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Monday, September 29, 2008

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 Michael on 09/29 at 09:12 AM
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