Everything he does is in the moment and completely genuine, so when he takes an interest in others, they usually take it as a high honor and flattered. Even when he was at his most ‘autistic’ he was a unique blessing in our lives and in those of our family and friends.
It astonishes me that any one ever need present an argument that justifies the existence of people like him.
A Life Worth Living
July 29, 2005
My wife, Patty, and I were reminded of just why truth matters when we visited our grandson’s school one afternoon.
Max, as some of you may know, is autistic. As he showed Patty and me around his special-needs school—a story I tell in my new book, The Good Life—I was more than impressed with his eachers. They get a modest wage and work long hours under intense conditions. Autistic kids are demanding and sometimes aggressive. Yet Max’s teachers radiated joy—and I understood why.
Whenever Max comes to visit, everything else goes on hold as I accommodate myself to his schedule and his needs. Learning to meet those needs has been one of the greatest challenges, but also one of my greatest blessings.
But as I stood that day in Max’s classroom, a troubling thought crossed my mind. Why does the public education system spend as much as $65,000 per year to tend kids like Max? He will never go to college and never get a productive job. I couldn’t help but think of Peter Singer, the famous utilitarian philosopher from Princeton, and his argument that societies ought to spend their resources creating the maximum happiness for the greatest number. Singer’s logic would urge us to think about how many starving children could be fed for the cost of Max’s tuition. A chill came over me as I realized just how natural that argument sounds and how dangerous it is.
Singer and others, as a matter of fact, would argue against letting Max come into the world at all. And that argument has infiltrated our culture to an almost unbelievable extent. Ninety percent of couples who learn that their unborn children have a disability end up aborting them. Singer takes that mentality a step further, however, arguing that it’s ethical to kill these children after they’re born.
So the argument becomes—why should efforts like Max’s school, or taking care of very elderly people, continue if it’s in our power to make it unnecessary?
The person who says, “yes,” to Max now and in the future can reason only on the basis of something completely other than a cost-benefit analysis. In a utilitarian accounting, Max’s life is meaningless. Why, then, does he bring so much joy to his family and his teachers? Max’s autism is not a good thing—it’s part of the world’s brokenness—and yet that brokenness has been used to enlarge our capacity to love. Max brings joy into our lives through our sacrifices for him. Max himself knows a joy and wonder that puts me to shame. How does one account for this?
Looking at Max’s life, I have to conclude that the good life is not about the sum total of what we contribute to the world. It’s about loving. Utilitarianism knows nothing of love—as Peter Singer discovered when he found himself lavishing money and care on his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, something that’s completely against his own philosophy.
Truth matters, and the truth is we are creatures made in the image of a loving God, and life has an ultimate value. So beware of the smooth-talking philosophers in our midst. Their position may seem very appealing and even logical. But it’s a deadly logic.