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. Continue reading

Rethinking “Conceptions of the Good” in Light of Intellectual Disability: What’s dependence got to do with it?

[This post is the ninth 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.]

In their talks at the disability conference, Anita Silvers and Leslie Francis look at questions about the role of the individual in the process of coming up with the things the person perceives as what is good for them, which includes reasons and motivations for accepting these goods as the person’s own. This is what is typically referred to as “a conception of the good” in the academic literature on social justice. Silvers and Francis argue that the accounts offered by Rawls and Nussbaum characterize this process in a way that is problematic for those with significant cognitive disabilities because they play up importance of the independence of the individual in coming up with their own good. If we adopt a picture of the individual as independent in this way, then it looks like those with cognitive disabilities will be excluded and left without any way to guard against being exploited by others in society. Is there a way to include individuals with severe cognitive disabilities in the process of conceiving their own good and in exercising their conception of the good to the degree required for social cooperation?

The answer, according to, Silvers and Francis in their talks, is ‘yes’. However, an account that includes those with significant cognitive abilities requires a shift in focus from independence to collaboration. The way in which Silvers and Francis suggest we make this shift is what I want to focus on. Part of their task involves expanding the picture by reframing the notion of conceiving of the good as a collaborative process, which involves “a reasonable dependence” on others in coming to one’s conception of the good. One way to illustrate the direction of the revision, which includes moving away from independence and toward reasonable dependence, is the use of trusteeship as a prosthetic process for those with cognitive disabilities. This way of thinking about collaboration and prosthetic processes in this way assists cognitively disabled individuals in coming up with their own good as well as with their interaction with others in coming up with a conception of the good for society (and thereby justifying justice). Before I get to questions about how we are meant to understand prosthetic processes, I’ll talk a bit about the role of independence and why Silvers and Francis find it problematic.

This is contrasted with Rawls’ and Nussbaum’s accounts of political liberalism, each of which relies on its own picture of persons as independent in the process of coming to their conception of the good. The emphasis on the role of independence within the individual’s process of arriving at and revising their conception of the good on their own has been the basis for the claim that his account of justifying justice excluded people with significant cognitive disabilities. And it is the independence of the individual in this way that invokes a “metaphysics of independence.”

What exactly does a metaphysics of independence refer to? Continue reading

Singer’s Assault on Universal Human Rights

[This post is the second 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.]

Following Rob Wilson’s Singer on Parental Choice, Disability, and Ashley X , I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own about Peter Singer’s talk at the recent Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy conference. These comments address issues in parental choice and the protection of universal human rights.

Clip 1: Cognitive abilities and moral status. A transcript of this video clip appears at the end of this post. Some parts that are particularly relevant to this post appear in red letters.

Dr. Singer suggests that parents should be allowed to make whatever decisions they consider in the best interests of children who have severe disabilities. This is based on two important assumptions: (1) Parents can accurately determine the best interests of their children, and (2) Knowing their children’s best interests parents will choose to act according to those interests. Before examining these assumptions in regard to the particular case of children with disabilities, severe or otherwise, we need to examine these assumptions in regard to other children.

Clip 2: Parental Choice and Ashley X. A transcript of this video clip appears at the end of this post. Some parts that are particularly relevant to this post appear in red letters.

Do parents always know what is in their children’s best interests, and as a society do we grant parents the unlimited right to determine those interests? Continue reading