Can thought experiments harm people?

[This post is the tenth 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. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays. Transcript of clip beneath the fold.]

A common tool of the philosophical trade is the thought experiment, an imagined scenario that evokes certain kinds of reactions and responses. Imagine that none of the objects that you take yourself to see, hear, or feel in your daily life–water flowing from a tap, a car driving by, other people chatting at a nearby table–actually exist, and that all the experiences you have of them are generated by–take your pick–an evil demon, scientists who have “envatted” your brain, or The Matrix. Is that coherent? If not, why not? If it is a coherent thing to imagine, what does it tell us about our knowledge? our minds? ourselves?


Thought experiments play a central role not only in philosophical thinking in general but in thinking about morality and ethics in particular. Some philosophers have been critical of this kind of reliance, sometimes on the ground that such thought experiments are contrived, artificial, and unrealistic–they don’t have enough connection to the REAL WORLD to tell us much about anything. And surely if ethics and moral philosophy are to be of any use it all they should, at the end of the day, guide our actions. Others think that this simply misses the point of thought experiments, which is to help tease out common sense views of morality that tell us something about the structure and order to moral thinking, the principles that underly, or perhaps even should underlie, moral thinking and so, eventually, moral action.


There’s a different kind of worry that one might have about thought experiments, one that Sophia Wong articulates in a question that she posed to Peter Singer at the Cognitive Disability conference. In some ways, it’s just the opposite to the concern about thought experiments being too far removed from everyday life to usefully inform us about what to do, and it raises the sorts of questions about “the ethics of exclusion” that I’ve blogged on before–see the link beneath the fold for this:


There are a couple of things I found of interest here. Continue reading

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Animal Rights: Gorilla Sued for Sexual Harassment

[This post is the sixth 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 two previous post I argued against Peter Singer’s position that humans with profound intellectual disabilities should be considered nonpersons without moral status or fundamental rights. In this post, however, I want to support his concern for about the treatment of nonhuman animals and endorse his view that some fundamental rights should be recognized for nonhuman animals. In supporting his view that nonhuman animals deserve greater respect and better treatment, however, I do want to suggest that the arguments that he presents against respecting the moral status of humans hurts rather than helps progress in improving the status and treatment of nonhuman animals. Here are five reasons why. Continue reading

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

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

Peter Singer on Parental Choice, Disability, and Ashley X

This post kicks off a series of posts at What Sorts that we hope will appear every Tuesday and Friday over the next few months called Thinking in Action. In the first instance, this series will offer commentaries on talks and discussions at the recent conference Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy. The aims of these Thinking in Action posts will be to generate and advance discussion of specific issues that arise in taking up the themes of the conference. The posts will typically feature a relatively short clip from a talk or discussion at the conference, followed by a commentary; transcripts of all excerpted video clips will appear at the end of each post. In light of our experience with this first (extended) round of posts, we’ll see whether we continue the series with clusters of posts with other thematic focuses. We will both tag and categorize each post with the series label “Thinking in Action” so that you can review them together, if you like, and we encourage the use of posts in the series in classrooms, in local discussion groups, and in organizations at the interface of government, university, and community. We will aim to make each of these self-contained, with the conference podcasts themselves serving as a larger reservoir of perspectives on cognitive disability on which you can draw. We hope that you will join in the discussions, both on the blog and beyond it.

To help us get some idea of what readers know about the conference podcasts we’ll be discussing, here’s a quick poll that we encourage you to take before proceeding.

As one might expect, Peter Singer’s talk at the conference Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy, presents ideas that Singer is well-known for. Amongst these are views that draw parallels between animals, on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities, on the other, especially those with “profound mental retardation”, a medical category that includes, amongst other features, having an IQ of 25 or below. I want to kick off this series of blog posts not with a discussion of that general comparison—though Dick Sobsey might well take that up in the next few posts—but by concentrating on something in Singer’s talk focused on the issue of parental rights and disability. Here is Singer, toward the end of his talk, presenting the perspectives of parents. Singer points out that, as a group, parents of children with disabilities divide over their views of their own children. Although it is a little unclear, even from the fuller context, precisely what “this issue” is that parents divide over, it concerns pain, death, and quality of life:

[This clip is from Singer’s talk at the Cognitive Disability conference, podcast #15: 33.30 – 38.02] If you are having trouble playing the video above, the full transcript is provided at the end of the post, and you can also try Youtube directly by clicking right here.

I want to raise three points about what Singer says here. Continue reading

Knowing Thine Enemy?: a book to look out for

cover image for Enhancing Human Capacities by Julian Savulescu

cover image for Enhancing Human Capacities by Julian Savulescu et. al

Some of you — and especially philosophers on the ‘what sorts’ team — will know of a controversial Australian ex-pat ethicist who likes to provoke debate about what sorts of people there should be … No,this time it’s not Peter Singer (although Singer was his PhD supervisor), but rather Julian Savulescu of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Savulescu’s chief interest is the use of biotechnology for what he presumptively calls ‘human enhancement.’

When he worked for the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Savulescu wrote a piece called “In Defense of Selection for Nondisease Genes”.* As this community knows well, others have argued that it is defensible to engage in postconception selection against diseased genes, where the term diseased genes refers to:

a gene that causes a genetic disorder (e.g. cystic fibrosis) or predisposes to the development of a disease (e.g. the genetic contribution to cancer or dementia)

This argument in itself is highly contestable, given that it is reasonable to feel that a ‘diseased’ life of one with, say, cystic fibrosis — let alone one that down the line ends with cancer or dementia — is worth living… and more pertinently, that there are grave social consequences when that decision is made on others’ behalf as a matter of course. Savulescu, however, offers a far more radical thesis than this. Continue reading