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The Fisherman and the Assassin: Reflections on Anorexia Nervosa
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The Fisherman and the Assassin:
Reflections on Anorexia Nervosa

anorexia nervosa, competence, moral principles, De André, Brassens

A short story of an assassin and a sleeping old Fisherman:

An assassin came to the beach, big eyes of a childbig eyes full of fear. He woke up the sleeping Fisherman:‘Give me some bread: I am hungry and have no time’‘Give me some wine: I am thirsty . . . and I am an assassin’The old Fisherman opened his eyes to the dayAnd took no look aroundBut poured the wine and broke his breadFor that who said: I am thirsty, I am hungryOn the back of their horses, two gendarmes asked the FishermanWhether an assassin had run along the beach,But the old man is asleep in the shadow of the lastsun.

(Readapted from De André 1970)

Before I explain the rationale of this anecdote, let me begin my response by saying how grateful I am to Bratton and Tomasini for engaging with me over such a thorny and unpleasant topic. Many of us have either suffered eating disorders, or have a relative or a friend who has had an eating disorder, or who has died with anorexia. I still remember giving a talk on anorexia nervosa, several years ago, and at the end of the talk one senior academic was very shaken and nearly in tears. He had lost his sister with anorexia. For many of us, eating disorders are an extremely sensitive issue, and for this very reason, I feel particularly indebted when others wish to comment and to join me in the thinking about this phenomenon.

Bratton’s commentary adds a legal dimension to my reflections. Bratton offers a new and broader perspective from which the issue might be analyzed. More bravely than I did, Bratton talks about an existing judicial “rhetoric” of competence—where the courts stress the primary legal importance of competence, but then also ground their decisions on welfare considerations. Bratton’s commentary made me realize how timely it is that we ethicists, philosophers and jurists explore further—possibly together—the broader legal and ethical issues relating to the consonance of the principle of respect for autonomy versus the principle respect for welfare.

The potential conflict between principles is not unique to the sway of respect for autonomy and for welfare. This conflict is one symptom of the many perils suffered by ethical principles. My paper on the limited role of competence in the management [End Page 163] of anorexics is also somehow an implicit denunciation of the uselessness and potential perniciousness of moral principles. I have argued against moral principles elsewhere (Giordano, forthcoming). The philosopher Hegel, much better than I did of course, articulated such ‘anarchic’ conviction in his Science of Logic (Hegel 1969).

The paraphrase at the beginning, the story of the Fisherman, illustrates some of my concerns toward ethical principles. The old Fisherman sees a child, full of fear, hungry and thirsty. He is a murderer, he is on the run. But indifferent to the rules of human justice, the Fisherman breaks his bread and offers his wine, in an evangelic gesture, and remains immobile to the calls of human authority. The poet George Brassens (1955) in his Chanson pour l’Auvergnat, similarly, wrote:

Elle est à toi cette chansonToi l’étranger qui sans façonD’un air malheureux m’as souriLorsque les gendarmes m’ont prisToi qui n’as pas applaudi quandLes croquantes et les croquantsTous les gens bien intentionnésRiaient de me voir emmenerCe n’était rien qu’un peu de mielMais il m’avait chauffé le corpsEt dans mon âme il brûle encoreA la manièr’ d’un grand soleilToi l’étranger quand tu mourrasQuand le croqu’mort t’emporteraQu’il te conduise à travers cielAu père éternel.1

Brassens, like De André who I paraphrased above, were anarchic and atheist poets. For both of them, there is however a moral redemption, and it is for those who reject the authority of moral principles.

The relevance of this in this context is that, as...