The Myth of the Dispassionate, Disengaged, Objective Philosophical Stance

[This post is the twelfth in our 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. You can go to the Thinking in Action 10 pack, which links to the first 10 posts in the series; and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays, for the most part. The post immediately before this one concerned talks by Ian Hacking and Victoria McGeer on theory of mind and autism at the conference and can be linked to directly here.]

Licia Carlson’s thought-provoking talk, “A Challenge to Moral Philosophy,” asks us to make the philosopher the object of the study through a discussion of the multiple positions that philosophers occupy in relation to intellectual disability—institutional expert, genetic counselor, family member/advocate, non-human animal, and intellectually disabled themselves. She asks: “What parallels can be drawn between these figures and the philosopher of intellectual disability, and what can these figures reveal to us about our own philosophical projects regarding intellectual disability?”

She suggests that philosophers who occupy the family member/advocate role are often placed in a “double bind.” Because philosophers are supposed to be dispassionate, disengaged or objective, philosophers who are advocates for the intellectually disabled are often either discounted because of their personal relationships to people with intellectual disabilities or they are silenced altogether. She uses this point to argue for what appears to be a version of a kind of care ethics. Here is a clip from her talk:

(Written transcript of clip appears below.)

I would like to make a few points about Carlson’s argument here.

First, it’s not entirely clear what “reversing the assumption” comes to. Carlson does not spell out explicitly the assumption that is being reversed. She does spell out the reversed version of the assumption, however. The reversed version of the assumption is that the familial relationship should become a model of what having an ethical relation with a person with intellectual disabilities should be like. This suggests that the original assumption is that a dispassionate, non-familial relationship is the correct model of what having an ethical relation with a person with intellectual disability should be like. But that can’t be right. Those who define the philosophical stance as dispassionate, objective (and so on) are not suggesting that the proper ethical relationship with a family member with disabilities is a dispassionate, non-familial one. They would agree, I think, that parents and family members should (i.e. to be ethical) have familial relationships with their relatives with intellectual disabilities. In other words, they are not defining the proper ethical relationship with people with disabilities. Rather, they are defining what they take to be the proper philosophical relationship with philosophical topics (including ethics and intellectual disability). They assume that parents and family members cannot be proper philosophers on the topic of intellectual disability because (given their personal connections to those with intellectual disabilities) parents and family members cannot adopt the properly dispassionate and objective stance toward the philosophical topic of intellectual disability.

Perhaps Carlson’s suggestion is that if philosophers adopted the “familial stance” toward people with intellectual disabilities, then they would reject taking the standard dispassionate, objective philosophical stance toward the topic of intellectual disability. Perhaps her suggestion is that philosophers can engage in ethical philosophy—or can do philosophy in an ethical way—when it comes to intellectual disability only if they adopt this familial stance toward the topic of intellectual disability and hence, by extension, ultimately toward people with intellectual disabilities themselves. Philosophers can discuss the topic of intellectual disability in an ethical way only if they drop the dispassionate, disengaged objective stance, and they will abandon that stance only if they CARE about people with intellectual disabilities. If this is right, then the original assumption (the one that Carlson wants to reverse), is not an assumption about what the proper ethical relationship with people with intellectual disabilities should be like, but rather about what the proper philosophical relationship with the topic of intellectual disability should be like. And her suggestion is that the proper philosophical stance toward the topic of intellectual disability will be one in which philosophers abandon the dispassionate, disengaged objective stance and adopt a stance that expresses a caring relationship toward people with intellectual disabilities.

(One problem with using the familial relationship as the model of the properly ethical, philosophical stance toward a philosophical topic is that familial relationships—especially with disabled people—are often abusive, and so the family relationship per se does not seem to be able to stand in for a caring relationship without further work. This is a standard criticism against using the familial model as the proper model of an ethical relationship more generally, and not just an ethical relationship with a philosophical topic. Carlson seems to be aware of this problem, as she goes on to suggest that a model based on the idea of an advocate, or on friendship, could be used instead.)

Second, I would like to interrogate from a somewhat different angle the assumption that parents and family members of people with disabilities cannot be objective about the topic of intellectual disability. Critical race theorists (Carlson herself mentions work on “epistemology of ignorance” by critical race theories later on in her talk) have pointed to a similar assumption in the case of the issue of race. Whites often assume that black people cannot be objective about race. This has the paradoxical result, of course, of silencing precisely the voices of those who know the most about race. Once, when my husband and I were moving to a new town for job purposes, we asked people at the new job (who were all white) whether there would be any race issues in the town. Of course, they all said that there would be no problem. But white people don’t typically see race issues, because race issues don’t happen to them. Black people, by contrast, know a lot more about whether a town has problems with race, because they will be the objects of the problems. The irony is that the “rule of racial standing,” as critical race theorist Derrick Bell calls it, which says that black people cannot be experts on issues of race, dismisses the points of view of precisely those people who are likely to know the most about race. Carlson is pointing to a similar phenomenon here: the points of view of precisely those people (parents and family members or people with intellectual disabilities themselves) who would have expertise in the area are dismissed on the grounds that they cannot be objective, that they are “interested parties.” This is the same assumption that has led to the idea in recent years in the media in the United States that blacks are a “special interest” group, that blacks have a special interest in issues of race.

What it overlooks, of course, is that whites and philosophers who don’t have a personal connection to intellectual disability are interested parties too. This is perhaps easier to see in the case of race. The idea that whites do not have an interest in race is laughably false. As Marx said, if you want to know who has an interest in something, follow the money. OK, he didn’t say it quite like that, but the basic idea is that if you want to know who really has an interest in some social phenomenon, see who benefits from it. Obviously, whites benefit much more from racism than do blacks, so whites have even more of an interest in race—in their case, in maintaining the system of racial supremacy and exclusion—than do blacks. Similarly, I would like to suggest, philosophers who do not have a connection to people with intellectual disability have an interest in maintaining the systems of exclusion that eliminate the voices of people with intellectual disabilities and their advocates.

But what do these philosophers gain? Here we have to think about ways in which the assumption that the proper philosophical stance is a dispassionate, disengaged and objective one is deeply connected to some of the most fundamental commitments in Western philosophy—particularly its commitment to a certain model of rationality. Philosophers are the keepers and defenders of a certain account of rationality and to the model of humanity that is connected to that account. Certainly since Kant, but even in Aristotle, Western philosophy has held that rationality is universal and objective, where this has meant that it is supposed to be perspective-less, and divorced from all “inclinations,” to use Kant’s term, desires, emotions or personal interests. As Emmanuel Eze has argued, this model of rationality was used to define who counted as human and who did not. It was because women and blacks were too emotional, too connected to their bodies and desires and inclinations that they were not rational and indeed not even human. You cannot separate out Kant’s unfortunate statements about the inferiority of women and blacks from his “critical philosophy” because his critical philosophy is grounded in a model of the rational and of the human that is a peculiarly Western model deeply implicated in systems of slavery and oppression. As critical race theorists have pointed out, whites need to deny racism in order to maintain their sense of innocence and their very sense of humanity. To acknowledge racism is to acknowledge their own inhumanity. For similar reasons, it seems to me, philosophers committed to the dispassionate, disengaged and (supposedly) objective stance need to maintain the myth of that stance in order to maintain their own sense of innocence and humanity.

If I am right that the myth of dispassionate, disengaged objective stance that leads to the dismissal of the views of parents and families of people with intellectual disabilities (as well as people with intellectual disabilities themselves) is deeply connected to Western philosophical models of rationality and humanity and to the exclusion and oppression of those deemed unable to meet the standards of those models, then asking philosophers to abandon that stance involves asking them to do much more than caring about people with disabilities.

Transcript of video clip:
“The assertion of moral authority on the part of the disengaged, unsentimental moral philosopher can also place those scholars who do have connections with persons with intellectual disabilities in a sort of double bind, whereby the perspectives can be rendered invalid or invisible. In advocating for those close to them and in challenging certain philosophical moves—like the association between intellectual disability and animals, for example—their positions may be explained away by virtue of their relation to that individual and thus rendered invalid. Yet if the requirement for participation in moral discourse is a dispassionate, disengaged objective stance, then their voices may be silenced or excluded altogether.
“The irony, however, as I mentioned before, is that while their voices may not have a place in moral discourse, these individuals—the parents or family members themselves—do not disappear altogether. Some have argued that the severely intellectually disabled do not possess any intrinsic worth or dignity, rather they are deserving of moral consideration only by virtue of the fact that they matter to someone who is a full person. What is at stake in adopting this position, and does it restrict the realm of concern simply to those for whom intellectual disability is a lived reality. What if we were to reverse the assumption, however, and treat the parental or familial relationship as a model of what it would mean to be in an ethical relation to someone with an intellectual disability—and we’ve heard examples of this in the conference.”

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