Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy

Readers of the blog who followed our Thinking in Action series of blog posts on the above-named conference, held in New York in September 2008, as well as others, might be interested in having a look at the finished papers from that conference. They have now been published in a special issue of the journal Metaphilosophy (which strikes me, at least, as a strange venue). The table of contents is below and from here you can link to the abstracts for each of the papers; for the full versions, you need an individual or institutional subscription, it seems. To see some videoclips from the conference, together with critical commentary, check out the Thinking in Action posts themselves; nearly all of these directly discuss the talks at the conference corresponding to some of the papers listed below. The videos are both closed captioned and have transcripts with them to enhance accessibility.

thanks to shortintro for the blog comment that drew this to our attention.



Published Online: Sep 18 2009 11:37AM
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9973.2009.01609.x

Abstract | References | Full Text: HTML, PDF (Size: 161K)
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New stuff on What Sorts website

Thanks to the work of John Simpson, the What Sorts Network website now has a new look, and lots of new content.  Of special note are the links to our past events, linking to captioned and often transcripted video footage from events we have sponsored over the past three years, the description of the Community-Research Alliance (CURA) project, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, whose funding is pending, and a friendlier introduction to the What Sorts blog, including direct links to about 20 popular and favoured named posts from the past 18 months.  Continue reading

All Wrapped Up: Complete Thinking in Action Series

Our Thinking in Action series combined podcasts from a the talks held at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September 2008 with reflective comments from notable academics, philosophers, and people with personal investment or experience with the topics at hand. The series has now come to an end, but the blog posts remain and discussions are still taking place. If you are just learning about this series for the first time don’t worry about searching through all the posts on our blog to try and find the relevant ones, they are all collected here, in reverse chronological order. Or you can get them all strung together simply by using “Thinking in Action” in the pull down menu under “Categories” in the left-hand scroll bar. Thanks to our bloggers Julie Maybee, Ron Amundson, Angie, Marc Workman, Miss Cato, Dick Sobsey, and Spirit of our Time! Continue reading

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

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

The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals

[This post is the fourth 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.]

Here is a question from Adrienne Asch, together with a response from Jeff McMahan, following Jeff’s talk at the Cognitive Disability conference; Adrienne’s question followed directly on the heels of Naomi Scheman’s question, the subject of the previous post in this series.

[A full, unofficial transcript for this video clip, as well as a poll for you to participate in, are available beneath the fold. 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, which for some will be more accessible.]

So does simply asking questions like “In virtue of what does human life have moral value and significance?” somehow express an ethics of exclusion? Asch seems to imply so, in part because it is asking us to draw a line between those that have some property, and those who lack it. Above the line are those with full moral status, and below it are The Rest, others who are thus excluded from full moral consideration, at least insofar as we consider them in and of themselves. If that is right, then even those who give very different kinds of answer to the question–such as those, like Naomi Scheman, who appeal to the relationships that people form a part of in their answers–still express this ethics of exclusion, at least at some level, even if they deliver an answer to the question that is more inclusive.

Asking the question as Asch has asked it—“Jeff, what is the purpose of this effort? If it is not the ethics of exclusion, I don’t know what it is.”—invites the personal response that McMahan gives to it. That response comes only after audience members are reminded that pro-choice views about abortion, popular with the politically liberal, express a kind of ethics of exclusion. I suspect that many of the disability theorists and activists in the room, perhaps influenced by Asch’s own work, don’t need reminding about this, at least when it comes to selective abortion on the basis of the results of genetic screening for “defects”. (See, for example, Adrienne Asch, 2003, “Disability Equality and Prenatal Testing: Contradictory of Compatible?”, Florida State University Law Review 315: 318-346–get this and thematically-related articles right here). McMahan got into this, he tells us, through thinking about the morality of abortion, and what it was about fetuses that made some people think that they should not be killed, while those same people were perfectly happy allowing all sorts of animals to be killed, and in some cases, eating them. McMahan’s answer is meant to provide an alternative to the answer that Asch herself seems to proffer. Where Asch sees an ethics of exclusion, McMahan sees the pursuit of abstract philosophical inquiry–albeit inquiry with real-world oomph–wherever it leads.

While one might see Asch and McMahan’s answer as alternatives, one need not; there is more than a grain of truth in each answer. 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