[This post is the fourth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]
Here is a question from Adrienne Asch, together with a response from Jeff McMahan, following Jeff’s talk at the Cognitive Disability conference; Adrienne’s question followed directly on the heels of Naomi Scheman’s question, the subject of the previous post in this series.
[A full, unofficial transcript for this video clip, as well as a poll for you to participate in, are available beneath the fold. If you are having trouble playing the video above, the full transcript is provided at the end of the post, and you can also try Youtube directly by clicking right here, which for some will be more accessible.]
So does simply asking questions like “In virtue of what does human life have moral value and significance?” somehow express an ethics of exclusion? Asch seems to imply so, in part because it is asking us to draw a line between those that have some property, and those who lack it. Above the line are those with full moral status, and below it are The Rest, others who are thus excluded from full moral consideration, at least insofar as we consider them in and of themselves. If that is right, then even those who give very different kinds of answer to the question–such as those, like Naomi Scheman, who appeal to the relationships that people form a part of in their answers–still express this ethics of exclusion, at least at some level, even if they deliver an answer to the question that is more inclusive.
Asking the question as Asch has asked it—“Jeff, what is the purpose of this effort? If it is not the ethics of exclusion, I don’t know what it is.”—invites the personal response that McMahan gives to it. That response comes only after audience members are reminded that pro-choice views about abortion, popular with the politically liberal, express a kind of ethics of exclusion. I suspect that many of the disability theorists and activists in the room, perhaps influenced by Asch’s own work, don’t need reminding about this, at least when it comes to selective abortion on the basis of the results of genetic screening for “defects”. (See, for example, Adrienne Asch, 2003, “Disability Equality and Prenatal Testing: Contradictory of Compatible?”, Florida State University Law Review 315: 318-346–get this and thematically-related articles right here). McMahan got into this, he tells us, through thinking about the morality of abortion, and what it was about fetuses that made some people think that they should not be killed, while those same people were perfectly happy allowing all sorts of animals to be killed, and in some cases, eating them. McMahan’s answer is meant to provide an alternative to the answer that Asch herself seems to proffer. Where Asch sees an ethics of exclusion, McMahan sees the pursuit of abstract philosophical inquiry–albeit inquiry with real-world oomph–wherever it leads.
While one might see Asch and McMahan’s answer as alternatives, one need not; there is more than a grain of truth in each answer. Philosophical issues surrounding the morality of abortion were at the heart of the start of moral thinking with an applied edge in philosophy in the work of Judith Thomson, Michael Tooley, and Mary Ann Warren in the early 1970s, along with reflection on war, obligations to future generations, morality-at-a-distance, and animal rights. The threat of hypocrisy, of double-standards, of treating like cases unlike (and unlike cases alike), was a kind of permanent possibility for anyone thinking systematically about such life and death issues in terms of moral rights, values, and obligations. That threat, especially in the context of a strong pro-choice movement amongst political progressives, made some views–such as the view that all human life has a fundamental, distinctive moral status–difficult to defend. Thirty years down the track, with the development of a vigorous disability rights movement, what was once viewed as a woman’s choice to abort a “fetus she did not want” has come to be seen, in some cases, as a not-so-coded form of discrimination against those with disabilities. Such choices, and more generally the widespread practice of selective abortion on the basis of genetic and other biochemical screens, express a sufficiently negative view of the disabilities screened for (e.g, Down Syndrome) to warrant terminating a pregnancy. While such choices and practices do express preferences, those preferences have been fuelled by the medicalization of human variation, and either ignorance of, or paranoia about, the lives of those who would otherwise live with some kind of genetic or developmental disability. In this respect, the practice of genetic screening serves as the contemporary version of IQ tests in the history of 20th-century eugenics: the scientific means of controlling human variation.
The academic discipline of philosophy can seem a long way from the door of the genetic counsellor. But Asch’s question is a good one to raise about philosophical endeavours in this domain. While not motivated, in the sense in which Asch intends it, by an ethics of exclusion, the philosophical pursuit of the “In virtue of what …” question has, I think, resulted in an ethics of exclusion in much the way that the extensive, nonchalant reliance on genetic testing and screening within the medical and health professions has done. Perhaps this has been, in part, because of the emphasis on cognitive abilities, or on an individual’s intrinsic properties more generally, in the answers that have been dominant in the philosophical literature. One might wonder, however, how different the development of philosophical thinking in this area would have been had the disability rights movement preceded, rather than post-dated, second wave feminism. Many philosophers would like to think that the answer to this question is “Not at all”: philosophers have simply been pursuing views, claims, and arguments, to their logical conclusions, without the distorting influence of social context. I view this as little more than wishful thinking, a kind of denial of the ways in which philosophical discourse itself is constrained and even shaped by the broader cultural milieu in which it operates. Minimally, had advocates for disability equality been a visible force in such debates within philosophy from the outset, much as advocates for gender equality were such a force, the contours of the engagement between moral philosophy and disability would be vastly different. Or at least that’s my bet.
Transcript of video clip:
Adrienne Asch I guess I could just comment in some ways just after related to the last two comments especially, but … Jeff, I have a real …, this is not a rhetorical question. Why … what is the purpose of this effort? If it’s not the ethics of exclusion, I don’t know what it is.
I think it’s a fair question to say why human beings and animals count, and in what ways do they count. And maybe we should be making differentiations, or maybe we shouldn’t. And like the previous speaker, as a carnivore, I had better think damn hard about why I am one and I don’t think I’ve got a good answer. And thank you to Peter Singer and a lot of other people for making me think about that. I don’t think we should be wantonly killing squirrels, and I don’t think we should be wantonly killing humans. And the old question of our work should be why can’t we figure out a way to have human beings and animals live the best lives they can, with their particular kinds of endowments, born into the kind of societies they are born into. I don’t want species membership, or coming out of a mother’s body, or being genetically related to a particular father to justify why we have to care about human beings But I do want to know what are you trying to do in this project that doesn’t lead to the ethics of exclusion.
Jeff McMahan: My guess is that there are a lot of politically liberal people in this room, who appreciated the picture of George Bush, and so on. A lot of people in this room who are sympathetic to feminism, and so on. Is abortion part of an ethics of exclusion? Sure looks like it to me. That’s a pretty radical form of exclusion, isn’t it?
Well, to answer Adrienne’s question, the way I ultimately got into all of this, and the reason I raise questions about moral status, the purpose of this effort, to repeat Adrienne’s phrase, in my case came from a concern with the morality of abortion. I really wanted to know. And I have thought about that for a couple of decades. And when you think about the moral status of a fetus, you have to confront this question, you have to ask yourself: What is it that people find about a human fetus, that they don’t find in an animal, that makes a lot of people in our society think that the abortion of an early term fetus is murder, and the killing of a chimpanzee, or an ape, or any kind of animal is absolutely nothing. Most of you … people are saying that they are carnivores here. Everybody is sort of confessing that, as is that’s an ok thing to say. Well look. You’re telling Peter and me that you actually eat these beings, that are sensitive beings, that have sociality, that care about their own young in exactly the way that you do.
One of the questioners said “We’re just finding out all kinds of things about the capacities of the cognitively disabled. In 50 years, you may not be able to find them.” Well, I will tell you something that you may not know. And that is that they are finding exactly the same things about non-human animals. But we don’t bother to do very much investigation there in the way that we do about those to whom we are related. But if you looked you would find a helluva lot more than I think people find there now, and you wouldn’t be so complacent about announcing that you eat the bodies of these sensitive creatures.