Thursday, December 27, 2007

Handicapping Children

Is it permissible for deaf parents to intentionally bring it about (e.g. through genetic screening of embryos - but let's forget about the non-identity problem for now) that their children also be deaf? Laurence Thomas argues the negative:
Quite simply this is none other than a most heinous form of narcissism. The issue is not whether deaf people can have an enormously rich and meaningful life. Obviously they can. They can live a life so rich and meaningful that they are not mindful of their deafness. Indeed, it is impossible that a deaf person may succeed in ways that he would not have succeeded has he not been deaf... [But none of this changes] the fact that by and large hearing is an extraordinary asset. It is precisely because it is such an asset that we marvel at people like Geoff Herbert; for he flourished mightily without it. More accurately, he flourished mightily in spite of a considerable biological disadvantage. He has not shown that there is no difference between being deaf and having hearing. Not at all. Rather, what he has shown is that it is possible for a person to surmount that biological disadvantage with considerable majesty...

Just as there can be no excuse for treating the blind or the deaf as lesser human beings—as surely they are not, there can also be no excuse for turning this truth into what it is not, namely a license to ignore the reality of the difference between a body all of whose parts are functioning properly and one where this is not the case. To render a child deaf or blind at birth is to make it the case that a child is born with body parts that do not function properly. There is no amount of success on the part of any deaf or blind person that defeats this truth.

Does 'proper function' have any intrinsic normative significance, though? Suppose that, for whatever reason, deaf children could be expected to live better and more successful lives than children whose ears worked 'properly'. (Imagine some fantastical affliction that spreads via sound waves, and so affects only those who can hear. Or a world filled, inescapably, with the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard!) Deafness would then be an advantage, and presumably perfectly permissible to gift to one's children, no matter the subversion of biological proper functioning. Indeed, I'm tempted to say, of such a world, that it would be impermissible to intentionally bring one's children to be of able hearing!

It's tempting, then, to think that the morally relevant factor is simply the expected impact on the quality of the child's life (and the impact on others, if there are significant externalities). But here's a trouble case: what if the "disadvantage" is socially constructed, and only arises because others act unjustly? Imagine, for example, an interracial couple in a racist society. Because others in society are racist, dark-skinned children are at a considerable disadvantage. Does that mean it is impermissible for the couple to intentionally bring it about (through genetic screening, etc.) that their child be dark-skinned? (Maybe they think this will help their child 'belong' most fully to the black community, which the parents value so.)

Some deaf people want to claim that this is precisely their situation. Is it? If so, does it follow that it's permissible for them to have intentionally deaf children after all?


  1. If we developed the technology to give children echolocation (like a bat, done through genetic intervention) then would it become wrong for parents not to do so? People without this ability could be perceived as disadvantaged in the same way that deaf people are considered disadvantaged today.

    I think this thought experiment demonstrates how the utility of hearing is socially promoted.

    I suppose in the case of the 'nails down a blackboard noise world' it would be wrong to not protect your child from it in the way that it's wrong not to protect your child using certain barriers in the 'Harmful UV rays which cause cancer and pain' world (barriers being sunblock and sunglasses etc, of course).

    We don't live in a world of horrible noise though, and we do live in a world with harmful UV rays. The point here is that we should interfere with our biology according to the circumstances. Our biology is not inherently right nor wrong.

    So, in our world it is advantageous (from a safety point of view) to have hearing in the same way that it's advantageous to wear a bicycle helmet or a seatbelt. This is something, at least, in support of not allowing parents to make their children deaf (and also of not allowing parents to drive their children without a safety belt etc).

    I doubt, however, that hearing is socially promoted for this reason. It is probably just socially promoted because it’s always been that way. From this perspective, being deaf should probably be considered no worse than having a certain skin colour or sexual orientation. A parent preselecting for these traits should probably not be condemned as these are pretty neutral characteristics.

    So I suppose to summarise, as I said earlier it could maybe be considered irresponsible for parents to make their children deaf in the way that it's considered irresponsible to allow them to play in traffic, but it should otherwise be considered as neutral as hair colour or height.

  2. "Imagine, for example, an interracial couple in a racist society." "Does that mean it is impermissible for the couple to intentionally bring it about"

    I think that depends on
    1) your moral system (which defines what is 'bad')
    in this case there seems to be tension between having responsibility only to the child or to some sort theoretical good like "standing against racism"

    2) your criteria for converting bad to impermissable (for example who is the theoretical actor 'not permitting' the action?)

  3. How about the argument that non-deaf people have the freedom to become deaf, while deaf people do not have the freedom to become non-deaf, and thus it's a shame to give your child less possibilities?

  4. I'm very impressed by this comment chain. 3 comments and already all the points I wanted to add are there! Thanks guys!

  5. I'm not sure what you mean by asking whether or not 'proper function' has normative significance. Isn't the normative significance roughly what we indicate by saying proper function? I take it, at least, that normative significance in this sort of context must just mean something like "capable of leading to some sort of evaluation" (probably relative to the kind in question). That is, we say that hearing is the proper function of ears/etc. because ears that do not do it are defective ears. Now, we could also say that it really doesn't matter much one way or another whether or not one's ears are excellent, normal, defective, etc. But that is just to say that the evaluations in question aren't particularly important (nothing much hangs on having good ears), not to say that they aren't there.

  6. Pretorius - you can read it as 'moral significance'. (I use 'normative' in relation to the all-things-considered ought. So the question is whether biological proper functioning is a norm that matters or has any more force than arbitrary "norms" like etiquette.)

    Peli - I guess they would argue that there are also some possibilities (fully absorbing sign language, and being accepted in the deaf community, perhaps) that are only available to deaf children. Still, it does seem likely that they will have importantly fewer options, and this is lamentable.

    Aaron - to keep the doing/allowing factors matched up, we'd need to modify your example so that the parents (i) knew that there was some chance (due to mutation, perhaps) that ordinary conception would lead to a child with echolocative abilities, and (ii) so they took special action to preselect an embryo that lacks such capacities. That seems just as wrong to me (all else equal, i.e. assuming that echolocation would be useful for a human being, and wouldn't lead to unbearable ostracism, etc.).

  7. regarding pelis point I guess the aditional opportunities a deaf person has are ones a person with hearing could choose except where 'choosing them' is socially unaceptable or where a critical period (where one could learn the skill lets say) occured while the child was unable to make those choices.

    Also as far as I can tell sign language appears to be significantly slowerand less rich than most spoken languages - dare I say inferior? (I think languages like cantonese are some of the best because you can say a lot quickly and clearly)

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