Herman P. Meininger

Interview on January 4th, 2011

1. Where are you working at this moment?

Being an emeritus since December 2011, most of the time I work at home. I have been Willem van den Bergh professor at the Faculty of Theology of VU University Amsterdam. This Chair was established by ‘s Heeren Loo, a Dutch service provider for people with intellectual disability, in order to stimulate research and training in the field of ethics and intellectual disability. Willem van den Bergh was one of the founders of ‘s Heeren Loo (1891) and also one of the first professors of Practical Theology at VU University Amsterdam.

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?

The past five years I have focused on moral dimensions of motives, policies and processes of social inclusion of people with intellectual disability. Together with colleagues from other disciplines (social theory, sociology, cultural anthropology, developmental psychology) I still supervise a number of PhD research projects on various aspects of this theme. Social inclusion of people with intellectual disability (or other marginalized people) is entirely about relationships, emotions and unconscious power dynamics, hence my interest in ethics of care.

3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?

Working as a pastor in the field of intellectual disability in the eighties of the last century I gradually got dissatisfied with medical ethical theories and methods which at that time were seen as prime examples of practical moral reasoning. On the other hand models of theological ethics were sometimes inspiring but seemed to be rather abstract. Ethics of care offered a frame of reference that came much closer to my daily experiences in working with people with (both profound and moderate) intellectual disabilities.

Ethics of care is not primarily about diagnoses and prognoses, but about hope or despair. It is not just about the right decision (justified by ‘rational’ arguments) of and for individuals, but about uncertain people trying to find together ways – sometimes step-by-step – of dealing with unclear situations and complex relations between caregivers and care recipients. It is about professional relations within the service system and with the system as a whole. It is not just about problem solving but also about the tragic dimension of human life.

4. How would you define ethics of care?

In my view, ethics of care can be distinguished from other moral approaches, frameworks or theories by its foundational normative anthropology in which humans are seen as interdependent persons with a unique, socially and culturally situated story. Moral deliberation then cannot be conceptualized as a rather linear process of moral reasoning by professional experts, but only as a narrative quest for a meaningful life, involving an ongoing dialogue between existentially affected people (families, social networks, clients and professionals).

5. What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?

Ethics of care helped me to be more attentive to the moral implications of interconnections (correspondence and conflict) within and between personal relationships, systems of care and public health, and culture and politics.

6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?

Personal involvement in professional and informal care and dialogue with caregivers have continually been most influential for my work. In terms of academic reading Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Joan Tronto, Eva Feder Kittay, Hans Reinders (my esteemed colleague for fifteen years), Andries Baart and Annelies van Heijst have been and still are inspiring for me (though some of them would probably not consider their work as an ‘ethics of care’). My interest in ethics and social inclusion of people with intellectual disability has led me to a renewed and surprising reading of Michel Foucault.

7. What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?

You may have noticed that I am a bit of an eclectic, but I find myself re-reading time and again Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries and Paul Ricoeur’s Soi-même comme un autre.

8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?

Apart from my Dutch publications, the following articles in English give a pretty good idea of my main interests:

  • Herman P. Meininger (2001). Autonomy and professional responsibility in care for persons with intellectual disabilities. Nursing Philosophy. Vol. 2, Nr. 3, pp. 240-250;
  • Herman P. Meininger (2001). Authenticity in Community: Theory and Practice of an Inclusive Anthropology in Care for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. Journal of Religion, Disability & Health. Vol. 5, Nrs. 2/3, pp. 13-28;
  • Herman P. Meininger (2005). Narrative Ethics in Nursing for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. Nursing Philosophy. Vol. 6, Nr. 2, pp. 106-118;
  • Herman P. Meininger (2010). Connecting stories: a narrative approach of social inclusion of persons with intellectual disability. ALTER. European Journal of Disability Research / Revue européenne de recherche sur le handicap. Vol. 4, Nr. 3, pp. 190-202.

9. What are important issues for the ethics of care in the future?

Social, cultural, political and economic developments in Europe will probably lead to major shifts in the relation between formal (professional) and informal care. Merely instrumental concepts of professional care as a commodity and the necessity of re-conceptualizing care as a core dimension of meaningful human life already are and will remain important issues for an ethics of care.

Apart from implying critical reflection on concepts of ‘quality of life’ and ‘quality of care’, these issues will entail important new challenges for professional and political ethics, especially when the gap between care provision (both professional and informal) for the privileged and for the ‘growth inhibitors’ (like people with intellectual disability and other vulnerable people) is increasing.

10. In Tilburg our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?

By maintaining this website, by organizing a conference, and by taking the initiative to establish an international forum and a European network on ethics of care, you already did a great job. Please keep going ahead!

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