Tag Archives: Peter Singer

‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’ – An NYT Book Review Mini-Rant

‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’ – The New York Times Book Review

Trigger warning:  The review contains a discussion of “eu”genics.  May lead to depression at the unlikely prospect that the American elite will ever be anything but entitled assholes.  May also cause excessive swearing and the urge to vomit.

The book under review examines the people and law behind the notorious Buck v. Bell decision, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for an 8-1 majority, endorsed the practice of sterilizing people perceived to be of lower intelligence — called, in the law and in his decision, “imbeciles.”

The tone of this review is that not only is forced sterilization wrong but that it is somehow shocking to find support for it amongst the progressive elite of the turn of the 20th Century.

“Imbeciles” examines one of the darkest chapters of progressive reform, and “Illiberal Reformers” looks at the perils of intellectual arrogance in dealing with explosive social issues.

The review concludes in the future warning tense:

Buck v. Bell “has never been overturned.” In a world where the Human Genome Project is currently mapping heredity at breakneck speed, that fact alone should send shivers down the spine.

No, dear readers, the intellectual arrogance that puts people’s life at risk based on their cognitive and physical abilities does not live in a dystopian future of genomic discrimination.  It has tenure and a chair with a name at Princeton — endorsing the murder of infants with disabilities — and is currently at work in many state legislatures around the country, trying to pave an easy path to physician-assisted suicide for people with disabilities.

Image: Cartoon showing woman in a wheelchair looking at two entrances to a building: on the left, a door labeled "Suicide Prevention Program" that is up a set of steps; on the right a door labeled "assisted suicide" which is up a ramp with the international symbol of accessibility.

Cartoon credit:  Amy Hasbrouk, Toujours Vivant/Not Dead Yet.

Why is it so easy to see now that Buck v. Bell was wrong and evil, but not to come to the same conclusion about Peter Singer and the urge to make suicide easier for people with disabilities?

 

 

Peter Singer and the TERFs: We Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

And we want to make pejorative, exclusionary and — in Singer’s case — homicidal* decisions based on our superior knowledge of your inner state.

I had just written my random thoughts on the importance of trans* [**], Autistic and other former others rejecting the default setting, and my view that this made it easier for all of us “to be who we are and find or create our own cubbyhole, or none, or multiple,” when the New Yorker published “What is a Woman?” by Michelle Goldberg, an article describing the anti-trans* faction of “radical feminism” called, variously, Radfems or — more pejoratively but accurately — “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (“TERFs”).

But what truly reminded me of Peter Singer was the TERFs’ certainty that they know the inner life of trans women and trans men. One Sheila Jeffreys has written a book, “Gender Hurts: A Feminist Analysis of the Politics of Transgenderism,” in which she proclaims her knowledge of and judgment on the inner life of trans men and trans women by seeing them entirely through the political prism of male-dominated society. A man, per Jeffreys, can never appropriate the experience of being a woman. Accordingly, Jeffreys “insists on using male pronouns to refer to trans women and female ones to refer to trans men.” To her, trans men are simply trying to “raise their status in a sexist system” while trans women, well, “when trans women ask to be accepted as women they’re seeking to have an erotic fixation indulged,” or — according to the psychology professor on whose work she relies — trans women have “‘autogynephilia,’ meaning sexual arousal at the thought of oneself as female.”

So Jeffreys and other TERFs — cis women all — have decided that they know the inner life of trans people better than trans people themselves do, and not only pontificate about this in writing, but ultimately reject trans women as women, refuse to use their preferred pronouns, and in some cases exclude them from women-only spaces.

This is rank Singerism. Peter Singer is a Princeton professor who believes that, well, I’ll let Harriet McBryde Johnson describe it:

Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.

In other words, privileged white male Princeton professor asserts that he knows with such certainty the inner life of people with disabilities that he advocates killing them as infants. To me, Singerism means making policy — usually negative — based on the facially impossible premise that you can know and pass judgment on someone else’s inner life. Singer can never know how happy any particular person is or will be, much less disabled infants he’s never met. Jeffreys and the TERFs have no idea how trans women experience their lives and their identities.

Where the fuck do they get off deciding to kill, insult, and exclude people based on these arrogant and patently impossible judgments?

Jeffreys claims that cases of “regret” — people who have physically transitioned and later regretted the move — “undermine[ ] the idea that there exists a particular kind of person who is genuinely and essentially transgender and can be identified accurately by psychiatrists.” Well, it might undermine that idea for the person experiencing regret but how it undermines the self-knowledge — often hard-won — of everyone who has ever transitioned is hard to see. More Singerism.

The New Yorker article describes one TERF group, Deep Green Resistance, as holding the view that “a person born with male privilege can no more shed it through surgery than a white person can claim an African-American identity simply by darkening his or her skin.” I suppose that may mark the far outer boundaries of my “Free to Be You and Me” approach to identity, that is, that we should credit people with knowing themselves and defer to the identity each asserts. Could a white person declare himself black in the same way a person born with female parts can declare himself to be male? Can I decide to be disabled without actually having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities? When does the assertion of identity become appropriation? I think we avoid Singerism by saying (1) we don’t know; and (2) we have no business killing, insulting, or excluding people based even on identities that push the boundaries of credibility.

It is reassuring that TERFs find themselves marginalized in feminist and academic circles, though frustrating that Singer is not similarly ostracized. It is apparently more acceptable to mainstream academia to advocate killing disabled infants than it is to advocate excluding trans women from all-female music festivals.***

I conclude with this quote from the New Yorker article:

Older feminists . . . can find themselves experiencing ideological whiplash. Sara St. Martin Lynne, a forty-year-old . . .

Hold on! “Older” and “forty-year-old” do not go together!  But assuming that “older feminist” would accurately describe this 54-year-old, I experience no whiplash, but only a deepening appreciation for each way we let people be themselves, and each mind-opening step we take away from the default setting.

Update: Here is an excellent response to the New Yorker article, in Bitch magazine.****  TERF War: The New Yorker’s One-Sided Article Undermines Transgender Identity by Leela Ginelle.  Lots of good points about the the TERF problem, though I disagree that the original article undermined transgender identity.  I thought it was fair, and that the TERFs were portrayed as the narrow-minded troglodytes that they are.

Update 2:  Julia Serano, who is mentioned in Goldberg’s article, has an informative rebuttal in The Advocate.  Here is my comment:

This is an excellent rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, but reading this & the rebuttal in Bitch made me wonder whether we read the same original article. First, though, I agree that Julia Serano has every right to feel personally pissed. But while Goldberg clearly skates over the surface of a complex issue, and probably did sensationalize the feminist catfight angle, I thought the TERFs came off in her article as deeply misguided, insular, and hateful. Specifically the reference to “autogynophilia” seemed to me like a self-evidently hysterical use of scientific-sounding Greek word roots to disguise abject quackery. All that said, Serano’s response adds a great deal of useful detail; would be great if The New Yorker published it.

*******

* I was going to say “life-threatening” but Singer doesn’t just want to threaten the lives of disabled infants, he wants to permit people to kill them. Let’s call it what it is.

** “Trans*” is a way of indicating a wide variety of trans ways of being. As Slate explains, “the asterisk stems from common computing usage wherein it represents a wildcard—any number of other characters attached to the original prefix.”

Image: Graphic that reads, "Trans*. I recently adopted the term 'trans*' (with the asterisk) in my writing. I think you should, too. If it's new to you, let me help clarify. Trans* is one word for a variety of identities that are incredibly diverse, but share one simple, common denominator: a trans* person is not your traditional cisgender wo/man. Beyond that there is a lot of variation. What does the * stand for? *Transgender, *Transsexual, *Transvestite, *Genderqueer, *Genderfluid, *Non-binary, *Genderf**k, *Genderless, *Agender, *Non-Gendered, *Third gender, *Two-spirit, *Bigender *Transman *Transwoman" Poster created by online LGBTQ educator Sam Killerman.This can get confusing here, in light of the fact that the ThoughtSnax Style Manual calls for asterisks for footnotes.  We’ll muddle through.

*** The article noted that violence and threats have been directed toward TERFs, which is of course deeply offensive and wrong . . . except the graffiti “Real Women have Dicks,” which is just the sort of smartass, mind-opening civil disobedience I love.

**** Of course I read Bitch Magazine — it’s my trade publication!

 

Absurdity Slider

No, it’s not a small, tasty, metaphysical snack.  It’s a review of a review — big time-saver! — and a digression into the meaning of life.  The slider is explained below.  (Look!  A teaser!)

I minored in philosophy.  At Swarthmore.  You’d think this would have trained me to overthink almost anything.  And honestly, I can overthink important things like the font in my email or whether to get the 90 Shilling or the 1554.  But I recently* read a review in the New Yorker of a book that I think may represent the gold standard in overthinking: David Benatar’s “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.”  The thesis: since it’s worse to suffer pain than to forego pleasure and since — in the words of the reviewer, “[e]ven the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain” — it is better never to have been born.

Yes, you read that correctly.  As the review notes:

The volume is dedicated to his parents, “even though they brought me into existence,” and to his brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.”  (It’s fun to imagine what family reunions with the Benatars are like.)

But I think I’ve found the Rosetta Stone of disability discrimination.  As the reviewer explains it:

Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s .  The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything — schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B ‘s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

They have a WHAT?

The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.

And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone — that is, had the life never been created — no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

Is this guy an android?  Everyone suffers at some point.  In fact, how does life have any meaning without suffering?  Hell, without pain, how do you learn basic things like not to touch a hot stove and not to listen to the Beach Boys?  I suppose if you never existed, you wouldn’t have to go through any bothersome learning processes.  But then, what’s the point?  I guess that is his point.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad — a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick — is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.

He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not The Onion and as near as I can tell, this dude expects his theory to be taken seriously.  On one level, it merits only derision.  Or this year’s Hitchhiker’s Guide Philosophy Award, an award I just started for philosophical arguments that measure up to my favorite ever, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, explaining the existence of the Babel Fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this:

`I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

`But,’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

`Oh dear,’ says God, `I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

`Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

But on another level, the concept that it is better to avoid all pain than to experience any pleasure explains disabiliphobia.  It explains why the non-disabled world regularly projects on to people with disabilities a far lower quality of life than the latter actually experience.  This, in turn, leads non-disabled windbags like Peter Singer to opine that it is better for infants with disabilities not to be born or to be killed in infancy.  Benatar’s theory is simply the apotheosis of Singer’s: If it’s better not to be born than to be born with quadriplegia, where do we draw the line?  Better not to be born than to be born and later in life get the sniffles.  Perhaps it’s helpful to imagine this scale as a slider of the type I’m just now learning to use in Lightroom.  We’ll call it the Absurdity Slider:

The Absurdity Slider


Benatar took the Absurdity Slider and dragged it all the way to the right — up to 11 — where not only is it best to euthanize disabled infants, but it’s best that none of us ever have been born.

Given the highly accurate “that’s bullshit!” response most people will have to Benatar’s theory, I think he’s done us a service in placing Singer’s arguments along this all-important scale.  If only I had control of the actual slider.  Any coders out there want to help me develop a working Absurdity Slider, one that could tone down the absurdity in an argument the way you adjust the contrast in a digital photo?

*************

* Yes it was in the April 9 New Yorker, but it is true that I only recently read it, as I have just now reached that archeological layer in the New Yorker pile next to my comfy chair.

Things That are Inexplicably OK

I’m not talking about things that are bad but widely acknowledged to be bad like, murder or the Dallas Cowboys.  And I’m not talking about things that I’m confident are bad but as to which I grudgingly acknowledge that marginally reasonable minds could differ, like mayonnaise or light beer.  I’m talking about things that allegedly smart people in allegedly polite company seem to have no problem with but that are completely morally indefensible.

Peter Singer.  This guy is a philosophy professor at Princeton who advocates killing infants with disabilities.  Seriously.  I’m not sure this guy is on anyone’s radar outside the black-turtleneck-and-tweed world and the disability rights world, but now you know:  Princeton has on its faculty a professor who favors infanticide for disabled kids, largely based on his utilitarian approach which is based, in turn, on the sound philosophical principle that upper class white guys with tenure can judge the quality of life experienced by the rest of the world and make life and death decisions based on that judgment. I’m all for academic freedom and the First Amendment, and I don’t advocate that this guy be fired or punished for these absurd views.  I’m just wondering why on earth he’s taken seriously.  It’s like Princeton deciding to hire a Holocaust denier or “intelligent design” advocate — or really someone who offered a principled, philosophical defense of slavery.  I would defend any of those hires in the name of academic freedom, but I really think that many more people would join me in puzzlement as to why the hell such a person has a chair at Princeton.

The Tomahawk Chop. Atlanta Braves fans spend a large part of each game making gestures designed to mimic a tomahawk and humming a tune designed to mimic what antediluvian Hollywood thought was Native American music.  This is just gross racial mockery.*  I have to confess (sorry, Bruce) that I feel the same way about “Redskins.”  I don’t have a problem in general with Native American team names — Braves, Indians, Seminoles — because there are plenty of other groups-of-people names:  Padres, Vikings, Patriots, Mariners, Royals, Twins, Pirates, Rangers, Canucks, Canadiens, Packers, Texans, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Raiders, Senators, Kings, Celtics, Cavaliers, Trail Blazers, Warriors.  And, um, Wizards?  But “Redskins” is an epithet, not a generic group-of-people name.  Sorry.**

Flying the Confederate flag. What part of treason is unclear to these folks?  Seriously.  I love the fact that throughout the south “United We Stand” bumper stickers are pasted side-by-side with the stars & bars.  Again, I have no problem, as a First Amendment matter, with flying whatever flag you want.  Just don’t asked to be taken seriously when you display the Confederate flag and question other people’s patriotism.

“Free Mumia.” Give the man a fair trial, but damn, it sure looks like he shot a cop.  Let’s not free him til we’ve tried him fairly and he’s been acquitted.

This is a very very partial list.  Feel free to share your contributions in the comments!  (Really!  I LOVE comments!)

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* I always loved that Jane Fonda, during her Ted Turner period, could regularly be found in the Braves’ audience chopping away.  For you conservatives who hate her for being a liberal, the joke’s on you:  she’s just another shallow celebrity looking for attention — and you give it to her!

** I predict that this will engender more brotherly ire than all my liberal political rantings put together.

I’m pro-life

I’m writing about this here not only because I’m too chickenshit to announce my views in person to most people I know — and let’s be honest, it doesn’t come up in conversation very often — but in the hope that I can learn from the process of being told how wrong I am.  Bring it on!

I’d like to explain how I got here, but first a warning:  When your brain starts out with very few nuance skills, and then receives a legal education, this is the sort of thought process that results.  But it’s the only brain I have, and this is where it has led me on the question of abortion.  I’d also like to be clear that I respect people with views on both sides of this difficult question, and I’m far from sure I’m right.

I’m pro-life as both a legal and personal matter.  The core of my legal reasoning is this: we don’t really know when life begins and as a result we should err on the side of preserving life. Both sides of the abortion debate must agree on one thing or retreat to the trenches of irrationality:  we do not, as a matter of science, know when life begins. Each side has a belief about when it begins but neither side can prove its belief scientifically. From a logical perspective, then, the pro-choice side must concede that it is possible that life begins at conception, just as the pro-life side must concede that, faith aside, it is possible that it does not. It is also undeniably true that, left alone, most pregnancies will eventually result in a life, which potential is undeniably curtailed if aborted.

Given this admitted state of scientific uncertainty, the law can do one of two things: it can let women choose whether or not to have an abortion, with the logical possibility that we as a society are permitting the killing of a human being. Or it can err on the side of life. We can prohibit abortion on the grounds that society should, as best it can, eliminate even the possibility of destroying life, with the logical possibility that we are penalizing the destruction of what is — at least at first — not life.

That’s all well and good as a logical matter, I hear you protest, but what about the reality and risk of carrying an unwanted child to term.  I get that my views essentially hijack nine months of the unwilling mother’s life.  And full disclosure, I don’t have kids, so it’s nine months I’ve never experienced.  I would argue that it is reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child to term — to undergo those nine months of discomfort and risk — for even the possibility of saving a life.

Perhaps where I’ll really get pounded (there so so many opportunities here!) is in saying that I don’t see the nine months of pregnancy as a unique imposition.  There are other contexts in which we ask for sacrifice in the name of the unborn, though mostly unborn future generations rather than specific unborn gestating kids.  And as a country, we ask a great deal of a great many people when other lives are at stake.  We promote and in some cases require measures that preserve the environment — measures not without costs — so that future generations will be safe and healthy.  We send soldiers into war — not always voluntarily — and ask them to endure extremely physically trying conditions and risk death both for other lives and for important national principles. We ask police officers and firefighters to put their lives on the line for the lives and sometimes property of others. We ourselves — and I think especially we liberals believe this of ourselves — would risk our own lives to save the life of another. Yes, it’s a horrible thing to have to carry a child to term when you don’t want to but at bottom, it’s nine months of discomfort and risk with the potential of saving a life.

But what about back alley abortions and the risk they pose to women’s life and health? Two answers. If an act is wrong, it should not be permitted simply because, if prohibited, the perpetrator will cause harm to himself.  We don’t permit theft because without it, some will starve. And we should do everything in our power to make it possible, acceptable, affordable and preferable to bear a child and to raise him or her* — with the work schedules, benefits, leave, and societal support that that requires — or to put him or her* up for adoption.

Unlike conservatives — in the immortal words of Barney Frank — I’m not just pro-life from conception to birth.

I honestly think being pro-life is far more harmonious with a generally liberal world view than being pro-choice.  We’re supposed to support those at the margins of life, to paraphrase Hubert Humphrey. We stick up for the little guy, for the worker against big business, for the political prisoner against totalitarianism, for minorities enslaved or oppressed by majority laws and prejudices.

These views have been strengthened by working in the disability rights community, where I have seen the variety of complicated hands life can deal and the many creative ways of playing those cards. Taking nine months out to ensure no one gets killed seems pretty small beer in comparison. I have also seen the pernicious effects of a societal decision that some people aren’t really people or that we can decide for others whether their lives are worth living.  When we start down that path — in which abortion is one paving stone, I believe — we end up with the evil that is Peter Singer.

So what should we do about this? Criminalize abortion? Put women in jail? Doctors?

Oops, sorry, I see my time is up. Thanks for coming!

What? I have to stick around and address the tough questions? Well here’s the answer: I don’t have a clue.   In the current political environment, however, I would ask both sides to stop fighting about rights and start creating a world in which fewer abortions actually happen.  While it’s fun — and accurate — to direct most of my cynicism on this point toward conservatives who fight against abortion while resisting any public efforts to make it easier to bear and raise children, opposing sex education and birth control and cheerleading for torture and the death penalty, I think the issue has a distorting effect on liberals as well.  We direct an enormous amount of money and energy toward court cases designed to preserve the right to terminate a pregnancy, which money and energy could be better directed toward policies that support mothers, children, women, workers, immigrants, and other underdogs.  Imagine health care reform that unabashedly refused to fund abortion and enthusiastically supported comprehensive prenatal care, adoption, daycare, and maternity and paternity leave?  I’m sure the Republicans would have found something else to demagogue, but it might have helped forge a coalition of righties and lefties who are actually pro-life in the full sense of the word.  (No, you can’t have any of what I’m smoking; I need all of it myself.)

I’m going to end this as I end all of my blog posts: awkwardly.  I may know more or less how to write, but conclusions are still hard, largely because most of what I write concludes, “for the reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court deny Defendants’ motion.”  So I’ll just sign off and turn it over to anyone who is still reading at this point to explain how wrong I am.

Just as I was about to publish this, the incredible advocate Stella Adams posted this on Facebook:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, protect the rights of those who are helpless. Speak out and pronounce a sentence of justice, defend the cause of the wretched and the poor.”  (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Stella – If you’re pro-choice, my apologies for hijacking your post, but this speaks directly to why I think liberals should be pro-life.

*Amy’s 2020 edit: or them.