David Lee Hull and Mary Anne Warren

This week saw the death of two colleagues-at-a-distance whom I more than respected, not simply and coldly for their contributions to philosophy, but for the friendship and caring mentorship they each showed to me early in my career, as I know they did with others. I’ll keep this brief here, just giving some general pointers and two short memorial anecdotes I’ve already posted at other sites.

David Hull was the founding figure in the philosophy of biology.  John Wilkins has already got three posts up on him at Evolving Thoughts, David Hull is dead, David Hull’s Philosophy, and Ruse on Hull: A Memoir.  The last makes me cringe a little, but that’s probably because Michael Ruse often induces that effect, at least in me.  In response to the first, I said:

David was one of the three people I sent my first attempt in phil of biology to–the others were both people in the field whom I’d had some contact with before in other contexts. I was a third year assistant professor mainly working in phil of mind and cog sci at the time, and the paper was on John Dupre’s “promiscuous realism”. Like the others, David wrote back encouragingly and sympathetically. The welcoming response from David, especially since I was a complete stranger to him, marked an important contrast with the fluff and competitiveness of phil of mind at that time, and it made phil of biology a truly attractive option for me to pursue more seriously.  There are likely many other short anecdotes about David’s kindness and professional integrity, but this small one with a big effect for me is what comes to mind first. He will be missed all round.

I also admired David for his successful efforts to convince the Philosophy of Science Association to avoid holding its meetings in overtly homophobic states.

Mary Anne Warren was one of four philosophers who, in essence, put applied ethics on the philosophy map in the early 1970s.  Continue reading

Peter Singer & Profound Intellectual Disability

[This post is the fifth 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.]

In a previous post, I questioned that Peter Singer’s position that moral status should be based on the demonstration of higher cognitive powers and not based on merely being human. In this post, I want to address his statement that the decision to keep children with profound mental retardation alive is acceptable as a parental choice but not an ethical obligation because such children have no moral status, since they lack the requisite higher cognitive powers. In making my case against this position, I intend to show that Singer’s arguments are based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of profound mental retardation or profound intellectual disability as it is more commonly called today. I doubt that Professor Singer has much personal experience with people with profound intellectual disabilities since his impression of them as a group seems very abstract and largely inaccurate. Although I would argue against the denial of moral status (and thereby of universal human rights) to people with profound intellectual disabilities, even if Singer’s assumptions about this group of people were true, I feel that it is important to correct the inaccurate assumptions presented about this group. Here is what Dr. Singer has to say about them:


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What are the deep facts about our moral status?

[This post is the third 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.]

What are the deep facts about our moral status? Have your say in a poll at the end of this post!!

Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer have posed the following question, both in their talks for the Cognitive Disability conference, and in their past work: In virtue of what does human life have moral value and significance? They have been especially interested in answers to this question, which are easy to elicit from common sense, that appeal to the properties that human lives embody (e.g., human beings have certain cognitive capacities). They are also both interested in challenging those who would give such answers to think harder about the ways in which we disvalue non-human animal life. More specifically, both Singer and McMahan are skeptical of the coherence of views, including property-based views, that value all forms of human life more highly than all forms of animal life. This is chiefly because not all non-human animal life lacks value-conferring properties, and because not all human life comes with those properties.

There were several especially interesting questions that arose in the question period following McMahan’s talk, one from Naomi Scheman, the other from Adrienne Asch; I’ll comment on just the Scheman one here, and on the Asch question, and the following interchange with McMahan, separately. Here’s the Scheman question (a full transcript of what she says is available beneath the fold):

The clip can be found in podcast #36, the question and answer to Jeff McMahan’s talk (and final podcast on the page), from around 35.45 – 39.00 at the conference website. You can also view it directly at Youtube if you are having trouble playing the video clip above by clicking right here.

Scheman is saying many things here (including things about thought experiments and analogies that I found confusing), but I want to focus on just two of them. Continue reading