What Sorts course

I’ll be teaching a fairly large, mixed grad / undergrad seminar this coming semester as an ethics course with the working title that coincides with the blog: what sorts of people should there be?. Below is an initial draft of the core part of the syllabus. Feedback and suggestions welcome. One feature of the course will be to integrate some of the posts, videos, and commentaries from the What Sorts blog, using them as a basis for further discussion and readings.  If any of you are also making use of some of the resources here or at www.whatsorts.net, let me know by reply here or privately.

Phil 450 / 550
Topics in Ethics
What sorts of people should there be?

Themes, readings, etc.

Course guide description:

This course will be organized around the question “What sorts of people should there be?” and will focus on philosophical issues that arise in several areas at the interface of ethics, science, and technology. Topics that I would imagine covering including most, if not all, of the following: autonomy and personal choice concerning one’s appearance, health, and well-being; choices and responsibilities for one’s own possible and actual children; social policies and common practices regarding future generations, including genetic testing and screening; philosophical and medical views of disability and disablement; bioenhancement and transhumanism; the moral value of human and non-human lives; the nature of persons and the philosophical focus on questions about persons.

That’s quite a lot, and inevitably discussion of such topics will take us into related issues (e.g., the morality of abortion, state intervention in individual lives) that I don’t see as themselves a focus for the course. We will cover as much material on the history of eugenics as I think we will need to inform our discussion of the focal topics, but the course will centre on contemporary philosophical debates and issues. For assessment, students should expect to have to write several papers, including a substantial term paper. Active participation in the course on a week-to-week basis will also constitute an important basis for your final grade.

A. Moral Dimensions to Bodies and their Modification

Here we discuss forms of natural and unnatural variation in human bodies, the ways in which we modify both our own bodies and the bodies of other members of our species, and several moral dimensions to that variation and modification. Issues: kinds of bodies and self-modification, cosmetic surgery and self-improvement, mobility and prosthetic bodies, disability and repair, ableism and transhumanism.

1. Gregor Wolbring, “Human Kinds and the Ethics of Ableism”, videocast from April 2009, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-humanKinds.htm
2. Carl Elliott, “Resident Aliens”, ch.7 of Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.
3. Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Ethics”, Review of Contemporary Philosophy 4 (2005).
4. Gregor Wolbring, “What Next for the Human Species: Human Performance Enhancement, Ableism and Pluralism”, Development Dialogue 52 (August 2009), pp.141-161.
5. David Serlin, “The Other Arms Race”, from his Replaceable You, reprinted in Lennard Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd edition, 2007.

B. Boundaries of the Mind, Self, Organism, and Body

There are a large number and a diverse range of categories that we think of ourselves under, and here we discuss four of the most general—mind, self, organism, and body—with an eye on the question of where the physical boundaries are for each of these. Issues: individualism and the extended mind, organisms, body parts, and species; neuropsychiatry, the brain, and the self.

1. Robert A. Wilson, “What is an Organism?” and “Exploring the Tripartite View”, chh.3-4 of Genes and the Agents of Life: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences: Biology, 2005.
2. Andy Clark, “The Negotiable Body”, ch.2 of his Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, 2008.
3. Robert A. Wilson and Andy Clark, “How to Situate Cognition: Letting Nature Take its Course”, in Murat Aydede and Philip Robbins (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition, 2009.
4. Nikolas Rose, “Neurochemical Selves”, ch.7 of his The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, 2007.
5. Norman Daniels, Susannah Rose, and Ellen Daniels Zide, “Disability, Adaptation, and Inclusion”, in Kimberley Brownless and Adam Cureton (eds.), Disability and Disadvantage, 2009.

C. Bodily Normalcy and Normativity

Not all the variation we find in human bodies is treated equally in even the most tolerant and welcoming of minds: some bodies lack parts, have limited functions, are regarded as standing in need of repair or augmentation. Here we explore the notion of normalcy in constructing evaluative dimensions to the body. Issues: the social construction of normalcy; Foulcauldian approaches to normalcy and normativity; bodies that let us down; being a retard, being a freak.

1. Amanda Baggs, “About being considered ‘retarded’ ”, Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qn70gPukdtY
2. Eli Clare, “Freak Show”, from Clare’s “Freaks and Queers”, in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, 1999, pp.71-81
3. Lennard Davis, “Constructing Normalcy”, ch.2 of his Enforcing Normalcy, reprinted in his Disability Studies Reader, 2nd edition, 2007.
4. Robert A. Wilson, “Where Do Ideas About Human Variation Come From: Disability and Sub-Normalcy in Health and Medicine”, unpublished manuscript, 2009.
5. Cressida J. Heyes, “Somaesthetics for the Normalized Body”, ch.5 of her Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, 2007.
6. Susan Wendell, “The Flight from the Rejected Body”, ch.4 of her The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability, 1996.

D. Between Generations and Species: Parents, Children, Animals, Disability

Parents make decisions about, and on behalf of, the fetuses, infants, and children they typically produce, and these decisions and the attitudes they reflect interact with broader social attitudes about people, cognitive capacities, and animals. Issues: the expressivist objection to prenatal testing; the notion of profound intellectual disability; speciesism and human rights; moral status, inclusion, and consistency; disability, parenting, and the idea of loss.

1. Paul Lombardo, “Taking Eugenics Seriously: Three Generations of ??? Are Enough?”, Florida State University Law Review 30 (2003), pp. 191-218.
2. Deborah Kent, “Somewhere a Mockingbird”, reprinted in Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch (eds.) Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights”, 2000.
3. Adrienne Asch, “Why I Haven’t Changed My Mind About Prenatal Diagnosis: Reflections and Reminders”, in Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch (eds.) Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights”, 2000.
4. Various, “The Modern Pursuit of Human Perfection”, videocasts from October 2008, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-PursuingPerfection.htm
5. Robert A. Wilson, “Peter Singer on parental choice, disability, and Ashley X”, videocast #1 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm
6. Dick Sobsey, “Singer on universal human rights”, videocast #2 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm
7. Dick Sobsey, “Peter Singer and profound intellectual disability”, videocast #5 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm
8. Peter Singer, “Speciesism and Moral Status”, Metaphilosophy 40 (July 2009), pp.567-581.
9. Jeff McMahan, “Cognitive Disability and Cognitive Enhancement”, Metaphilosophy 40 (July 2009), pp.582-605.
10. Robert A. Wilson, “What are the deep facts about our moral status”, videocast #3 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm
11. Robert A. Wilson, “The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals”, videocast #4 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm
12. Robert A. Wilson, “The son that Trent can never be, and what to do”, What Sorts Network blog, January 26th, 2009. https://whatsortsofpeople.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/the-son-that-trent-can-never-be-and-what-to-do/
13. Julie Maybee, “Samantha, loss and ableism”, post #13 from the Thinking in Action series, What Sorts Network website. http://whatsorts.net/events/events-ThinkingInAction.htm

E. Human Kinds Made and Found: Child Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Ethics of Innocence

The concept of trauma is relatively recent, and one of its primary applications in the past 20-25 years is to the case of child sexual abuse. Here we examine aspects of the genealogy of trauma in the 20th-century in concert with Hacking’s influential approach to understanding human kinds. Issues: what it means to “make up people”; trauma, memory, and the destruction of the self; the role of innocence in charges of child sexual abuse; collective memory and psychiatric practice.

1. Ian Hacking, “Making up People” (1986) or “The Making and Molding of Child Abuse” (1991) or “World-Making by Kind-Making: Child Abuse, For Example (1992) or something from Rewriting the Soul (1995).
2. Judith Herman, “A Forgotten History”, ch.1 of her Trauma and Recovery, 1992, pp.7-32.
3. Judith Herman, “Afterword 2000: Understanding Incest 20 Years Later” from her Father-Daughter Incest, 2000 [1st edition, 1979]
4. Joseph E. Davis, “Interpreting Abuse: From Collective Story to Psychological Trauma Model”, ch.4 of his Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self, 2005.
5. Capturing the Friedmans, film, 2003.


3 thoughts on “What Sorts course

  1. looks like an interesting course. Though I wonder, why such a focus on the ethics of the physical form of people, and not as much on what they do, or how they are?

  2. Ashraf,
    There is a lot of focus on the physical forms that people take, but especially how those forms are modified (by self or others), and why. As such, it’s not such much on the ethics of the physical forms, but on ethical issues that arise in our reactions to those forms, especially those that don’t aren’t within the parameters of normality.

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