Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Martin Tweedale Parts 1&2

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium at the Western Canadian Philosophical Association annual meeting, held in Edmonton, to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north. Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson. This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog. Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the presentation by Martin Tweedale. Professor Tweedale’s presentation is titled “Ethical Dilemmas in Eliminating the MacEachran Prizes in Philosophy.” It is a discussion of the decision made by the University of Alberta Philosophy Department over whether to continue its association with the prizes in the name of John MacEachran. Professor Tweedale summarizes the factors considered in the deliberations and explores the extent to which the decision taken was rationally demanded by those considerations..

Part 1

Highlights: summary of the background events prompting the decision to cease offering an award in the name of John MacEachran, reason for prizes being awarded, who is doing the honouring in providing awards in a person’s name?

Part 2

Highlights: reflections on the negative impact on students of canceling the prize, listing of reasons both pro and con for honouring John MacEachran, investigation of the challenge that we honour for the good and only the good that people have done and none of us are saints, threat of scandal, moral posturing.

A transcript for both parts follows the cut.


Part 1

Martin Tweedale: Maybe I have to give a little introduction, because maybe some people don’t know the background, but Leilani put a case in the court against the Alberta government… was it 1998?

Leilani Muir: ’95.

Martin: ’95. And this brought to light the practices of the Alberta Eugenics Board which were pretty atrocious to say the least. And the justice who ruled in your case, Justice Thype, agreed that they were totally outrageous. That board was chaired by a professor from the University of Alberta, John McEachran. John McEachran was one of the really original professors of the University of Alberta. He established both the departments of psychology and philosophy here, which were united for a while. So he was an outstanding figure in the history of the university and certainly contributed a lot to this university.

There were prizes established in his name, two of which were awarded by the philosophy department to deserving students. And then the findings which came out of Leilani’s case came to light and the philosophy department decided to reconsider its involvement in giving those prizes. A subcommittee of which I was a part gave a report recommending that the department dissociate itself from the prizes. And the department did that. It took us quite a long time to get the university administration to agree with us. Finally, we had a meeting with Doug Oram who was vice president of academic, I believe, and he questioned us to make sure we had decent reasons and then said at the end of the meeting, “Alright, we’ll do away with them” period. And that was what happened.

Now, I’m looking back on that now after all these years and I’m thinking about the questions the ethical dilemmas which arose in making that decision. I still think it was the right decision, but I have a lot of thoughts one way or the other about it. And this paper is largely my going through my thoughts on the whole thing and what a complicated issue it is and ending up generally with a kind of negative view about the extent to which philosophical ethics can have a role here. I hate to say that being a philosopher, but I think it is more limited than I thought at first.

Ok, so, Professor John McEachran, one of the first professors at the University of Alberta and at one time its provost, established the departments of psychology and philosophy and chaired from 1929 to 1965 the Alberta Eugenics board, which approved sterilizations of inmates in public institutions here in Alberta. I shall take it as established that the so-called science of eugenics was more ideology than genuine science and that the way the committee went about approving the sterilization of people, particularly on native people was careless in the extreme and actually went beyond what the committee was authorized by law to do. In other words, the committee committed gross violations of what both then and now would have been considered the legal and moral rights of the individuals sterilized.

Nor was it a short-term program. Rather it continued in existence for several decades. Nothing I say here is intended to cast any doubt on the correctness of Justice Thypes conclusion in the case of Leilani Muir, which she stated this way: “The circumstances of Ms. Muir’s sterilization were so high-handed and contemptuous of the statutory authority to effect sterilization and were undertaken in an atmosphere with so little respect of the plaintiff’s dignity that the community’s and the court’s sense of decency was offended.” As I say, nothing I say here is meant to cast any doubt whatsoever on that. I am completely in agreement with the justice in that.

At the time, I assumed as given that a prize given in the name of someone is intended to honor the memory of that same person, although of course its primary purpose is to enable the department and the university to honor students who have performed at a very high level in their studies. Perhaps someone will ask, however, whether awarding prizes bearing McEachran’s name, does in fact amount to honoring him. Is it not the original donors who are honoring his memory, while the department and university are merely taking advantage of their bequest to honor students? But certainly in making these awards, the department and university agree to assist in the honoring of the person in whose name they are given. Nor would they make awards in the name of some known outrageous criminal, no matter how much money was involved in the bequest. Or at least I hope they wouldn’t. In other words, by going along with the desires of the donors to honor McEachran’s memory, the department and university in effect put their own (nihil opstadt?) on the intentions of the donors and become at least complicit in the honoring of Professor McEachran.

Part 2

In divorcing itself from the giving of these prizes, the philosophy department relinquished part of its ability to honor its students for academic excellence. Such prizes are no doubt important in maintaining student morale and showing that the faculty takes seriously student achievement in the discipline in which they teach and write. Nor was there any way at that time actually, the prizes had been refunded and put under another name, of refunding the prizes under another name or from another donor. Hence the decision to separate itself from such awards was not without significant deleterious consequences for the department’s educational mission and for some of its students, and thus could not be taken lightly and needed to be justified in a clear and compelling fashion.

What sort of justification could or can now be brought forward? Awarding the prizes in McEachran’s name certainly does not imply that the department now condoned or was at the time of the abuse in any way complicit in the practices of the Eugenics Board when he chaired it. I don’t think there’s anyone who would seriously think the department need publicly apologize for some role it had in the ghastly chapter of the province. For, in fact, it had no such role. McEachran acted on his own, at the request of the government of the province. Certainly it would not have been sufficient for the department to have simply said, it was expressing, by divorcing itself from the prize, expressing moral outrage at the scandal which had been uncovered, for it could have done that in many other ways that would have not had any negative impacts on its students or its efforts to promote the study of philosophy among them. Rather, the crucial point, at least in my own mind, was that by continuing to award the prizes, we were honoring, year after year, not just worthy students, but a man whose memory the department, and the university for that matter, should not continue to honor in view of the facts recently brought to light about the way the Eugenics Board proceeded.

But, this is the point at which matters as I see it now get quite complex. For, it’s not easy to say just when a person’s memory should no longer be honored by institutions to which he was in fact a great benefactor. Professor McEachran was really one of the founders of the university, as I said, and he established both the departments of philosophy and psychology. No doubt his efforts and accomplishments in that area should be remembered with appreciation. Nor is there any reason to think that he devoted himself to his academic duties out of a desire for personal gain or did indeed benefit in any but the usual ways from his career as an academic. The same applies to his services on the eugenics board. So far as we know, he did this as a public service and thought he was benefiting the province and Canada thereby. In other words, there are certainly good reasons to be given in favor of honoring this man’s memory and in the absence of anything countervailing, they are sufficient to justify such a practice by both the department and the university.

But there is something that countervails, of course, and what it is is the appalling disregard for the most basic of human rights that was shown by the committee which he chaired. All the evidence points to his having completely approved the way the Eugenics Board proceeded and the decisions that it made. Is this not enough in itself to justify the department’s dissociation from the prizes? A case can be made that it is not enough. In fact, somebody might even ask, is it relevant? One honors a person’s memory, it can be said, for the good that they have done. That good is not undone by their having also wreaked a lot of harm in other areas. The lives of the best of us are marred by errors of judgment, even moral judgment. No one is promoting McEachran for sainthood, all we are doing is honoring is his selfless dedication to the good of the university and the department. That he did some pretty ghastly things in another context, it may be said, is beside the point. On the other hand, nothing in the announcement of the prizes indicates why anyone wants to honor Professor McEachran’s memory and indeed the university is happy to accept such bequests in anyone’s name, as long as nothing comes to light which would make that name be one the university would be embarrassed to be associated with.

Ahh. Is that then the whole point? McEachran had become, or threatened to become, someone with whom the university and the department feared to be associated because of his management of the sterilization proceedings, for which the provincial government was about to make an official apology. So then, the department divorced itself from the prize out of fear for its public reputation, was willing to deprive students of the benefit of the prize just to make sure it was on the right side of public opinion!… In order to take up a moral posture, as one of my colleagues said at the time. It wanted to be on the right side of public opinion, should the matter blow up and it certainly threatened to do so, so a somewhat cynical opponent of our decision might have said and might say today.

One thought on “Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Martin Tweedale Parts 1&2

  1. It might interest people to read the 1998 report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the MacEachran Awards, which I chaired. The report not only recommended that units cease awarding prizes in MacEachran’s name, but that these units and the University as a whole have further responsibilities vis-a-vis the University’s complex connections to the Alberta eugenics program. As far as I know, few if any of these further recommendations have been implemented.

    Click to access MacEachran%20Report4.pdf

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