The Central Question

[This post is the seventh 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. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays … or at least that’s the plan.]


In the short clip I’ve chosen, Jeff McMahan asks what I think is the central question from which all of his, and Peter Singer’s, arguments concerning the disabled flow. He asks: “What is the basis of our higher moral status that’s shared by the radically cognitively limited, but not shared by higher non-human animals?” I want to talk a bit about potential answers to this question and invite others to either respond to the question or to say why the question is unimportant or unnecessary. A transcript of the clip is available beneath the fold below.




During the question and answer portion of this presentation, someone invites McMahan to ask a slightly different question than that mentioned above. He suggests McMahan instead ask: What makes it more wrong to kill a human than an animal? I think we should keep both the broader and the more focused question in mind.


I admit I’m assuming that people do believe it is worse to kill a human than an animal. I know of some religious traditions that condemn the killing of animals, and probably many vegetarians think that killing animals is wrong, but I think even Buddhists, Hindus, and vegetarians think that it is more wrong to kill a human than an animal. So even those who say that killing animals is wrong can’t avoid the questions posed above.


Another answer that doesn’t seem to be an option is to say that human life is sacred. We can’t say that humans are made in the image of God, or that humans have an immortal soul. I actually do think that it is a feeling that human life is sacred that underpins our belief in the higher moral status of humans, but the religious answer just isn’t an acceptable answer in an “academic” debate.


Singer and McMahan think that the most plausible answer is found by considering psychological capacities or cognitive abilities. However, this answer, as they admit, requires that we deny a small number of human beings the same moral status that readers of this blog possess. I’ve heard people raise serious doubts about the plausibility of the Singer/McMahan answer — for example that there is no reliable way to assess cognitive abilities, that comparisons of psychological capacities across species don’t make sense, that it is dangerous to base moral status on psychological capacities — and while I agree with these criticisms of an answer based on cognitive ability, this simply serves to undermine another answer to the question. The question itself remains.


So if it is more wrong to kill a human than an animal, and this is not because human life is sacred, nor is it because most humans possess unique psychological capacities, then what makes it more wrong? I don’t have an answer to this question, but the question does seem to matter. McMahan, at least, thinks that “we don’t understand our own moral status unless we can give some kind of good answer to that question”. It seems to me that if we want to say something is wrong, we ought to be able to say why it is wrong, and we certainly want to say that killing is wrong.


Many people strongly disagree with McMahan and Singer. Rather than trying to show why the answer they rely on (psychological capacities) is the wrong answer, it might prove more effective to come up with a better answer, or show why the question being asked is the wrong question. If we did that, then, as McMahan puts it, we could “shut Peter Singer up for good”.


Transcript of clip


All of us who think that we, that is, those of us in this room, have a higher moral status than any animal accept what I call a two-tear morality. That is, we think that we have rights that animals don’t, and that we are owed forms of respect that aren’t owed to animals. Yet most people think that radically cognitively limited human beings are above that threshold that animals fall below. Most people think that the radically cognitively limited have rights that animals don’t have, and that they have what Martha Nussbaum, in her talk the other night, called “equal human dignity”. That is, they have some kind of exalted status that they share with us, but that animals don’t have. But of course if it’s psychological capacity that differentiates us morally from animals, that can’t be true. So if the common view, the view that most people believe is right, psychological capacity and potential can’t be what matters — they can’t be what give us the status that we have but think that animals don’t. So the question we have to ask is: What is it that matters? What is the basis of our higher moral status that is supposedly shared by radically cognitively limited human beings but not by comparably psychologically endowed animals? Now, this challenge typically provokes some derision and some indignation, but I think the best way to respond to the challenge is to give a really good, clear, decisive answer to it, and then that would… that would shut Peter Singer up for good… and me. We wouldn’t have to go on with this anymore. We’re waiting for that… waiting for that really good answer to that question. What is the basis of our higher moral status that’s shared by the radically cognitively limited, but not shared by higher non-human animals? Now, I think that that challenge remains unanswered, and I think that’s a real problem; we don’t understand our own moral status unless we can give some kind of good answer to that question.

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8 thoughts on “The Central Question

  1. Hi Marc,
    I agree that the question is an interesting one, and I am a lot more comfortable with the way that McMahan poses the question. However, I think there is a central assumption in McMahan and Singer’s question that is as biased and impenetrable as the God-says-life-is-sacred argument. The assumption is that questions about values can be answered solely on the basis of facts and logic. I may doubt that the universe was created by God, but I am even more certain that it was not created by philosophy professors. The universe was here first.
    There is also a problem with the logic itself. If we start by recognizing that humans have bestowed a higher moral status on other humans than on animals, and then ask what is unique about humans, and conclude it is certain cognitive capacities. Then we say, but of course, some humans don’t have them and some nonhumans do have them. The next logical step is to say this is a bad explanation for the phenomenon. However, Singer and possibly McMahan (I am really not sure what he says about this), assume there theory is right and argue that the phenomenon must change to make it consistent with the theory.
    I am not sure that I can provide a much more plausible theory, but I can provide an equally plausible one. Although I hate to use the term “social contract” because I probably am not using it the way formal social contract people would use it, it is a simple social contract. It goes like this. I don’t want you or anybody else to kill me or my friends or family members (even if I or my friends or family members are vulnerable because of cognitive, physical, or sensory disabilities). That is a personal interest. I also don’t want you or anyone else to make me or my friends or family suffer, another personal interest. In addition individual humans are not very impressive animals but collectively humans are incredibly capable (of good and bad) achievements. So, a functional way of meeting my personal and collective interests is to place a high value on the life and freedom of suffering of all humans. Of course, extending the pact and its protection to other nonhumans would likely be desirable. It’s not a very philosophical answer, but I don’t think there is much reason to believe that our moral behavior is or even should be driven by philosophical theory.
    Of course, if self-interests can really produce this kind to mutual respect, one might ask, why do we still have war and violence?

  2. That it is either the wrong question to ask, or that people have been looking for the wrong kind of answer to it–for an answer that is cast solely in terms of the intrinsic properties that something has–was the upshot of several of the questions asked during the Q&A after McMahan’s talk. Two of these were the topic of previous posts in this series, those by Naomi Scheman and Adrienne Asch.

    I’m not sure where Dick’s answer to the question fits here, but my worry about it is that if it is a kind of pure conventionalism about moral rights, one that makes a break from the project of providing a rational basis for the ascription of rights, then it still needs to explain why the social contract has the particular content that it does. If it’s “morals by agreement”, then why these particular agreements? If, on the other hand, it tries to provide a self-interested justification for human (and perhaps others) rights, then it looks like it will be subject to counter-examples and problem cases, much in the way that the appeal to cognitive capacities as “the answer” is.

    Either way, the answer is as philosophical as any others floating around–in fact, both answers picks up on healthy traditions in moral philosophy.

  3. One the most important lessons that feminist philosophy has taught me is that questions and claims are always situated and interested. Who gets to ask a question or make a claim? What do they ask/claim? What are the politics of asking such a question or making such a claim? What investments do the questioners have in asking a particular question, in requiring a given answer? What political and ethical assumptions must be made in order for the question to be considered “askable”? Another important lesson I’ve learned, probably from Foucault, is that some questions become traps because they have been set up as such. I think the politics of what questions get asked, by whom, and for what purposes has for the most part been neglected in most (if not all) of the installments thus far of this series; the trap of answering a particular prescribed question or set of questions has been fallen into. Put directly, a couple of mainstream philosophers (and they are not the only ones) have argued that providing a justification for claims about the moral status of certain people is the question that must (for “consistency’s sake”) be answered before any other philosophical considerations, social issues or political questions about these people are addressed; their arguments have been implicitly accepted insofar as they have shaped most of the discussion here. How utterly typical of mainstream philosophy: the so-called foundational questions must be addressed and foundational principles arrived at before the so-called derivative, contingent, “arbitrary”, value-laden, and secondary questions (such as the ones I note at the outset) get posed. Not only does this set of implicit disciplinary “standards” narrowly circumscribe what counts as a philosophical question and who can ask it, it conceals the political, intellectual and social investments in which those disciplinary and disciplining standards are embedded and from which philosophical questions are derived in the first place.

    How can a putatively objective, uninterested and value-neutral question about the moral status of X humans conceal the politics of its own social situation and position?

    Consider this example about the politics of embryonic stem (ES) cell research. Mainstream bioethical discussions of embryonic stem cell research focus almost exclusively on questions about the moral status of the embryo. Mainstream opponents of ES cell research have been concerned to show that the embryo is a full-fledged human being. Since derivation of ES cells requires the destruction of the embryo, developing ES cell research, they argue, is tantamount to the sacrifice of people for scientific progress. While the arguments of the proponents of ES cell research are more various in kind, generally speaking, they too are focused almost solely on the moral status of the embryo (i.e., argue that the embryo has none). Feminist bioethicists (such as Donna Dickenson) have argued, however, that the obsession with the moral status of the embryo of mainstream bioethicists obscures other questions and issues about the morality and politics of ES cell research, especially questions about the impact of the technology on women: Where will the ova required for the technology come from? What are the physical costs to women of harvesting ova? How will the development of ES cell research contribute to the increased commodification of women’s bodies? To what extent will poor women and women in developing nations be exploited by a scientific industry that makes ES cells a commodity in a capitalist economy? None of these questions get asked by the mainstream bioethicists who think the moral status of the embryo is the “central question” to ask about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. In short, we should resist believing that the question or set of questions we are told is fundamental and must be answered prior to all others is indeed the question(s) we must answer.

  4. Shelley makes a good point here: Singer and McMahan have posed the question from an already formed political/social position, and the way that they’ve formed the question sets the agenda for the way their audience can think about the relation between the acutely cognitively disabled and themselves; and animals, cognitively disabled people, and themselves.

    Their political position — this is often mentioned in passing, but little is made of it — takes animal welfare as its baseline. The question is framed with the equality of animals with humans as its objective, and cognitively disabled humans are the casualties of this objective. I don’t think Singer or McMahan set out in this project wanting directly to strip disabled people of their rights. For them this is a consequence of a point they want to make about the manner in which we routinely disregard, and refuse to think through, the status of non-human animals. They seem to feel this is an acceptable consequence. The rest of us run about trying to answer their question in a way that satisfies our conviction that cognitively disabled people deserve protection along with the rest of us.

    Their social position, as Shelley and Dick already indicate above, is as white, male, analytic philosophers. This means that they situate themselves in a privileged position to be able to adjudicate the stakes of life for other living beings. This might seem like a harsh thing to say about the many white, male, analytic philosophers who might be reading this post, and attempting to answer their question … but I happen to share Singer and McMahan’s political position (being a vegan who holds the conviction that non-human animals deserve our moral consideration), without feeling authorised to pose the question they ask here.

    My problem with their question is that it leads to perverse outcomes, such that we end up talking about our options in terms of a zero-sum game: where either the animal or the human has to die for this question to be ‘resolved.’ My response to the question, insofar as I wish to form a response, is that all of those beings who fall within the scope of the question deserve our protection. We tend to feel a closer connection and responsibility for other humans because (as Dick suggested above) they are part of our community; they have faces and behaviours that we recognise and identify with; and we oughtn’t to presume to know any other living being’s quality of life to the extent that we would see fit to exclude them from life.

    I think it’s okay to feel closer to other human beings, no matter their intellectual capacity, than animals because of psychological and emotional, or ‘non-foundational’, irrational reasons. This only becomes inconsistent or problematic if we regard non-human animals as subject to our needs and desires: and that’s when the question of pronouncing life or death comes into the equation.

    I recognise that this will be an unpopular response for a lot of people here, but we only need to find a rational, fundamental basis for the ascription of rights to other humans — and indeed, the question of marginality of status and exclusion only comes up — if some living being has to get it in the neck. Once we end our commitment to killing animals, this question loses its purpose. Singer and McMahan are holding you all hostage to this question, but I think in the end that’s how the question will dissolve. And that’s why we have to attend, as Shelley indicated above, to the political position of our interrogators.

  5. I agree with Joanne that if we can and should treat nonhuman animals with more respect, and, if we did so, a lot of the apparent need to answer these questions disappears. If Singer and McMahan were only arguing for better treatment of animals, I would certainly support that position. What I object to is the route they follow to support their argument, namely that in order to better respect animal life, we have to rethink our commitment to our fellow humans by basing our respect on a characteristic that excludes some humans. Constructs like moral status are made and not born out of some abstract logical principle. As such Singers notion that killing a “profoundly retarded” human is okay because they lack the cognitive skills required for moral status is no more rational than Martin Luther’s pronouncement that killing “a changeling” is not a sin because they lack a soul. Different words, same logic, same dogma, same outcome.

  6. I agree, Dick. And I think that because of the particular style of philosophy Singer does, which wants to demarcate and make definitive judgments about categories and value, he becomes committed to a position re: the cognitively disabled that is unnecessary to his argument — even counterproductive, I think. Just to clarify my position, I certainly don’t feel it’s productive to exclude (rather arbitrarily) a group of people from humanity in order to strengthen the position of animals, although I do think it’s worthwhile to put into question the distinctions we make between human and non-human animals.

  7. I don’t think the question is central in the sense that it has to be answered before we can ask any other question, and I don’t think that asking the question necessarily means we can’t ask other important questions. It is central in the sense that it is the apparent inability to answer this question that causes both Singer and McMahan to put forward their own answer (psychological capacities), and it is this answer that leads to the conclusions about people with cognitive disabilities that many find abhorrent. So it is central in Singer and McMahan’s argument, but not a fundamental or foundational question that must be answered before any others.

    I can understand how the question about the moral status of an embryo obscures other equally important questions, but I’m not sure if the McMahan question is analogous. I think that McMahan, Singer, and others look around and see that it is illegal to kill a human being with some exceptions (e.g., self-defence and capital punishment), and it is legal to kill an animal, and they ask why this is the case. I need some help understanding what questions are being obscured by this question, or why it is that we can’t ask this question along with other social and political questions.

    I think the question does have a history; I’m just not sure it’s a history we want to give up. I think it comes directly from ideas like universal human rights, equality, and human dignity. At least, these concepts make the question possible. In a society without universal human rights, where human beings are not all equal, and where not every human possesses dignity — for example, in ancient Greece or, as Dick pointed out, as recently as Luther’s time — the question wouldn’t carry the same weight, assuming it made sense at all. The concept of human rights arose from natural law, but natural law was given by God. Human dignity depended on man’s ability to generate moral law for himself. We seem to want to retain the concepts while abandoning that which gave them their moral force. This is at least partly why the question is so hard to answer and, to the extent we want to hold on to concepts like human rights, equality, and dignity, worth addressing — even if only to say: “It’s not the right question, and this is why…”

  8. I actually struggled with this question since I identified as an animal rights advocate before I identified as a disability rights advocate, but still believe that it is less horrifying for people to eat cows than for people to eat cognitively disabled infants. My reasoning has gone as follows:

    I consider myself a being worthy of moral consideration and good treatment. I know that at some point in my life, I may lose many cognitive functions, potentially even to the point where I am listed as “profoundly” cognitively disabled by Singer’s terms. The thought of losing moral rights at this same time horrifies me. The reason it horrifies me is because my sense of continuous personhood is not based on my ability to do complex tasks but on subjectivity. If someone hurts me, I rarely think to myself “it is so wrong that this person is hurting me. Does this person know the kind of higher-order reasoning I am capable of?” I think “ow.” Higher-order thought, like “use of tools” and “ability to form abstract moral judgments,” seems to me to be only relevant as one of those post-hoc rationalizations for privileging an already-privileged group that appears to have a monopoly on a particular trait.

    I am assuming (for lack of proof to the contrary) that people who become cognitively disabled continue to have emotions and feel pain in the same way they had before. There is also no reason to make a distinction between people who become disabled and people who were born disabled, since what matters is not that there *was* ability in the past but whether there *is* subjectivity in the present, and it would be odd to assume that people who were always disabled have no subjectivity while people who became disabled have no subjectivity.

    Of course then we come to the question of whether this subjectivity is shared with animals. The answer, though, is that since people do not become animals and then transform back into people as frequently as people gain (and sometimes recover from) a cognitive disability, it is harder to say exactly what it feels like to be an animal. Many animals clearly have some subjectivity and therefore deserve protection from cruel treatment, but we as a society are able to at least feign ignorance on animals’ inner lives in order to keep up the assumption that animals are somehow different from humans.

    This is somewhat of an unsatisfying answer, and its grounds for according rights to people with cognitive disabilities may be troublingly derivative from the rights of people without disabilities, but I’m aiming to be descriptive, and I don’t that a dominant group has ever ended up believing another group has rights without comparing the groups to each other and finding a relevant similarity. The best we can do is look for similarities that seem actually relevant.

    -Sam

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