Sunday, May 18, 2008

'Community' fluff

JJ writes:
The Canadian-based What Sorts of People Should There Be? project, has 61 researchers from 15 different disciplines. The team also includes members of the community.

Members of what community? This sounds like a silly feel-good euphemism for non-academics, though note the unfortunate implication that academics themselves -- those 61 researchers -- are somehow not real members of "the community" (whatever that is).

The project website is also filled with corporatese buzzwords: their "innovative" work is generated by the "interactive synergy" of the project. There's even a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles to prove it.

But I shouldn't poke fun. The project itself actually sounds really interesting. There are many fascinating philosophical questions surrounding eugenics, genetic screening, selective abortion, etc. It's just a pity they felt the need to dress it up in such fluff. (I thought that's what bureaucrats and managers did when they couldn't sell their work on its merits. But perhaps it's universal. That would be unfortunate, because their unclarity makes it harder to tell when an idea or project is really worth attending to. My default response is to assume they're full of bunk, and I assume I'm not alone here.)


  1. The site talks about 'major, national-level community organizations, such as the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies, the Canadian Association for Community Living, and the American Association of People with Disabilities'. Since these are all concerned with disabilities, I'd guess the site's writers have in mind communities of people sharing disabilities—but it is indeed far from obvious.

  2. First rule of rhetoric: know your audience. If you write a grant, you use grant-writing language.

    "The community" is short for "non-university organizations". SSHRC even has a program called "Community-University Research Alliances.

  3. "If you write a grant, you use grant-writing language."

    Ah, I see. Sounds painful. (I guess I'm yet to be exposed to the downsides of an academic career. Are most academics dependent on grants, or does this vary significantly?)

  4. No, the issue sounds interesting, the program sounds horrible. Like far too much bioethics it sounds like it is aimed more at providing intellectual dressing for people's gut level reactions than actually trying to uncover what is true.

    A serious attempt to answer the question of what people there should be would largely ignore the opinions of the disabled, comparitive cultural values and even history. It would start with the selection of some kind of ethical system (aka utilitarianism etc..) and straightforwadly ask what this system prescribes. The only reason to do moral philosophy rather than to trust to your blind instincts in the first place is that you think the answers given by more general abstract theories are more reliable than your emotional reactions in specific cases.

    I mean consider the issue of whether we have a moral responsibility to abort disabled fetuses (as I discussed here). Do you really think this program is going to come to the conclusion that, "hey yah, it would be better if we aborted all disabled babies" no matter what the strength of the principled arguments? Of course not. We are likely to here crap like, "disabled and non-disabled life has equal value" not "disabled life, while still worth respecting, is slightly less valuable than non-disabled life." One might even think it's good to perpetuate this attitude but it doesn't make good philosophy.

    Basically the essential problem is that serious principled philosophical investigation of the area would lead to the sorts of theories people like Peter Singer advocates (maybe offensive in other directions, say because they eschew consequentialism instead of embracing it but still out of sync with what people feel comfortable with).

    I mean Harris's book while kinda repetitive has a pretty great account of the abusive of philosophy when england examined the ethics of enhancing embryos. Moreover, isn't it puzzling that people like Sandel rise so highly in bioethics when all the philosophy students at Harvard I know can only explain his arguments as "crypto-religious bullshit."

  5. Yah, once you realize that most big bioethics programs like this aren't actually aimed at discovering the truth (since that would necessarily mean upending at least some of our closely held but inconsistent reactions) the buzzwords are way easier to understand.


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