The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals

[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.

5 thoughts on “The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals

  1. “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.”

    I think there’s a false equivalence going on here, equating genetic screening to IQ testing and other sorting practices. In its ideal form, genetic screening is a means of providing prospective parents with information to assist them in making decisions about an existing or potential pregnancy. IQ testing, even in its ideal form, isn’t intended to increase individual agency or enable more informed individual decision making – it’s a means of making individuals legible within a particular form of categorization, generally for the purposes of managing the populations of these categories. I’m not arguing that genetic screening is a benign practice – I’ve experienced it in its less than ideal form, as a result of having a baby while over 35. The counselling consisted of a gruesomely enthusiastic postdoc in genetic medicine from the University hospital describing in great detail various trisomies and other genetic anomalies which, we were assured, were “incompatible with life” and represented grave social and medical emergencies. We counsellees were left with the impression that any deviation from the genetic norm meant that our kid would have eight heads, five kidneys, and a short, painful lifespan. I don’t know if this excessively negative depiction of human variation influenced anyone’s decisions if their amnio or CVS testing revealed genetic anomalies, but it certainly didn’t fit my ideal of providing reliable information to prospective parents. However, even this screwed-up form of genetic counselling is significantly different from mass-based practices such as universal IQ testing, or other ways of determning a priori that certain categories of people are more worthy than others.

  2. It may be that there is a “false equivalence” here, though consider the quote in context, which brings out the respect in which I claim that the two cases run in parallel:

    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.

    In that respect, I’m not sure that there is a relevant difference between IQ testing and the eugenic context in which it has been used, and genetic screening and the putatively neo-eugenic context in which it has been used. Contrary to what you say, the use of IQ testing was often justified in terms not only of what is “better for society”, but even in terms of what is “better for the child”, much as genetic screening is often justified in similarly rosy terms, bizarrely even when “better for the child” involves aborting the fetus that would otherwise become that child! IQ testing, like genetic screening, was “intended to increase individual agency or enable more informed individual decision making”. The chief difference here is that IQ testing typically (but not always) resulted in children / young adults on the wrong side of the test being institutionalized, and all that went with that, while genetic screening leads to those on the wrong side of the test typically (but not always) being aborted. Both seem to me, still, to offer different “scientific means to controlling human variation”.

  3. This comment is a response to posts made in the Thinking in Action series thus far and ensuing discussion, as well as other posts made on the blog. In the comment, I remark on current arguments made in disability studies and disability theory, disability, feminism and philosophy, as well as the issue of representation and inclusiveness. (I will post it to The Disability Studies in the Humanities listserv if the moderator of the What Sorts blog deems it unsuitable to be published here.)

    I think the expressivist in the form in which Rob Wilson has articulated it argument (i.e., prenatal testing sends a discriminatory message about X disabled people) is an outdated and outmoded rhetorical device which fails to adequately account for the constitutive character of discursive practices (assumes the wrong account of how power operates). The expressivist argument assumes that “disabilities” are properties or characteristics of people which exist prior to social, discursive, and concrete practices. In turn, these “functional” disabilities (in a word, *inabilities*) are made additionally disadvantageous by a “disabling” society (notice the conflation). A more (in my view) politically and theoretically astute position is available according to which prenatal testing/screening, genetic counselling practices, the expressivist argument, and so on constitute (reify) the very discursive objects they are claimed to innocently identify and represent, and in doing so, conceal the productive machinations of power which produce those objects of discourse in the first place. (I introduce this argument in a paper which appeared in Hypatia in 2006; the paper will be reprinted in an edited collection on disability and mothering next year.)

    What are the discursive objects constitutive of the category “disabled people” and how do disability theorists refer to them? Some weeks ago, I pointed out to Julie Maybee that she was eliding two different conceptions of disability: the conception of disability which I outline above, according to which disability is a characteristic of individuals (i.e., X has a disability, “people with disabilities”) and another conception of disability, advanced by proponents of the social model, according to which disability is a form of social disadvantage imposed upon people with impairments. On this latter conception, people with impairments (a characteristic alleged to be neutral in the way that eye colour is) *become* disabled. ((Of course, the social model conception of disability shares some of the foundationalist assumptions made on the terms of the medical model it claims to oppose, insofar as it holds that “impairments” are the natural, i.e., biological, foundations of socially constructed disability. In a number of papers I have criticized the foundationalism of this conception of disability, but put that to one side)).

    In response, Julie commented that the term “people with disabilities” is what everyone knows; and that the terminology used in the social model’s impairment/disability distinction is “controversial”. I must disagree. An increasing number of authors in disability studies and disabled people worldwide eschew the “people first” language of “disabilities” (as in “people with disabilities”) which has conditioned much of the discussions in this new series and in other posts on the blog. While “people first” language was at one time introduced by disabled people, activists, and advocates to counter totalizing and objectifying references to disabled people, a growing number of authors in disability studies and activists now regard “people first” language as a central element of the medicalized view of disability, insofar as it was quickly appropriated by medical professionals, institutions, government bureaus and offices, and so on and put in the service of their disciplinary and normalizing purposes; theorists in disability studies and activists also argue that such terminology perpetuates a normal/abnormal dichotomy which ultimately renders disabled people as defective. By contrast, many disability theorists (and activists) now variously hold that “disability” refers to a social positioning, an identity, or a pervasive form of signifying power. Philosophers and other academics who want their remarks on disability to be taken seriously by disability activists and theorists in disability studies really ought to become familiar with these arguments. Indeed, while Mark Workman (probably unjustifiably) asserted several times in these discussions that “disability scholars” hold uninformed or confused understandings of Peter Singer’s work (we were never told who exactly falls into this disingenuous group), I would argue that the discussions here often display an acquaintance with disability theory that is dated, that is, a lack of familiarity and understanding with much recent work done in, and arguments produced in, the interdisciplinary field of disability studies.

    I’d like to say something about the chronology of events which Rob Wilson has presented. In particular, I wish to disagree with his claim that “second wave” feminism *preceded* the coalescence of the “disability rights movement.” First, consider that many contemporary feminists refuse to endorse the idea that feminism should be analysed in “waves” (first, second, third) because (1) this idea implies that women have not been struggling and resisting all along and (2) this idea uses white women’s social and political gains as the litmus test for the existence of these struggles. While Rob has claimed that a “vibrant” disability rights movement emerged thirty years ago, historian of disability Paul Longmore has written at length about the American disabled people’s movement that flourished in the Great Depression. To be sure, some social modellists in the UK (among others) would like us to believe that the recent upsurge of social gains made by disabled people and their allies emerged afresh from the 70s onward; but, this seems like a self-congratulatory and truncated account of disabled people’s struggles in much the same way that reference to “waves” is a simplification of feminist struggles. Furthermore, while it is true that feminism and feminist theory have made inroads into philosophical discourses which, by contrast, disability theory and the arguments of disability theorists have not (yet?) achieved, I would argue that this should not be primarily understood in temporal terms (as in “who came first?”), where this understanding is decontextualized and neglects to take account of relations of social power, but rather should for the most part be attributed to the fact that disabled people occupy a far more marginalized and disenfranchised social position than the comparatively privileged nondisabled white feminists who have most succeeded in the profession of philosophy and have set the agenda for feminist philosophy in ways which promote their own interests, concerns, and success, but do little to address and improve the situation of others, including disabled philosophers. Indeed, the poor representation of disabled philosophers and other disabled theorists (and indeed disabled feminists) as presenters and commentators at the Cognitive Disability conference (CDC) is itself testament to the continued exclusion from discourse of disabled people, including our exclusion from philosophical discourse and the profession of philosophy, even by those who claim to be allies to us in our struggles.

    Eva Kittay has articulated strong views about philosophers engaging and interacting with “cognitively disabled” people and has also argued that philosophers such as Peter Singer fail to distinguish between variations of cognitive disability. In order for conference delegates to do the former, they were invited to visit the place where her daughter who is cognitively disabled resides. But it seems to me that the former would have been additionally served and the latter would have been demonstrated if the conference organizers had involved “cognitively disabled” people in the conference itself, as speakers and commentators. Eva has criticized Singer for not attending this excursion and thus not actually spending time with cognitively disabled people. While I have no desire to defend Singer on this or any other matter which concerns disabled people, I do take exception to the suggestion that conference participants gained an understanding of cognitively disabled people (and could feel confident and self-satisfied presenting papers about some people like them?) from spending a morning in their surroundings, if not their company. Indeed, this suggestion brings to mind the belief according to which the simulation exercises carried out annually on many college and university campuses (in which a nondisabled student, say, uses a wheelchair for a day or walks about with a white cane for a day) give nondisabled people a deep understanding of disabled people’s lives and ableist oppression.

    When the program for the CDC initially circulated, 6 of the 7 keynote speakers listed were men. In response to some rumblings about this on the Feminist Philosophers blog, the program was modified, graduating Leslie Francis and Anita Silvers (co-authors of a paper) to the capacity of keynote speakers. Perhaps if I or someone else had challenged the poor representation of cognitively disabled and other disabled people on the program in advance of the conference (the contributors to the Feminist Philosophers blog certainly hadn’t been concerned about this), some changes would have been made in this regard also. One important slogan of the disabled people’s movement sums it up best: Nothing about us without us.

  4. Shelley Tremain’s comment above gives us a great deal to think about. I think the spirit of what Rob was saying, which is reinforced by Shelley’s corrections, is that philosophy—despite its pretensions of being socially ‘neutral’—is a discourse whose truths are shaped and constituted in a social context. Setting aside, for the moment, questions of who has been politically active at what point (our responses to which, as Shelley points out, are conditioned already by our own prejudices), philosophy as a discipline and discourse is more resistant than most to incorporating different perspectives and representing interests other than what are considered the ‘mainstream’. While feminism receives lip-service that is enviable compared to the negligible acknowledgment given to the disabled movement, essentially it is still just lip-service: generally merely a tacking on of ‘other’ interests, as an appendix rather than an integral reconsideration of the questions and concerns that shape the discipline itself.

    There is social pressure against this disposition with an increase of involvement in the discipline by those with feminist concerns–and inroads are still minimal. (According at least to the latest Australian survey of philosophy departments, representation of women as members of faculty is still woefully inadequate, even when compared to traditionally masculine disciplines such as Engineering and Accounting. As far as I know though, disability has never even been measured as a relevant indicator of disparity).

    The concern feminism has received from the discipline reflects visibility rather than activity on the part of feminists, and so we have to question the conditions of this visibility, and why it is still acceptable that, at a conference on cognitive disability the biggest stakeholders are excluded.

    We have to intervene as well in the question of the philosopher’s identity, and how this skews the visibility of those who engage in philosophy. At the social level, a lot more is at stake in the performance of ‘being a philosopher’ than asking particular kinds of questions in a particular way, although these questions are inevitably influenced by the ‘who’ that asks them. The philosopher’s conceit is that they transcend their bodily and social position—that their questions emerge from a social vacuum, and that truth itself is contaminated by socially situated perspectives. Ostensibly this view might be seen to allow differently positioned bodies to participate in its discourse without prejudice: if philosophy transcends the body, then it shouldn’t matter which body engages in philosophical inquiry. But, to the contrary, this ‘body blindness’ consolidates existing prejudices about what constitutes the body that can transcend itself. Women’s bodies, and differently abled bodies, are too conspicuous and emerge as stumbling blocks rather than provokers of thought. The effort is more often to neutralise them, when it should be to problematise philosophers’ own bodies.

    When the question of embodiment becomes a ‘mainstream’ question for philosophy rather than one relegated to an appendix along with feminism and disability, perhaps philosophy’s unacknowledged disorder (chauvinism) will be remediated, and its politics of exclusion confronted.

  5. Pingback: Adrienne Asch–RIP | Living Archives on Eugenics Blog

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