Ethics discussion questions on AWAKENINGS
1. How do we know that the catatonic patients are 'in there' in a morally relevant sense? Several
terms are used frequently throughout the film as though they indicate moral relevance: (a)
patients are described as merely 'asleep', (b) they are described as being 'in there' (as though they
have 'locked-in syndrome'), (c) they are described as merely lacking 'will'... but that they can still
meaningfully participate in the world if they 'borrow the will' of something or someone else (for
example, by grabbing a moving object, or being steered to walk by a nurse).
2. Note the following conversation between Dr. Sayer (played by Robin Williams) and the
elderly doctor Peter Ingham (played by Max von Sydow) as they watch historical film footage
featuring some of the survivors of the Encephalitis epidemic of the 1920s and 1930s
Dr. Ingham: I began to see them in the early 1930’s…I referred them to psychiatrists. Before
long they were being referred back to me. They could no longer dress themselves or feed
themselves. They could no longer speak in most cases. Families went mad. People who were
normal, were now…elsewhere.
Dr. Sayer: What must it be like to be them? What are they thinking?
Dr. Ingham: They’re not. The virus didn’t spare the higher faculties.
Dr. Sayer: We know that for a fact?
Dr. Ingham: Yes.
Dr. Sayer: Because….?
Dr. Ingham: Because the alternative is unthinkable.
How should we think about persons in catatonic states? How do we determine whether or not
they are able to even register our attempts at communication? What do we owe to persons in
such a state in terms of their rights to care? What if people require artificial life supports to
continue living? Who decides if and how and under what circumstances to continue or not to
continue providing care for them?
3. Note the following conversation between Dr. Sayer and Mrs. Lowe (Leonard’s mother):
Dr. Sayer: Does he ever speak to you?