Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Protesting" Philosophy

The work done on disability by most bioethicists breeds contempt for disabled people and fosters condescending, dismissive and patronizing responses to their testimonials and subjective accounts about their own lives. Imagine what it is like to be a disabled undergraduate or graduate student trying to endure a semester of lectures in which you are given the message that your life is not worth living and should be prevented, that you are deluding yourself about the quality of your own life and the extent of your misfortune. I often wonder why more feminist philosophers are not protesting the fact that this blatant bigotry and prejudice is being written and taught in their departments.

I really detest these sorts of politicized anti-academic complaints. For the sake of the truth, intellectuals must be free to pursue lines of inquiry that some may find offensive. We grant academic freedom because we recognize that this is important, and beneficial in the long run. So if you want to criticize academic work, you should appeal to truth-indicative considerations, i.e. evidence that the claim being made is false or groundless, not sanctimonious moralizing about how "offensive" it is to assert some claims (whether they be true or not).

In this case, surely nobody really denies that a disabled life may well be worth living. But it is an interesting philosophical question whether disabilities in future generations ought to be prevented (through genetic screening and the like). It's an important moral question, and one we should want to learn the truth about. Hence the need for free inquiry. Prima facie, I would think there's a reasonable case to be made for screening out disabilities. If that's true, it can hardly be "bigotry" or "prejudice" to say so. To bandy about such accusations just seems intellectually dishonest -- an attempt to use the moral high ground to bully one's interlocutors into submission without doing the hard work of actually arguing against their position. Most distasteful.

It's a strange mindset - and one which has no place in academia - that would have us respond to philosophical opponents with "protests" rather than counterarguments.


  1. as a lsightly half hearted devil's advocate -

    I guess they would want to know - if they gave up the fight over all these fringe issues that have to an extent got them as far as they have in the last 50-100 odd years - would they start loosing that ground?

    I think they may be happy with their "indirect" philosophy where they oppose anything aparently racist or sexist (or likely to encourage, facilitate or tolerate racism or sexism) in a complete kneejerk manner confident in the fact that it has worked before and seems to work overall.


  2. How can bioe*ethics* be *politicized*? We're not talking about empirical inquiries with consequences certain groups find unsavory, but about the explicit promotion of norms certain groups find unsavory. It is exactly the kind of thing political protest is for.

  3. In the bioethics paper I took this year there was nothing that should have made any disabled person feel uncomfortable. Assuming, that is, that they listen to the arguments thoroughly.

    People tend to hear "we should eliminate disability" as "disabled people should be eliminated." Big difference.

    There's also this genetic determinism mistake that people make. Genetic screening is bad but giving disabled people wheelchairs is good. Selecting for smart children is bad but giving kids an education is good.

  4. What rational parent would choose to have a less intelligent child (and if they really wanted that they could just drink irresponsibly). And what state would pass the convoluted law required to stop parents from choosing the smarter child. I can just imagine it “yes you can go to the sperm bank but you cant ask an questions related to intelligence” and “yes you can be artificially inseminated but we need to watch the doctors to ensure they don't weed out any unhealthy sperm or one with any named diseases or unnamed ones.”
    Just climb on the slippery slope and enjoy the toboggan ride, I say.

  5. Firstly, I think one could easily be a rational parent and choose to have a less intelligent child - what I would hope for any child of mine is that they could live a happy and fufilling life. Now, intelligence matters to the extent that it makes this kind of life possible, but if it were the case that higher intelligence was correlated with higher overall dis-satisfaction with one's life, then that would seem at least a pro tanto reason for choosing to have a less intelligent child.

    Secondly, I think what's at issue is this: the extent to which we should be framing the discussion as about *dis* abilities. Now, clearly if someone is in constant pain, that is something to be avoided. But the argument seems to be that for some cases, such as deafness or blindness, these things are genuine differences rather than disabilities. That is, the only reason that these people experience difficulty in the world are because they are in the minority, and thus the world is set up in ways which disables them. The guts of the argument is that there is nothing bad about blindness or deafness per se - in fact, those people might have access to a range of different experiences that those of us with hearing or sight are excluded from. So right from the get-go, the claim is that the concept of disability mis-frames the debate.

  6. But from that should it not follow (Vanessa) that we shouldn’t give deaf people hearing aides, or paraplegics wheelchairs? These devices aim to make their lives, by our ‘normal’ standards, as comfortable as possible. Genetic screening/intervention is just a far more effective way of achieving this.

  7. you are given the message that your life is not worth living and should be prevented

    The author seems here to conflate the claim that, on average, disabled people live lives that are less worth living than the lives of non-disabled individuals with the claim that disabled lives are not worth living at all.

    the argument seems to be that for some cases, such as deafness or blindness, these things are genuine differences rather than disabilities. That is, the only reason that these people experience difficulty in the world are because they are in the minority, and thus the world is set up in ways which disables them.

    This argument moves too quickly from the claim that relative population size is a reason why disabled people experience difficulty to the claim that it is the only such reason. A blind person will likely enjoy a higher quality of life if surrounded by others who are similarly disabled. But if everyone in a sufficiently large population made entirely of disabled people could overcome their disability by undergoing some therapy, at no cost or risk to themselves or others, and on the belief that everyone else would do the same, then I’m willing to bet that nearly all would go for the treatment. This thought experiment shows that there is more to disability than mere statistical abnormality.

  8. Peli - I'm not talking about the politically relevant content of the discipline, but the way in which the academic process is "politicized" (i.e. driven by ideological rather than rational considerations). It should be obvious how this is (i) possible, and (ii) bad.

    Activism has its place, but it's a very different sort of endeavour from what (ideally) goes on in philosophy departments, and yes, that includes ethics classes. Moral philosophy is still a form of inquiry, and not a mere vehicle for "the explicit promotion of norms."

    Vanessa - right, I agree that the metaphysics of "disability" is a substantive issue that needs to be discussed here. (My original post doesn't get into this, as I'm more concerned with the procedural question whether "protest" is an appropriate way to advance the debate. I think it clearly isn't.)

    At first glance, I would think that dis/ability can be defined objectively in terms of how difficult or costly it is for a society to enable people with the trait to flourish. It is objectively less trouble to accommodate people who can see and walk on their own than those who can't, hence blindness and paraplegia are natural disabilities. Granted, the degree to which these objective disabilities negatively impact one's life is "socially constructed" in the weak sense of being dependent upon how great a cost society is willing to incur in order to accommodate them. But it's emphatically not a wholly arbitrary matter that blindness is considered a disability whereas seeing isn't. (If someone proposed plucking out the eyes of all newborns, we would consider this a positive harm!)


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