More untimely stuff about disability

by Michael Bérubé on September 29, 2008

Cross-posted at some obscure blog.

I recently spoke at this conference, which was (a) historic and très cool and (b) something I’d been fretting over for months.  (Janet and Jamie came with me, and Nick and his girlfriend Rachel joined us on Saturday.  Fun for the whole family!)  I had a fairly easy assignment: a twenty-minute response to Martha Nussbaum on the opening night.  I’m familiar with some aspects of her work, and I assigned a good chunk of Frontiers of Justice to my disability studies seminar last spring, so the opening few paragraphs of my response simply pointed out that few philosophers have taken up the challenge of cognitive disability so thoroughly and satisfactorily as she.  I briefly summarized Nussbaum’s critique of John Rawls and the social contract tradition; here’s a snippet from that critique.


The parties are being asked to imagine themselves as if they represent citizens who really are “fully cooperating . . . over a complete life,” and thus as if citizens have no needs for care in times of extreme dependency.  This fiction obliterates much that characterizes human life, and obliterates, as well, the continuity between the so-called normal and people with lifelong impairments.  It skews the choice of primary goods, concealing the fact that health care and other forms of care are, for real people, central goods making well-being possible. . . .  More generally, care for children, elderly people, and people with mental and physical disabilities is a major part of the work that needs to be done in any society, and in most societies it is a source of great injustice.  Any theory of justice needs to think about the problem from the beginning, in the design of the basic institutional structure, and particularly in its theory of the primary goods.  (FJ, 127)

I then asked what Nussbaum might make of Michael Walzer’s critique of Rawls in Spheres of Justice.  Like so:

For Walzer, “there is no single set of primary or basic goods conceivable across all moral and material worlds—or, any such set would have to be conceived in terms so abstract that they would be of little use in thinking about particular distributions” (8).  Accordingly, Walzer argues that “the principles of justice are themselves pluralistic in form; that different social goods ought to be distributed for different reasons, in accordance with different procedures, by different agents; and that all these differences derive from different understandings of the social goods themselves—the inevitable product of historical and cultural particularism” (6).  Nussbaum does not address Walzer’s pluralistic account of justice in Frontiers of Justice, and Walzer, for his part, says nothing about cognitive disability.  But there’s a critical resonance between these spheres and frontiers; in his closing pages, Walzer writes, “One citizen/ one vote” is the functional equivalent, in the sphere of politics, of the rule against exclusion and degradation in the sphere of welfare, of the principle of equal consideration in the sphere of office, and of the guarantee of a school place for every child in the sphere of education.  It is the foundation of all distributive activity and the inescapable framework within which choices have to be made.” (305-06)  Needless to say, this has interesting implications for Nussbaum’s argument about surrogacy.

One of Nussbaum’s arguments about surrogacy, fyi, was that guardians of adults with cognitive disabilities should be entrusted with voting on behalf of those people if they can’t vote on their own, because otherwise people with significant cognitive disabilities will be stripped of one of the important features of citizenship.  Lots of people have problems with that idea.  I don’t.  I merely asked a question about what guardians should do about (to cite my very favorite article subtitle in all of academe) the right of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many donuts and take a nap.

___

Anyway, I won’t post my entire text, not because it would break the Internets again (this post will do that handily enough on its own) but because the conference proceedings are going to be published someday, and I think I’m supposed to save the Whole Thing for the dead-tree edition.  But I will put up one of the challenges I issued to one of the conference’s more controversial speakers, a guy named Peter Singer:

In his 1994 book, Rethinking Life and Death, Peter Singer famously claimed that “To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child’s ability.  We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player” (213).  Back in 1994, when Jamie was only three, I might have fallen for this; I once believed—and wrote—that Jamie would not be able to distinguish early Beatles from late Beatles or John’s songs from Paul’s, and now he knows more about the Beatles’ oeuvre than most of the people in this room.  His interest in Star Wars and Galaxy Quest has given him an appreciation of science fiction, just as his fascination with Harry Potter has led him to ask questions about innocence and guilt.  He is learning a foreign language, having mastered the “est-ce que tu” question form in French and being able to charm young women at the cheese counters of French supermarkets by saying “je voudrais du fromage de chèvre, s’il vous plait.”  I confess that neither of us has the least interest in chatting about the latest Woody Allen movie; but perhaps Professor Singer will be interested to learn that Jamie and I have had a running conversation over the past five years about the film Babe, which introduced Jamie not only to the question of whether it is right to eat animals but also to the fact that there are various theories out there as to why humans eat some animals and not others.

Alas, I said all this on Thursday evening, and Professor Singer was not in the room at the time.  But I have to give him his due for sticking around for all of the Friday and Saturday sessions in a largely hostile environment.

And on Friday and Saturday, I finally came face-to-face with people (namely, Singer and Jeff McMahan) who believe that (to put it clumsily) cognitive capacity is a valid metric of moral status, so that (in McMahan’s example) if we agree that it is more consequential to kill a human being than to kill a squirrel, and if we don’t believe in stuff like “the soul” or “the divine spark” or “the ineffably human,” it follows that it is less wrong, all other things being equal, to kill someone with severe cognitive impairments than to kill you or me.

Singer’s talk had one truly delicious moment, in which he suggested that a rational alien creature, attending the conference disguised as a human being, would have more in common with him than would a person with severe cognitive disabilities.  Now, I was sitting with Jamie in the spillover room at the time, watching Singer on the video feed, because the main room was filled to capacity (150 souls beings) and Jamie was playing Harry Potter on CD-ROM.  I began to giggle softly to myself, whereupon Jamie said, “what’s so funny?”  “He just said a very silly thing, that’s all,” I replied, thinking, of course, of “Deep Space Homer,” in which Kent Brockman utters the lines that are now lovingly echoed throughout the blogosphere, and imagining Singer saying, “And I, for one, welcome our new rational-alien overlords.  I’d like to remind them that as a famous utilitarian philosopher, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”

At the end of Singer’s talk, Jamie said, “Michael, do you have a question?” and I said, “I sure do.”  So Jamie nudged me in the ribs with his elbow and said, “go ask your question.”  “OK, you hang out here,” I replied, but when I got to the room I found, no surprise, that about fifteen people had already lined up for questions.  So I rejoined Jamie as he navigated his way through Hogwarts.  But you know me, folks—I just can’t resist these kinds of things.  So later that afternoon, when all the conference speakers were lined up for a group photo, I said, “I think this would be a good time to disclose that I am, in fact, a rational alien disguised as a human. . . .”

“Yes, we’ve suspected that for some time,” chimed in Jim Nelson.

“. . . and I just want to know why Professor Singer thinks he has any basis for solidarity with me.”

“What kind of alien are you?” asked someone to my right.

“Think Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black,” I said.  “And I’ve gotta say that my antennae are killing me.”

“Who let you in here?” someone else asked.

“Let’s just say that your sensors are not very good.”

___

But it wasn’t all jokes and japery from this quarter.  That would be silly!  After Jeff McMahan’s talk, in which he’d calmly pointed out that no one had yet offered a cogent, rational argument for why people with severe and profound cognitive impairments, who (allegedly) cannot make complex plans or have meaningful goals or understand themselves as selves should be considered to have the same moral status as other humans, I got up and said this:

Jeff, I think the reason you haven’t yet heard a cogent argument against your position is that you won’t accept a pragmatist argument as cogent.  But let me give it a try.  I’m not going to rely on concepts like ‘intrinsic human worth,’ but I can try to learn a little from history.  And let’s imagine that we might have learned—very slowly, very gradually, because as a species we’re really not very bright about such things—that every attempt to banish some humans from the category of rights-bearing beings, every attempt to lop off some members of the human family, has had vicious and catastrophic results.  So let’s say that we’ve learned to err on the side of caution, and include every human born, just to avoid these past catastrophes.  And then let’s say that you and Peter come along and say, “wait, that’s too exclusive—you shouldn’t be thinking only about our species, you should be thinking about sentience, and the capacity for suffering, among animals as well.”  And we say, “hmmm, interesting.  Brand new rationales!  OK, we’ll think about them.”  Because for a pragmatist, that’s really good enough.  But for you, it isn’t, and I really don’t know why.

It turns out that the “err on the side of caution” argument was made some years ago by at least one reviewer of McMahan’s book.  I imagine he’s heard this kind of thing fairly often.  So he replied: look, I’m working from a very straightforward premise.  There is a moral difference between killing someone in this room, and killing a squirrel, and I know that Bérubé agrees with me about this.  I’m asking what that difference consists of, and what it rests on.  And I haven’t yet heard a convincing reply from people who disagree with me.

Well, I got plenty of positive feedback for my question-that-was-more-of-a-comment, and I had a number of congenial conversations during the reception, but at some point I decided I should stop having congenial conversations, and go back and engage with McMahan again.  He was still in the lecture hall, having congenial conversations with the people who’d congregated around people like him rather than people like me.  So I insinuated myself into the circle and said, “hey, as it happens, I agree with you about squirrels.  OK.  All I’m saying is that this agreement is historically contingent.”  Assuming that the phrase “historically contingent” would sound, to this crowd, like the phrase “anything goes woo hoo yeah,” I added this: “what I mean is, if you and I were having this conversation a few thousand or even a few hundred years ago, we would agree that the life of a slave was not as important as the life of a free man. It would be self-evident to us that killing him was not the same kind of act, in moral terms, as the killing of you or me.  And hundreds of years from now, one of Peter’s rational aliens might show up and say, ‘back in 2008, assholes like McMahan and Bérubé were willing to talk cavalierly about the killing of squirrels, as if the worthlessness of their lives were self-evident.’”

McMahan replied, genially, that that’s what philosophy is all about: questioning such moral distinctions, and then returning to the questions time and time again.  To which I replied, “ah, but the difference between you and me is that you think you’re discovering the grounds for these moral distinctions, and I think you’re making them up.”  That allowed McMahan the easy, genial out—laughing, he agreed that this was the difference between Philosophy departments and English departments, and that people like him believed in giving reasons for their beliefs and people like me thought we were all just making things up.

I could have replied that we literature professors see nothing wrong with making things up, especially when many of our fellow humans come to see them as good things; that we think it’s one of the things that some humans do quite well; and that we consider it a skill requiring great cognitive capacity and what C. L. R. James called, in another context, high and difficult technique.  But that wouldn’t have been cricket, so I just shook hands and went back to the reception.

So here’s the problem, dear readers—if you’re still my dear readers after all this time.  Some people think, when they come up with their moral schemata, that they’ve reached bedrock—that they’ve finally found the solid principles on which a properly moral philosophy should rest.  They’re uncomfortable with the idea that we’re working on intuition—or sorting among competing and contradictory moral intuitions. Nussbaum has a short chapter in Frontiers of Justice about “The Charge of Intuitionism,” in which she argues that “there is no more and no less reliance on intuition in the capabilities approach than in justice as fairness—the reliance just comes in a slightly different place” (173).  And Walzer, in arguing that justice plays out differently in different areas of social life, writes, “the first claim of Pascal and Marx is that personal qualities and social goods have their own spheres of operation, where they work their effects freely, spontaneously, and legitimately.  There are ready or natural conversions that follow from, and are intuitively plausible because of, the social meaning of particular goods.”  (Many thanks to Dan Threet, a student in my disability studies seminar, for calling my attention to the discussion of intuitionism in Frontiers of Justice.)  I’ve come to think that it’s intuition all the way down, and that we’d be better off without believing in the existence of moral bedrock, better off telling ourselves that it’s simply a matter of trying to persuade people to pursue some intuitions and abandon others.  I won’t say that there is no bedrock, because that would be making the same mistake—namely, of trying to describe the moral world the way it “really is,” absent all our descriptions of it.  I’ll just say that once we had the deep moral intuition that the lives of slaves (and women!) were not comparable to the lives of free men, and then we had the deep moral intuition that we should be fair to everyone regardless of their station, and then other people had the intuition that we shouldn’t be eating animals, and so forth.  I’ll even add that whenever people like Peter Singer turn out to be empirically, demonstrably wrong about the capacities of people with cognitive disabilities, the rest of us should take the obvious point: the moral goalposts keep moving, because we keep changing our minds—in every available sense of that term.  People with Down syndrome start learning foreign languages, people with significant cognitive disabilities display a capacity for empathy that exceeds that of some professional philosophers, some professional philosophers argue that nothing important should follow from the recognition that humans have different cognitive capacities anyway, pragmatist philosophers encourage us to give up the idea that we can discover immutable truths about human affairs, and maybe—just maybe—we all change our minds, especially with regard to what we think about minds.

{ 77 comments }

1

Sebastian 09.29.08 at 9:06 pm

“There is a moral difference between killing someone in this room, and killing a squirrel, and I know that Bérubé agrees with me about this. I’m asking what that difference consists of, and what it rests on. And I haven’t yet heard a convincing reply from people who disagree with me.”

Part of the problem is ‘convincing’. If you come at the problem from exactly his direction with exactly all of the same premises, you can see how he gets there. But the problem is that almost no one finds his premises particularly convincing. To oversimplify he says (as you note) that cognitive capacity is a valid metric of moral status. And it works as a good metric in lots of moral cases, but not all of them (in terms of what sounds like convincing arguments to most people).

The problem is that he acts as if that fact proves that something is wrong with our analysis of the other cases instead of admitting the possibility that the metric doesn’t apply to all cases.

And I think that giving up on ‘intrinsic human worth’ to early isn’t particularly good either. Why are we suuposed to pretend that there is something so super-scientific about ‘cognitive ability’ anyway. Why not judge on reproductive fitness? It is a nice clean measure of moral worth that is rooted deep in biology and history. What makes cognitive ability so special except for the fact that philosophers believe themselves to have lots of it?

2

Greg 09.29.08 at 9:07 pm

I don’t understand Nussbaum’s point in the first paragraph you’ve included. Rawls absolutely argues that a full scheme of health care be available to everyone in society. From the restatement: “[health care] falls under the general means necessary to underwrite [fair equality of opportunity] and our capacity to take advantage of our basic rights and liberties, and thus to be normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life” (174)

And this is certainly not the only justification given for health care in Rawls’s work. In the more concrete stages of his though, he suggests that universal health care is a necessary feature of a property-owning democracy, and indeed required for any decent liberal society.

Is Nussbaum’s misrepresentation of Rawls’s thought just the result of a careless/uncharitable reading? Or does she have something else in mind I’m not picking up?

3

harry b 09.29.08 at 9:25 pm

Rawls explicitly excludes people who are not ‘normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life” from his model (ie, no severely and chronically disabled persons in the society). That’s what Nussbaum is correctly picking up on. The question is how to extend Rawls’s theory to cover a more realistic model, including such people. I think it is entirely manageable to extend it to the physically disabled, but the severely cognitively disabled are much more problematic. I think she is being uncharitable, but not wildly so.

4

Michael Bérubé 09.29.08 at 9:33 pm

And I think that giving up on ‘intrinsic human worth’ to early isn’t particularly good either.

Well, it’s the “intrinsic” thing I keep stumbling over. I’m just awkward that way.

What makes cognitive ability so special except for the fact that philosophers believe themselves to have lots of it?

Indeed. But . . .

Why not judge on reproductive fitness? It is a nice clean measure of moral worth that is rooted deep in biology and history.

Ack! No no no no no no no. Down that road lies the conviction that three generations of imbeciles are enough. I ain’t a-goin’ there.

Greg, my apologies for doing Nussbaum/ Rawls in so truncated a fashion. The problem is that Rawls relies on the Lockean premise that the parties to the Original Position be “free, equal, and independent,” and, as you note, “normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life.” That’s why he relegates disability to the legislative phase, and that’s why Nussbaum (here) responds that although Rawls’ is “the strongest such theory we have,” postponing disability to the legislative phase does too little too late. The full argument can be found in chapter 2 of Frontiers of Justice, “Disabilities and the Social Contract,” pp. 96-154.

Though I acknowledge, in the part of the paper I’m not reproducing here, that for most purposes (and for most people with disabilities), a Rawlsian conception of justice is good enough. Oh, dang, here’s what I actually said:

Surely, if you asked people with disabilities (and their advocates and guardians) if they would consent to be governed by a U.S. administration that operated according to the Rawlsian Difference Principle, which permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the least-well-off, they would take the deal and do so happily. And to the objections lodged by Kittay, Sen, and Nussbaum– that Rawls privileges people with “sufficient intellectual powers to play a normal part in society,” defers consideration of disability to the legislative phase, and calibrates the difference principle by means of a reductive, unidimensional reliance on wealth as the measure of well-being– many reasonable people might respond with the famous final line of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot: well, nobody’s perfect.

5

matt 09.29.08 at 9:40 pm

To my mind the best discussion of what’s wrong w/ Nussbaum’s account vis a vi Rawls is found in Samuel Freeman’s long review/critical notice of _Frontiers_ in the University of Texas Law Review a couple of years ago. (85 Texas Law Review December, 2006 385). The particular subject is one Freeman has had plenty of opportunity to think about. To my mind it’s a bit easy on Nussbaum but does a good job of showing where she’s gone wrong.

Michael, I think your “pragmatic” reply is a pretty decent one and I think it’s on that a Rawlsian can (and probably should) accept- it just gets accepted later on in the game than in the original position. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s not clear why Nussbaum thinks there is. (A sensible utilitarian can probably accept it, too.) But, I don’t think this means morality is “intuition all the way down” and don’t at all see why that would follow.

6

geo 09.29.08 at 9:47 pm

now he knows more about the Beatles’ oeuvre than most of the people in this room. His interest in Star Wars and Galaxy Quest has given him an appreciation of science fiction, just as his fascination with Harry Potter has led him to ask questions about innocence and guilt. He is learning a foreign language, having mastered the “est-ce que tu” question form in French and being able to charm young women at the cheese counters of French supermarkets by saying “je voudrais du fromage de chèvre, s’il vous plait.” I confess that neither of us has the least interest in chatting about the latest Woody Allen movie; but perhaps Professor Singer will be interested to learn that Jamie and I have had a running conversation over the past five years about the film Babe, which introduced Jamie not only to the question of whether it is right to eat animals but also to the fact that there are various theories out there as to why humans eat some animals and not others.

Michael, it sounds as though you’re arguing here that not all people with Down’s Syndrome are what Singer (or most of us, anyway) would call severely cognitively impaired rather than against the claim that “it is less wrong, all other things being equal, to kill someone with severe cognitive impairments than to kill you or me.”

Also, what if Singer had set the bar lower and instead of “to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player” had said “to use language at all, to play a sport at any level, to watch a movie or distinguish between music and noise”?

I know you’ve written a lot about this, probably on CT as well, so feel free just to refer me somewhere else.

7

Michael Bérubé 09.29.08 at 9:47 pm

Hmmm, maybe “intuition all the way down” is too Rortyan. But once Dan Threet called my attention to it, I was struck at how often intuition pops up in these discussions. Even when McMahan suggests that the “vague, intuitive commitment to a fundamental moral equality among all human beings—all members of the species Homo sapiens—has to be abandoned,” I think, “wait, when did that intuitive commitment start becoming intuitive? Fairly recently, right, if you start counting sometime during the Pleistocene? And who knows what will seem intuitive when our insect overlords arrive?”

8

harry b 09.29.08 at 9:48 pm

While I’m basically on your side on the substantive issues, the “historically contingent” move, which non-philosophers routinely make against moral philosophers (like me) always seems passive-agressive. If you agree with him about squirrels, what does adding that the agreement is historically contingent add? Perhaps recognition of our own fallibility, and hence the possibility that you are both wrong? But then, why not just say that? Sure, we are fallible, and all our judgments should be a little bit tentative in recognition of that fact. More urgently, we should try to figure out which of our moral intuitions is false, and, better, figure out what to replace them with. Observing that maybe, one day, people will disagree with us about squirrels..well, so what? The issue is, what will their reasons be, and if you can say something about those, you should say them right now, so we can think about them. Those reasons might force us to give up our intuitions right now (or they might not, because they might not be very good reasons).

I’m bemused that McMahan was uncomfortable recognising the extent to which his view relies on intuitions at the bedrock — in fact in your account it sounds as if he was fairly upfront about it. Most of us use some version of reflective equilibrium as our basic method in moral philosophy, and while we think it gets use further than just asserting intuitions, we do see intuitions (that is, reflective judgments) as key resources, and the method of reflective equilibrium is designed to launder them. Sociologists point out that our intuitions are shaped in part by our own social and cultural position; that is right, and that is a reason for lamenting the fact that analytical philosophers (like literature professors) are not a very socially or culturally heterogenous bunch, and to draw others into a process of wide reflective equilibrium. I doubt that McMahan disagrees with this. But as Matt says, none of this implies that morality is intuition all the way down, any more than the fact that all observations are theory dependent implies that science (or worse, the world) is intuition all the way down. There are facts, and we have limited resources for getting at them because we are epistemically imperfect, and we have to do the best we can, by offering, imagining, and scrutinising reasons. Sometimes people can get too attached to positions they hold, and this makes them less responsive to reasons than they should be (never happens to you or me, of course), but it is the person, not the method, that is at fault.

This paper by Jeremy Waldron is long and inconclusive, but well worth reading:

http://weblaw.usc.edu/academics/assets/docs/waldron.pdf

9

harry b 09.29.08 at 9:53 pm

Oh — I posted before seeing your comment #7, but the Waldron paper is directly on that question. The comment you quote from McMahan is exactly right; we do have that vague intuitive commitment, and it is, precisely, a vague intutitive commitment (as opposed to a very precise intuitive commitment, which we have about some other things), and one that Waldron argues we have very little support for; he is, rightly, expressing tentativity about the judgments that flow from it (a tentativity that would be out of place in working out those judgments, and that some people are undisposed to display in their personal presentations, for whatever reason).

10

Michael Bérubé 09.29.08 at 10:00 pm

harry — passive-aggressive, huh? OK, that really makes me mad. Seriously, thanks for the Waldron paper — I’ll read it tonight. But I really don’t mean to suggest that we’re making any old crap up. We do, I hope, gradually learn from history — and from adding to our knowledge about our evolutionary inheritance, too. (In fact, I apparently pissed off some people by speaking of “the limits of the social model” of disability. But so be it.)

geo, I’m just not buying the utilitarian calculus at all, no matter where Singer sets the bar. The fact that he underestimated the potential of some people (and did so with considerable certainty, I might add, pointing to the “we cannot expect” line) is in itself, for me, reason enough to resist any moral calculus that involves a performance criterion for being human.

11

HH 09.29.08 at 10:39 pm

There is a difference between philosophy and clever badinage. This difference should not be eroded, even if the motive is a deeply felt intuition.

A non-controversial instance of a simple criterion for being human is the state of brain death. A gradient extends from there to genius functionality. It is entirely reasonable to set a threshold along this gradient for purposes of discriminatory treatment. In fact, parents regularly discriminate among their own children, based on their advantages and debilities, to maximize their potential. Similarly, we sometimes put “women and children first” into the lifeboats. If this is done according to “intuition,” is it immoral?

12

NPOV 09.29.08 at 10:47 pm

I actually don’t have a problem with assigning moral worth based on “humanness” – after all, all species that are a product of natural selection are strongly programmed to favour their own over others, and it could hardly be otherwise.

I’d also suggest that while the principle of “all human beings have the same moral worth” is a workable one, that generally seems to produce good results, the principle of “all life has the same moral worth” is simply impossible, as clearly nobody can claim that destroying a bacteria responsible for a nasty disease is morally equivalent to killing a human being. I don’t have a good answer as to how we should determine the moral worth of non-human lifeforms and the morality of killing such lifeforms, but degree to which pain and fear is experienced seems intuitely important, and certainly I feel uncomfortable consuming animal products where there’s some reason to believe that insufficient attempt was made to minimise pain and fear among the animals providing the products. But I’m not entirely sure what a rational argument justifying this position would look like, given that we don’t apply it among born humans: it’s no less immoral to kill a human who is physically incapable of suffering pain and fear than one who is. But many of us (myself included) do accept it’s less immoral to kill a developing human foetus than any born human – even a born human who is known to be incapable of experiencing pain or fear. But I wonder what I would feel about a human foetus growing in an artificial womb…

13

mijnheer 09.29.08 at 10:57 pm

This seems to be largely about the argument from marginal cases, as it is known (“marginal cases”, I might note, not “marginal humans”). Singer (and McMahan too, I suppose) can be read as saying, “Since there is no rational justification for treating squirrels (or pigs) differently from the way we treat humans with the same cognitive faculties, when it comes to basic interests, we have no obligation to treat such humans as well as we do.” But the inference more typically drawn from the argument from marginal cases is, “Since there is no rational justification for treating squirrels differently from the way we treat humans with the same cognitive faculties, when it comes to basic interests, we ought to treat squirrels (and pigs) a lot better than we commonly do.”

Like cases ought to be treated alike, but this does not entail a sliding scale of moral status when it comes to the right to have one’s basic interests respected. Being sentient is a rationally defensible threshold. I suggest that any other threshold is hard to defend, and “simply being human” cannot be rationally defended as a threshold.

14

Brian Z 09.29.08 at 11:07 pm

I saw a young man hunched over a computer game, and then I noticed you leaning over his shoulder. “Hey,” I thought, “that’s Jamie Bérubé!”

It was a little bit of a thrill, spotting a celebrity out in public.

Let me also add that I greatly appreciated your response to McMahan. It helped clarify for me why the sessions with Singer and McMahan seemed not just nauseating but sterile. It seemed like no one said anything new and nobody altered anyone’s opinion; the time was wasted, unproductive. Some of the people at the conference may have hoped that they could demonstrate “deep moral facts” to Singer and McMahan. I think that must have been why they were invited. I’m cynical enough to think that most people reason from their conclusions to their premises. No one is going to change Singer’s mind by pointing out a flaw in his logic, nor is Singer going to demonstrate to you that Jamie is comparatively less human than a philosophy professor. Incompatible premises can battle it out in politics and poetry, but in philosophy they just talk past each other. I thought you added an important political note by describing the history of moral status claims, and Prof. Kittay reached toward poetry towards the end in describing her relationship with her daughter.

15

Nick Valvo 09.29.08 at 11:19 pm

I tend to arrive at quaint Hegelian conclusions about this kind of disagreement. The way Singer structures his argument is grounded on the limitations of his ability to recognize himself in the other. He has cast himself in the rôle of the Lord from Hegel’s dialectic of Lord and Bondsman, who relates to the subjugated other through the “thing,” that is to say, the product of formative activity… But with this twist: Singer is consumer of the intellectual/cultural productions of the other, and therefore, to the extent that he cannot recognize these productions as the product of formative activity, he cannot recognize them as contributing. This is, needless to say, a strange way to ground moral philosophy (of course I’m being very uncharitable to Singer, as I usually tend to do). A more interesting argument would be to say that to precisely the extent that the cognitively disabled are *unable* to contribute to culture in forms we can recognize, they are to be recognized as Lordly in the Hegelian sense, as independent self-consciousness.

In other words, they aren’t here for Singer’s amusement, so it doesn’t matter if he can’t relate to them. Of course, the severely cognitively handicapped can’t understand a word he says either, so it would seem to be even.

All of which is to say, there are routes, however antique, to Michael’s pragmatist conclusions that don’t run through the typical pragmatist furrows.

16

Sebastian 09.29.08 at 11:27 pm

“Why not judge on reproductive fitness? It is a nice clean measure of moral worth that is rooted deep in biology and history.

Ack! No no no no no no no. Down that road lies the conviction that three generations of imbeciles are enough. I ain’t a-goin’ there.”

To be clear, I was being sarcastic with that suggestion, and I think you were with the response but internet nuance can be tough. ;)

I guess I don’t understand why intuition about cognitive ability or not works but intuition about intrinsic human worth doesn’t. I know you can’t be expected to answer since you don’t buy into the cognitive ability question as controlling. But I remain mystified.

17

geo 09.30.08 at 12:15 am

resist any moral calculus that involves a performance criterion for being human

What is the right criterion, then, and how does it help us decide whether or not a fetus is a human being?

18

PTS 09.30.08 at 12:30 am

“Jeff, I think the reason you haven’t yet heard a cogent argument against your position is that you won’t accept a pragmatist argument as cogent. But let me give it a try. I’m not going to rely on concepts like ‘intrinsic human worth,’ but I can try to learn a little from history. And let’s imagine that we might have learned—very slowly, very gradually, because as a species we’re really not very bright about such things—that every attempt to banish some humans from the category of rights-bearing beings, every attempt to lop off some members of the human family, has had vicious and catastrophic results. “

Why not extend this argument to the unborn? The moral acceptability of abortion is, Thomson notwithstanding, dependant upon the claim that the fetuses being aborted aren’t people (there might be a couple cases where that isn’t quite true, but to rely on those would exclude the vast majority of currently legal results).

And notice, you can’t use the dependency argument here, since the severely mentally handicapped are also dependent. You can’t use the “they aren’t really people” argument because you just said that all such arguments need to be thrown out. And you can’t say that, pragmatically, legalized abortion serves interests of “society” or the “community” better because whose interests count is precisely at issue here.

19

Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 1:09 am

There is a difference between philosophy and clever badinage.

Oh, but I do love me some of that badinage. I even love the word itself! But let me guess, HH — when I say we’re making up rationales as best we can, you think I’m saying “anything goes woo hoo yeah,” perhaps?

mijnheer: “simply being human” cannot be rationally defended as a threshold

Why not? There is no rational basis whatsoever about being protective about our species? But yes, McMahan’s argument is explicitly an argument about marginal cases (check the subtitle of his book), and I’m just now getting down to its grainy details.

Nick Valvo: interesting point. Very interesting.

To be clear, I was being sarcastic with that suggestion, and I think you were with the response but internet nuance can be tough. ;)

Yes, Sebastian, one needs to be aware of all Internet traditions. Those who are not so aware have a different moral status than you or I. But thanks for making sure on this one.

NPOV, geo: about those fetuses. In Life As We Know It I propose (like lots of people) the criterion of viability. But I use Singer’s position, in the course of that discussion, to demonstrate that the lines we draw (at conception; upon viability; at birth; after birth; and — according to the Catholic Church — upon intercourse) are not self-evident. A few Catholics, including one dogged reviewer chez Amazon, have been very upset that I called out their church’s position on contraception, and a few disability-rights allies have been very upset that I discussed Singer dispassionately, that is, without noting that he is Teh Devil. Eh. I knew that writing a chapter about the ethics of selective abortion w/r/t fetuses with disabilities would alienate at least half my potential readership, so I decided to shoot for three-quarters instead.

20

HH 09.30.08 at 1:37 am

“I knew that writing a chapter about the ethics of selective abortion w/r/t fetuses with disabilities would alienate at least half my potential readership, so I decided to shoot for three-quarters instead.”

These are the words of a controversialist who relishes polemic. Who needs a search for truth when the cut and thrust of a fine wit is so ready to hand? Whatever merits the deep intuitions of a philosophical hipster may be, they certainly do not include humility.

21

vivian 09.30.08 at 2:04 am

Michael, I’m with you on pragmatism, but maybe Singer and McMahan might accept it if you reframe it as probability. Someone with a given set of physical or biochemical limitations at birth has a constrained cognitive potential relative, to, say, professional cognitive practitioners, or PCPs. But the constraining function is (1) unknown at present, (2) known to be very mutable with therapy and accommodations (3) really, really hard to measure (4) we cannot accurately predict future abilities from early measurements. About the best we can do is roughly describe the distribution of future abilities among a group of similar infants. And that ain’t nohow noway enough to attribute moral status to individuals.

(Of course, that leaves you with the implication that if someone could prove that someone was that limited, you’t buy their lack of moral agency. But barring anencephalic infants, it’s all probabilistic and you’re free to set as high a bar as you like.)

22

vivian 09.30.08 at 2:13 am

Or you could point out that empathy and a willingness to learn are cognitive capacities, essential for learning and rock-bottom necessities to ground moral agency. Since you’ve got the self-restraint not to pound in the obvious, unlike me.

23

Roy Belmont 09.30.08 at 3:07 am

One of the less visible reasons arguments about abortion founder is there isn’t any line that can be determined scientifically as precisely where exactly life begins.
Possibly that’s because sperm and ova are themselves alive. And what happens is those two forms of life combine.
That combination obviously begins when the sperm enters the egg and combines its whatever its called stuff inside it with the whatever it is stuff inside the egg.
But that’s not a practical line, it’s a continuation.
Nobody wants to admit it can’t be done in any but an arbitrary and indistinct way, because we’re talking about human life, and death.
So everybody picks one that fits their agenda. And everybody has an agenda.

24

NPOV 09.30.08 at 3:33 am

If you’re simply talking about cognitive ability, you don’t need to go back as far as foetuses – even newborn human babies don’t have significant cognitive ability compared to fully able adult humans, and presumably even compared to fully able adults of various other species. But very few would claim that it was less immoral to kill a human baby than even the most cognitively developed adult chimpanzee. Here our natural instincts as a species come into play: our genes are programmed to value the human baby more, because the sorts of genes that control our instinctual moral reasoning are significantly more likely to have copies inside the baby vs the chimp*, and we also possess genes that make us naturally protective towards babies, because if we didn’t care for and protect them uniquely human genes wouldn’t survive at all.
Given that our genes are so programmed to protect humans other other species, and we can’t avoid being products of our genes, any moral philosophy that doesn’t treat humans as a special case is surely likely to lead to conclusions that the vast majority of humans simply couldn’t bring themselves to accept.

* For any random gene it may well be the case that it has a better chance of being reproduced by the chimp, simply because adult chimps have ~99% of our genes and can definitely reproduce, whereas human babies have only slightly more of our genes, and are at significant risk of not surviving long enough to reproduce. But for the sorts of genes that do control our instinctual preference for human babies over chimps, this logic is quite different, as such genes are largely uniquely human, and chimps probably don’t carry them at all. In an each-gene-for-itself world, this is what matters. As yes I’m probably using gene when I should be using allele.

25

Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 3:55 am

These are the words of a controversialist who relishes polemic.

Actually, no, HH, they’re the words of someone who knew that writing on the ethics of selective abortion w/r/t fetuses with disabilities would be really dicey stuff, but decided to try to go ahead and come up with an intellectually honest argument anyway. Please don’t tell me you’re one of those people who talks about “the search for truth” while chatting away on blog comment threads about books you haven’t read. Because that would make me sad.

26

djw 09.30.08 at 5:33 am

Really great post, Michael, thanks.

27

HH 09.30.08 at 5:48 am

Please don’t tell me you’re one of those people who talks about “the search for truth” while chatting away on blog comment threads about books you haven’t read. Because that would make me sad.

That would not make you sad at all. It would simply set up your next dazzling polemical tennis shot.

we literature professors see nothing wrong with making things up, especially when many of our fellow humans come to see them as good things; that we think it’s one of the things that some humans do quite well; and that we consider it a skill requiring great cognitive capacity and what C. L. R. James called, in another context, high and difficult technique.

This is what contemporary intellectual coolness, or what the Victorians called “cutting a dash,” is all about. All hail the intellectual hipster. Why be correct when you can be cool?

28

Alex Gregory 09.30.08 at 7:44 am

“I’m just not buying the utilitarian calculus at all, no matter where Singer sets the bar. The fact that he underestimated the potential of some people […] is in itself, for me, reason enough to resist any moral calculus that involves a performance criterion for being human.”

I tend to think Harry is completely correct in his comments. Perhaps one way of phrasing it is this: A lot of moral philosophers will see their job as the first-order one of trying to find the truth of the matter, and putting forward arguments and reasons that support why they think what they do. But it’s a different project – a second-order one – to allow facts about human uncertainty and epistemic fallibility to enter into our calculations. The argument “McMahan is a pretty clever guy, so he knows more than me, so I should hold his view” probably has some force in one sense, but it’s not an argument philosophers are likely to accept for their purposes. Equally, “Singer made a bad mistake, so other people with the same views are probably making mistakes too” possibly has force in one sense, but it’s not an argument philosophers are likely to accept for their purposes.

If philosophers were doing the latter project, they would do more history, sociology and so on, in order to judge just how “historically contingent” their views were. But that’s not their project. Of course, that makes things more complex when you try and work out just how much relevance moral philosophy does have for the choices we have to make here and now. I take it that this question is where all of the non-ideal theory comes in, and matters here are going to need a greater sense of our own fallibility and so on (which, obviously, isn’t the same as ignoring philosophical arguments, but perhaps just qualifying them to a greater extent).

But it is important to seperate out two different projects here, and not charge people with doing something wrong for not pursuing the project you thought they were.

Oh, and a final point: One reason why “our moral intuitions will be different in 1000 years” doesn’t hold much weight even for the latter kind of project is that they could change in the other direction. Perhaps we’ll find in 1000 years that we’re less tolerant of disabled people: I doubt this possibility changes your views on the matter, so why should the reverse possibility change McMahan’s?

29

brooksfoe 09.30.08 at 7:52 am

Just searched this whole thread, and found only one (non-relevant) use of the term “power”.

I’ve been out of these arguments for too long, but maybe we’ve started undervaluing Foucault a bit too much? Because once you start saying that these agreements based on moral intution are historically contingent, and then that we are “making it up”, I don’t know how you can avoid the next step, which is asking what kinds of moral intuitions in different historical moments help people to deploy more power than people with different moral intuitions. Anti-racism, for instance, helped deploy northern industrial power against southern plantation economies, and then later helped deploy the power of democratic countries against countries embracing the nascent fascist model. And then anti-racism helped Soviet-bloc countries deploy power against Western-aligned countries in the decolonizing Third World, and Western-aligned countries were forced to become less racist as well to compete.

The dismal aspect of this perspective is that it’s not guaranteed that a moral intuition which celebrates the developmentally disabled from their own point of view will be any good at helping deploy political power, because the disabled themselves are very rarely capable of taking up any of that power. Such a moral intuition might be good at deploying the political power of those who love developmentally disabled people, though, and in relatively well-off and free societies, that may be enough for success.

30

David Weman 09.30.08 at 9:25 am

“One of Nussbaum’s arguments about surrogacy, fyi, was that guardians of adults with cognitive disabilities should be entrusted with voting on behalf of those people if they can’t vote on their own, because otherwise people with significant cognitive disabilities will be stripped of one of the important features of citizenship.”

Why wouldn’t they be able to vote on their own?

31

H. 09.30.08 at 10:25 am

I’d have thought a man with a couple of accents in his name might spell très correctly!

32

Daniel 09.30.08 at 10:48 am

Surely, the “deep moral fact” here is that McMathan knows that there are bound to be people in his audience who have sons, brothers, sisters, etc who have Downs’ Syndrome, but there are not any people in his audience who have family members who are squirrels. The defining property of what counts as human is that they can have particular kinds of relationships with other humans (defined from some arbitrary paradigm case if you must), and family and kinship relations are a) an important kind of the relevant relationships, b) factually, a large part of the reason why we care (in the sense of attribute moral value to) about some mammals and not others. I suspect McMathan would say that there was nothing intrinsically worse about shooting a squirrel that happened to be a beloved family pet, but I bet he’d be surprised how few takers he got.

33

Lex 09.30.08 at 12:26 pm

Surely one of the great moral truths of manhood is that sometimes you have to be prepared to shoot your own dog? Or did Old Yeller teach us nothing?

34

Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 1:02 pm

All hail the intellectual hipster. Why be correct when you can be cool?

Oooh, good one. Well played! Now, my good man, please tell me where you disagree with my argument about abortion and disability. Where precisely am I cool instead of correct?

Alex: thanks. That’s why I wanted to cross-post this little thing over here — to get some feedback from real philosophers. The Waldron essay is fascinating so far, btw.

Daniel: yes, McMahan takes those human relationships into consideration. But he insists that if, say, a person with severe mental retardation has no such relationships (no family members who would grieve at their loss), then all bets are off. Likewise if the loss of a beloved family pet (maybe even a squirrel!) would cause more grieving than the loss of a severely cognitively impaired human no one strongly cares about. As real philosophers have said more convincingly than I can, utilitarianism is a bitch that way.

Why wouldn’t they be able to vote on their own?

Because of those significant cognitive impairments. Why, they might not even understand that there’s an election going on. Which is why Nussbaum’s argument that their guardians should be able to vote for them strikes some people as controversial, which is in turn why I wanted to find out how that argument would work if we ran it through Spheres of Justice.

I’d have thought a man with a couple of accents in his name might spell très correctly!

Yeah, you’d think that, but you’d be wrong. I make that French 101 mistake all the time! Jamie is often better than I am at keeping the graves and aigus in order, and this makes me très très fier.

Fixed. Thanks.

35

Kenny Easwaran 09.30.08 at 1:16 pm

Re NPOV in 24: Given that our genes are so programmed to protect humans other other species, and we can’t avoid being products of our genes, any moral philosophy that doesn’t treat humans as a special case is surely likely to lead to conclusions that the vast majority of humans simply couldn’t bring themselves to accept.

I don’t think most of the moral philosophers involved here care too terribly much about people accepting moral philosophies – they care about which moral philosophy is correct. Singer recognizes that most people can’t bring themselves to live up to the high standards he suggests are correct about how much we ought to donate to the less fortunate, and especially those around the world, but just because few if any people can actually live up to those standards doesn’t mean that we’re all angels. Just that it’s hard work to be good, and we might not even be cut out to fully know what’s good.

Also, the stuff about pragmatism and changing intuitions, and “it’s intuitions all the way down” is particularly interesting after having just read an article about experimental philosophy, which I suppose is all about finding out what these intuitions really are, where they come from, and how they develop. Which is an interesting question, but of course just raises the question again of what role these intuitions were supposed to be playing in the argument anyway.

36

Lex 09.30.08 at 1:20 pm

How would guardians voting for the disabled pair up with parents getting extra votes for their [minor] children? Apart from the fact that the latter suggestion would sell the USA to those ‘Quiverful’ nutters…

37

Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 1:43 pm

Lex, Jeff McMahan asked precisely that question of Nussbaum. Actually, he asked whether a mother who gave birth on November 3 would be entitled to two votes on November 4. Nussbaum replied that she holds the line at a certain threshold for citizenship — 18, at present, though she noted that this threshold, too, has moved a bit over time, and may move again. Eva Kittay (moderating the session) then jumped in to say she disagrees with Martha on this, and that one person/ one vote should kick in even for neonates. I’m with Martha on this.

For my part, I closed my response to Martha by saying there isn’t yet enough good stuff on surrogacy and guardianship in disability studies. For obvious reasons, it’s something I think about all the time, and need to learn as much as I can.

38

Sam C 09.30.08 at 2:22 pm

Excellent post, and some interesting comments (especially from Harry B).

But I don’t really understand what method it is that you think Singer and McMahan are using, and shouldn’t be. They’re reasoning about what we ought to do. Like all reasoners, they need places to start – we could call these starting places ‘intuitions’, but that obscures the various differences between them (they include exemplary stories, familiar imagery, more or less educated emotions and perceptual capacities, learned principles, pious hopes, etc.). Singer’s typical method is to reason his way through this thicket by discovering, and trying to remove, tensions between the different ways these different starting-places point. For instance: we think that like cases ought to be treated alike, and we don’t think that distance is a relevant difference, but we do think – incoherently – that we are blameworthy for not pulling a drowning child out of a nearby pond, but not blameworthy for not sending some money to UNICEF, which would also save a child’s life (lots of lives, in fact). We should therefore, if we’re to act rationally, send some (lots of) money to UNICEF. This is a consistency argument, not an attempt at a Cartesian deduction of the fundamental truths of ethics.

One might well argue that Singer takes too little account of some of these starting-places in his reasoning. But there isn’t, so far as I can see, an alternative, ‘intuitions all the way down’ method of not doing the reasoning. That just leaves us stuck in the thicket.

I want to suggest that your problems with Singer and McMahan are substantive disagreements about the capacities of (e.g.) people with Down syndrome and about the moral significance of human responses to one another (including those of us with Down etc.), not issues about method at all. The foundationalism/anti-foundationalism debate is just beside the point.

39

Lex 09.30.08 at 2:29 pm

@37 – so there actually are some people out there who think offspring-based plural voting is a good idea? And I bet they think they’re progressives, too.

40

harry b 09.30.08 at 2:49 pm

Lex — I agree that parents shouldn’t automatically get to vote as many times as they have children plus one, but it is not unprogressive to think that children’s interests should be represented in government policy somehow. There are better and worse ways of doing this depending on the circumstances, and in some circumstances giving parents extra votes might be the best — or least bad — way.

41

Lex 09.30.08 at 3:05 pm

Such circumstances, presumably, including location in a far distant part of the galaxy where the obvious socio-political problems this poses have already been solved?

42

HH 09.30.08 at 3:14 pm

Now, my good man, please tell me where you disagree with my argument about abortion and disability. Where precisely am I cool instead of correct?

To the degree that I can actually discern a coherent argument, it seems that the answer you pose to ethical and policy questions generally considered to be formidable is “all of the above.”

I remain unpersuaded that there are transcendent moral virtues to be advanced by compelling such parents to bear children with disabilities. For that reason I have insisted that it is more consistent with the principles of democracy for people like me to persuade prospective parents and genetics counselors not to think of amniocentesis as part of a search-and-destroy mission, and to persuade them that many people with disabilities, even those disabilities detectable in utero (like Down syndrome), are capable of living lives that not only bring joy and wonder to those around them but are fulfilling and fascinating to the people living them as well. But I will not argue that some forms of childbirth should be made mandatory, nor will I demand that prospective parents be barred from obtaining genetic information about the fetus if they desire such information.

Society is to endorse and economically underwrite the entire spectrum of personal, religious, and “intuitive” choices made by its members regarding the conception and rearing of disabled children. From this non-decision, some wise democratic consensus will magically arise.

It would be amusing to apply this “method” of inclusive policy making to such issues as polygamy, indentured servitude, slavery, and paid harvesting of human organs. What splendid pluralistic outcomes we could enjoy if we would allow a thousand flowers of choice to bloom.

43

novakant 09.30.08 at 3:30 pm

Singer’s typical method is to reason his way through this thicket by discovering, and trying to remove, tensions between the different ways these different starting-places point. (…) One might well argue that Singer takes too little account of some of these starting-places in his reasoning. But there isn’t, so far as I can see, an alternative, ‘intuitions all the way down’ method of not doing the reasoning.

Exactly, even if one doesn’t agree with Singer, even if one can prove him wrong on certain points (e.g. Down syndrome), he can be read productively because he’s pretty good at exposing some of our cherished moral axioms as simply moral intuitions. That in itself is neither dangerous nor objectionable, else one has would have to throw the whole project of Ideologiekritik out of the window. Such an awareness is preferable to simply letting these intuitions guide our thinking, as it opens up a realm of discourse previously unavailable. If we relied solely on “intuitions all the way down” we would be confined to bare-knuckle power struggles. As for Singer’s own intuitions, they only become problematic if one reads philosophers with the expectation that they should tell us what to do.

44

Sebastian 09.30.08 at 4:11 pm

“he’s pretty good at exposing some of our cherished moral axioms as simply moral intuitions. “

I don’t understand what this means. What is the functional difference between a moral axiom and a moral intuition that you believe? It sounds like you are saying that he is really good at exposing ‘A’ as ‘A’.

45

HH 09.30.08 at 4:12 pm

Literature is an aesthetic endeavor. Philosophy is a rational endeavor. Professor Berube should make up his mind regarding the kind of work he is studying. The artistic and the philosophical worlds cannot be fused productively into a splendid amorphous glom by a “public intellectual,” no matter how cool he may be.

46

SamChevre 09.30.08 at 4:24 pm

If it’s intuitions all the way down, then in my opinion religiously-based intuitions are just as reasonable as any others. So on “who counts as human?”, I’m happy with the imago dei view. (“Man, being made in the image of God, has inalienable dignity, and should be loved, cherished, and respected, from conception until natural death.”)

Or, to pose it as a question: is there any sense in which intuitions can be “public reasons”, or are they inherently private reasons (even if very broadly shared)?

47

novakant 09.30.08 at 5:21 pm

What is the functional difference between a moral axiom and a moral intuition that you believe?

Well, I don’t claim to have used these terms in a philosophically bullet-proof way (any of the pros here feel free to come up with better terminology), but what I had in mind when using them was something along these lines:

axioms: self-evident, formalized, rational, universal
intuitions: pre-rational, individual, psychological, arbitrary

Now if you expose axiomatic moral claims as mere intuitions, or rather intuitions dressed up as axioms, then you undermine claims to self-evidence and universality, and that’s a worthwhile effort in itself.

48

Tom Hurka 09.30.08 at 5:26 pm

Berube:

1) Did McMahan ever cite Down children as examples of human beings with “severe and profound cognitive impairments”? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts he didn’t, because they’re well above the threshold of cognitive capacity he requires for personhood, rights, etc. If so, your references to them in connection with him are a red herring.

2) Would you have been content with your “pragmatist” argument in other cases, e.g. facing the Holocaust? “I’m not certain that it’s impermissible to slaughter Jews, but given human fallibility you Nazis can’t be certain that it’s permissible. So the safe course is not to slaughter them.” Wouldn’t you have wanted a somewhat more, ah, robust argument than that? And mightn’t we then want to know how far that more robust argument extends?

49

HH 09.30.08 at 5:34 pm

Many Nazis were convinced that they were “purifying” their nation and thus posed proudly for photographs during genocidal activities. They were “intuitively” certain that they were doing the right thing. When the doors of moral judgment are thrown open to emotions, passions, prejudices, superstitions, and feel-good nostrums, we invite the demons of irrationality into our lives.

50

matt 09.30.08 at 5:52 pm

This is why I don’t find Nussbaum’s critique of Rawls convincing (if I understand it): As Rawls designs the original position, parties to the contract need to consider that, yes, they may indeed show up in the society as disabled, even profoundly. This consideration will certainly inform the basic structure they are willing to approve.

51

matt lister 09.30.08 at 6:03 pm

Just to note, the “Matt” in comment 5 above is me, the matt who often comments here. The “matt” in comment 50, though I’m not sure I disagree with him, is someone else.

52

matt 09.30.08 at 6:13 pm

Apparently if I try to use my full name my comment goes in to moderation. But, anyway, the “matt” in #5 is me, who normally comments here, and the “matt” in #50 is someone else who I wish would use a different name in recognition of an internet tradition and all so that we’re not confused. That I might agree with him here (though I’m not sure) makes the confusion more possible.

53

Sam C 09.30.08 at 6:30 pm

HH: “When the doors of moral judgment are thrown open to emotions, passions, prejudices, superstitions, and feel-good nostrums, we invite the demons of irrationality into our lives.”

Some of these things are not like the others. In particular, emotions are not like prejudices (they may be involved in prejudice, of course; but equally, they may be involved in heroism – it depends on the emotion). More importantly, morality without emotion is impossible. Moral judgement is action-guiding; without emotions – without caring about things – we lack motivation to act or reasons for choosing one course of action over another. (Alternative way of putting the same point: give me an account of what such a reason could be).

I suspect that by ’emotions’ you mean things like hatred and anger, and are forgetting things like love, joy in beauty, and empathy. But even ‘negative’ emotions are educable towards being directed at the right things – some things are proper objects of anger, for instance, and a decent person feels angry about them and is thereby motivated to act against them. I’d be somewhat worried by someone who felt no anger if confronted, say, with a case of child abuse.

54

G 09.30.08 at 7:03 pm

I suspect that some people commenting in this thread have read Rawls, Nussbaum, Walzer, and Singer while others have not but really like the sound of their own voice.

Call me crazy, if you must.

55

Jeff R. 09.30.08 at 8:19 pm

matt: actually, Rawls precludes the possibility of the original positioners being anything other than fully competent adults. (This certainly strikes me as, appeals to Locke aside, a bit of results-based legerdemain to prevent those in that situation from forming a consensus against legalizing abortion. We’ve seen in other threads here how that bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand makes trouble for Rawlsian arguments over long-term, intergenerational policy; here we’re seeing its intrusion into another arena…)

56

Lawrence Carter-Long 09.30.08 at 8:21 pm

Forget discussing the latest (probably awful Woody Allen movie), how about becoming homecoming king?
Here’s one for Singer:

Best, Lawrence

57

harry b 09.30.08 at 8:39 pm

Matt in #50; no, that’s not right, the parties assume that they will be fully cooperating citizens over the course of a life. That is why it makes sense for them to bargain over the social primary goods, only. We have to extend the model to accomodate disability. As I said before, I think there are ways of doing this for physical disability, but I am completely bemused about how to do it for (severe) cognitive disability. Rawls’s conception of citizens as free and equal persons possessed of the two moral powers (a capacity for a sense of justice and a conception of the good) requires pretty complex cognitive capacities (as well as much else, including emotional health of a certain kind, etc).

Ingrid and I, by the way, are just finalising a collection of essays by various people (including Sen) on the debate between the capabilities approach and the social primary goods approach which, when published, will help with some of these questions….

58

Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 8:50 pm

HH: It would be amusing to apply this “method” of inclusive policy making to such issues as polygamy, indentured servitude, slavery, and paid harvesting of human organs. What splendid pluralistic outcomes we could enjoy if we would allow a thousand flowers of choice to bloom.

Good to see you’re not making any distinctions between fetuses and fully grown humans there, pal. But really, go read the actual book, not just my blog post. And then read Walzer on pluralistic forms of justice. You’ll be glad you did! As for comment @ 45, you should get acquainted with Plato, who could really spin a good yarn back in the day.

[A quick aside to my CT comrades: when did HH take over the “I is serious commenter” shtick? Didn’t somebody else used to hold down that gig?]

Did McMahan ever cite Down children as examples of human beings with “severe and profound cognitive impairments”? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts he didn’t, because they’re well above the threshold of cognitive capacity he requires for personhood, rights, etc. If so, your references to them in connection with him are a red herring.

What are “Down children”? Is that like “children of the corn”? If you mean “children with Down syndrome,” no, I didn’t adduce them in my exchange with McMahan, precisely for the reason you mention. I adduced them in response to something Peter Singer wrote in 1994. In his talk, McMahan explicitly excluded from consideration (that is, included within the ambit of “persons”) anyone who once possessed a cognitive capacity they no longer enjoy, thus taking people with advanced Alzheimer’s or severe TBI (among other things) out of the mix. But my point is that I don’t accept “threshold of cognitive capacity,” as you’ve surely gathered by now.

Would you have been content with your “pragmatist” argument in other cases, e.g. facing the Holocaust? “I’m not certain that it’s impermissible to slaughter Jews, but given human fallibility you Nazis can’t be certain that it’s permissible. So the safe course is not to slaughter them.”

Um, isn’t this a kinda weird argument to use against someone who challenged McMahan on the grounds that previous attempts to lop certain populations off of the human family — and remember, for the Nazis, it all began with sterilizing the unfit — have been vicious and catastrophic? But yes, those of us who oppose things like genocide are allowed to use force in support of our historically contingent and yet strangely robust beliefs. I say quite a bit more about this in chapter six of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, if you’re interested in a more fleshed-out answer.

matt @ 50: Jeff R. @ 55 is on the case.

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Michael Bérubé 09.30.08 at 8:51 pm

Ingrid and I, by the way, are just finalising a collection of essays by various people (including Sen) on the debate between the capabilities approach and the social primary goods approach which, when published, will help with some of these questions….

Wow! I can’t wait.

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harry b 09.30.08 at 8:55 pm

SamChevre: I think that’s a really good question, but am not willing to answer it on this thread (because a) I want to think more carefully about my response and b) weaving an answer into this discussion i beyond my limited cognitive capacity). I’ll ponder it a bit and see if I have something useful to say.

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djw 09.30.08 at 9:31 pm

Some commenters in this thread are making me think a certain cranky old man from Minnesota might have half a point.

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Quentin Crain 09.30.08 at 10:20 pm

Michael: Singer in

… the principle of equality is not based on any actual equality which all people share. I have argued that the only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have also suggested that the most important human interests — like the interest in avoiding pain, in developing one’s abilities, in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter, in enjoying warm personal relationships, in being free to pursue one’s projects without interference, and many others — are not affected by differences in intelligence.

I am still confused as to what Singer said in contradiction.

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Quentin Crain 09.30.08 at 10:21 pm

Oh heck! My cite did not appear: Practical Ethics, p27. Sorry.

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HH 09.30.08 at 10:35 pm

Our resources are limited. That is why parents discriminate among their own children. The musically talented child will receive the advanced piano lessons. The natural athlete will receive the expensive running shoes. Society’s resources are also limited, thus utilitarian schools of social philosophy try to align ethics with economics.

Sweeping away everything we have learned about rationing resources among individuals to clear the path for “intuitive” thinking about treating the disabled puts us into uncharted territory. What is the intuitively correct level of investment in a disabled child? If one discards utility, the answer is infinite, because there is no limit to the enhancement of an individual’s abilities through careful and costly nurture.

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Roy Belmont 10.01.08 at 4:38 am

#63:
” If one discards utility, the answer is infinite…”
Fortunately for many of us, one is not forced to discard utility, or emotion, or rational contemplation, or intuition, or insight, or messages in dreams, or advice from and the lessons of others in prior but similar circumstances.
One can incorporate all these into one’s decision-making. One can.
Not only but a strong case could be made that the lack of some or even most of these will lead to unfurthering choices.
One imagines oneself in a custom spacesuit overlooking banks of cryogenic pods, faced with mortal triage now that the algae pod’s been spaced.
One imagines oneself making tough decisions about the future, nobly exercising the power of life and death, but one is not in that spaceship. One is here, on earth, surrounded by craziness and people trying, in the midst of it, to lead human lives, lives with the humanity left in.

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NPOV 10.01.08 at 5:11 am

HH, perhaps our “intuitive” thinking is generally good enough because it has been shaped by millions of years of natural selection?

After all, our intuitive thinking towards disabled individuals isn’t to “do everything possible to help them succeed”, but rather to acknowledge that by relatively minor sacrifices on our own part, we can significantly improve their lives. And we are rewarded for this: for most humans it makes us feel good when we help the less advantaged. It’s obviously a successful evolutionary strategy.
I would argue that if it were otherwise, then the vast majority of all humans would strongly feel that significantly disabled people should, for instance, be left to die and would probably feel satisfaction – a warm inner glow even – at seeing society rid of such a drain on its resources. In such a world any sort of legal or moral framework that gave disabled people the same rights as the rest of us would never even get off the ground, no matter how well it might be logically supportable.

I accept BTW that our intuitions are shaped by the culture of the day as well as our evolutionary past, but I think there are limits to how much cultural expectations can control the degree to which we feel good when helping others. Does anyone know of any good scientific studies of nature vs nuture behind moral intuitions?

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Katherine 10.01.08 at 8:35 am

PTS @ #18 – you have forgotten, in your analysis of interests, dependency and intrinsic human worth in the arena of abortion, to include women. You could argue that the intrinsic human worth of a pregnant woman is of some relevance, n’est pas?

It’s interesting how people who have a problem with abortion always forget that little detail.

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HH 10.01.08 at 3:32 pm

One is here, on earth, surrounded by craziness and people trying, in the midst of it, to lead human lives, lives with the humanity left in.

This is a splendid glimpse of the artistic perspective on life. The glorious circularity of being more human by showing greater instinctive humanity is the perpetual motion engine that powers the magical humanistic faith. (Trust the Force, Luke!)

The ancient Aztecs determined that their “humanity” required ripping the beating heart out of a sacrificial victim to assure that the sun would maintain its vital transit across the sky. This was the perfectly natural and widely accepted consequence of people trusting their intuitions.

I think we can do better.

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SamChevre 10.01.08 at 7:12 pm

Thank-you Harry for the kind words.

I will just note, for the benefit of any latecomers, that I’m very skeptical of the idea of “public reasons”; I see it as a power-grab, not a distinction. I think that all fundamental questions have no one naturally-justifiable answer–intuitions and revelation are all there are.

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NPOV 10.01.08 at 8:42 pm

HH, of course we can do better than just accepting our intuitions. But I think it would be folly to completely ignore them, especially in areas where they have obviously been helpful in maintaining our survival for the last several hundred thousand years. Of course many humans intuitions are wrong largely because we live in such a different world to the one we evolved in, or because there was insufficient evolutonary pressure for correct intuitions to form (e.g. intuitions about the fundamental laws of physics or chemistry are usually wrong), but our “moral world” isn’t that much different today than 200,000 years ago, and it’s usually only in areas where it is different (e.g. our technological capacity to keep humans alive) that intuitions become problematic.

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HH 10.01.08 at 9:02 pm

our technological capacity

This is indeed the wild card. It is not a great leap of speculation to anticipate a time in which the traits of a child can be “optimized” in vitro or in utero. How will our intuitions guide us then? Will there be a schism in society between superkids and “all naturals?” These possibilites will call for rigorous thinking, not a sloppy retreat into “intuitive” behaviors.

I find the conservatism of many of the CT posters to be deeply troubling, since they don’t seem to accept the abundant evidence that world society is at a major point of discontinuity, when many belief systems have to be thoroughly re-examined and even the role of the heroic intellectual must be questioned.

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Bloix 10.01.08 at 10:43 pm

NPOV (#s 66 & 68) has preempted me in some ways, although I think in others we are likely to disagree. In trying to understand where “intuitive commitments” come from we need to think in evolutionary terms – both as literal biological evolution and in the evolution of social structures. As a matter of biological evolution, we have developed emotions and intuitions that lead us to sacrifice short-term self interest in favor of the interests of our children and other close relatives. This makes us no different from many other species. Where we are different is that, as a matter of social evolution, we have built on this platform to extend the suppression of short-term self-interest to favor other members of our local society who are not biologically related to us.

As societies develop and mutually beneficial interactions among strangers become the norm, the scope of the suppression of self-interest extends to include people very different from ourselves. In a pre-modern society, any stranger is fair game for robbery. Societies that have been successful in building very large social orders are those that have scaffolded an ability to suppress self-interest in favor of strangers onto the evolved ability to suppress self-interest in favor of family members. The extension at first is virtually never to all humanity. Instead it is to larger groups that can be analogized to the family – the church, the tribe, the nation, the language group, the race. If a society can’t do this, it can’t grow. So the societies that all of us belong to are able to do it. And they do it by inculcating children with the “value” of suppressing short-term self-interest in favor of a larger group. It has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with evolutionary success.

The extension of this suppression of self-interest in favor of others is conceptualized as “rights.” We say that people “have rights” when what we mean is that certain things are prohibited even though, in a world of unbridled self-interest, those things might be done to them. And we hypothesize that these rights “are” (or perhaps “should be”) co-extensive with all of humanity. Then we argue further about the proper borders of these rights – are chimpanzees in or out? Are people in a persistent vegetative state in or out? -without ever recognizing that the entire rights concept has no foundation. It is merely a construct that posits that an evolutionarily created rule of behavior has non-historical and non-evolutionary content.

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Bloix 10.01.08 at 11:01 pm

Well, someday I may evolve enough to use tags. Don’t know how that strike-out happened.

And ps — words fail me, Michael, as I attempt to express my joy at your return to blogging. Among all the bloggers of the world, you are the one that evokes that Holden Caulfield-like desire to meet you in person and tell you what an inspiration you are. Although, seeing that I haven’t been an adolescent for some time, I think I’ll manage to suppress the urge to hop in the car and zoom on up to State College this weekend.

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Michael Bérubé 10.01.08 at 11:15 pm

If it’s intuitions all the way down, then in my opinion religiously-based intuitions are just as reasonable as any others. So on “who counts as human?”, I’m happy with the imago dei view. (“Man, being made in the image of God, has inalienable dignity, and should be loved, cherished, and respected, from conception until natural death.”)

Or, to pose it as a question: is there any sense in which intuitions can be “public reasons”, or are they inherently private reasons (even if very broadly shared)?

Sam: Harry’s beaten to me to it, because he’s more familiar with this terrain than I am, but like him, I’m slowly working toward a reply. Just more slowly. In fact, I think I’ll spend the next few weeks or so here posing tentative answers to questions I don’t know how to think about yet. One of them has to do with how to reconcile the intuition to include every human born in the category of rights-bearing entities with the intuition to respect the wishes of guardians who decide (after years of agonizing) to withdraw life support from their charges. (The circus around Terri Schiavo obscured some very serious questions about guardianship, I think. More on this as I go.) I hate talking about guardianship in this way, because it overlooks the 80,000 other aspects of guardianship, but I’ll try to complicate this as I unravel a train of thought. I’ll open, though, with a nice messy conflict between the claims of guardianship and the imago dei view.

Bloix: blush. But, you know, I never really left blogging. And I will think about your comment for the next couple of weeks, too.

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NPOV 10.02.08 at 2:11 am

Bloix, good to see another post interested in the evolutionary side of moral philosophy. However I do wonder whether you can make much of an argument that principles like “humans have equal rights” have spread because societies that adopted them have been more successful those that didn’t. I’d agree it’s been a very successful meme, but I think it’s more because it resonates well at some internal level (i.e. it’s not that far off what our biological instincts tell us), plus of course the myriad examples of what happens when not all humans are granted the same rights.

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Daniel Goldberg 10.02.08 at 2:56 am

Michael,

Great post, as usual. My thoughts are here:

http://www.medhumanities.org/2008/10/on-values-disab.html

If you do manage to read all the way down, you’ll note I don’t think we need face a choice between devotion to moral principles and moral intutitonism. There are variants of moral thinking, including one I am partial to (moral particularism) that simultaneously rejects generalism or principlism in morals but maintains that morality is not reducible to intuitions.

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Sam C 10.02.08 at 4:01 pm

NPOV asks ‘Does anyone know of any good scientific studies of nature vs nuture behind moral intuitions?’. One good place to start would be Mark Hauser, Moral Minds.

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