Talking about cognitive disability and moral philosophy

As readers of this blog will know, in September there was a relatively large, special topic conference called “Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy”, organized by Eva Kittay and Licia Carlson (and I think Sophia Wong), held in New York City.  In some recent comments here, Shelley Tremain has said the following about the roster of speakers for this conference, particularly the inclusion of Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan:

I would like to know when disability theorists, activists, and our allies came to regard it as beneficial, indeed, laudable, to have Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan speak about disabled people, especially cognitively disabled people. … Giving this kind of attention to nondisabled white, male bioethicists whose awful, dominant views about disabled people are in the public domain (and quite familiar to many of us) serves to further marginalize the work of authors in Disability Studies who are attempting to unravel the misunderstandings and prejudices the views of the former entail for concrete human beings; it marginalizes disabled theorists; it marginalizes feminist disability theorists.

The full roster of speakers and respondents reads as follows: Martha Nussbaum, Michael Berube, Leslie Francis, Anita Silvers, Agnieszka Jaworska, Bruce Jennings, Jim Nelson, Hilde Lindemann, Douglas Biklen, James C. Harris, Peter Singer, David Shoemaker, Cynthia Stark, Ian Hacking, Victoria McGeer,
Sophia Wong, Licia Carlson, Anna Stubblefield, Daniel Wikler, Jeffrey P. Brosco, Jonathan Wolff, Henry Richardson, Jeff McMahan, and Eva Kittay.

Again, following Gregor’s heads up, more details about, and podcasts for, the talks from the conference are available here.  (Berube’s response is a real beaut, as we say back in the home country, and takes up the sort of issue Shelley is pointing to, though several of the discussions I wanted to listed to I couldn’t download for some reason.  Dang.)

What do others think of the issue that Shelley raises?  As someone who has debated Singer on more than one occasion, perhaps Gregor has some thoughts here.  Links to other, ongoing discussions welcome.

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One thought on “Talking about cognitive disability and moral philosophy

  1. I actually do think it is important to have the Singers and McMahans of the world at these sort of conferences. First off, I’m not very convinced that disabled scholars and activists do know what Singer says about disabled people. I’ve seen a few too many examples of scholars attributing claims about killing all disabled people to Singer, claims that any undergrad who has read “Practical Ethics” would know aren’t true. I think it’s important to know your enemy.

    Secondly, I think it’s less that Singer’s views are in the public domain than that they are a reflection of common perceptions about disability. Singer’s entire argument rests on a widely held premise: It is better to not be disabled than to be disabled. I think this sentiment has to be dealt with (especially in the academic arena where questions like this can be given the analysis they won’t receive elsewhere). I’m not saying one has to show that the premise is wrong. You could show that it doesn’t matter, or that the notion of “better” doesn’t make any sense, but we can’t simply ignore the sentiment just because we know it’s not true, or it doesn’t matter, or it is fundamentally incoherent.

    Finally, I guess I think that Singer does present a problem that it isn’t easy to deal with. If we want to treat humans differently from animals (ultimately, that is, better than animals), and I’m pretty sure we do when there is a scarcity of resources, then on what grounds do we base this differential treatment. We can no longer base it on religion; it is akin to racism to base it solely on the fact that the human is a fellow member of our species; and if we try to base it on a set of morally significant characteristics (i.e., not simply the characteristic of possessing 23 pairs of chromosomes), we will have a difficult time coming up with a set of characteristics that all humans, and no animals, possess. So how do we justify the differential treatment? I think this is a genuine problem. However, I’m planning to listen to as much of the conference proceedings as possible over the weekend, so perhaps I’ll realize that it’s not really a problem after all. For the moment, it bothers me, but maybe by figuring out the problem, we’ll get to a deeper understanding of disability, an understanding that we get to only after thinking through the challenges that the Singers and McMahans present.

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