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More on Peter Singer and Jamie Bérubé

I started blogging just under five years ago, and for the first few months, I kept marveling at my brand new toy.  The record of this marveling, unfortunately, is still in the blog archives for all to see: there are entire posts that read, Whoa!  Check it out!  Somebody responded to something I wrote! and d00d!  Twenty thousand readers in one month!  Inconceivable! This Inter-net is an amazing thing! Yes, I really did hyphenate “inter-net.” It was supposed to be really funny, you see, like something from the early twentieth-century issues of The Onion in Our Dumb Century.  Because whenever I want to suggest in shorthand that someone my age or older is clueless about new technologies, I refer to the “auto hyphen mobile,” after Our Dumb Century’s “auto-mobile,” and . . . oh, never mind.

The point is that sometimes, the internet really is an amazing thing, in which you write a blog post that takes issue with Peter Singer’s characterization of the capabilities of people with Down syndrome, and then find, a few weeks later, an email from Peter Singer in your inbox.  Last month, Singer wrote to say he’d come across my post about the SUNY - Stony Brook Cognitive Disability conference.  He said he was delighted to hear that my son Jamie has a wide range of abilities, intrigued to learn that Jamie understands a range of theories about why humans eat some animals and not others, but sorry that neither Jamie nor I appreciate Woody Allen movies—though he admitted that the recent ones have been disappointing. 

Surely you’ll recall—my post was only two months ago!—that in the passage at issue, Singer wrote, “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.”

Well, Singer wrote to me to say that my reply to this passage suggests that he is wrong about Down syndrome, whereas in fact it takes more than a couple of exceptional children here and there to challenge the general rule.  After all, the passage speaks of expectations, and although people do win the lottery now and again, it would be unreasonable to buy a lottery ticket and expect to win.  Professor Singer then asked me to direct him to some evidence that would indicate that Jamie is not anomalous—and, he said, this is not an idle challenge: if he is mistaken about Down syndrome, he will correct himself in the future.

I wrote back a few days later.  And then, after we’d exchanged another round of emails, I asked Singer if it would be all right with him if I posted my initial reply (but not his initial email) to the Inter-net. Of course, I don’t have to ask permission to post my own words, but I don’t believe in replying to someone’s private email by making a blog post out of it (even if I don’t publish the contents of the email).  Singer said thanks for asking—some people would have simply gone ahead and posted his letter along with the reply.  And I said, oh yes indeed, I’ve dealt with some of those people.  (That’s one reason why I eventually got a blog of my own!) But I think it’s important to go public with arguments about what we can and can’t expect from people with Down syndrome, because those expectations play such a large role in debates over prenatal testing, reproductive rights, and “selective” abortion.

So, then, this was my reply:

Dear Professor Singer,

Many thanks for noticing that blog post, and for taking the time to write.  Thanks also for your kind words about Jamie.  I do, in fact, enjoy a handful of Woody Allen movies here and there; Broadway Danny Rose is a wonderful piece of work, and I’m fond of Bullets Over Broadway as well.  But I do think “we cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen film” instates a distinctly Upper West Side-y performance criterion, and is worth critiquing on those grounds alone.  More seriously, I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read.  OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films.  Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies—they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.” Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.

I do appreciate the fact that you’re not issuing an idle challenge.  I don’t think you would do that.  I have three responses to it.

The first is nitpicky, and has to do with the meaning of “we cannot expect.” You apparently take your phrase to mean “we have no reason to expect” X, any more than we can expect to win the lottery.  I take it to mean—and, unfortunately, all too many people take it to mean—that a child with Down syndrome will not be able to do any of the things you mention.  (This matters, of course, when it comes to the kind of information prospective parents receive after getting a positive result on an amniocentesis.) I think there’s all the difference in the world between saying “we cannot expect” and “we should not expect”; the former suggests absolute certainty, and the latter suggests the kind of probabilism you want to convey.  Accordingly, I take the former to be falsifiable by any person with Down syndrome who demonstrates one of the abilities you say we cannot expect him or her to have.  If you do want to revise the passage ever so slightly, you could always say, “there will no doubt be exceptions that prove the rule, but as a rule, we should not expect etc.”

The second is more substantial.  The larger point of my argument with your claim is that we cannot (I use the term advisedly) know what to expect of children with Down syndrome.  Early-intervention programs have made such dramatic differences in their lives over the past few decades that we simply do not know what the range of functioning looks like, and therefore do not rightly know what to expect. That, Professor Singer, is the real challenge of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome: it’s not just a matter of contesting other people’s low expectations of your child, it’s a matter of recalibrating your own expectations time and time again—and not only for your own child, but for Down syndrome itself.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw a young man with Down syndrome playing the violin—quite competently, at that, with delicacy and a sense of nuance.  I thought I was seeing a griffin.  And who could have imagined, just forty or fifty years ago, that the children we were institutionalizing and leaving to rot could in fact grow up to become actors?  Likewise, this past summer when I remarked to Jamie that time is so strange that nobody really understands it, that we can’t touch it or see it even though we watch the passing of every day, and that it only goes forward like an arrow, and Jamie replied, “except with Hermione’s Time-Turner in Harry Potter,” I was so stunned I nearly crashed the car.  I take issue with your passage, then, not because I’m a sentimental fool or because I believe that one child’s surprising accomplishments suffice to win the argument, but because as we learn more about Down syndrome, we honestly—if paradoxically—don’t know what constitutes a “reasonable expectation” for a person with Down syndrome.

The third goes to the premise of your argument.  You’re looking for things people with Down syndrome can’t do, and I’m looking for things they can.  We each have our reasons, of course.  But I don’t accept the premise that cognitive capacity is a useful criterion for reading some people out of the human community, any more than you would accept the premise that we should grant rights to animals on the basis of whether humans think they do or don’t taste good with barbeque sauce.  I stand by what I said in response to Jeff McMahan’s paper and at the end of that blog post: I hope we have learned enough from our own history to understand why it’s a bad idea to read anyone out of the human community.  (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that we have to extend life support to people like Terri Schiavo against the wishes of their legal guardians.  One point of my remarks about surrogates and guardians, in my response to Martha Nussbaum’s talk, was to challenge people in the disability-rights community who would strip guardians of the right to determine whether their charges would in fact want to be sustained in such fashion.) Better, I think, to add some animals to the category of rights-bearing entities without kicking any humans out.  It needn’t be a zero-sum affair.

Oh yes, evidence that might change your mind if the above paragraphs won’t.  The National Down Syndrome Society is full of useful information about what we can and can’t expect, and online, the Riverbend Down Syndrome Parent Support Group is an amazing resource for everything from research on language and math skills of people with DS.  Finally, there’s the book Count Us In by Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz (1994).  The book includes, among many other things, one of Jason’s high-school essays, written when he was seventeen; the topic is his mother’s obstetrician, who in 1974 had advised the Kingsley family to institutionalize Jason because he would never grow up to have a “meaningful thought.” Of this obstetrician Jason writes:

He never imagined how I could write a book!  I will send him a copy . . . so he’ll know.  I will tell him that I play the violin, that I make relationships with other people, I make oil paintings, I play the piano, I can sing, I am competing in sports, in the drama group, that I have many friends and I have a full life.

So I want the obstetrician will never say that to any parent to have a baby with a disability any more.  If you send a baby with a disability to an institution, the baby will miss all the opportunities to grow and to learn . . . and also to receive a diploma.  The baby will miss relationships and love and independent living skills. . . .

I am glad that we didn’t listen to the obstetrician. . . .  He will never discriminate with people with disabilities again.

And then he will be a better doctor.

Anecdotal evidence, sure.  But good to think with, all the same.  Oh, and Jason’s not the young man I saw playing the violin.

All best wishes,
Michael Bérubé

Posted by on 12/01 at 03:04 PM
  1. This is a great post and actually the best blog post I read in a long while…
    That’s all I have to say about that.

    Posted by wolfgang  on  12/01  at  05:50 PM
  2. A few early mornings each week, i get to experience this (the world of expectations) from a very different perspective.  Coming off my graveyard concierge shift, i need to transfer to a different bus at the main terminal.  My bus leaves from zone ten, and i must pass through zone nine to get there.  Crowding zone nine on week day mornings (to take that bus to a work site near the airport) are no less than 30 cognitively disabled young adults.  Many have Downs, many have speech impairments, yet all of them are functioning as any other mass of people waiting for a bus, to go to work.  There are no chaperones, no “leaders,” no apparent group monitors--as i watch them arrive from different buses at different times while i wait for mine.  I can see no lower level of expectations for them, indeed they appear to be functioning at a much higher social level than most of the self-medicating homeless downtrodden staggering through the terminals.

    I keep thinking that one of these mornings i want to ride their bus and see where they go, and to what jobs they attend (although that just seems to be my own prejudice creeping in).  I find it remarkable and reassuring that our society can overcome the biases against lowered expectations, and see to it that people with cognitive disabilities can contribute as good citizens in every way.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  06:32 PM
  3. There will no doubt be exceptions that prove the rule, but I’ve found you really have to lower your expectations when watching a Woody Allen movie.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  06:33 PM
  4. I cannot tell you how happy I am I found your blog. (Thanks PZ) Although I have no personal stake with DS, I find your views to be clear headed and reasonable. Your writing is compassionate and concise - a joy to read.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  07:21 PM
  5. Nicely done, Michael.

    I’m grappling here with a not-well-formed idea, so bear with me, but it seems as though this discussion hinges in part on unspoken assumptions about what the relationship between intelligence and disability is.

    Arguments such as Singer’s would seem to postulate that disabilities, whether Down Syndrome or some other, constitute an objective and immutable limit to individual intelligence.

    It would seem to be more useful to model intelligence, whatever it is, as a variable and kinda ineffable quality that is filtered through said disabilities, which model would allow the possibility of a prodigy who is smarter than the average bear despite contending with Down Syndrome.

    This model could be extended to cover pretty much everyone, with disabilities ranging from the permanent and pervasive to the transitory.

    But, you know, this is armwaving on my part. Just seems a better, more accurate way of looking at it than what Singer’s statements would seem to imply.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/01  at  08:10 PM
  6. Thanks Michael.

    “It’s not just a matter of contesting other people’s low expectations of your child, it’s a matter of recalibrating your own expectations time and time again—and not only for your own child, but for Down syndrome itself.”

    That’s a powerful statement and worthy of repetition. I plan to repeat it to many.

    Posted by  on  12/01  at  09:12 PM
  7. What can you “expect” from any child at birth?  They never come with a detailed itinerary or guarantees.  All you can say for any kid’s future is “probably, maybe, we hope, we’ll see.” No parent can count on a predictable series of stages and accomplishments, without also counting on the random and the surprising throwing predictions all awry.  I’ve found that to be equally true with both my kids--one with and one without chromosomal complications.  (The only difference is that the kid without the complications meets an easier path through the stages and toward the accomplishments.)

    Posted by Penny  on  12/01  at  11:13 PM
  8. I have nothing substantial to add to the discussion other than “And then he will be a better doctor” is pure win.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  12:20 AM
  9. johnston @ 8:  “And then he will be a better doctor” is pure win.

    It is indeed win in its pure form, on every ethical ground known to humankind. and the great thing is that Jason won the thread fourteen or fifteen years before this thread existed.  Here’s to people with Down syndrome who might just convince people to be better doctors.  And philosophers, and bioethicists. . . .

    Chris @ 5:  I’m grappling here with a not-well-formed idea, so bear with me, but it seems as though this discussion hinges in part on unspoken assumptions about what the relationship between intelligence and disability is.

    You and me both, Chris.  The further I go down this rabbit hole, the less certain I am about what constitutes “intelligence” and “disability,” let alone the relation(s) between the two.  But I’m trying to work on this, too. It’ll take a while, and one can expect that I’ll change my mind a few times over the next few decades as I learn more about other minds.

    David @ 6:  That’s a powerful statement and worthy of repetition.

    Thanks, David.  And speaking of statements worthy of repetition:  anyone reading this thread should check out this powerful statement, which y’all should commit to memory and repeat whenever someone tries to divert a discussion about people with Down syndrome to a discussion about prenatal testing, as if the eradication of Down syndrome would represent a universal, species-wide good analogous to the eradication of smallpox, polio, or tuberculosis.  Because David said it just precisely the way it needed to be said.

    Posted by Michael  on  12/02  at  01:05 AM
  10. Egads.  From the funny to the making-me-want-to-cry tenderness in one post.  this blog gives me whiplash (in a good way.)

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  01:19 AM
  11. There is an abundance of literature in the education field on the influence of teacher expectations on student learning, and the consensus is that high teacher expectations facilitate learning, while low teacher expectations impede learning. I agree wholeheartedly with this premise.

    With that in mind, I will raise a question not necessarily to rebut Michael’s argument, which is solid, but because I know how much this blog likes to examine all sides of an issue.

    My wife teaches students with cognitive disabilities in Texas. She is now required, as are all teachers, to teach her students “on grade level.” The impetus behind this mandate, I believe, is the desire to have high expectations for all. To the people I have spoken with who are actually in the field teaching students with disabilities, this law is absurd.

    For example, my wife is now not supposed to teach her students “off grade level,” instead she is supposed to teach subjects such as multiplication and division of fractions to students who have not yet mastered addition and subtraction. She ignores the mandate, because she believes she would be doing more harm than good by following it.

    This leads to my question: Is it possible to have expectations that are so high or unrealistic that they do actual harm rather than good?

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  07:11 AM
  12. Is it possible to have expectations that are so high or unrealistic that they do actual harm rather than good?

    It’s always possible, and in fact inevitable, to have inappropriate expectations of a child (or adult), when you insist on basing those expectations on your perception of their membership in a particular class, be it race, gender, ability/disability, or otherwise. So that reacting to a history of inappropriately low expectations of the abilities of members of a given group by arbitrarily deciding that “they,” in the lump, can be expected to meet a standard which was devised in relation to a larger group of whom most do not share whatever element caused the students in question to be identified as a separate population in the first place makes no sense at all. I’m sorry; I can barely follow that sentence myself, but it does seem to me to represent the kind of thinking that results when some group of experts formulates policy for dealing with a “them” whose experience they are distant from.

    Every kid comes to school with different strengths, deficits and resources, and that’s magnified many times with disabled kids. I suspect the mandate Texas teachers are laboring under is designed more to allow those responsible to feel good about themselves than to support the best educational experience for the students. I do realize the difficulty of formulating meaningful standards for the education of large populations of students. Teach on the grade level is an easy standard to put in place, and easy to measure if your grade level standards are devised to make it so. If your standard is work with each child beginning where they are and help them progress as far as they can within the given areas of study, it’s difficult to devise an objective standard, on which teachers, parents, and administrators can agree, to determine when that’s actually occurring.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  09:33 AM
  13. This is such an excellent post. My parents were told that my brother (who does not have DS but other cognitive disabilities) would be a “vegetable” and would never walk or talk. Thirty-odd years later, he’s been an athlete, a high school graduate, and a hard-working employee. (Not to mention he knows more about Chicago architecture than I do, and he hasn’t been here in at least a decade, while I’ve lived here for two years.) I don’t know how my family decided to push on in the face of such drastically low expectations, but thank god we did.

    Posted by Sweet Machine  on  12/02  at  11:05 AM
  14. Michael, good to see you are blogging again.  I read a Richard Cohen column today on Eric Holder, and recalled the post you wrote on the many ways he can be wrong.  Out of nostalgia I came by your blog to reread that piece and did a double take (figuratively) when I realized you had come out of retirement.  So if there is any silver lining to the financial meltdown, it is that it has inspired you to blog again.  Sai Weng shima, yanzhi feifu as they say.  Welcome back.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  12:49 PM
  15. I think Chris is on to something; the relationship between “intelligence” and “disability” is far subtler than any of us can imagine.

    I know a girl who is about 12.  Several months after she was adopted, her parents were given the reason why their beautiful baby daughter was so unresponsive:  She was missing large parts of her brain.  Her parents were told she’d never walk, never talk, etc.  Just the other day I overheard her say to her mother, “I love you, Mommy.” (And she was standing up when she said it.)

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  12:57 PM
  16. I don’t want to be a naysayer.  I think almost everything Michael wrote is obviously true, but it’s also the case that, regardless of the inaptness of our expectations, there are some disabilities that require social or parental support in ways that go way above and beyond the range of “normal” instruction or parenting.  I only say this because it appears to be implicit in Mr. Singer’s assumptions that these resources are ill-spent, and Michael’s response doesn’t address that. On the other hand, it is also implicit in Michael’s response that if you work hard enough as a parent and can effectively marshall those resources you will likely succeed in ways you never imagined.  This isn’t necessarily true.

    Society makes judgments about resource allocation and so do parents.  These are hard decisions and I just want to amplify that parents are not “wrong” because they make decisions that are different from the ones Michael would make, just as they are not wrong to differ with Mr. Singer.

    But I understand that Michael was responding to Mr. Singer, who, it seems, is a little too eager to classify and categorize human ability according to his own expectations. I would bet, for instance, that 90% of people with “normal” or even many with “high” IQs don’t particularly appreciate Woody Allen.  (I don’t, at least not much.) That’s mostly a cultural and maybe even a gender, but not a cognitive, issue, and he would be well advised to keep that in mind when he uses such criteria to look down on others.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  01:04 PM
  17. Wow, I just read this blogpost.  Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.  I wonder, though, how much it can be said that the difference between you and Peter Singer is not so much intellectual or a matter of intelligence or ideas; that the essential difference is really in attitude....that when you look at Jamie, you see with hopefulness, while Singer sees with hopelessness. 

    That’s what it means doesn’t it?  Singer is really saying, “we can’t expect anything much from those people, so don’t get your hopes up.”

    Whereas I think your way of looking at it is, “We really don’t quite know what to expect from them, and there is hope that they may surprise you yet, so watch for it, and you may be astonished.”

    I much prefer your way of seeing, but it takes effort, and maybe even a spark of the divine.

    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul,
    And sings the tune without the words,
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
    And on the strangest sea;
    Yet, never, in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.
    —Emily Dickinson

    And coming full circle…

    “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not the ‘thing with feathers.’ The thing with feathers has turned out be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.”
    —Woody Allen

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  01:30 PM
  18. Is it possible to have expectations that are so high or unrealistic that they do actual harm rather than good?

    Well, that’s pretty much a given for any kid across the spectrum of dis/ability. I know a bunch of former gifted kids (gifted former kids?) who have scars for that reason, as do probably a lot of other people in this room.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/02  at  02:04 PM
  19. Is it possible to have expectations that are so high or unrealistic that they do actual harm rather than good?

    I imagine it’s not the height of the expectations so much as how rigidly they’re held, and what the consequences are for coming up short.

    I also believe in the right of people with developmental disabilities to eat too many donuts and take a nap

    This is my make-we-want-to-cry moment.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  03:01 PM
  20. Thanks for the reference, Michael.

    “I appear to have extra extra trouble working this out when children and religion are involved.  Funny how that works.”

    Isn’t it though, but at the same time, don’t we all. It’s one hell of a troubling issue - it’s the issue between the FLDS and the Child Protection Service of Texas, for example; it’s also the issue between those guys in Afghanistan with the spray cans of acid, and the schoolgirls they sprayed in the face with acid, and the girls’ parents. And so on. It needs all the thought we can give it.

    Beautiful post...I’m tempted to urge you to urge Singer to agree to publish the whole exchange somewhere.

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  12/02  at  03:28 PM
  21. Chris @ 5 and Michael @ 9: Ah, it seems to the matter of just what intelligence is, is a quagmire. I assume that for the most part this kind of conversation rests on the informal commonsense notion of intelligence; that’s the sort of idea that’s fine and dandy for all sorts of purposes, but as soon as you want to get really picky and precise, it breaks down. Now, we know that roughly a century ago psychologists decided they needed something more precise, so they defined intelligence in terms of IQ. And you see what a mess has come out of that.

    But let’s take IQ and grant nothing more than that IQ is whatever IQ tests measure; and you can complain about those tests all you want. Now consider a crude ideology: acceleration as a measure of automobile performance. Automobiles are pretty complex things, though not so complex as human beings. The critical thing about cars is that we know how to design and build them. Acceleration is a pretty straightforward measure of performance; obviously it’s not the only measure of performance, etc. But it does measure performance. And engineers know how to engineer cars for this or that acceleration objective.

    Now, where in the car is the acceleration module? Obviously the engine is very important, and so is the transmission. But even the cupholder has some effect of acceleration, because acceleration depends on mass, and the cupholder has mass. It follows that every component of the car as some effect on acceleration. What happened to the acceleration module? It doesn’t exist as such.

    Well, I figure that intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) has the same relationship to the mind-brain as acceleration has to the components of the automobile. We can measure IQ; we can measure acceleration. Because engineers know a great deal about automobile design, they can tweak acceleration fairly reliably. Unfortunately we don’t know much about how the mind and brain operate; we don’t understand the operating principles. So when it comes to conceptualizing the relationship between intelligence and disability - mush.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  04:14 PM
  22. I think it’s clear that in Bill’s analogy at 21, having ADD maps to driving a stick rather than an automatic, and MENSA membership would be contingent on measuring the length of the gas pedal. But what does cruise control represent? And can I get power windows and the chrome package thrown in?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/02  at  04:46 PM
  23. Chrome package = male pattern baldness.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  04:55 PM
  24. In my capacity as a one-day-a-month bureaucrat for the transit system, i struggle with these open-ended questions a great deal.  I have framed the question thusly for myself: “How much disproportionate inequality is necessary to enact and service participational parity for those with disabilities and handicaps?”

    As a transit board, we don’t make decisions based on hope or relative degrees of altered able or what not, because under ADA we can’t.  We must determine how best to provide equitable services for everyone regardless of their strengths (accelerations) and weaknesses, their abilities and disabilities.  I constantly feel that as a society (US culture) we tend towards accepting a relatively small amount of compassionate attention on those with disabilities so that we can “feel” we are doing the right thing, but not negatively impacting our own lives (taxes and fees) by too much. 

    In my city, due to our regional status as the primary and long-term care center for a vast portion of the country, we can’t possibly provide to all of those with disabilities.  And though we vote to support one another through sales taxes, and levies, we can’t cover the gap.  How much is too much??? And are cognitive disabilities in any substantive degrees more or less costly to the society as a whole than non-cognitive??? To what extent and to whom do we grant access to the ADA set-asides (funds), and to whom and for what do we not accept that responsibility as a society?

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  06:25 PM
  25. Ezra Klein linked today to an article by the critic William Deresiewicz, which contains the following passage.  He is not talking about people with disabilities, but he does suggest the possible cause of the failure of the imagination comon to people like Singer:

    “One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.”

    http://www.theamericanscholar.org/su08/elite-deresiewicz.html

    Captcha: part, as in:  No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

    Posted by  on  12/02  at  07:03 PM
  26. I was thinking about the problems of defining “cognitive status” as the marker of moral value, and I realized it comes down to a Turing test. Deaf people, for example, used to be presumed cognitively disabled. Dumb = dumb. Of course, when it comes to other species we’re looking at a range of communicative and empathic behaviors, but language is just an extremely complicated set of behaviors. Given this, I wonder what’s Singer’s take on the moral status of computers. Maybe you should be writing about Galatea 2.2 as well as The Echo Maker.

    Posted by Brian Z  on  12/02  at  10:51 PM
  27. Well, Singer wrote to me to say that my reply to this passage suggests that he is wrong about Down syndrome, whereas in fact it takes more than a couple of exceptional children here and there to challenge the general rule.  After all, the passage speaks of expectations, and although people do win the lottery now and again, it would be unreasonable to buy a lottery ticket and expect to win.

    I can’t imagine how divorced you’d have to be from the reality of raising children to actually believe that the outcome of raising a child isn’t significantly affected by the unreasonable expectations of the parents. Or, for that matter, that parental education and resources aren’t going to affect educational outcomes.

    Of course, I’m a big fan of octopi, so Professor Singer can pretty much kiss my ass before the conversation even starts.

    Posted by julia  on  12/03  at  12:58 AM
  28. Michael, nicely done. As the parent of a child whose development has been...highly irregular...and a married gay person, I’m always stunned by your willingness to engage rationally with someone whose positions entail an assault on the existence of your family as you know it.

    What I find perplexing about Mr. Singer’s position is that he seems to be suggesting that parents of typical children need not critically examine their expectations for their kids. That somehow those whose children have DS are separated from other parents by the requirement that you calibrate your expectations to the person your child turns out to be.

    Has he met a child? Or a parent? His views seem touchingly naive.

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  01:43 AM
  29. Thanks, everyone.  I’m just back from my last speaking gig of the semester.  And kinda exhausted from all these gigs!  But the good thing is that I usually learn stuff—and the group at Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities was just terrific.

    Quickly, before I collapse:  spyder @ 24.  Yes, those are very difficult questions.  But you know what I say?  Everybody gets a van—and a pony.  That’s why I voted for Obama:  to spread the transit around.

    And Barbara @ 16:  I think almost everything Michael wrote is obviously true, but it’s also the case that, regardless of the inaptness of our expectations, there are some disabilities that require social or parental support in ways that go way above and beyond the range of “normal” instruction or parenting.

    OK, but have I ever suggested otherwise?  Have I ever said that all disabilities are pretty much the same, or that some people with disabilities don’t require a great deal of extraordinary social or parental support?

    I only say this because it appears to be implicit in Mr. Singer’s assumptions that these resources are ill-spent, and Michael’s response doesn’t address that. On the other hand, it is also implicit in Michael’s response that if you work hard enough as a parent and can effectively marshall those resources you will likely succeed in ways you never imagined.  This isn’t necessarily true.

    I think you’re reading an “implicit” message in my reply that just isn’t there.  In fact, I can’t see any moment in my response to Singer where I suggest that the achievements of children with disabilities—all disabilities!—are contingent on their parents’ hard work.  OK, yeah, I did discuss time with Jamie, and maybe that challenged and stimulated him.  But that wasn’t hard work.  And I don’t see where I suggested that “you will likely succeed in ways you never imagined.” I really don’t go in for this miracle-worker kind of discourse, any more than I go around saying that children with disabilities are little angels among us.

    Society makes judgments about resource allocation and so do parents.  These are hard decisions and I just want to amplify that parents are not “wrong” because they make decisions that are different from the ones Michael would make, just as they are not wrong to differ with Mr. Singer.

    OK, but you’re just amplifying my argument, right?  Because you do know that I support the right of prospective parents to make their own decisions about this stuff, and that this was precisely why Jean Bethke Elshtain accused me of “subtly but inexorably blowing out the moral lights among us”?  Because I don’t make my own decisions about childbearing mandatory for everybody else on the planet?

    Posted by Michael  on  12/03  at  09:07 AM
  30. I really don’t go in for this miracle-worker kind of discourse

    As soon as I posted my comment, above, I regretted it because I was going for that “miracle worker” thing.  Sorry.  The point I was trying to make was that there is no way to tell where a child falls on the spectrum (do we need a discussion about orthagonal axes?) until a lot of time has passed.

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  01:51 PM
  31. I think that we can all agree, regardless of the lit or unlit states of any moral lights among us, that a responsible parent will try to keep his or her child from falling on a spectrum of orthogonal axes.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/03  at  02:06 PM
  32. Singer:  All swans are white, have always been white, and will always be white. From this certain fact, we may deduce many absolute and inalterable truths.
    Berube:  You’re mistaken about that white swan thing, professor.  I happen to have a black swan at my house.
    Singer:  Oh, well, one exception doesn’t disprove the rule.

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  02:59 PM
  33. I will thank you, Mr. Clarke, not to lecture me on how to axe my children.

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  04:41 PM
  34. Besides, children taste better when they’re ground.  And served with bbq sauce, mmmm mmmmmm.

    Posted by Michael  on  12/03  at  05:38 PM
  35. Some folks call it a sling roll. I call it a kaiser roll.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  12/03  at  05:59 PM
  36. The sick and twisted of us, who have fallen on the orthogonal axis axes, think thou speaketh of Issac and some cat named Jesus.  Bring the children together for a brief respite of their body and blood, on a kaiser roll??? I much prefer mine curried with some dall and a large chunk of nan smothered in human (oops i mean hummus).

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  06:54 PM
  37. How does Singer define “intelligence?” Defining it by “IQ” is indeed a quagmire.  So, for example, IQ tests are re-normed every few years to make sure that the average IQ is always 100.  So, if we listen to Singer and target the bottom, what, 5% of the IQ range as unfit for society it isn’t like that process will eliminate the bottom %5 since there will ALWAYS be, by definition, a bottom 5%.  This is nuts.

    Posted by  on  12/03  at  11:26 PM
  38. Ray McDermott, an anthropologist of education, has been writing about the “quagmire” of education, intelligence, and disability for a long time. Michael and others might find an article of his with Herve Varenne “Culture as Disability” <http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult/culturedisability.html> helpful. They argue that disability, when mapped in the educational sphere, is not much more than expanded visibility by particular structures and practices in a particular socio-historical era. As they write, “A disability may be a better display board for the weaknesses of a cultural system than it is an account of real persons.” Nothing really new here if one is of the social constructionist bent, but they provide nice insights and depth to this observation.

    Posted by Dan Butin  on  12/03  at  11:44 PM
  39. @ fardelsbear

    I don’t believe that Peter Singer does define intelligence as a singular identity, although I think we would all agree that intelligence is variable and that IQ tests provide at least an indication of relative intelligence.  Your second assumption is absurd.  No where has Peter Singer ever argued that the cognitively impaired should be eliminated or even classified as unfit for society - the only proviso for their consideration is that they have interests.  Even this isn’t an absolute in that other people may have interests in the existence of an entity with no interests – an anacephalic fetus for instance.  He might however, debate whether or not this is the best use of resources.

    Posted by  on  12/04  at  08:22 AM
  40. Hi, Professor,

    What Singer said has infuriated me completely--please feel free to point him in the direction of my little sister, Sam, who has Down Syndrome and not only adores Star Wars and Star Trek, but has just started learning a little bit of Spanish in high school this year, but who also plays S.O. basketball, soccer, does ice skating, and also swims. I’m sorry, but...I just can’t get over how angry I am right now. Thank you so much for taking that man down a notch.

    Posted by  on  12/04  at  12:45 PM
  41. Here’s something I have begun to suspect about Peter Singer. He is wonderful about engaging in conversation with people who don’t agree with him--I saw him outside a hotel once, talking to the Not Dead Yet picketers who had come to protest his talk at a conference being held there, and I’ve seen him have similar conversations with other disabled people (remember the one with Harriet McBride that was published in the New York Times Magazine Section a couple of years ago?). But “having a conversation with” does not equal “listening to” or “learning from.” Peter does not listen. He made up his mind about this stuff in the 1970s and hasn’t seen fit to change his views at all in the years since then. Admit it: the talk he gave at the cognitive disability conference could have been one he wrote in 1976.

    Posted by  on  12/04  at  02:50 PM
  42. In a lot of ways Singer’s response to Jamie exemplifies the problems with any kind of consequentialism when it is used, as it usually is, as a way to settle large social questions.

    One of the problems is self-fulfilling prophecies.

    A second is doctoring the evidence by throwing out all counter-examples.

    The main one is the proposal that we act as though we had definitive knowledge both about the consequences of our actions and about the values to be assigned to various outcomes, when we actually do not. There’s an incredible amount of question-begging that goes on: “Supposing A and B, how can you refuse to grant that C is the only possible rule for action?”.

    Consequentialist thinking is inevitable for those who are charged with making administrative choices drastically affecting enormous numbers of people. You have to do some kind of rough estimate to figure out what will happen and to estimate its contribution to policy goals. But the idea that this kind of rough administrative estimate of the aggregated effects on millions of people should also be the ethical guide for individual actions strikes me as horrifying.

    It’s as if Michael were being told “Treat Jamie according to the general rule you would put into effect if you were the DC administrator in charge of Downs policy”. Consequentialism isn’t the foundation of ethics, its a rough and overreaching substitute for ethics designed for the use of bureaucrats.

    Singer’s position is incredibly anti-empirical. The truth about Downs comes from very large numbers of Michael-Jamie instances; the turth about Downs is not an aggregated form of expert knowledge to which Michael can refer in order to decide what he should do.

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  48. Various folks call it a sling roll. I call it a Kaiser roll. I will thank you, Mr. Clarke, not to lecture me on how to axe my children. Bye dude!

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