clans. Extended family groups, in any case, organized in any of a huge number of ways. Yes, I realize you said “complex societies” but frankly, a society can be complex whether it’s technologically complex or not. Some of the social customs and relationships of hunter-gatherer or mobile herding societies would floor you.

    Once there was no marriage, of course. There was just people having sex, and supporting the resulting children to adulthood, because the group was survival. The group was important, not individuals, and so the young were the future of the group, and the support of the old when needed.

    A single man and woman did *not* constitute a family, they weren’t able to form a successful economic unit. It continued after the rise of agriculture, where large numbers of children, grandchildren, and other relatives were needed to till the land and harvest. There, whole communities might be regarded as family, and, I’ll point out, a man might have many wives.

    In many places today, a single man/woman pair without other family is considered to be bereft, a minimal but not sufficient venture into the future. In most societies, children lived with parents even after marriage, and parents lived with their children until death.

    It’s only in the last few hundred years that the core unit of a man & woman has come to be the standard family. Separating from one’s extended relatives, whether for migration to new lands, relocation due to work or education, or just because you want to move somewhere warm, is common now, but used to be traumatic.

    Marriage used to be solely for procreation, for the forming of that above-mentioned economic unit, and the conservation and transfer of property (and/or power) to later generations. Anything else one got out of it was a bonus. Clearly, marriage these days serves myriad other purposes.

    Marriage *has* been redefined, all along. Courtly love in the middle ages started it…notions of romance crept in here and there, and requirements for compatibility of the parties nudged it along further. The simple existence of divorce redefined it forever. The number of parties in a “family” has always fluctuated, from the entire clan, to only immediate blood relatives, (I just read about a society where a man’s nephews (by his sister) were considered his closest relatives. You never knew if your wife’s children were yours, but your sister’s children were certain to be of your blood.) to just the two necessary to create children. Or create companionship, if that’s all you need from marriage.

    Well, anybody can have, or adopt children now. Companionship knows no boundaries. Laws will never lead in the move to redefine marriage, they will follow as the concept grows and evolves to embrace the way we really live. I predict that within 50 years, any adult who wants to will be able to marry anyone they please, without regard to gender, number or orientation.

    Or at least they’ll be able to enter into the same kind of economic, social, and legal relationship that marriage currently is for hetero couples today. We may not call it marriage. But it will be, and it will be a continuation of the great evolution that marriage has been through over thousands of years.


    10 Jul 10 at 6:08 pm

  8. Lymaree, yes there have been changes in the social and economic definitions of “family”. I’m aware that there was a time when a rich man had social responsibilities to his poor nieces and nephews. But I don’t know if it was ever a legal requirement.

    If you want to treat a same sex couple the same way you treat a heterosexual couple, that is your business. But I’m not convinced that the US Constitution requires the US government to treat them the same way.


    10 Jul 10 at 8:46 pm

  9. We both know the Constitution says not a word about marriage.

    I’m not convinced the US government should have anything to do with the definition of marriage, period.

    We’re in a period of dramatic change regarding tolerance of people and issues that used to be hidden and not talked about. Lots of us are getting our preconceptions altered, our horizons broadened or are just getting hot and bothered. Lots of people are uncomfortable with change. I suspect in a few decades, our young people will look at us like we’re nuts when we tell them gay people didn’t use to be able to marry. Just like they look at us now when we mention Whites Only drinking fountains. Try that on a 10 year old nowadays. They think you’re kidding.


    10 Jul 10 at 11:24 pm

  10. Any 10-year-old in any society will think you’re kidding if you try to tell them things are or were different than they’re used to in other families, never mind other societies or other periods of history. And it doesn’t matter if the ‘different’ thing is objectively better or worse than what the 10-year-old is used to.

    And I don’t think that the proponents of change in social customs – including SSM are necessarily looking for tolerance. They’re looking for acceptance. They don’t want to hear ‘You can do what you want’; they want to hear ‘I approve of you doing what you want’. And that’s a very narrow and harsh demand; one that allows only one opinion on a situation.

    There’s a lot more to controversial social issues than some people being uncomfortable with change – which is an accusation that’s often used to dismiss views that one finds unacceptable.

    ‘Marriage’ to me is not just whatever the relationships between humans evolves into; it’s a very specific one of the many relationships among humans. Lymaree seems to disagree. Neither of us is going to influence however our societies end up defining marriage, not in our lifetimes and certainly not over the remaining lifetimes of our respective societies. I’m perfectly willing to tolerate that difference.

    And just to top this off, I really have serious concerns about the modern tendency to treat children as objects – anyone can have or get one, no problem! That’s next door to some celebrity who was once quoted or possibly misquoted as saying everyone had a right to a healthy baby. I wondered what do you do if you have an unhealthy one? Keep the receipt so you can return it?


    11 Jul 10 at 3:29 pm

  11. “Modern” tendency to treat children like objects? If I recall correctly, children were almost always considered chattel, like their mothers, only more so. It’s only recently that children have been perceived to have rights of their own…to not be abused, to not be worked for the benefit of others, to not be sold as sexual slaves, or just plain old slaves.

    Anyone with access to two sets of functioning gonads and sufficient nutrition could always have children, since forever. Do we remember the tale of Rachel’s handmaid in the Bible? She arranged the conception and then co-opted Jacob’s children as her own. Celebrity (or powerful people) adoption is nothing new. Noble parents used to foster their children out, give them up as hostages, or marry them off in infancy, though consummation usually waited until the girl got her menses.

    So no, not a modern attitude at all.

    The healthy baby reference is just stupidity showing its ugly head again. Though I suppose the malpractice insurance premiums of ob/gyn’s would agree with whoever said that. We certainly seem to want to blame somebody for every flaw a baby has.


    11 Jul 10 at 4:25 pm

  12. Mique

    12 Jul 10 at 1:45 am

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