Home | Away

Wandering back in

Hello?  Hello?

Hack!  Cough, cough, hack.  Where are those candles?  Whew!  Dang, it’s musty in here.  It’s like the place hasn’t been used in ages.  And lookit these moldy old archives!  It’s like a tomb in here, it is.

Ah, that’s better.  OK, now I remember where I am.  Yeah, I know this place.

Hey, did I miss anything while I was gone?


So let me tell you what I’ve been doing with myself lately.  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!1!!11! 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.

Updates:  Most of this is now cross-posted to this fine blog.  And there’s another Jamie story at this fine blog, too.

Posted by on 09/29 at 09:12 AM
  1. Well, welcome back to the blogosphere, Michael. For the moment, what I’m feeling right now must be something like what a heroin addict feels when his (or her) pusher has been released from prison. I’ve missed everything about this blog. So welcome back. Nice job on your response to Nussbaum. She really, really likes Rawls, as we know, and while she remains an inventive thinker, her intellectual debts leave her unable to discern the real “foundation” of ethics and politics: conventions, customs, practices. When we get to these malleable underpinnings of our values we can respond in one of two ways. One, we can try to dig deeper in a futile search for universality; or, two, we can acknowledge the conventionality of our values and shape them toward ends of greater inclusivity, and forms of justice that embrace due process and the provisional character of what we call knowledge.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  11:57 AM
  2. I knew there was a good reason to keep this on my “on hiatus” bookmarks.  Welcome back!  Man, is there ever a pile of stuff requiring your attention.  The occasional hit over at Pandagon and TPM just didn’t fulfill my craving for the full Berube’.

    No, if we could just reopen the Whiskey Bar....

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  01:36 PM
  3. Damn! I thought I was trapped in here forever. But that looks like a light of some sort. And . . . . and . . . . do I hear voices? 

    Yes, yes, it’s Bérubé’s joint, open for business again. Whew!

    On intuitions and bedrock, I don’t have any direct reply to your question, Michael. But I note that primatologists and evolutionary psychologists are founding out some very interesting things about primate social life and morality. There’s certainly a growing literature on the biological foundations of morality. I don’t know that literature, and I’m sure some of it is pretty silly. But the underlying science might tell you something about the nature of some of those intuitions.

    As you may know, the National Humanities Center has invited scientists and humanists for some conferences on “the human” under the rubric, Autonomy, Creativity, Singularity. The 2007 conference had two very interesting sessions involving Nussbaum and Frans de Waal (primatologist). Their discussions of empathy are compassion were fascinating and the videos are on the web.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/29  at  02:19 PM
  4. Thanks, Bill!  What’s all this about primate social life?  Is this about eye contact and presidential debates and stuff?

    Chris—I think it’s precisely the depth of Nussbaum’s commitment to Rawls that makes her willingness to revisit Eva Kittay’s critique so interesting.  All that under the umbrella of job creation.  Welcome back!

    And Peter, what do you mean?  Where is Billmon?

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:30 PM
  5. Yeah, that kind of stuff. But it’s also about reconciliation after fights and grieving, stuff like that. It’s pretty interesting. Nussbaum has interesting things to say about how apes will show compassion and empathy in circumstances where people may not.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/29  at  02:41 PM
  6. The Whiskey Bar remains closed, but at the end of July Billmon reappeared at the Big Orange, posting occasionally.


    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:44 PM
  7. Oh, come on. Next you’ll be telling me that Fafblog is back.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:51 PM
  8. Welcome, welcome back!  Is your RSS feed working?

    Posted by Vance Maverick  on  09/29  at  03:05 PM
  9. Your closing thoughts remind me of the thrust of Rorty’s arguments in _Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity_. And now I need to reread that book.

    Posted by Jason B  on  09/29  at  03:30 PM
  10. Gotta check that RSS feed.  Right now I’m just goin’ thru the blogroll.  It’s really dusty in there.

    And Jason, I just had the chance to guest-teach CIS this past spring.  Well worth the rereading!  I’d completely forgotten about the bits on Nabokov and Orwell.  Not really central to the main argument, of course, but that Rorty was a pretty good reader all ‘round.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  03:38 PM
  11. Billmon does show up at The Great Orange Satan from time to time, but it pales in comparison to the real thing.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:28 PM
  12. Que milagro!  And I was just the other day lamenting (seriously, I was), in dinnertime conversation with my beloved, the decline of long-form blogging.  So welcome back (again).

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:52 PM
  13. Also on the topic of ‘universal’ ‘biological’ foundations of morality, have you seen Jonathon Haidt’s work?

    It seems to be less of a grounding than a framework, but still more solid than just that “we’re making it all up as we go”.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  05:05 PM
  14. welcome back!  and woo-hoo, jamie stories and advocacy, too.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  05:22 PM
  15. Just took at quick look at the Haidt stuff, Hunter. Looks worthwhile.

    Construction, making it up, that’s what we’re doing. And, if we’re to understand how this works, it would be useful to know something about the biological underpinnings. Not only will that give us deeper insight to the stuff we’ve already made up, but it may prove useful in helping us to make-up some new-and-improved, but not-final-and-absolute, stuff.

    The more I think about it, Michael, I think you need to view Nussbaum’s lecture on compassion in humans and animals. In part it’s about Othering. Othering blocks compassion, thus we’ll lack compassion in situations where animals will be compassionate.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/29  at  05:28 PM
  16. Welcome back MB.

    Othering blocks compassion

    But the usual opposite of ‘othering’ is recognition, which turns a something into a someone, which is always foundationally a someone-like-me. That’s great, and it can be the basis of some real ethical progress (e.g., the Singerism behind Spain’s Great Apes laws). But to the degree that recognition opens the ethical domain to a newly rendered someone on the basis of resemblance, it’s unethical deep down, almost despite what positive real world effects it might have. In my work on animals (horn-tooting), I’ve been trying to think through some other kind of relational space, you know, some kind of a posthuman ethics. Some of the best work on the subject that I’ve seen is Ralph Acampora’s This is Not Sufficient and--if I remember correctly--the last chapter in Leonard Lawlor’s This is Not Sufficient.

    Posted by Karl Steel  on  09/29  at  06:18 PM
  17. Welcome back!

    And yay for making stuff up, say I.  I’ve been waiting to learn what, if anything, you might have to say re. Palin’s assurance that families with disabled kids will have an advocate in the White House, if her ticket wins.

    Posted by bitchphd  on  09/29  at  06:29 PM
  18. Welcome back!  See what our swamp gas does to you…

    Oh, and it’s aliens all the way down.

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  09/29  at  07:35 PM
  19. You’re back!  Hurrah!

    Posted by Dr. Crazy  on  09/29  at  08:21 PM
  20. criminy. I kind of ran across you was drawn in (via bPhD) before you pooped out last time, and I’m piqued to see you back, but ... DAYum. You don’t post short, do you? I’ll chip away at catching up over the next two lunches. Welcome back!

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  09:28 PM
  21. Welcome back. We’ve kept the grounds and gardens just the way you left ‘em, guv’nor.

    Some people think, when they come up with their moral schemata, that they’ve reached bedrock

    Wow . . . I didn’t realize that there were humanities-culture academics who were still foundationalist. That explains some things.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  12:06 AM
  22. Oh . . . hey, what do you think of WALL-E? Speaking of foundationalism and souls and essences, and dark caves, I mean.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  12:08 AM
  23. How simply damn delightful to come over here and find you again!
    Now I’m going to scroll up and read every word you’ve posted.

    Posted by Hattie  on  09/30  at  12:13 AM
  24. There was a time, not too long ago (around the time teh Clarke pulled up and left blog town), that i thought that what i am doing now would be impossible.  Alas, i guess i made that feeling up too.  Thank you for choosing to re-enlist Michael.

    Now it seems to me that Chris Rock made mention of something like this on David Letterman not too long ago.  Discussing Sarah Palin he said: “Have you been to Alaska, Dave? It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ with snow.”

    He then mentioned all those pictures of Palin alongside a “field dressed” moose she had killed. “She’s there holding a moose and Michael Vick is like: ‘Why am I in jail?’”

    Why indeed? I suppose it will take us a few more decades to get to seeing the moral equivalency between moose and dogs????

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  01:32 AM
  25. Ahem.

    Spyder, I pulled up and left town, but the blog came with.

    Although the wifi connectivity out here in the back of beyond does limit prolixity a bit.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  09/30  at  03:40 AM
  26. I’ve been waiting to learn what, if anything, you might have to say re. Palin’s assurance that families with disabled kids will have an advocate in the White House, if her ticket wins.

    Hey, Dr. B., that was actually a kinda amazing moment, to be honest.  Because on some level (and it’s an important level too), I stand in solidarity with anyone who’s raising a kid with special needs.  Full stop.

    I did venture a few words on the subject at the end of that Jamie story over at Pandagon, though.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  08:30 AM
  27. Admit it--you came back to blogland because I gave you shit about stopping at the conference--where you gave an amazing performance, by the way. Especially when you got up on your hind legs and reminded Jeff McMahan what inevitably happens when we carve humanity into different kinds. Welcome back! And STAY back!

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  09:43 AM
  28. Admit it--you came back to blogland because I gave you shit about stopping at the conference

    This is pretty much true, Hilde—except that you were, like, the fiftieth person this month to give me shit about stopping.  Really.  The fifty-first was a random guy at the University of South Florida (where I went after the conference) who came up to me as I was drinking coffee outside the library and said he recognized me from the blog and wished I would start it up again.  It’s been pretty uncanny.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  09:50 AM
  29. Oh, lucky day! Welcome back, Michael.

    Boy, oh boy, does that last paragraph resonate. My last year of undergrad was spent arguing ethics in a department full of analytic philosophers. I’ve long since ceased to understand why people insist on searching for bedrock when what you build back up justifies things that are counterintuitive and ultimately pretty rotten (e.g.: Singer). Why value logic over your humanity?

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  10:46 AM
  30. Whew! Hey, can we start working on scheduling the next Show Trial? Busy coupla months coming up and I’ll need to pencil it in before all my time gets occupied by grading lab reports, standing in souplines, selling pencils and apples on the corner, violent revolution, ‘n’ shit.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  10:50 AM
  31. so i come back to gaze longingly at the mushroom cloud, only to find that not only is michael back, somehow this has now become a philosophy blog! this whole new apocalyptic future thing is gonna work out. i, for one, welcome our new antifoundationalist overlords.
    captcha: stand. as in, stand up, ye victims of binary constructions of the human… or something like that…

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  11:31 AM
  32. I’m not arguing with your conclusion, but I am arguing with some facts.  In many slave-holding societies, anybody can become a slave.  In these societies, slaves hae some rights and people would not say “it is OK to kill a slave but it is not OK to kill a free person, because free people are fundamentally different from slaves”. 

    Slavery in the US was especially pernicious because it was combined with racism.  People didn’t say “slaves are worth less than free people”, they said “blacks are worth less than whites”.  This extreme racism was a fairly new phenominon in the US.  At the time of the revolution, many slave-holders expressed dissatisfaction with slavery and wished they could afford to free their slaves.  Some did.  But early in the 19th century, non-slave-holders started saying that slavery was wrong.  Slave-holders attempted to justify themselves.  They couldn’t just say that it was convenient, or useful, or even an unavoidable evil.  They justified themselves by saying it was a good, that blacks were born to be slaves, that they needed to be slaves for their own good.  This led directly to saying that they were not full human beings.  Rather than slavery being a perhaps temporary economic condition, it became permanent.

    So, it is true that many people in the US used to think that blacks were worth less than whites, that killing a black was not as bad a killing a white.  Some people still think that. However, I think it was more about their race than whether they were a slave.

    Posted by Ralph Johnson  on  09/30  at  11:44 AM
  33. RJ, in the seventeenth century colonists also constructed “white” and “black” in order to justify existing unjust conditions. White indentured servants and black slaves were treated the same sometimes, differently other times, and at the point when white slaves began living long enough to finish their seven years and be free, the society had to decide whether black slaves were indentured, or were property. They first decided non-Christians would be property; then, as slaves became Christian, they decided skin color would make the difference.

    So, that’s all sort of in agreement with your narrative of how it happens.

    But . . . first, this is all completely tangential to Michael’s arguments.

    Second, the fact that existing unjust conditions lead people to retroactively justify those conditions by forming ideologies which other and dehumanize the victims works against your point about ancient or non-U.S. slave societies. Anyone might become a slave, and today anyone might become poor. That doesn’t stop us from blaming the victims by deciding that they are fundamentally different. It is comforting to think that the Joneses lost their house and moved into the shelter because they deserved to, and I don’t deserve to, because I am better, so that could not possibly happen to me.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  12:49 PM
  34. Michael—thanks for wandering back in, and grappling with this issue that is a lurking concern for all of us parents with special needs children.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  01:26 PM
  35. Thanks, Ralph H—as I said over in the CT thread, I’m hoping to hear (and learn) more about problems with surrogacy and guardianship.  For obvious reasons.

    And Ralph J, I wasn’t talking specifically about U.S. slavery.  More generally, there’s no set correlation across human history (that I know of, at least) between the moral status of slaves and the permanence of the condition.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/30  at  02:17 PM
  36. Seeing the lights on at this blog is the best news I’ve heard all week.  Of course, that’s not saying a whole lot this week.... wink

    Posted by Penny at Disability Studies, Temple U  on  09/30  at  02:22 PM
  37. I agree completely about erring on the side of caution. But I don’t think your reply really addressed McMahan’s point about the squirrel.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  04:02 PM
  38. Fair enough.  I think it would depend on whether the squirrel was destroying my attic, or whether it was just hanging out in a tree.  Or does that take me right back to utilitarianism?

    More seriously, I know Jeff’s book is all about killing, but Nussbaum brought up another metric—not about when it is appropriate to kill animals, but how it is best to honor their desires as animals, and not wipe out their habitats or their food supply (which, of course, might include other animals).  Which sounds right to me, except that then you get into the question of when it makes sense to “cull” animals (deer, say) who are “overrunning” a place. . . .

    Posted by Michael  on  09/30  at  04:16 PM
  39. "Feel free to offer figural interpretations of the present crisis in comments!  Let’s show the world what interpretive skills can do.”

    As I wrote here, I think there is a near perfect figural interpretation of the recent performances of the leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives to be found in a pivotal scene in 1978’s Animal House:

    D-Day: Hey, quit your blubberin’. When I get through with this baby you won’t even recognize it.
    Otter: Flounder, you can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You fucked up - you trusted us! Hey, make the best of it! Maybe we can help.
    Flounder: [crying] That’s easy for you to say! What am I going to tell Fred?
    Otter: I’ll tell you what. We’ll tell Fred you were doing a great job taking care of his car, but you parked it out back last night and in the morning, it was gone. We report it to the police, D-Day takes care of the wreck, the insurance company buys your brother a new car.
    Flounder: Will that work?
    Otter: Hey, it’s gotta work better than the truth.
    Bluto: [thrusting six-pack into Flounder’s hands] My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.
    Otter: Better listen to him, Flounder, he’s in pre-med.
    D-Day: [firing up blow-torch] There you go now, just leave everything to me.

    It just writes itself, doesn’t it?

    Posted by s9  on  09/30  at  06:02 PM
  40. Drat.  Somehow, my web browser got confused about which post I was commenting on… this was supposed to be attached to the one where you were inviting figural interpretations.  Sigh.

    Posted by s9  on  09/30  at  06:03 PM
  41. Another WAAGNFNP show trial? You mean the Palin interviews are good enough for you?

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  07:53 PM
  42. s9:
    You’re right. It’s too perfect.

    Posted by Jason B  on  09/30  at  08:16 PM
  43. Wait; you’re back, but not because somebody told PZ Myers that something or other “could not happen at our beloved Penn State”? Geez, I bet I’m not the only one who immediately wondered what you’d been up to.

    I suppose it’s OK to believe in that bedrock thing as long as one is mindful of continental drift and its underlying causes.

    Posted by Ron Sullivan  on  09/30  at  09:52 PM
  44. Bérubé is back! This is the best news I heard in such a long time!

    Posted by Adrian Hermann  on  10/01  at  04:40 PM
  45. Welcome back! You’ve been missed.  I loved the picture of Jamie at Pandagon, looking like a typical teen-ager - bored and a little annoyed, although you know he’s not really either.

    mother, as in mother of all financial meltdowns looming.

    Posted by Rugosa  on  10/01  at  07:58 PM
  46. Welcome back. I needed Atrios to alert me.

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  03:44 PM
  47. Welcome back!  Did you know I was teaching you (well, 1998 you) this week and directing my MA students to your “web” “log”?

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  10/02  at  04:35 PM
  48. A very insightful post - Thank you, Michael. I have long felt the Republican wizards have been conducting a long-term clinical social psychology experiment to explore the limits of public tolerance for, as you put it, the “affable dunce”.

    As a molecular biologist, and going back a ways, I very much enjoyed your “Palindrome” reference, and I’m glad you succumbed to the temptation. Re Orange @ 9, a palindrome, of course, reads the same forward and backward, e.g. the word “radar”, and such a property in short DNA sequences has important functional consequences. Maybe this will inspire audio engineers to listen to Palin’s speeches backwards, in order to decipher the hidden meaning, or perhaps reversibility or inversion has an apt metaphorical relevance to Palin’s “message” Alas, metaphor is not
    my department.

    Finally, will microcosmic Alaska - north to the
    future! - turn out to be the new epicenter of American anti-intellectualism? Ted Stevens has already gifted us with the series of tubes through which we are now communicating, and while I laugh now at Palin’s discourse on fungible molecules, I fear that when the rapture comes there may be no sanctuary for the pointy-heads.

    Posted by al Jeffzeera  on  10/02  at  07:35 PM
  49. It’s wonderful to read you here again.  Thank you.

    Posted by imfunnytoo  on  10/05  at  09:10 PM
  50. Hey Michael,

    We met briefly at the conference, and I enjoyed our discussion about the meaning of “cure” for cog disabilities.

    I just wanted to point out that nothing in the exchange you report with McMahan suggests that he is either against moral intuition or that he is searching for a moral bedrock. You write that he says, “philosophy is all about...questioning such moral distinctions, and then returning to the questions time and time again”. The whole returning to the questions time and time again part seems to me to indicate that he has no truck with moral bedrock.

    His point isn’t that he takes his own answers to moral questions to be absolute timeless truths. Simply that they are the best answers he has been able to come up with so far. He holds that if you want to challenge or reject those answers you need to provide actual arguments against them, not just sweeping one-size-fits-all generalizations about the historical contingency of all moral views. Also, if you read McMahan’s work you will quickly see that he has no problem whatsoever with moral intuition. I think he would be happy to acknowledge, as you say, that it is intuition all the way down. He just thinks that the arguments built on the moral intuitions we are currently unable to abandon point towards the cognitive capacities account of moral status.

    Posted by  on  10/08  at  11:46 AM
  51. Many thanks, Avi, and it was good talking with you too.  Here’s the thing:  I’ve read Jeff’s work in the past and am making my way through the book, and “the arguments built on the moral intuitions we are currently unable to abandon point towards the cognitive capacities account of moral status” is precisely what I’m not buying.  The intuition I’m currently unable to abandon is the one that says correlating cognitive capacity to moral status has led to moral disasters in the past and is likely to do so again.  That’s not really a sweeping one-size-fits-all generalization about historical contingency so much as a historically specific one.

    That said, I actually don’t share much of the disability-rights community’s opposition to the withdrawal of life support in cases like that of Wendland, Martin, Cruzan, and Schiavo, and I don’t have a blanket opposition to physician-assisted suicide, either.  The first position involves my intuitions about the moral obligations of guardians, the second my intuitions about allowing people to forego needless pain and suffering.  But I’ll explain this in more detail in followup posts.  Thanks again for stopping by.

    Posted by  on  10/08  at  02:01 PM
  52. Really good to read you here again.

    I was only able to attend Ian Hacking’s talk and wrote a very brief account of it here.  Love the last paragraph, especially as I know (I am lucky to live with) an autistic boy (at what’s called the “more severe end” of the spectrum) who’s started learning to play the cello, reading music (he can’t really read words, it seems), rides a bike in traffic, and understands when his parents (due to illness or just general exhaustion) need him to lend a helping him, and does.

    Posted by Kristina  on  10/08  at  10:05 PM





Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:

Next entry: All your ZOMG epic fail are belong to us

Previous entry: Impact

<< Back to main