Alzheimer’s disease is not only a social tragedy but also a challenge to rethink concepts.
I teach on an undergraduate law programme as well as teaching on a communications programme. The diffusion of Alzheimer’s disease and of other forms of dementia pose significant problems, theoretical and practical, in regard to both the law and communication.
In relation to the patient-doctor relationship, Alzheimer’s disease clearly shows how the principle of informed consent (in turn based on the principle of self-determination) cannot be the only source of charity that carries out care.
For the law, Alzheimer’s disease renders the same idea of the individual problematic: it is a good test-bed for our concept of the individual.
If an individual is a rational, informed decision-maker, who inscribes their own choices in a diachronic dimension, some sufferers could be defined as ‘non-persons’.
In the same vein, a newborn could be defined as a ‘non-person’. In such light, Antonio Rosmini is always en vogue when he identifies the newborn as the prototype (and not the peripheral example) of the legal subject. Rosmini considers the individual as the subsisting human law (the individual is, as such, intrinsically, the legal subject and consequently, does not receive their legality from extrinsic norms.
Since a well-founded moral intuition leads us to say that the sufferer is an individual, our concept of the individual must incorporate it.
The relevant legal question is this: how can the law guarantee the rights of the Alzheimer sufferer?
The fundamental error is that of identifying the individual with their illness: a sufferer is not their illness, even if it was the illness that possesses them.
Such identification leads to offending the sufferer’s dignity.
As I have previously said, offending human dignity is treating a part, even if it were a significant part, as a whole: the offence to human dignity is nothing other than treating metonymy as equality.
In legal terms, in the prospective of human dignity, it happens to go beyond the concept of incapacity: it happens to dare to affirm that the individuals do not exist, that legally, they are completely incapable and therefore must be entirely substituted by others.
The concept of absolute legal incapacity is against human rights.
In this area, administrative support is an institution potentially more positive than prohibition, only because it does not eliminate the capacity of assistance but sustains it.
As much as I have said about communication: it is similar to the law as it theoretically does not give (and should not give practically) absolute legal incapacity, similar to communication which does not give theoretically (and must not ascribe practically) an absolute communicative incapacity.
There is also a danger here of reductionism.
Immanuel Kant, opportunely distinguished homo phaenomenon, the physical man, from the homo noumenon, the moral man.
Every man must give dutiful respect to the moral man.
That is still most true if an existential analysis is carried out on communication:
-What is communication?
-What happens in communication?
-How can communication take place?
Despite undue extensions of the theory of mirror neurons, human communication is not and never has been a fact of nature. And as such, it is not ever a dual relation: human communication is always made through an intermediary that makes it possible.
An intermediary that transcends and accommodates. For example the language; a culture; in a wider and precise sense, a symbol each human communication presupposes an intermediary that preliminarily and continually musters.
Alzheimer’s is very relevant to the the theory of human communication because it shows how the intermediary determines the quality of communication; the connotations of the communicative relations are above all the intermediary’s who makes it possible.
In the film, ‘Una sconfinata giovinezza’ of Pupi Avati the intermediary is the willing son who up until this point has not had: it is Chicca’s desire for a son that he meets the Lino’s son. In a wider and precise sense, the film ‘Una sconfinata giovinezza’ the intermediary is love.
It is in this necessity that the intermediary is placed in the communicative dimension.
An excerpt of the speech at the Round Table discussion of ‘The mental decline between representation and reality, Pavia, 9th October 2011.