Peter Singer, Ableism, and the Argument from Marginal Cases

Later this month, Peter Singer is giving an invited lecture at my philosophy department; ironically, I learnt this on the same day that I read a comment thread on facebook that got more than a hundred comments, about whether Singer’s treatment of disability is ableist. The discussion partly involved his support for giving parents the right to kill ‘severely disabled’ newborn children, and partly his use of the ‘argument from marginal cases‘.

(The argument from marginal cases, in essence, aims to de-stabilise an absolute divide between the moral value of humans and animal, by pointing out that any cognitive capacity lacked by all animals is also lacked by at least some humans.)

This argument is actually somewhat important to me, in that it’s part of what convinced me to become vegan. Or rather, it became part of what stabilised that decision, a key supporting plank of my reflective equilibrium. So it matters to me that the simplest and most popular versions of the argument are, I think, ableist. This post is going to be mainly me explaining why I think that about this argument and its treatment of cognitive disability, and why I’m largely in agreement with much of the criticism of Singer’s views on selective infanticide and his treatment of disability more generally.

One core claim of disability-rights critics of Singer is often some version of ‘our lives are not up for debate’, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable attitude.

“But Luke, shouldn’t everything be open to rational debate?”

Maybe in the privacy of your own head, but if you’re going to debate with other people you’re engaged in a social activity, and that activity has social presuppositions. One key presupposition is mutual respect between participants: if you question someone’s right to exist, you’re not in the kind of interaction with them where you can reasonably expect them to listen respectfully and respond thoughtfully. And many (most?) of our debates are ‘public’, in that in theory anyone could follow, learn from, and to that extent participate in them – which means that expectation of respect for participants has to extend to everyone. A public debate about whether it would be better to kill people in group X is one that implicitly excludes people in group X from the relevant ‘public’.

“But what exactly does this ‘mutual respect’ actually require? (Similarly: what exactly is a ‘right to exist’?)”

I don’t have a very good answer right now, and I don’t think I’m the best-placed person to give one: it’s neither my special area of research, nor something that I’ve ever been denied, in the relevant way. But I can indicate some specific aspects of it in relation to the particular topics at hand.

One involves the quantitative and comparative sort of thinking that debate thrives on – comparing different cases, looking for relevant similarities and differences, judging relative weights or quantities or degrees. When the topic of the debate is people’s moral status, this naturally leads into a frame of mind where questions arise like ‘how much is this sort of person’s life worth?’, or ‘how much more is this life worth than that other one?’ But asking questions like that is putting oneself in the position of weighing other’s lives – they have no application unless we have to decide who lives and who dies. And it would be terrible if we made that kind of decision about each other! Weighing up people’s lives in a numerical scale is already dehumanising.

“But Luke, sometimes decisions about who lives and who dies do have to be made – in rescue missions, warfare, healthcare policy, and so on.”

Yes, but those sorts of cases stand out as unusual and different from the normal fabric of moral life, both inter-personal and societal, where what matters is acting in accordance with an ethos of always saving lives and never destroying them.  Indeed, those cases stand out because so many of them represent tragic failures – warfare, or rescuing people from a burning building or out-of-control tram, is a situation of moral breakdown precisely because it forces us to choose among lives.

“But on some theories of ethics, the ultimate moral principles are quantitative in nature, e.g. the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

But just like we can’t use the atomic theory of matter to build bridges, I don’t think we can use a calculation of net effects on everyone affected to guide most moral decisions. And in practice, society’s willingness to think in those terms for some people and not for others is part of their oppression and a net harm.

“But even if that’s all true in practice, surely we can bracket everyday moral life and just debate the quantitative questions in harmless abstraction?”

Maybe if the questions are abstruse and unfamiliar ones, asked only by academics in seminar rooms. But disabled people don’t face this willingness to judge the value of their lives only in academic seminar rooms: it’s everywhere, on a spectrum from condescending sympathetic looks to deadly violence. And because it’s everywhere, when it does appear in a seminar room it’s often in the form of unstudied assumptions about some lives being ‘obviously’ less worth living, or less worth prolonging – the articulated tip of a society-wide iceberg. So I think it’s appropriate to challenge that sort of ‘abstraction’, to say that in its full social context it’s something bigger and weightier than just one more theoretical move.

I think there’s also an important epistemic point here. There’s a form of cultural oppression in some people’s experiences being simultaneously mostly unknown and unheard in our society, and yet also being something that others feel confident making claims about. Saying things like “[a child with haemophilia] can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby… When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second”, seems to me to implicitly treat as knowable things that are not realistically knowable. How much of my life has been “filled with pain and discomfort”? Would it contain more or less, if I had a differently-configured body? Whatever the difference is, how much of that would be changed by a shift in social customs or assumptions? I honestly don’t have much confidence in my ability to answer these questions sensibly, and there’s some evidence that people without disabilities are prone to significantly under-estimate the (self-reported) quality of life of those with disabilities.

This is related to a special sort of ignorance everyone is prone to, of reifying social constructs as inherent to individuals. For instance, in the above-linked piece part of the ‘suffering’ described for people with spina bifida is ‘incontinence’, and I think part of what non-disabled people might find frightening or ‘undignified’ about the thought of being disabled is needing help or special accommodations to deal with bodily functions. But all human bodies produce weird gross fluids and we nearly all rely on societal help to deal with them (I can’t build my own toilet or sewage system). To an alien being with different biology, it might seem horrifying and humiliating to think of not being to schedule these things weeks in advance. Our society takes certain kinds of ‘grossness’ and judges them normal and natural, and makes sure that wherever we go there is high-tech equipment to help us manage them. The fact that we don’t do that for other sorts of ‘grossness’ is a social fact, not a medical one. And treating the quality of life enjoyed by disabled people as something it’s safe for non-disabled people to assume can only reinforce this reification.

So what about the argument from marginal cases? A way of presenting it that I’ve seen, and which I think is ableist, starts by talking about a category of “severely cognitively disabled humans”, and makes the claim that they are, in all important cognitive respects, just like non-human animals. Since (the argument assumes, with a certain blithe optimism) we recognise moral worth in such humans, we should do so also in animals.

But the very category of ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ here is a perfect example of the kind of epistemic casualness that I think is harmful to people with disabilities. Who are these people? Do they actually exist, or just hypothetically? What is ‘severe’ enough? The listener is encouraged not to worry too much about the details, which amounts to trusting their vague impressions about what they associate with the term ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ as adequate to capture what’s important about such people. Some listeners might think of autistic people, others of people with Down syndrome, others of people in a persistent vegetative state, others of people with dementia. Those are very different cases, and each contains a lot of variation. And others making casual assumptions about what they are cognitively capable of is itself part of the problems they face.

There’s also the comparison with animals, which in fairness it has to be remembered is usually intended primarily to ‘drag up’ the moral status of animals, not ‘drag down’ the moral status of cognitively disabled humans. But that intention doesn’t by itself determine the social significance and effect of such a statement, either on other listeners or on oneself and one’s future reactions to people. It doesn’t guarantee that this particular instance of ‘they’re just like animals’ won’t be unconsciously connected to other, very different instances of ‘they’re just like animals’. I think it’s callous and irresponsible to add, into the melting pot of assumptions and ideas that flows through our culture, another instance of that thought, and I can totally understand why someone who has, for instance, seen their child reacted to as a curiosity rather than a person, would find it enraging.

I think (I hope?) the argument may have a more responsible and sensitive version, which doesn’t involve making casual sweeping assumptions about actual people. The way I employ it for myself, it’s more like a schema for a response to any particular proposed criterion of moral consideration. For instance, if someone says (or if I consider for myself) that humans deserve moral consideration because they can understand and use language, and animals don’t because they can’t, I ask myself how I would feel about myself or someone I know losing their linguistic abilities, and whether I would want that to change my moral status. It has the same effect, but it avoids positioning me as the omniscient arbiter of everyone’s degree of moral importance.

Because what I want, really, is not a world where animals are given any particular numerical degree of relative ‘moral weight’, but a world where people less often claim for themselves the right of life or death over animals, and over humans who are different from them.

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