Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Martin Tweedale Parts 3&4

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 third portion of the presentation by Martin Tweedale (The preceding parts may be found here). 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 3

Highlights: exploration of validity of a purely consequentialist argument, challenge of academic cowardice, inadequacy of strict utilitarian approach, what features of the case justify removing the MacEachran prize, (un)importance of overstepping legal authority.

A transcript and the concluding Part 4, follow the cut; fiery Q and A to follow later.

Part 4

Highlights: seeming turn of the case on an error in judgment on MacEachran’s part, need to bring in evaluation of the deed in addition to a persons character, tie-in to debate between ancient skeptics and academics.


Transcript for Part 3:

I confess that the prospect of the department suffering such embarrassment along with the rage of idealistic students, and the justifiable indignation of the community of right-thinking people weighed on my mind. Should it have? I’m not sure. The staff of the department certainly have a duty to protect the department’s reputation, for on that depends in large measure its ability to function as a teaching institution. But this is a purely consequentialist argument, as we say in philosophical ethics, and I wonder whether it has any purchase except where there is a prior judgment that there is in fact something wrong in the department’s continuing to honor McEachran, a judgment that’s not based consequentially. Suppose that the danger of being the object of public outrage had been much greater and more imminent. Could it have been so great as to be sufficient on its own, regardless of whether it was right or wrong to continue the prize from a non-consequentialist standpoint, as to justify bringing the prize to an end? Or would that have just been still another example of academic cowardice?

I find myself undecided on the role that consequentialist considerations should have had in the decision. Certainly we all considered the negative impact ending the prizes would have on our students and on our teaching program. But is such a consideration one that should figure into the deliberation only if non-consequentialist considerations do not settle the matter? Or can they become so large that they can, at least in principle, outweigh a judgment that apart from consequentialist considerations, eliminating the prize is the right thing to do? Can the non-consequentialist considerations themselves be of varying weight, so that some are more easily overruled by the consequentialist ones? But if we adopt that position, aren’t we on the slippery slope that leads to pure opportunism? A strict utilitarian of course, would argue that only consequentialist considerations should be in play; the debate should have been whether the threat of future public embarrassment and ridicule, leading to the possible collapse of our teaching role was greater or less than the negative impact on our students and our program from not having these prizes to distribute. Given the uncertainty of the threat, the judgment on this matter would certainly not have been an easy one, even had these consequences been the only things to weigh. We all know that there is no science combining probability and a metric for benefits and detriments that is going to enable us to simply calculate our way to a decision in such a case. It’s a judgment call, as we say.

But, I think most people, myself included, will say that the strict utilitarian approach is inadequate. We who supported the eventual decision wanted to say that, apart from all consequences of what we decide to do, it just is wrong to honor a man who has done such things as he did. But, what features of this situation make it wrong? Suppose it had been revealed that McEachran was a terrible womanizer, cheating on his long-suffering wife again and again. Would we have cancelled the prizes for that reason? I don’t think so. But, womanizing can be a very obscene and contemptible way of behaving. What makes it different from the case of deliberately sterilizing people without any care in determining whether such sterilization was justified? Or worse, if it is worse, suppose it was revealed that he was a pedophile and had made trips to the brothels of Thailand. One difference here is that gross sexual misconduct is frequently a sign of mental sickness of some sort. Before measuring out ones contempt, one wants to know the background. Was he mistreated in certain ways as a youth? Does he suffer from some genetic pre-disposition? But in the sterilization case, there seems to be no likelihood that anything not under the person’s control was involved. There are no base passions at work, no primal urges that require repression. There is just a sort of negligent disregard for what people were entitled to. The judgment seems to have been made by the committee that since these people behaved in ways which do not at all easily fit into our Alberta society, or will be detrimental to society or to themselves, or at least, what we would like to see Alberta society become, then we are best off if they don’t have any children. But then, isn’t it just that McEachran and the other committee members were operating with a false ideology-the ideology of eugenics at that time. Other people that we continue to honor shared that ideology; Tommy Douglas and Emily Murphy spring to mind. It’s just that McEachran got to put the ideology into practice, whereas Douglas and Murphy didn’t. One might want to say that McEachran, being a learned man, should have known better than to fall for that nonsense, and I guess I would agree with that. But, it’s hardly sufficient justification for calling for an end to the prizes in his name.

At that time I thought that yes, if all that were involved here was his operating in accord with a false ideology, which he actually thought was good science, then the case for eliminating the prizes was insufficient. But I reason, this isn’t the whole story, for McEachran and his committee actually overstepped their legal authority. They should at least have kept their actions within the law of the land. It was this I believe which clinched the case, by adding a whole extra dimension of disreputableness to the board’s proceedings. Now I’m not so sure whether this makes a great deal of difference. Suppose McEachran and his committee were totally convinced by the eugenic pseudo-science that these sterilizations were in the best interest both of the individuals and society, and they decided that this benefit outweighed their obligations to stay within the law. Then weigh that situation to one in which the law was not such that they had to break it to proceed with the sterilizations. Is the action all that much less despicable in the latter case than in the former? The extermination camps run by the Nazi’s were in the laws the Nazi’s promulgated. Would the proceedings have been that much more despicable if they were not been within the law? Would the persons who had ordered them be that much more contemptible?

There’s also the consideration that even by the standards of the time McEachran and the board were proceeding in an outrageous fashion. That they had to break the law to do what they did is evidence of this. Suppose the reverse, that the standards of the time were totally in sympathy with their actions, much in the way that for centuries the Southern United States was in sympathy with first slavery of black Africans and then later gross intimidation and discrimination. Does this make much difference in whether we should continue to honor the man?

Transcript for part 4:

Well, this thought forces to the surface perhaps a deeper question: should we be considering the man’s moral character or his deeds or both? I think that our evaluation of the deed, that is the approval of the sterilizations in the way that was done, is not touched by the supposition that standards of the time accorded with it. That may be a false supposition. Even if that were the case it wouldn’t touch that. But our assessment of McEachran’s character certainly is. In the one case, we have someone who exhibits a kind of fanaticism in his pursuit of the goals of eugenics. He’s so convinced of the truth and importance of his ideology that given the power, he is willing to go against the moral views of most of his fellow citizens. In the other case, we have someone who agrees with the general moral sentiments of his fellow citizens and is merely putting that consensus into practice. No doubt there is some sort of character defect in both cases, but the former is much less excusable than the latter, I think.

Is it the case then, that the decision to cancel or not cancel the prizes should have primarily considered the moral character of the man, not his deed? The character defect here would be that of fanatical commitment to a false ideology. Is the fact that the ideology is false important here? Are people who have similar commitment to true ideologies like the basic political rights of every individual also suffering from a serious character defect? One thing is certain: no one would cease to honor them on that ground. But then part of McEachran’s character defect would be his believing things that were not true. In fact, since fanatical commitment to true beliefs is often considered a virtue, it seems that the whole of his defect lies in believing what is false. Or perhaps he believed far too strongly given the evidence available and the speculative character of the supposed benefits to be garnered from a eugenic policy. This could be considered a particularly bad trait in a philosopher, who by definition is supposed to be careful about how much trust he puts in theories and speculations. But again it seems, or at least it seemed to me, we are left with something insufficient to justify cancelling the prizes. It makes the matter turn on whether McEachran made a mistake in judgment that he should not have made.

But philosophers, not to mention everybody else, make such mistakes all the times and about important matters. Suppose a doctor makes a wrong diagnosis, consequently prescribes the wrong treatment, and the patient dies as the result. Suppose too, that his wrong diagnosis is the result of not having considered certain facts which he should have considered. He certainly may be culpable of professional negligence and open to civil suit. But if a prize had been named after him in the light of the many selfless services he had performed, would we, upon learning of this serious discretion feel that we should cease awarding it? I tend to think not, but then why do I agree with the decision to cancel the McEachran prizes? Where is the difference? I think we have to bring in our evaluation of the deed, rather than just the person’s character. We have to say, don’t we, that the deed here, the string of approvals of sterilization which extended over decades and were made without any real examination of the merits of individual cases, amounts to such a disregard for the basic rights of humans that it lies in the realm of true atrocities not just ordinary crimes. But, I know of no way of making this distinction at all precise and I wonder whether it reflects just a subjective difference in the reactions of those who are passing judgment.

However, I find it impossible to say that the deed alone is to be considered, and that all considerations of moral character are irrelevant. Even in the case of atrocities, we leave room for finding excuses that attenuate or even eliminate moral culpability. And if such excuses were present in the McEachran case, they would surely have been relevant to the prizes. Guards at concentration camps participated in an atrocity, but many of them could not have ended their participation without being shot. Maybe the very courageous person would have refused to participate, and thereby put his life on the line that way, but it is hard to blame people for not exhibiting that degree of courage.

So, in the McEachran case, it is important that he be fully culpable for the atrocity, and that amounts to some sort of judgment on his character at the time. Considerations about his having been taken in by a false ideology now sound relevant again. They certainly don’t eliminate his culpability, but they may attenuate it. I lean, then, to thinking that both the deed and the person’s character must be considered, but I know no way of determining how much weight is to be given to each.

In conclusion, let me make this little remark, which sort of ties it back to my own specialty. The ancient skeptics believed in arguing both sides of any case and thought that this would show that reason alone could not reach any decision. There was difference of opinion about how one should react to this situation. The Phyrranists skeptics said that all judgment should be suspended, although one just went ahead making decisions without judgments about which side in the debate was right. One went with one’s gut feeling, or as they said, “the appearances”. Some Academics tend to the view-the skeptics divided into Phyrranists and Academics-tended to the view that one should make a judgment based on how it appeared to one after examining all the arguments, but the judgment had to be tentative rather than dogmatic. I have to say at this point, that I have moved from my original dogmatism to something akin to the Academic position so far as this whole dispute about the prizes is concerned. Yes, it was right to cancel the prizes, but I’m not at all sure that no one will come along who will be able to argue me out of that position.

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