Peter Singer Event Disrupted By Protestors
A University of Victoria event last week featuring philosopher Peter Singer (Princeton), organized by the university’s Effective Altruism club, was disrupted by protestors objecting to Singer’s views about disability.
The Martlet, a University of Victoria Newspaper, reported about the event a few days ago but is down now (Google suggests the site was hacked, but it may just be down owing to unexpected site traffic).
The event included a screening of this TED Talk on effective altruism by Professor Singer, followed by a Skype session with him during which he was supposed to answer questions from the audience at the University of Victoria.
According to The Martlet, the protesters claimed that “giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people, and that his views supported eugenics.” The paper provides the following account of what happened at the event:
Prior to the event, a candlelight vigil was set up in the main SUB hallway in honour of the the Disability Community Day of Mourning, which was coincidentally on the same day. A chalkboard with the names of disabled victims of filicide — murder by one’s caregiver or family member —stood on display for passersby to see.
As people slowly entered the auditorium, a small group of students stood on stage with a microphone and read out a list of names of disabled people killed throughout 2016 and 2017.
“People who were their caregivers, who were meant to provide stability and care and love, decided these people weren’t worthy of life,” said Tareem Sangha, one of the students on stage.
Effective Altruism attempted to begin the TED Talk at 3:30 p.m., but were temporarily deterred by the resounding vocal response from the protesters. After a few minutes, they proceeded anyway, with the video’s captions on and sound amplified to compensate.
What began as two conflicting defenses of free speech soon hindered discussion of any kind, as the Effective Altruists and protesters battled with the volume to deafening proportions. Protesters used a megaphone to read prepared text to the audience, and numerous audience members shouted back at them to leave.
One protester even temporarily unplugged the adapter connecting Effective Altruism’s computer to the projector before fleeing out the side door of Cinecenta. The club was able to quickly start the video back up with a replacement adapter.
All the while, Singer’s TED Talk and Q&A continued, and the room grew cacophonous. Shouts of support for Singer’s free speech were met with chants of “eugenics is hate” and “disabled lives matter,” and neither side showed any signs of backing down.
“It’s a trainwreck,” said one student in the audience. “I wanna leave, but if I leave now, [the protesters] get their way.”
At one point, campus security entered the auditorium and spoke with protesters about taking away their megaphone, though they left shortly after without doing so. Saanich police had also been called, but were quickly called off.
Keith Cascon, manager of campus security, said there was “a brief second” where it looked like protests would escalate, but when they didn’t, police intervention was deemed unnecessary.
Cascon said that Effective Altruism had reached out ahead of time to let CSEC know there would be a protest during the event. “We told them that if there are any issues . . . to give us a call,” Cascon said. He also explained that campus security respects everyone’s rights to free speech, including protesters…
Though the focus of the event effective altruism, Singer was at one point asked about his views on euthanasia. However, “his answer was inaudible over the din of the auditorium.”
There are some videos of the event on The Martlet’s Facebook page. Here’s one. If it is representative, then it seems the typical audience member will not have been able to hear much of what Singer said.
As with the case of Charles Murray at Middlebury (still being discussed here), the protestors against Singer seem motivated by both a mix of well-informed perceptive criticism and misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
(One important point that has been brought to my attention is that Singer does not seem to have an accurate understanding of some of the relevant empirical facts regarding disabilities.)
Discussion of the case is welcome, especially on questions regarding the inviting and protesting of controversial speakers on college campuses.
I suspect that some of the conversation may involve a discussion of the substantive dispute over disabilities between Singer and the protestors. Here are two things to keep in mind:
1. The ethics of disability is an extraordinarily interesting and complicated area which has been receiving increasingly sophisticated attention from philosophers over the past several years. If you think it is obvious that it is bad to be disabled but haven’t read, say, this, you may want to, prior to commenting on the subject. Likewise, if you think it’s quite clear that the idea that it would be good to eliminate disabilities is disrespectful to people with disabilities, but you haven’t read, say, this, you may want to, prior to commenting on the subject. Of course those are only two articles; there is much more out there.
2. When you are discussing people with disabilities you are discussing many of your colleagues, their children or other family members, their friends, and so on. If you wouldn’t say something a certain way to their faces, you probably shouldn’t say it that way here.
Whatever your opinion of Singer, his views on euthanasia, the ethics of disability, or the uses of altruism, what happened in this theatre did nothing to genuinely forward the debate on any of these ideas. So much for Victoria’s “big ideas festival”. Apparently, some ideas are too big, even for them. I don’t happen to share agreement with Singer on much of anything, but this was unconscionable. It’s really sad and disgusting what is happening on North American campuses these days.
Irony of ironies, Singer happens to be on a ridiculous right-wing “watch list” (http://www.professorwatchlist.org/), apparently for being too radical. This is the world we live in now, unfortunately. You either tow the radical leftist agenda, or you tow the radical right-wing agenda, but heaven help you, if you actually want to have a considered conversation about anything. 🙁Report
I want to applaud you for supporting Singer’s right to speak in spite of disagreeing with him. This sort of behavior should be praised more regularly.Report
And, no more than eight days later, we have Jordan Peterson being shouted down at McMaster in Canada. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1P_1mLlJik
So much for “academic freedom”.Report
Colleges need to lose funding if they enable protesters to do this sort of thing. The framework in the US is already there under title IX; colleges can already lose funding for other title IX violations and for publishing fraudulent research, and open exchange of ideas is one of the core functions of universities that needs to be upheld. Students who do this should be expelled unequivocally.Report
That colleges can lose funding for one thing under an existing framework doesn’t mean a framework exists for them to lose funding for something else. But I think going this route would itself be a serious threat to free speech. What would colleges do to prevent protesters from protesting loudly enough that someone else has trouble speaking over them except restrict the speech of protesters? Do you have something else in mind?Report
Free speech isn’t endangered by content-neutral restrictions on speaking. A university can bar people from speaking so loudly that they make it impossible to hear a previously-arranged event without it being a restriction on free speech, just as they can bar people from loud singing outside the dorm at 3am. (What they can’t do is bar the people speaking loudly because what they are saying is critical of the speaker – nor bar the loud singers because of their choice of lyric.)Report
Hmm, I don’t think this is exactly right, and weirdly, I’m really surprised that you do. Content-neutral restrictions like prohibiting loudly singing outside a dorm at 3 am aren’t appropriate merely because they’re content neutral. You can justify those kinds of restrictions with reference to captive audience doctrine. But other kinds of content neutral restrictions, like say, no one can engage in conversations on campus with 5 or more participants, or, no one except professors can engage in speech on the quad, or in classroom buildings, or no one can wear clothing that has any text or visible message on campus — these all seem like problematic restrictions, and every one of them is content neutral. I mean, I take it this why why free speech groups, like FIRE, are opposed to having free speech zones on campus. Those are content neutral restrictions but they definitely look like they threaten to undermine speech rights. Do you not think so?Report
Yes, that’s persuasive. I shouldn’t have said that content neutrality was a necessary and sufficient condition for speech restriction, only that it was a necessary condition. You’re clearly right that plenty of content-neutral restrictions would be against freedom of speech.
I’m still tempted to say that content neutrality is the criterion that distinguishes between a speech restriction to be assessed on holistic grounds, vs. one to be rejected outright as anti-free-speech. But perhaps on reflection the real issue is whether the prohibition is against speech as speech vs speech as some other activity. (In shouting down, the point is to use noise to make the speech impossible to hear, and so the content is irrelevant – so it passes a content-neutrality condition, but perhaps as a symptom rather than the cause of why barring it isn’t itself a free-speech impediment.)
Thanks for the point.Report
I’m still not sure. It seems like institutions will have to have some content-based restrictions if they are to respect FERPA rights or HIPAA rights. Iit seems like some speech might cross the line from annoying or upsetting to harassment depending on content, e.g., it would be annoying if the person who sits behind you in class repeatedly utters “I love ice cream” but it could be harassment if they repeatedly utter racial epithets that you reasonably infer are meant to regard you. Prohibiting the use of racial epithets full stop seems like an infringement on free speech, but having a condition in an anti-harassment code that makes some reference to content doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily infringement to me.
But really my concern here was just that I think it would be really difficult for schools to craft policies that would prevent this from happening without infringing on speech rights in a different way, and that holding them liable would encourage over-correction.
I might be wrong.Report
I agree – open exchange is then heart of a college. I took this view even when an undergrad in the 60’s and student protesters shut down discussions of Viet Nam by those supporting the war. To shut down a speaker of whatever stripe is to me admitting your view cannot stand in a theater of debate, so stop the discussion. A key tactic by right-wing and fundamentalist groups.Report
“I suspect that some of the conversation may involve a discussion of the substantive dispute over disabilities between Singer and the protestors.”
Your suspicion is probably well-founded, but the conversation shouldn’t involve any such thing. This is (again) a straightforward violation of free speech on a university campus. It’s outrageous, quite independent of the content of Singer’s speech.Report
By making a nuisance of themselves within the speaking venue, the protesters have upstaged themselves. What was supposed to be a public comment about Singer’s ideas being unconscionable (which they are) becomes a public display of intolerance. The story here becomes free speech, not disability rights.
It is an unfortunate way of inadvertently betraying one’s own cause.Report
Which of Peter Singer’s ideas are unconscionable, and why? On the contrary, I think that disagreement with them is closer to unconscionable.Report
The idea that people with mental disabilities are morally equivalent to non-human primates, and the idea that 6-month-olds are not persons.Report
Thanks for the response! Both of those seem to be at least partially empirical claims. Do you think Singer is wrong about the empirical side of things, or the moral side, or both? I am unclear on which aspect of them you find objectionable.
With respect to the moral angle, someone defending Singer may respond that those who disagree with him aren’t assigning nonhuman primates adequate moral consideration. Supposing Singer’s views on people with mental disabilities are unconscionable, do you think that people who disagree with Singer about the moral status of animals, and continue to consume meat and/or assign little or no moral weight to animal welfare are also unconscionable?
It matters to me what form your objection takes. Given certain views of consciousness, which could be correct, the most plausible conception of ‘personhood’ might as a matter of fact not include certain humans that many people presently regard as persons. If so, it would seem odd to regard holding such a view to be ‘unconscionable’ in the same way that it would be odd to judge beliefs about gender differences to be ‘unconscionable’ if they were rationally defensible and/or true views about gender differences.Report
I agree with the claim that things that are true cannot be unconscionable. My use of the word “unconscionable” is not meant to be a linguistic power play, but rather an earnest statement about how grave I think the consequences of Singer-type views are. I have tremendous respect for Singer as a philosopher, and I think he is more consistent than 95%+ of the applied ethicists out there.
However, I think that the two views listed above are dangerous, because they begin to unravel a long-earned notion of human rights. I do not have a problem with extending rights claims to animals, but I do have a problem with Singer’s claim that the value of a person’s life differs depending on their brain function. In Singer’s hands, this claim can be handled somewhat deftly, but in the hands of another it is by no means innocuous. (And I’m not sure Singer himself is consistent in all the harsh ways we might apply the principle).
I don’t care to get into a detailed debate in this medium, but I am tempted to say that a claim that all people’s lives are equally valuable is a sort of basic belief from which our other moral beliefs ought to follow. That is to say: I am more fundamentally committed to that claim than to any set of complex claims that would entail its denial. (Compare Moore’s “here is a hand”.) Nothing about extending rights to animals flies in the face of that claim, but devaluing infant life, or disabled life, DOES fly in its face. We start to go astray, in ethics, when we start from the wrong assumptions. I see Singer as starting from a sort of utilitarianism that is bound to wind up — through perfect logic — with extremely bad ethical conclusions.Report
I think we would find we disagree on fundamental moral principles (I’m a utilitarian all the way) and I am skeptical that what Singer puts forward would have the dire consequences you suggest…but that is an empirical question, and it is possible you are correct. In spite of that, you’ve made a much better case for your position than I would have anticipated, so thanks! And yea, I don’t regard this medium as ideal for extended discussion.Report
Please define ‘person’. usually it includes being rational, the ability to take responsibility for one’s action, accepting praise or blame. These are not the same as being a human being, but being a human being with certain qualities. Severely mentally challenged individuals and 6 months olds do not fit the definition of ‘person’.
Now, now, don’t go all ballistic on me – because one is not a person in the philosophical sense does not mean we can treat them in any way we want. Human beings deserve our respect and we recognize that. You do not need to call someone a person to acknowledge they have value and deserve respect and humane treatment.Report
Your assumption that I will “go ballistic” on you suggests that you think one of two things: (1) that I am an irrational zealot, or (2) that I am an SJW. I am neither, so I take your comment as it was intended.
Of course, I deny your premise that personhood is conveyed by rationality. It has the absurd consequence that organisms can flip-flop between being people or not people, depending on whether they are in a coma, whether they have severe but curable brain cancer, etc. I think that people are essentially organisms, and I think that the identity conditions for organisms are very rigid ones. This commits me to the view that embryos and fetuses are people, but I don’t find that anti-intuitive.
I would agree that personhood relies on the CAPABILITY of an organism becoming rational, etc. And if some human being’s DNA was so mangled as to make it — even in theory, with the best imaginable medicine — incapable of “personal” language and thought, I would admit that this being was not a person. But ordinarily, human beings with severe disabilities have nowhere near that sort of distance from rationality.Report
In a recent review of at NDPR of J. Reid Miller’s _Stain Removal: Ethics and Race_ , Naomi Zack wrote:
“Miller begins by claiming that there cannot be an ethics of race because an ethics of anything presupposes that its subject can be perceived or correctly described in some ‘factual’ or value-neutral way, because it is ‘outside’ of ethics. But race is already evaluative (evaluated) throughout the modern period, beginning systematically in philosophy with Kant’s ordinal (ranked, with whites first) taxonomy of human races. Miller’s insistence that race is already inexorably evaluative is based on his emphasis of the importance of myths about the transfer of value through heredity and physical embodiment. Physical embodiment is the object of perception, so that racial identities are what Bernard Williams has called ”prejudicial objects’.”
I maintain that the phrase “ethics of disability” is problematic for some of the same reasons (and others) that Miller thinks the phrase “ethics of race” is a problem. The category of disability is not a self-evident, value-neutral, and philosophically-uninteresting one whose epistemological and ontological status should be assumed and taken for granted. Philosophers have regarded it as such, which has limited philosophical inquiry into disability, obscured metaphysical and epistemological questions concerning the category, its history, its entwinement with other social categories, and so on, and sequestered philosophical discussion of disability in the realms of bioethics and other areas of applied ethics.
I am unhappy with how this post has been framed, but I wanted especially to note the above.Report
I am not familiar with the idea that the phrase “ethics of X” presupposes a clear or value-neutral or philosophically uninteresting conception of X. Considering various Xs—such as “killing,” “procreation,” “discrimination,” “speech,” “environment,” “health care,” “religion,” and so on—it does not seem to be the case that for them, the phrase “ethics of X” presupposes an uncontroversial or settled or uninteresting conception of X.Report
perhaps you could explain why you used the phrase “ethics of disability” as opposed to, say, “philosophy of disability” or “disability studies” or “disability theory”.Report
Philosophy (let alone “theory”) is a much broader subject than ethics.Report
Not to speak for Justin, but I imagine an answer to be something like this: You can bracket questions like, “What is disability?” for the purpose of talking about more particular ethical questions related to disability. Now it’s true that answers to many ethical questions will tacitly rely on aspects of metaphysical and epistemic views people have on disability. But that does not imply that all debate need be at the metaphysical or epistemic level. We can have interesting and useful ethical debates about disability without always getting into those levels.Report
Yes, that is an overriding assumption of bioethics and philosophy in general which relies upon a medicalized conception of disability that I challenge in my forthcoming book. If you read Justin’s remarks carefully and critically, and you know enough about philosophy of disability, then you will recognize that his remarks rely upon a cluster of contestable assumptions about what disability is,, as do your own.Report
One, while I thank Ian for his comment, as he notes, he is not speaking for me, and I think that the bracketing strategy he suggests has its limits. I would just reiterate my earlier point that “ethics of X” does not presuppose a settled conception of X, whether that X is disability or anything else along the lines of the variety of examples I gave.
Two, I used “ethics of disability” rather than “philosophy of disability” because the kinds of concerns raised by the protestors and more generally in response to Singer’s views regarding the disabled are about axiological and deontic claims about disability, and such claims typically fall under ethics or moral philosophy.
Three, Shelley, you can assert that my “remarks rely upon a cluster of contestable assumptions about what disability is” but unless you tell us what those assumptions are I see no reason to believe what you are saying.Report
What’s interesting about this whole thread of discussion, is that *it could not take place in that auditorium*.Report
Thanks for your response to my comments. I’ll address your third point.
If you want to take a look through the archives at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, you will find a few posts that I’ve written (sorry, I can’t remember titles of the posts off-hand) about the use of the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled people” and the ontological assumptions on which of these terms respectively rely. These posts should give you some idea of the “contestable assumptions” to which I referred in my previous comment.
Have a nice weekend.Report
So, just to recap:
I post a news item about students protesting an event featuring Peter Singer on the basis of objections they have to his views on disability. You criticize me for using the phrase “ethics of disability.” I respond to this, showing (I think) that it is a non-criticism. In response, you neither argue that my response is in error nor acknowledge you’ve made an error.
You then say, critically, that my “remarks rely upon a cluster of contestable assumptions about what disability is.” You do not specify which of my remarks depend on these assumptions, nor provide any explanation for how they so depend, nor identify which contestable assumptions I’m allegedly depending upon. When I ask for specifics, you provide none, instead directing me to your blog archives.
I call bullshit.Report
To a certain extent the nit-picking of these terms reminds of using terms such as ‘racist’ or ‘ultra-liberal’. The purpose? Stop discussion of the real issues.Report
And if you look through the archives of the Daily Nous, you’ll find a number of posts, though I can remember the names, in which you use even the flimsiest pretense to generate a controversy to drive traffic to you blog.Report
One thing that Peter Singer and Charles Murray appear to have in common is that they do not behave well in terms of the norms of critical discourse, i.e., they do not engage in what Helen Longino terms “uptake of criticism.” Here Justin’s parenthetical point that “Singer does not seem to have an accurate understanding of some of the relevant empirical facts regarding disabilities” is crucial, especially since many people have bent over backward attempting to educate Singer on this. Murray’s pseudoscience is similarly unresponsive to criticism.
Not that I’m advocating for shouting-down in either case.Report
Note: I made this comment before I read Paul Franco’s wonderful comments on the Murray thread.
What’s the gist of what Singer doesn’t know? Is it relevant to any of his points?
Like Singer, I am a utilitarian. I care only for what outcomes produce the most happiness. This may have implications for disability that are inconsistent with what non-utilitarian disability activists favor, but charging Singer with all sorts of wickedness as many seem to seems predicated on the idea that either (though I can imagine other possibilities) (a) he is correctly applying utilitarianism in these cases, and it is utilitarianism itself which is objectionable or (b) he is misapplying utilitarianism for one or more empirical reasons, i.e. the practical policies he favors do not promote the maximization of utility. Is it one of these two, or something else, that is the primary objection?Report
Actually, although Singer’s views on disability are, given his empirical assumptions, mandated by his utilitarianism (or at least some of them are; some of them may turn on whether you have a total or person-affecting utilitarianism), he doesn’t really argue for them that way. He argues against a general right to life for all human infants, disabled or otherwise, on the grounds that they are not ‘persons’. And then he argues that it can be permissible, and sometimes even required, to kill non-persons in order to reduce suffering (Maybe also to promote happiness, but you’ll get a plenty controversial and upsetting enough view if you restrict to the suffering case. Note that up to this point the view is already shocking, relative to our actual attitude towards babies, but has nothing to do with disability specifically.) Then finally, he relies on the controversial assumption that certain disabilities cause large suffering to claim that we are sometimes permitted/required to kill disabled infants, ones that would be disputed by many disabled people and disability rights activists, and by philosophers who’ve written on disability from that broad tradition, like Liz Barnes.
None of this relies on utilitarianism. The account of personhood doesn’t. The claim that you sometimes ought to or are permitted to kill non-persons to prevent them suffering doesn’t commit one to utilitarianism (compare the case of animals; obviously some think that all humans have a right to life that all animals don’t, but you don’t have to be a utilitarian/consequentialist to disagree with that, and Singer’s explanation of what does confer a ceteris paribus right to life is actually more Kantian than utilitarian in tone, with it’s emphasis on the agents ability to see themselves as an agent who exists through time.) And the controversial empirical assumptions about disability and suffering obviously don’t rely on any normative view. (Though different normative views about what’s of value in life are obviously *relevant* here in determining how good or bad the life of someone who is going to suffer a lot is likely to be. But ‘suffering is bad’ doesn’t entail utilitarianism or consequentialism.)
Though this obviously isn’t what you are doing, seeing as you are defending Singer, I think that people often emphasise his utilitarianism in this context because it enables them to avoid considering whether his arguments put pressure on them to adopt views they are uncomfortable with, even if they are not utilitarians or consequentialists of any kind.Report
Thanks for the reply, and that is helpful. One issue I have is that people it is treated as a foregone conclusion that Singer’s empirical assumptions about the utility of disability and of various aspects of personhood are false, and then they immediately move to the conclusion that or state independently that he is horrible and worthy of severe moral censure. Suppose his views are false. Are people objecting, then, because he is advocating policies that fail to maximize utility, but he ought to recognize various nonmoral beliefs he has are false, and amend his position to maximize utility, or are they objecting to his position regardless of whether or not he has the empirical facts right? Suppose, that is, that he has a defensible case for infants being nonpersons, or suppose he has a defensible case for thinking many disabled people’s lives are net-negative in terms of utility…would the disability community then agree that it is okay to euthanize infants and disabled people?
I have my doubts that they would, and so the objection to Singer seems to be that he’s taking his utilitarianism seriously. If that’s the case, then I would like to see those critics dispute his utilitarianism itself, since that’s the real issue.
Regarding accepting the uncomfortable consequences of utilitarianism – I think it is generally true that a lot of people sympathetic to utilitarianism try to rationalize the consistency between utilitarianism and various outcomes that accord with supposed commonsense intuitions. I am not one of those people.Report
You’ve missed my point I think, my point is that Singer’s arguments for uncomfortable conclusions rely on premises (both empirical and moral) that, at least individually, a lot of non-utilitarians accept, and this is often neglected by his opponents.Report
David Mathers covers it pretty well. If you want to know more about what Singer doesn’t know and how it undermines his arguments, there is plenty of good work by, e.g., Eva Kittay, Harriet McBryde Johnson, Michael Berube, and others.Report
Do you have a suggestion for a particular paper/chapter that’d be good on this point? (Bonus points if it’d be accessible to undergrads and good to read in conjunction with some of Singer’s stuff!)Report
The pieces by Kittay and Berube in /Cognitive Disability and Its Challenge to Moral Philosophy/ would be a good start.Report
I actually have very little opinion on the merits or otherwise of either Singer or the activists empirical views about the lives of disabled people, since I’ve not read into it. I *do* have the opinion that Singer is *culpably overconfident* about the ability of non-disabled people to guess how bad having X disability would feel, but that is compatible with not having an opinion on what the empirical facts about suffering and happiness actually are. (I also think that empirical and theoretical issues aside, his language on this issue has been consistently insensitive and unpleasant, in a needless way.) Besides it’s long enough since I read Singer that I don’t really remember which disability he claims to lower happiness relative to baseline, which to lead to lives not worth living, and so forth.
I will say that what’s needed to settle the empirical issues here is, as far as it’s even possible, is proper social science empirical work on disability with unbiased samples, not the testimony of individual disabled philosophers and activists, which I don’t necessarily trust all that much more than Singer’s guesses. (My understanding from speaking to a friend who has read it was that Liz Barnes’ book on disability draws on work of this kind.) I mean, obviously the testimony of any disabled person is somewhat more valuable than the guess of a non-disabled philosopher (even given the massive heterogeneity of ‘disabled’), but activists are both biased in various ways, and not at all a random sample. A good example of how activists’ opinions are not always representative of the communities they claim to speak for-though I suspect most disabled people will agree with them about Singer. About a year ago, I was watching a debate her in the UK in the House of Lords (non-elected upper chamber) about legalizing voluntary euthanasia for those who were sick and had less than 6 months to live. After many speeches about the various disability rights groups who opposed this measure, one of the Lords, who was blind, stood up and pointed out that whilst advocacy groups were unanimously against the bill, surveys of the actual disabled public found overwhelming support for it, barely distinguishable from the level of support it enjoyed amongst the public in general. I mention this case not because I think it shows that the advocacy groups were wrong, or even that their opinions were to be treated as less important than the opinions found in the survey of the disabled public. On the contrary, the members of the advocacy groups had undoubtedly thought much longer and harder about the bill than the average disabled member of the public, and were certainly therefore in a better position to assess whether it was bad for or expressed disrespect for disabled citizens. Rather the point I’m making is simply a cautionary one about letting advocacy groups or even individual writers stand in for *the* disabled perspective.Report
This claim about “what Singer doesn’t know” just isn’t plausible. Surely he does know the literature on ethics and disability. In his own anthology on Bioethics (edited with Helga Kuhse), there’s an article by Adrienne Asch that makes many points and arguments to the effect that disabilities don’t reduce well-being. He himself engaged with Harriet McBryde Johnson, as her famous NYT article (and subsequent book) attests. She makes arguments like Asch’s, and others. The only way you could argue that Singer doesn’t know these arguments is to assume that to know them is to agree with them. But no–that’s absurd. He knows them, he’s responded to them, and he still thinks many disabilities do tend to reduce well-being. Obviously, he doesn’t think that has the horrific ramifications that are being associated with him by the protestors. It has ramifications in a fairly narrow range of situations which he’s carefully described.Report
By hastily referencing “what Singer doesn’t know,” I did not mean to suggest that Singer was unaware of the arguments, which, right, how could he be? I mean to say that he had failed to form the true beliefs that these arguments should have justified him in forming. Likewise, while it is true in some cases that he’s “responded” to these arguments, that doesn’t mean that he has responded successfully, whether or not he thinks he has done so. My real point is that these responses fail the norm of uptake of criticism, which should be clear from context.Report
What is ‘the norm of uptake of criticism’ exactly? Do we fail it any time someone else gives an argument that in fact, if we were perfectly proportioning our belief to the evidence, would cause us to give up some philosophical belief, and we don’t give up that belief? If so, if we’re honest about it, don’t we all do this all the time? Or do you mean something stronger, like that Singer’s replies are obviously inadequate to any reasonable person? (I haven’t actually read this literature, beyond Singer’s original work, and some stuff by Liz Barnes that isn’t engaging with Singer directly, so I can’t comment on the quality of his response to criticism myself.)Report
I guess I mean something like the stronger claim. I’d hesitate to say “any reasonable person,” and I’d prefer to cash it out in internalist terms, about the failure to provide convincing reasons to the contrary, failure to give due deference to experts on the relevant matters of fact, etc.Report
This is a great example of people obscuring a discussion by throwing around, and maybe even misusing, little-known technical terms. As far as I can tell, “uptake of criticism” is a proposed norm for epistemic communities, not for individuals. It would, in fact, be a crazy norm for us to require individuals to uphold. For example: often you will hear a seemingly convincing argument against one of your stances; you’ll be sure you have a response, but you just don’t know what, or how to put it; you’ll turn it over and over in your head until, finally, you come up with it six months – or years, or decades – later.
If you think Singer (or Murray) is being unreasonable or ridiculous, just say so. But a strong requirement that *individuals* hew to “uptake of criticism” would foreclose the possibility of this (very common and epistemically productive) pattern, and others like it. Not just that, but you should take seriously the fact that you have demanded that individuals believe what the epistemic communities they’re part of ought to believe. This seems like good evidence that your intellectual instincts are more or less anti-individualist, and that a person’s freedom of thought is not a particularly strong value of yours. Something to consider.Report
I read the view as requiring a minimal level of responsiveness on the part of individuals as well—which I recognize is not the only reading.Report
I think the point the protesters are trying to make is that they’re not interested in having a discussion about whether murdering disabled people is okay or not. Their point may be to protest the fact that many of their fellow citizens think it’s reasonable to debate the fundamental worth of another human being and the permissibly of ending their life without their consent. And I would guess that they take this to be the best strategy (or one worthwhile strategy) for safeguarding the political rights and basic safety of people with a disability. Maybe they think that, in another time and place, they can sit down and discuss why they think views like Singer’s are mistaken. But the particular strategy they are employing here is perhaps to push people to consider that maybe basic political protection of and social respect for another human should not be something that we sit back and debate, as if it’s fine and normal that it’s something on the table for us to consider granting or taking away. Instead, it should be something we are committed to protecting as wholeheartedly as we are committed to protecting other basic rights and fundamental social principles. (That is my attempt to articulate what their perspective plausibly is.)
Criticisms of this sort of protest that might be worth making:
–You might think the protesters are doing a bad job at communicating their point. (Though it could be that we/the audience are doing a bad job at listening.)
–You might think the protesters could better achieve their goals with a different strategy. (This might lead us to a discussion of under which circumstances it’s morally laudable to disrupt an official event, or on under which circumstances it’s prudent to work with a system or social norm or to work against it.)
–You might think that the protesters’ strategy conflicts too heavily with the goals of a university (and you might think that allowing a university to achieve its goal is more important than helping the protesters achieve their goal in this instance.)
Criticisms that would be unfair to the protesters or likely misunderstand what they’re doing / trying to accomplish:
–they’re being irrational
–they’re being hypocritical for shutting down conversation
–they’re against free speech (too vague to be helpful without further clarification)
I mostly want to help articulate what the protesters may be trying to achieve, because without understanding what they think they are doing, and what they are hoping or expecting it to accomplish, we are likely in a bad position to evaluate their action’s effectiveness, prudence, or ethical appropriateness.Report
“I think the point the protesters are trying to make is that they’re not interested in having a discussion about whether murdering disabled people is okay or not.”
But the discussion was to be about altruism, not about whether killing disabled people is ok.Report
After posting a long comment, it’s hard to figure out how I should respond to a single sentence that I take it is implying an objection, but not spelling it out in full or starting the work of considering what a potential response could be. So I’ll reply briefly, too:
“According to The Martlet, the protesters claimed that “giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people, and that his views supported eugenics.””
So if you’re interesting in thinking through the issue, maybe the next step would be to consider what the protesters’ reasoning was for thinking this, maybe also checking whether the Martlet is accurately reporting their claims, and going from there.Report
I took it that the objection was obvious. Here is a more explicit version:
It is irrelevant whether or not one is interested in having a discussion about whether killing disabled people is ok, since the event in question is not a discussion about whether killing disabled people is ok.
Whether hosting Singer is implicitly endorsing his views on disability is a different issue, which provides a different potential objection to the event.Report
But it could be that by “giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people” what they mean is something like, “giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting [the discussion of] the murder of disabled people [as a reasonable discussion to have].'”
We would have to look into it more to figure out if that really is what they meant. But knowing the way that journalists often have to truncate or simply the positions they’re reporting on, it wouldn’t surprise me if after the game of PR telephone, that’s what their claims ended up looking like / being reported as.
Maybe to put this another way, yes, discussing the killing of disabled people may be irrelevant to the scheduled event. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s irrelevant to the protest.Report
This is an interpretive stretch, all the more so because (1) not being interested in having a discussion about x, is not the same as (2) not wanting discussions about x to be viewed as reasonable.
The protesters sound much more reasonable if we say that what they wanted was to avoid having a discussion about the murder of disabled people. But that’s a misleading way to frame the issue, as I’ve tried to indicate.Report
“Criticisms that would be unfair to the protesters or likely misunderstand what they’re doing / trying to accomplish:
–they’re against free speech (too vague to be helpful without further clarification)”
It seems reasonably clear to me – and it’s one of those ideas where I think I have a better grasp of the exemplary cases than of a theoretical definition – but let’s try the following clarification:
They’re against the principle that speech activities organized by a group or individual should not be coercively disrupted by third parties, other than on content-neutral grounds or to prevent immediate and direct threat to public safety.
(“third parties” covers my right to control the conversation in my classroom (but not prevent a non-disruptive protest outside my classroom, or to organize and reorganize a speaker series on whatever grounds I want. “content-neutral grounds” covers things like university security evicting people who didn’t book their room, or protests being moved on if they disrupt traffic flow. “immediate and direct threat” covers the usual fire-in-a-crowded-theater exceptions, which I think everyone accepts.)
You could add “on a university” if you like, though I’m not sure it’s needed.Report
I guess I just don’t quite understand.
So you summarize what you think their point is with this:
“maybe basic political protection of and social respect for another human should not be something that we sit back and debate, as if it’s fine and normal that it’s something on the table for us to consider granting or taking away. Instead, it should be something we are committed to protecting as wholeheartedly as we are committed to protecting other basic rights and fundamental social principles”
But doesn’t that imply that we shouldn’t be debating in this way about the question of abortion? That we shouldn’t think it’s on the table for us to consider granting or taking away the basic political protection of and social respect for another human, just on the basis of whether or not we decide if they’re human or not.
If this is implied by that message, I doubt it would be a pill many would be willing to swallow, and furthermore, I don’t think that many of the protestors would be on board with this pill.Report
Come on, it’s not like philosophy, as a field, is committed to skepticism of strongly held beliefs and dialogue about them or anything.Report
Right. “Maybe X shouldn’t be something we debate” is precisely what you say when you’re against free speech or the free exchange of ideas.
Which is fine. Free speech, like everything else, is something we should debate.Report
I think these sorts of anti-intellectual protests have no place in a university setting, more or less regardless of the merits of the views under discussion, except in extremely rare and egregious circumstances. (There’s a huge gap between “academics whose views could be (mis)interpreted as being in some way disrespectful” and “Nazis”, after all. Open inquiry and intellectual discussion requires tolerating speech that we may consider disrespectful.)
But it’s also worth noting how thoroughly lacking in merit the protesters’ views are here. There’s nothing distinctively “anti-disability” about Singer’s reasoning. Rather, he combines a fairly standard (and I think obviously reasonable, or at least not “beyond the pale”) line on disability (that it can be legitimate grounds for late-term abortion) with an unusual (but obviously reasonable and principled) view about the distinction between late-term abortion and early infanticide (namely, that there is no great moral difference), to reach his outrageous-sounding conclusions.
Given that this is the reasoning behind his view, I don’t see how one can consistently protest Singer as being distinctively “anti-disability” unless one would equally protest every other pro-choice person who is okay with late-term abortions on grounds of disability. (The “infant rights” community, if there is one, could more consistently pick Singer out for special opprobrium here. But I think even that aspect of his view, given its defensibility in principle, is not an appropriate target of non-rational/disruptive protest as opposed to rational/discursive dispute in appropriate forums.)Report
“There’s nothing distinctively ‘anti-disability’ about Singer’s reasoning.”
As I understand him (though I am happy to be corrected), Singer thinks that
1. in some cases (e.g. spina bifida) “the life of an infant will be so miserable as not to be worth living, from the internal perspective of the being who will lead that life”; and that
2. in those cases “if there are no ‘extrinsic’ reasons for keeping the infant alive – like the feelings of the parents – it is better that the child should be helped to die [that is, killed — JS] without further suffering”; and that
3. there would be “considerable advantages” over our current system of laws if “disabled newborn infants were not regarded as having a right to life until, say, a week or a month after birth”; and that
4. “[i]n most respects” persons surviving in a vegetative state “do not differ importantly from disabled infants”, and thus “considerations of a right to life or of respecting autonomy do not apply” to them; indeed if they cannot come to have experience again then “their lives have no intrinsic value”;
… and so on.
(All this is quoted from here: https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm.)
We can debate whether Singer is right or wrong, and I suppose we also can debate what exactly it means to be anti-disability, but the above seems like a plausible candidate for the latter. And note well that it is likely possible to be anti-disability and also “reasonable and principled”, including in the way one supports and works out one’s anti-disability stance.
For the record, I agree that shouting Singer down in this way was stupid and counterproductive.Report
Indeed, “every other pro-choice person who is okay with late-term abortions on grounds of disability” *is* anti-disability, whether they recognize it or not.
Imagine someone being okay with late-term abortions when the fetus had some indicator of being gay. Would such a person be anti-gay? Yes.Report
asst prof — of course, the vast majority of people are anti-disability (in the same way that they are anti-illness, anti-pain & suffering, etc.). My point was that, in sharing this view held by basically everyone who isn’t a radical disability rights activist, Singer is not distinctively anti-disability, and so it makes little sense to pick him out for special protest on these grounds.
JS — I focused on Singer’s claims about infanticide distinct from euthanasia (i.e., cases where the disability is *not* so bad as to render the life not worth living), since I expected them to be more controversial. I can’t imagine any sane person denying that in *some* (extreme) cases “the life of an infant will be so miserable as not to be worth living”, after all, and it would seem pretty inhumane to deny euthanasia in such extreme cases. So that aspect of his view is evidently not protest-worthy.Report
Well, if that’s the case, I disagree that it’s “obviously reasonable” to be anti-disability in this way, as you state above … in the same way that I would disagree that it would be reasonable to be anti-gay in the example I described above, and for nearly the very same reasons.
It’s difficult to imagine a defense of the rights of the fetus which is purportedly gay which would not equally apply also to the rights of the fetus with a purported disability.Report
I’m also just baffled (and, honestly, sickened) that Singer’s views that it’s not problematic, indeed, that it may be a good thing, to kill infants with spina bifida is not regarded here as a clear case of being reprehensibly ableist … since, supposedly, it’s “clearly reasonable” to think that people are well within their rights to kill a completely viable fetus simply because his or her life won’t conform to some societal standard of independence and “lack of suffering” … 58 people and counting agree … 🙁Report
“My point was that, in sharing this view held by basically everyone who isn’t a radical disability rights activist, Singer is not distinctively anti-disability, and so it makes little sense to pick him out for special protest on these grounds.”
This doesn’t follow, and I think if you consider a different case it’s clear. You might think (this is an exaggeration, but I think your claim was too, so bear with me) that anyone who isn’t a leftist shares Donald Trump’s views about the dangers of unchecked immigration. But nonetheless it would still make quite a bit of sense to pick him out for protest even if the objectionable view isn’t distinctive to him. He has a particular and prominent role in our social-political landscape that others who also hold his view don’t share. Singer is a prominent moral theorist. He does have an unusual amount of social influence as far as philosophers go. That provides grounds for singling him out for protest regardless of how widely shared his view is.Report
Kathryn — good point, thanks. I’ll retract that part of the argument, and rely instead on the twin claims that (i) disruptive/silencing protests are not generally legitimate in a university setting, and (ii) Singer’s views are sufficiently rationally defensible as to be a long way from forming any sort of exception to this rule.
Asst prof — I don’t think fetuses have such rights; the problem with aborting a purportedly gay fetus is not that it violates any rights of the fetus but just that it reveals a false and unjustified judgment that it’s worse to be gay than not. [Note that the very same issues would arise for genetic screening, gene editing, etc.] But it isn’t unjustified (and I would add: isn’t false) to think that many disabilities (not all) are such that it is worse to have them, and hence to prefer to have a child without them.
(Note that much medical advice during pregnancy is explicitly geared towards this end. It would be a radical conclusion indeed to insist that all such advice be retracted, and that prospective parents be strictly indifferent to whether their child becomes disabled, in the same way that they ought to be indifferent to their child’s eventual sexual orientation.)Report
“[T]he problem with aborting a purportedly gay fetus is not that it violates any rights of the fetus but just that it reveals a false and unjustified judgment that it’s worse to be gay than not.”
Ok, but note that if you think that judgment must be false, you must be relying on a moral sense of “worse.” It might very well be the case that, at least in some parts of the world or in some domains of social life, that it is practically worse to be gay than not. I don’t have to worry about being shunned by my family because of my sexual orientation. I don’t have to worry about being fired for it, not being able to get a job or an apartment because of it, and I don’t need to worry about where I travel with my partner, etc., etc.. And none of this is to raise concerns about the particular challenges a parent wouldn’t want their child to face. So if we think that it is worse to be disabled in a way that it is not worse to be gay, it does seem as if there is a judgment about moral value at root.
You might not have meant this, but I do think it’s difficult to avoid unless you want to say there are circumstances in which it would be permissible to abort a fetus that you knew, if it lived, would turn out to be gay on account of sexual orientation.Report
Is it obviously false that it’s wrong to abort a foetus that would turn out to be gay if you lived in, say, Saudi, and couldn’t leave? At the very least, even if it is wrong, I find it hard to see why it would express any kind of homophobic disrespect for gay people if the sole motive was to avoid having a child that would be severely persecuted, in a context where doing so would not realistically contribute towards fighting back against said oppression and stigma (I take it that in somewhere like Saudi there is very little chance of movement in the right direction any time soon.)
In any case, though, considering an example like this shows, I think, that *given Richard’s view* there is a potentially relevant difference between this sort of case and the disability case. Richard doesn’t think that the reason to have an abortion in the disability case is that the child will suffer *because* of injustice and prejudice towards them. He thinks you can and/or should have the abortion on the grounds that the child will suffer from the disability in ways that are not connected to the fact that they’ll be subject to prejudice and discrimination from others. There’s a perfectly reasonable view that having an abortion for the latter reason involves a kind of complicity with bad social practices in a way that the former does not, and that therefore having an abortion for the latter reason is morally dubious, whilst having one to prevent other kinds of suffering is not, because it doesn’t involve this sort of complicity.Report
“I can’t imagine any sane person denying that in *some* (extreme) cases “the life of an infant will be so miserable as not to be worth living” …”
You CAN’T IMAGINE that? Really?? My goodness we philosophers are a parochial bunch. Let this stand as confirmation that imaginability doesn’t entail possibility.Report
(Er, as confirmation that UNimaginability doesn’t entail IMpossibility, obviously. Nor does it entail non-actuality. I need more coffee.)Report
These protesters seem like the exact kind of people that would have voted to convict Socrates for corrupting the youth.Report
He did, though.Report
As several people have already said, the nature of the views defended by a speaker should be completely irrelevant to whether that sort of tactics is acceptable, except in the most egregious cases. Everyone acknowledges those exceptions, but it doesn’t mean this acknowledgement has any practical import, because in practice such cases almost never arise. There are plenty of talks at Cornell which I think don’t have any interest and, in some cases, may even do some harm. But I don’t think it’s a reason to disrupt them or at least not a sufficient reason, because doing so would undermine the norm of freedom of speech, which I think is far worse in any realistic case than preventing someone from saying things I consider abhorrent. So unless I happen to be independently interested in the topic of a talk that people think should be disrupted, I’m not even interested in discussing the merits of the views defended by the speaker, because except in extremely hypothetical cases I can immediately recognize that it would be wrong to prevent him from defending them. This is certainly true in the case of Peter Singer and Charles Murray and it’s even true in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos.Report
Another example of the intolerance of the academes, left, and whatever (and I am as left as left can be). Total lack of understanding that education includes hearing and reasonably responding to views you disagree with. This academic and leftist kind of response and, essentially, censorship, is what got Trump elected. So congratulate your leftist shut downs for the election of … well … adjectives escape me.
Suppression of discussion and censorship from the left is no better than that from the right — different reasons, same results. Grow up and offer counterviews and reasons.Report
How certain are you that the disruption was all or mainly due to “leftists”? Some of the rhetoric reported by The Martlet is really close to the Conservative Party’s line on physician-assisted suicide, which has been part of the national conversation for a few years now (it just became legal). (In fact, the Tories were pretty closely allied to disability rights advocates on that issue.)
I’d also encourage posters to remember that the Canadian attitude towards free speech is not identical to the USA’s, and neither are the laws surrounding it. I don’t say that to condone the protestors’ disruptiveness, but to caution against some of the kinds of generalizations upthread. It’s a different national context, with different issues, priorities, and problems.Report
I’m not sure which comments you’re thinking of, but at least everything I said ought to apply to any liberal state, not just the US in particular. The points are by and large moral, not legal. (I spent most of my career in the UK, which in my view has regrettably weak legal prohibitions against speech; that didn’t and doesn’t lessen the moral case for UK universities to vigorously defend free speech.)Report
I completely agree with Stacey Goguen that an important thing to do here is to try and understand the protestors’ motives, rather than second-guess them and potentially argue against a strawman. Some googling reveals a petition, which I presume belongs to the protestors: https://www.change.org/p/university-of-victoria-students-society-disallow-eugenics-advocate-peter-singer-to-speak-at-uvic.
Sadly, looking at that page (including people’s reasons for signing), it seems pretty clear to me that there is very little understanding of Singer’s views here. Probably the most notable implication in the petition (and inference indeed made by some of the signers) is that “effective altruism” is a euphemism for the genocide of all disabled people. It’s especially sad given that these people might well have enjoyed, and learnt a lot from, the talk Singer was scheduled to give.Report
It is not at all an implication of petition ‘that “effective altruism” is a euphemism for the genocide of all disabled people.’ The petition makes largely true claims. Singer is “an outspoken advocate for the killing of [some] babies with disabilities.” (The stated confusion does appear to be the view of a single signer.)
Perhaps you think it is an implication because the petition appeals to those who “[don’t] want to see the ableism, discrimination, and hate speech be accepted on this university,” while his talk was on the subject of effective altruism. But we can also interpret the petition as suggesting that, whatever the putative subject of the lecture, providing a platform to Singer in some sense “accepts” or endorses his whole body of work as acceptable and worthy of honoring. This kind of linkage is not new… we see it in protests of Charles Murray (when he is set to speak on subjects besides race and IQ), or protests of Larry Summers (when he is to speak on topics besides gender and representation in science), and many others.
Within reason, one certainly might disagree with the claims that Singer’s views on disability amount to “hate speech” or “discrimination,” or that his work is unacceptable, or that having unacceptable views about X should prevent one from being given a platform to talk about Y. One can certainly reasonably disagree with disruption of the event by protesters. But I don’t think the view that the petitioners are “sadly” confused is defensible based on this evidence.Report
Protesting Summers on other topics is truly ridiculous, even if you think protesting Murray or Singer is justified. Summers isn’t in any sense a political extremist, has never called for anyone to be killed to my knowledge, and did not say that any vulnerable group of people were across the board dumber than white men, or right a book citing pretty dubious racist sources. He speculated about whether a known gender difference, the larger *spread* of male i.q. relative to female, was innate (I suspect it *isn’t* innate, incidentally, if anyone doubts my purity here), and said that it was his best guess that it was, whilst suggesting that it was a less significant factor than women having to take a disproportionate share of childcare relative to men. Far from this having been ignored by society, he was forced to apologize, it has dogged Summers ever since, and quite possibly contributed to him missing out on a job to which might well have otherwise been well-suited (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/summers-sexism-costs-him-top-treasury-job-1033373.html), so those protesting him are hardly lone voices crying in the wilderness.
He is also extremely distinguished within his field, so there is plenty reason to invite him to speak, even before you consider that he has also held high office
(Not an endorsement of Summers’ claims about gender differences, how innate they are, or whether they contribute and to what degree, to under representation of women in science. Not a claim that he did *nothing* wrong in saying what he said either.)
You are right of course that the petition does not make any untoward insinuations about ‘Effective Altruism’.Report
Thanks for the reply Matthew. Just to clarify, I don’t think I had any of the thoughts you suggest in your second and third paragraphs. Rather, you quote:
“Singer is ‘an outspoken advocate for the killing of [some] babies with disabilities.'”
But the original quotation did not have the word “some” in it, and without that word this sentence suggests, as does the next paragraph, that Singer is in favour of killing *all* disabled people. Following those suggestions up with the claim that he’s speaking on “effective altruism”, placed within quotes as if this were a euphemism, with no indication that this is a topic wholly unrelated to Singer’s views on disability, is misleading at best.Report
I don’t see how one could read this implication about effective altruism into the petition. They write “At present, Peter Singer has been invited to speak at UVic on his work on “effective altruism” by a group calling itself UVic Effective Altruism. Although members in the community have requested that the organizers of the event find an alternate speaker, they have refused our request.”.
If they equated effective altruism with eugenics, they would not be simply asking for a replacement speaker for an event organized by a group called “Effective Altruism”. (I take their use of scare quotes expresses their view that this is not a legitimate form of altruism or something like that).Report