Free Speech at Oxford (updated with an important correction)


Flying around social media yesterday were cheers that Oxford University had issued a “Statement on the Importance of Free Speech” in response to a motion from the Oxford Student Union allegedly to “ban ‘ableist, classist and misogynist’ reading lists”.

Here’s Richard Dawkins on Twitter, for example:

I checked out the widely circulated Oxford Blue article linked to in Dawkins’ and others’ tweets, as well as the Oxford Student article first reporting on the Student Union motion. Though there were a few snippets here and there, neither article included or linked to the whole text of the motion, or even a substantial block of it.

And what of the “Statement on the Importance of Free Speech” that Oxford University “released”, according to the May 3rd Oxford Blue article? Fortunately, the authors of the article included the entire text of that statement. However, it appears to be the exact same text already posted last year on at least a couple of Oxford sites and released at least as early as May, 2017. It’s not clear what actually happened here. Perhaps the university simply referred the journalists at Oxford Blue to this pre-existing statement. [Update: according to the reporter, yes, this is what happened.]

Oxford Blue also reports that “the university” (they don’t specify who) said, “I can confirm that the University has no plans to censor reading materials assigned by our academics.”

Censor reading materials? Is that what the students were calling for? Not exactly.

Jenny Saville, “Stare III” (detail)

A fellow twitterer answered my request for the actual motion, and from the looks of it, the students were basically aiming for four things:

  1. For Oxford University to add gender identity, disability status, and socio-economic status as protected classes to its policy on acts of hatred and hate speech, which currently only concerns race, religion, and sexual orientation (as it is modeled on Part III of the UK’s Public Order Act of 1986, which concerns “acts intended or likely to stir up” hatred or violence).
  2. For Oxford University to not require students to take any courses whose content would “amount to” criminal hate speech, were the policy amended as in 1.
  3. For Oxford University to require faculty to consider the impact of “including prejudicial articles” on the well-being of protected groups as they finalize their reading lists and to include content warnings if appropriate for any of the readings.
  4. For two Oxford University Student Union officers—the Vice-President for Access and Academic Affairs and the Vice-President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities—to “condemn… the use of hateful material” in required courses. [Note: initially this was reported with the mistaken assumption that these vice presidential positions were administrative positions of the university. Rather, they are student union positions.]

What to make of these demands? The first thing to note is that none of this is censorship. So, for “the university” to say that it has “no plans to censor reading materials” is not, strictly speaking, to reject the student union motion. The closest we get to censorship in the motion is in the condemnation called for in #4, above. That isn’t technically censorship, but it may have similar effects (I don’t know, as I don’t know anything about those particular offices or whether Oxford faculty care about whether they condemn their reading selections). [Note: in light of the correction of #4, above, I think it is safe to say that #4 does not come close to constituting censorship.] #2 might strike some as censorship but it seems “pro-freedom” to me, for if its effect would be to give students more choice—here, not to take a course they otherwise would have been required to.

(In one line in the original document, the students complain about the lack of “criminalization” of certain forms of biased speech, but what they end up calling for from Oxford isn’t the criminalization of speech.)

The extent to which these demands are anti-free speech turns in part on what material is actually covered by it. I don’t know enough about the legal context to know exactly what kinds of texts would be picked out by “intended or likely to stir up” hatred. Are historical documents and older writings ever included here? Has the assignment of a hateful text for the purposes of study ever been the target of the Public Order of 1986 or university policies based on it? Readers, help us out.

Here’s the actual text of the motion (courtesy of Eric Sheng):

As you can see, the students named one example of a text they think would fall under their expanded hate speech proposal: “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children” by Julian Savulescu, which appeared in Bioethics in 2001. In this article, Savulescu argues that prospective parents “should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information,” which they took to be objectionably ableist.

I don’t think the students did themselves any favors with this choice of example, in which Savulescu distinguishes between identifying conditions, such as poor memory, that tend to make people’s lives worse (a claim he endorses) and saying that people with those conditions are less deserving of respect or are less valuable (a claim he rejects). Regardless of whether one thinks Savulescu’s argument is any good, this article is certainly neither intended to, nor likely to stir up, hatred against disabled persons. The students are just mistaken that it is an example of hate speech.

Suppose, though, that they weren’t mistaken. Even if it were hate speech, note that the students are not calling for Oxford to ban Savulescu’s essay. Rather, they are arguing that students be given the option to take a course in which it is assigned, and that students be warned about its content. One way to put this is that they’re arguing for “informed consent” for encountering hate speech.

Unfortunately, they are also asking for administrators* [students actually; see the correction to #4, above] to condemn the assigning of the reading. Though I tend to favor “more speech” approaches to allegedly objectionable speech, without measures to separate the authority’s expressive actions from its coercive ones (a la Brettschneider), this is an overreach. [Note: in light of the correction of #4, above, which makes clear that it is students, not administrators, being asked to condemn the readings, I retract this criticism.]

So what to think about all of this? Here are three takeaways (feel free to add your own):

(a) The students care about the welfare of the vulnerable among them and are pointing out what they take to be a problem of arbitrariness in law and policy (that there are protections on the basis of, say, race and religion but not gender and class).

(b) The students are arguing for a more-freedom, more-information, and more-speech approach to solving this problem, rather than censorship.

(c) The students seem to have an overly inclusive conception of what counts as hate speech.

I think (a) is good, (b) is a mixed bag owing to the vague call for official condemnations and  [see the correction to #4, above] the confused language of “criminalization”, and (c) is not terrible but not good, either.

The problem with (c) is not really the legal point, but rather an apparent tendency towards a kind of “affirming the consequent”. Here’s an example. We might expect an atheist to criticize the ontological argument for the existence of God, but someone who criticizes the ontological argument for the existence of God is not necessarily an atheist. That is, it doesn’t follow from one’s making an argument an atheist would make that one is an atheist—it depends on the argument (among other things). Similarly, it doesn’t follow from one’s making an argument a racist or sexist or classist would make that one is a racist or sexist or classist—it depends on the argument (among other things). For example, we might expect a racist to argue against affirmative action, but it doesn’t follow that one is a racist in virtue of arguing against affirmative action.

It isn’t surprising that students are susceptible to this mistaken reasoning. For one thing, they’re still learning how to think carefully. For another, it’s not always a mistake to reason this way, and in some contexts (or for people with certain backgrounds) it could be a reasonable heuristic to employ.

Ironically, this kind of reasoning might have been in play in the widely shared descriptions and attitudes expressed about this story, which framed the students as censors. We might think that someone who favors censorship might express the same kinds of concerns the Oxford Student Union did in their motion. But it would be a mistake to conclude, as many seemed to do, that because they expressed such concerns, the students were calling for censorship. They weren’t.

I suppose an additional takeaway would be that, as with some other disputes over speech, the combatants may have more in common than they realize.

 

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krell_154
krell_154
11 months ago

My take on this is that you, Justin, are trying really hard to give the students the benefit of the doubt, but are failling to do so because their demands seem irrational, due to (but not exclusively) bad precedents they could help establish.

I think this kind of analysis is unnecessary, and that it’s perfectly clear that their demands are demands for censorship. Broadening the definition of hate speech, and then requiring adminsitrators to flag every course that contains materials satisfying such a broad definition of hate speech absoulutely is censorship, and will result in a number of texts effectively being removed form reading lists. Call it whatever you want, but I know how I’d describe the process of removing vast amounts of content from course requirements.

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Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
11 months ago

They should be careful, condition (1) would “criminalize” pseudo-Lenninist imperatives to “eat the rich”.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Hi justin,
I disagree with you about the potential impact of Savulescu’s claims on disabled people. The distinction that Savulescu draws (and to which you have drawn attention) has been both variously made in mainstream analytic bioethics and political philosophy and repeatedly criticized by (disabled) philosophers and theorists of disability. Indeed, one could even say that this distinction is fundamental to how bioethicists and political philosophers have understood disability and the social responses that it requires, i.e., how disabled people should be treated, what they are owed, and what fair distribution to them requires, including fair distribution of the social aspects of self-esteem and self-respect. The big idea behind the distinction is that one can both argue for the prevention or elimination of an allegedly natural disabling trait and uphold the value of the person who ostensibly possesses or embodies it naturally. (Gone, thankfully, are the days when remarks were regarded as harmless that cast menstruation as a naturally disadvantageous bodily function, as polluting, dirty, etc.)

I think the disagreement in this regard between you, Justin, and the students derives in large part from the fact that you and the students seem to hold disparate definitions of ‘ableism’, ‘disability’, ‘condition’, and ‘disabled people’ (among other things). I’d be interested to know how you define ‘ableism’ or how you would explain what ableism is, how it circulates, what its effects on disabled people are, how they experience these effects, and so on.
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Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

“The big idea behind the distinction is that one can both argue for the prevention or elimination of an allegedly natural disabling trait and uphold the value of the person who ostensibly possesses or embodies it naturally.”

Why can’t one do that? It seems easy enough to understand.

And even if the argument fails, the point being made is just that it’s an available form of argument that does not denigrate people, not that all such arguments prevail against objections. I say this as a person who finds Savulescu’s particular argument in that paper off-putting in the extreme.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
11 months ago

Arthur wrote: “Why can’t one do that? It seems easy enough to understand.

And even if the argument fails, the point being made is just that it’s an available form of argument that does not denigrate people, not that all such arguments prevail against objections.”

Arthur,
I know what point the distinction is intended to make. My example of menstruation was intended to indicate that the “available form of argument” does indeed denigrate people. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

OK, that makes sense, and I wasn’t meaning to patronize by explaining the import of an argument you certainly understood quite well. I think that the example you gave, however, doesn’t establish quite what you want to get out of it. There are two issues at stake, when it comes to the menstruation example:

(1) Whether menstruating is the type of thing someone would be better off without.
(2) Whether possessing some natural trait that one would be better off without decreases one’s worth.

I would wholeheartedly say no to both #1 and #2. This leaves it available to me to say that there are some natural traits that people would be better off without (and with no compromising of dignity), but that menstruating isn’t one of them. In fact, I think that — even though surely many women would prefer not to menstruate — menstruation itself is no more an objectionable trait in a person than growing body hair is.

What types of natural traits could a person with as much worth as anyone else be better off without? Autism is one candidate (though I’m not sure it’s natural — and I’m not sure how much naturalness is really the important thing here). My son is on the spectrum, and the question of whether he would be better off if he weren’t (or if that is even conceivable) has nothing to do with my beliefs about his worth. I have spent time contemplating whether his condition is genuinely a disability or just a different way of being, and none of that contemplation prompts me to treat him as any less precious and priceless than my other children. He’s him, and he’s pretty darn awesome.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
11 months ago

Arthur, you wrote: “My son is on the spectrum, and the question of whether he would be better off if he weren’t (or if that is even conceivable) has nothing to do with my beliefs about his worth.”

But the question of whether your son would or wouldn’t be better off is precisely the motivational assumption of the idea of “procreative beneficence”. That not something I came up with. That’s Savulescu’s idea. And: why are *your* and or *anyone else’s* beliefs about your son’s worth a consideration? They aren’t. But Savelescu’s argument presupposes that there exists some prediscursive facts about the matter. That, again, is not something I came up with.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I haven’t read the article recently enough to engage in the content with any precision. Again, I disagree with Savulescu and find his argument distasteful. My point is that there’s nothing offensive in itself about believing that a person has a natural trait that they would be better off without. I do not take Savulescu’s further step of saying that we should work to make the birth of children with such traits less likely, across the board.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
11 months ago

Hi Arthur, yes, I understand that is your point. And I disagree with it, not because it is “offensive in itself” but because of its social implications, its social effects, its effects for the individual subject, its contribution to the social constitution of disability, and its detrimental effects on the social perception and representation of disabled people.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

”And: why are *your* and or *anyone else’s* beliefs about your son’s worth a consideration?”

What does this even mean? Nowhere in the comment is Arthur saying that anyone has to consider his beliefs. He’s merely trying to answer the question to himself. The only way to do that is to form certain beliefs.Report

AD
AD
Reply to  krell_154
11 months ago

Shelley,

In conversations like these, it often comes off as though you don’t think there’s rational disagreement about any of the various philosophical positions you endorse. So, would you mind clearing up where you stand on this: in your view, are people who disagree with you about these issues (like the one above) irrational or otherwise employing defective reasoning?

I’d find it pretty surprising that philosophy of disability is the *one* place where there isn’t rational (or otherwise non-defective) disagreement.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
11 months ago

“What types of natural traits could a person with as much worth as anyone else be better off without?”

Metastatic cancer?Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

David, there is increasing evidence that various forms of cancer are not “natural,” but rather the product of social, cultural, and environmental factors. There is a great deal of epidemiological variation geographically. That medicine and science continue to privilege genetic and so-called natural factors in their research is part of the constitution of cancer as natural, requiring medical responses rather than social, economic, and environmental change. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Dinosaurs got cancer.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

David Wallace wins the internet today.Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Hi, Shelley.

Thank you for raising this point. Interestingly, we are seeing this with COVID-19 mortality figures right now. Though the virus is certainly natural, who is dying from it has many social contributors based on the type of work certain folks have access to (work from home? workplace work but low contact? or workplace work with high contact?), the kinds of housing folks are in, whether allostatic factors like socially-induced stress increase disease burden and thus risk factors for poor COVID-19 outcomes, and more. There’s a reason that Black folks in America make up a wildly disproportionate percentage of those dying from COVID-19. And it’s not because Blackness “naturally” makes one more prone to bad outcomes from this virus.

Similarly, while cancer is a biological phenomenon, likelihood of getting it really isn’t “natural” and really is affected by how we live and how we must live (which isn’t entirely within our control), by whether affordable housing is near carcinogenic manufacturing plants or draws on contaminated groundwater, etc.

I appreciate this sensitivity to how the construction of disease as solely medical draws our attention to medical responses rather than to social ones that could prevent or mitigate disease. Public health folks talk about this all the time when they discuss social determinants of health, and target those instead of just individual bodies and individual behaviors.

Thanks for raising it. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Alison, these are very good points but I wonder if we’re not conflating different things. I suspect David Wallace, and anyone here, would agree that environmental factors (broadly construed) affect the distribution of cancers across different groups (I don’t want to speak for him though). But that’s a statistical claim. On the other hand, for any given individual being diagnosed with a form of cancer, independently of its distribution and the causes of its being distributed the way it is, there are some underlying biological facts, including genetic factors, that contribute to the realization of the cancer. The same is true of COVID-19. For at least some people it is going to be true that the fact that they had such and such comorbidity contributes at least in part to explaining their risk of dying of the disease. Sure, the fact that they had a comorbidity sometimes will involve environmental factors, but also genetic ones. Surely it’s not obvious or known for a fact that genetic factors play necessarily no role in these explanations, and accepting this does not preclude giving a role, even an important one, to environmental factors. That’s true of both individual attribution and statistical distribution.

The question then remains: why think that, because cancer or other diseases involve environmental factors, we cannot ask whether an individual should have wished they didn’t have whatever biological characteristics contributed to their developing it?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Why are men dying of coronavirus so much more than women, on this view?Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

+1 to Nicolas’s comment.

*Of course* environmental/cultural/social factors are among the causes of cancer and of Covid-19. Rates of smoking, diet, stress levels etc. can each make it more or less likely that one will develop cancer. It’s hard to imagine that anyone seriously doubts this: I’m not at all convinced that the research community is ignorant of or insensitive to the role of the environment/social factors as opposed to genetic factors.

When Shelley says that cancer is not “natural” or “given” or that it’s “socially constructed”, I take her mean that it is a phenomenon that depends in some way on how we think about it or understand it. In much the way that the very existence of the British Monarchy or the US dollar is dependent upon the significance we attach to it, cancer is likewise socially contingent in this way. (apologies to Shelley if I’ve misrepresented her here). *That* claim is highly counter-intuitive, and to my mind just implausible. Whatever the causal factors at play in one getting cancer, whether one has it is a natural fact about the world. Unlike, say, the British Monarchy, it won’t go away by our thinking about it differently. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I’m kind of amused at the scale of the discussion my fairly brief comments generated (and also kind of sorry, because I thought the original discussion, on free speech in Oxford, is important… but that ship has sailed.)

As a brief expansion: obviously environmental factors affect cancer rates. They affected cancer rates in dinosaurs too. (IIRC, the leading theory for why hadrosaurs got more tumors is that they ate lots of pine, which has lots of carcinogens). I don’t think that affects the dialectic, which was:

Arthur Greeves: what types of natural traits could a person with as much worth as anyone else be better off without?
Me: Metastatic cancer?
Shelley Tremaine: Research says that various forms of cancer are not ‘natural’.
Me: Dinosaurs got cancer [and, implied inference, therefore cancer is (at least sometimes) natural if any biological trait is].

If nonzero sensitivity to environmental factors renders a trait ‘not natural’, then there are no natural traits, and the whole discussion become s moot (and the supposed definition of ‘natural’ becomes silly, and therefore not something to attribute to a reasonable interlocutor unless forced to, on principle-of-charity grounds). One doesn’t need ‘research’ to establish that there are no natural traits in this silly sense, just attention to the obvious fact that organisms evolve under certain background conditions and their traits will manifest differently if you vary those background conditions – or to the even more obvious fact that organisms behave differently in hard vacuum than they do on the Earth’s surface. Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
11 months ago

Justin,
Christine Overall criticizes the notion of procreative beneficence in _Why Have Children?_ and Melinda Hall criticizes Savulescu’s ideas about disability in _The Bioethics of Enhancement_.

The problems with the distinction go to the heart of arguments about the metaphysics of disability that I make in my book, _Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability_. Savulescu naturalizes disability; makes a nature-culture separation between what disability is, on the one side, and how disabled people should be treated, on the other. But disability is socially constituted (all the way down), as the students seem to recognize. Any conception of disability relies upon ideas about normality, including allegedly normal and natural functions, allegedly normal and natural abilities, appearance, structure, and so on. Normality too is a social construction, historically contingent, and culturally relative and specific. Ableism derives from the assumption that normality a natural property, a natural kind.Report

Bart
Bart
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I do not see an argument here that shows why distinguishing between “identifying conditions, such as poor memory, that tend to make people’s lives worse … and saying that people with those conditions are less deserving of respect or are less valuable” leads to harm. Even granting that treating disability as natural instead of socially constructed would lead to harm, the above distinction per se seems to carry no commitment to disability being natural.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Bart
11 months ago

Bart, if Savulescu’s distinction doesn’t assume that disability is natural (and naturally disadvantageous), then it seems odd that he would argue that the use of genetic and other prenatal selection technologies are morally imperative (“procreative beneficence”) and hence appropriate social responses to disability rather than argue for social reconfiguration including anti-discrimination legislation, consciousness raising, the incorporation of philosophy of disability into philosophy department curricula, and so on.
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Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Just to be clear on how extreme this view is: rather than have warnings that pregnant persons should not drink alcohol, we should have phil. of disabilities courses in which we learn fetal alcohol syndrome (limited attention and emotional control, poor executive functioning, disposition to addiction, etc.) is not a bad thing to have and that it is wrong to shame or otherwise prevent prospective parents from exposing fetuses to alcohol?Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  Lowlygrad
11 months ago

Hi, Lowlygrad.

You might be interested in some of the literature on FAS which argues that the important thing to do is target the social determinants of health that play a role in FAS, and also that if we get hung up on whether pregnant women who drink are immoral, we will fail to create a society in which people with FAS can live flourishing lives. A society built to make such flourishing lives possible will also make all manner of other ways of existing more flourishing, and make real idealistic talk about equality, decency, and concern for existing people’s welfare. We must attend to those among us who exist, rather than focusing on ensuring they do not exist. Too often, that’s what happens once we begin conversations about parental responsibility.

If you’re interested, and I see your reply, I’d be happy to drop a few links.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Lowlygrad
11 months ago

The reference to “shame or otherwise prevent” in lowlygrad’s post is perhaps unfortunate, but it’s not load-bearing in their argument. If it was changed to “strongly encourage parents not to expose the fetus to alcohol”, or even just to “educate parents in the severe health risk to the fetus from exposure to alcohol”, I think the basic point would stand.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Note that even by Shelley Tremain’s lights the allegedly offensive distinction that’s being made in Savulescu’s paper is ‘s fundamental to how bioethicists and political philosophers have understood disability and the social responses that it requires’. If that’s correct then even if Shelly Tremain is in fact right in her criticisms of making this distinction, saying that it shouldn’t be on student syllabuses because it’s bigoted looks crazy. How could academia possibly function if views with wide support among the experts in a discipline got booted of courses just because some other people think those views are wrong and dangerous? Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

Is that what is being asked for, according to Justin’s discussion of the demands in question? That these things be unteachable, forbidden knowledge?Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Alison Reiheld
11 months ago

Not officially, but read David Wallace’s comment furthet down about how the LGBT student group who originally proposed the motion want to get the stuff they are targetting kicked of the syllabuses in the long term. Of course, not everyone who backed the motion necessarily shares that view.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Alison Reiheld
11 months ago

in reality, yesReport

Lysette Chaproniere
Lysette Chaproniere
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I’m a disabled philosophy PhD student working on disability. More specifically, my work is about the connections between disability and human enhancement, so I’ve read quite a lot of Savulescu’s work.

I think the distinction between saying that a condition makes people’s lives go worse, and that the condition makes people who have it less valuable, is important to maintain. I don’t find it plausible that, in some realistic possible society, our biological traits would have no effect on our well-being. At least I don’t think anyone is in a good position to know that such a society could exist. I’d think if there could be a society where the traits we typically call disabilities were no more likely to decrease well-being than to increase it, then that society would have to be not only significantly less ableist, but also significantly more technologically advanced than the current world. That is to say, we can’t be sure that there are no biological traits that tend to decrease well-being.

I’m not committed to the view that disability is straightforwardly bad in the way so many people think it is, or that all disabled people would be better off without their disabilities. We shouldn’t assume by default that disability is bad. It’s probably right to say that many disabilities are less bad than most people think, and even if a trait is bad for most people, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad for all people in all contexts. However, I would at least make the relatively weak claim that there might be some traits that are more likely to decrease well-being than to increase it.

If we don’t make the distinction, then as far as I can tell, we have two options. On the one hand, we could say that, in a just society, no biological traits lower well-being. That doesn’t seem like something we should claim to know, unless we stipulated that, by definition, a just society is one in which disabled people don’t have lower well-being. On the other hand, we could claim that some of the traits we call disabilities might reduce well-being, but if they do, that makes disabled people of less moral worth. I think we should make the distinction because the worth of disabled people shouldn’t depend on a proposition that we can’t be confident is true.

Shelley, I don’t think your menstruation example shows what you think it does. I think we could claim that menstruation lowers quality of life without denigrating women,. You refer to comments that menstruation is polluting or dirty, but I’d interpret those comments as suggesting that (menstruating) women are disgusting, not that menstruation is bad for women. If someone says that disability is bad because disabled people are disgusting, that’s obviously ableist, but it’s not the same as saying that disability is bad in the sense that it reduces quality of life. The latter claim might be used as a premise in an argument for the former, but it needn’t have that implication.

As to your later question about why Savulescu argues for genetic selection rather than social reform, in ‘The Welfarist Account of Disability’, the chapter he authored with Guy Kahane in the volume ‘Disability and Disadvantage’, he says “There is moral priority to changing people’s prejudices rather than the objects of their prejudice.” (P. 35) However, in the same chapter Kahane and Savulescu say that “not all reduction of well-being due to social factors amounts to discrimination” (p. 41).Report

Ray Briggs
Ray Briggs
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, I’m also curious about how to square the social model of disability with the observation that some people with disabilities find their disabilities bad for reasons that seem unrelated to the social meaning of disability.

It sounds like a thing to read for that is chapters 2 and 3 of your book, yes? (Other reading recommendations will be accepted gratefully.)

Your menstruation analogy is interesting to me, because I think of menstruation as a thing that is very very bad should it occur in my body, but not a thing that I want to disparage in general. (I’m sure other people have similar experiences with body hair.) One thing that bugs me a bit about the Salvescu is how confident he is that he understands the unique meanings and values of bodies, when they in fact have different meanings and values to different people. Any readings to recommend on that?Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Ray Briggs
11 months ago

Hi Ray, I want to point out, first of all, that you have used a dominant conception of disability that I do not assume. On this conception, disability is a property, trait, characteristic, difference, etc. of a person. Thus, one can refer to “people with disabilities.” I understand disability as an apparatus of power that produces disabled people. The dominant version of the “social model,” namely, the British social model (BSM) construes disability as a form of oppression (singular) that is “imposed” upon “people with [natural] impairments.” In other words, the BSM makes a nature-culture distinction analogous to the distinction made in the terms of the dominant version of the sex-gender distinction. The difference between the conception of disability that you articulated and the BSM is crucial to proponents of the latter. They argue that it denaturalizes disability: nature is to sex and impairment as culture is to gender and disability. In my article “On the Government of Disability,” I showed that impairment too is socially constructed. That article changed the face of much philosophy and theory of disability.

All of that explanation is by way of saying that the BSM does not preclude a given disabled person from regarding their “impairment” as painful or “bad” or having any other subjective experience. At one time, a number of disabled feminists and others in the UK who were sympathetic to the aims of the BSM nevertheless critcized it for ignoring impairment and its phenomena. This sort of criticism has largely been rendered superfluous because of my critiques of the BSM and the work of disabled feminists (and others) who have drawn upon feminist materialism and materialist feminism.

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Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

As I re-read my response to you, Ray, I remembered that I wanted to say that I think it important to take into account the enormous constitutive influence that internalized oppression can have on one’s subjective experiences, including one’s experiences of one’s own embodiment.

Many philosophers teach work that construes disability as a deleterious personal trait or characteristic. As this discussion demonstrates, many of them *justify* doing so by appeal to examples one this or that disabled person who (for example) wants to be nondisabled, thinks that they are naturally disadvantaged, and so on. I don’t find these justifications compelling. How many philosophers are promoting conversion therapies because some lesbians and gay men are grappling with internalized homophobia?Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, on your view would it be *possible* to receive evidence that a disability was ‘a deletrious personal trait’? If so, what would the evidence look like? If not, why is this impossible, rather than merely not actual?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

“In my article “On the Government of Disability,” I showed that impairment too is socially constructed. That article changed the face of much philosophy and theory of disability.”

Shelley, I’m trying to get clear on what you mean here, and to ensure that you’re really saying what you seem to be saying and not (for instance) that the impairment-concept or the word ‘impairment’ is socially constructed. If you would be so good as to answer the following two questions, I think it would make it clear enough.

1) Suppose I live alone on a desert island. I have no contact with any larger society, and I have fended for myself since being abandoned there at a very young age. Part of what I must do every day involves climbing up and down a steep and rocky hill. One day, I break my leg, and it never heals very well. It now takes me eight hours to go up and down the hill, whereas it used to take me twenty minutes. Moreover, it’s now very painful. I’d say it follows from this that my broken leg is an impairment, pure and simple, objectively, regardless of what any social perspective has to say about it. Do you agree, or disagree?

2) Now please imagine a deer in an environment with bears and other predators. It, too, breaks its leg. It now moves much more slowly. If a bear ever tries to sneak up on a bunch of deer in the field, this one with the broken leg is going to lag far behind the rest, and will be eaten. Had it not broken its leg, that would not be so. Would you agree with me that that deer has an impairment in the form of its broken leg?

I hope you will answer these questions.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Justin,

most of my publications are here: https://philpeople.org/profiles/shelley-tremain

as I suggested to D. Mathers, my written work likely addresses these questions in one way or another (especially given that none of them seems remarkably original or unique). Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

If you address it in your published work, why can’t you address it here? If the answer is ‘because my view is really really complex and can’t have justice done to it in a couple of paragraphs’ shouldn’t that very complexity be a sign that you can’t be *too* confident that your view is correct, because there are far more places where a complex chain of reasoning can go wrong than a simple one in virtue of it’s complexity? I mean, it’s ok to still feel your view is right, but I’d have thought that if your dismissive of entire fields, like mainstream bioethics, on the basis that you are clearly right and they wrong, you should give this at least *some* thought. (Though I admit I’m to some degree taking a controversial stance on the epistemology of disagreement here.)

But in any case, the questions Justin is asking are ‘yes’ ‘no’ questions, so it’s not clear to me why you couldn’t answer them briefly. He didn’t ask you to say *why* you answer the questions the way you do, but just what your answer is. Even ‘my view leaves this open as there are complex considerations on both sides and I haven’t fully worked things out yet’, would be a brief and clear answer. Given this, it seems a bit rude that your instead demanding people read a full paper, rather than both answering *and* saying ‘here is my paper where I give my reasons for the answer if you want to know more; please don’t assume I have no good reasons without reading it’, or something to that effect. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Thanks, Shelley.

However, the two questions I asked you were simply yes/no questions:
1) Would I have an impairment if I broke my leg on the deserted island, on your view? and
2) Would the deer with a broken leg have an impairment, on your view?

Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these questions would have taken you less time than writing the brief reference to your work. Of course, you’re perfectly within your rights not to answer the questions; but I’ve found over long experience that people who won’t answer simple questions but refer one to much longer works of their own tend not to have answered the question there, either, and following the leads tends to be a real time sink. Of course, I don’t know for sure that you don’t have a great answer to those simple questions somewhere in your written work. But speaking for myself, I’m reluctant to invest the time in digging through it all if you can’t give us a sense of what your answer is here.

I suspect that many others who read this thread will feel the same way. If you’d like to get us to read your contributions to the literature (and maybe you wouldn’t!), it would be very useful for me at least to have a sense of the answers you give. But if you’d rather not take a couple of minutes to make your position clearer and more plausible, that’s fine.Report

Lysette Chaproniere
Lysette Chaproniere
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Justin Kalef, I’m going to have a go at explaining what I understand of Shelley Tremain’s view and what the answers to your questions would be on her understanding of disability/impairment. Please note, however, that although I work on disability, I’m not very familiar with Foucault, and my philosophical training has been exclusively analytic. I’m not at all confident that I’ve understood her views, so I’m doing this just as much to test my own understanding as to explain it to you and other readers. Shelley, please do correct me if I’ve misunderstood anything you said.

I’m basing this primarily on Tremain’s paper ‘On the Government of Disability’. The aim of that paper is to argue that not only disabilities, but also impairments, are socially constructed. She makes an analogy between the impairment/disability distinction and the sex/gender distinction. She doesn’t deny that there are differences between male and female bodies, but sexes, and impairments, don’t exist prior to discourse. She gives the example of Yoruba culture, in which relative age is a much more salient category than sex. Yoruba pronouns, for instance, indicate whether the person referred to is older or younger than the speaker. Different cultures have different ways of carving up nature, so even if two different cultures had an impairment concept, they would very likely have different criteria for determining which traits count as impairments.

When we classify some people as disabled/impaired, that is one of the ways in which power produces a certain sort of subject, so as to make people easier to manage and control, and to make their bodies docile. These categories are not merely ways of describing and classifying people. Consider another of Tremain’s examples: the category of woman refugee. Whether you can escape from your country, whether you get access to certain forms of assistance, depends on whether you are put into that category or not.

So to try to answer your first question, I think Tremain would have to say that your broken leg is real. Would it count as an impairment? If there is no discourse about impairments on the island, if power hasn’t constructed you as the right sort of subject, I think the answer would be no. Nobody is classifying your broken leg as an impairment, as a means of disciplining you. However, a possible complication, which I’m not sure what to say about, is this. Suppose that, prior to your time on the island, you lived in a society, and you so thoroughly internalised the disciplinary norms of this society that, once you move to the island and break your leg, power, as it operated in your former culture, is constraining your actions. Would it count as an impairment then? Or imagine a cisgender woman, who lives in a culture in which sex operates as most readers of this thread are likely to understand it. She then moves into Yoruba culture. Once she’s made the move, and people use pronouns that refer to her relative age, does she have a sex or not? In other words, does whether you count as having a sex or an impairment depend more on your current environment, or on the disciplinary norms you’ve internalised? I don’t know, but that probably just reflects my ignorance of Foucault.

For your second question, if we’re imagining that there are no humans to classify the deer’s broken leg as an impairment, or to make the deer’s body docile, again, i think the answer would be no.Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Lysette Chaproniere
11 months ago

“ So to try to answer your first question, I think Tremain would have to say that your broken leg is real. Would it count as an impairment? If there is no discourse about impairments on the island, if power hasn’t constructed you as the right sort of subject, I think the answer would be no.”

Then her account is patently absurd.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Lysette Chaproniere
11 months ago

Lysette, I really appreciate your having taken the time to set this out.

If that is indeed what Shelley would say, then I can’t help but think that she is using the word ‘impairment’ to mean something quite different from what it means in common usage, or than what it means by the dictionary definition. A broken leg does not function as well as a regular leg at standard activities like climbing a rocky hill or running from a predator. Broken legs, and the purposes to which people and animals, put their legs, have existed for vastly longer than any social concepts. They can also occur today in contexts where there are no social concepts. It therefore cannot be that whether some person or animal has an impairment depends on what society has to say about it.

This reasoning follows from simple premises that I can’t imagine are in serious doubt. it seems quite clear — unless, of course, the game is just to come up with new definitions for familiar words and use them to make statements that seem clearly false but, when the redefined terms are replaced with corrected ones so that the meaning is clear, turn out to be uncontroversial.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Lysette Chaproniere
11 months ago

Seems like on your version of Shelley’s if we made no effort to accommodate disabled people at all but somehow managed to have no words or concepts for disability, there would be no disability-or-impairment-related injustice. After all, there can’t be such injustice if there’s no disability or impairment. And on the view you have sketched there’s no such thing as disability or impairment until people form words or concepts for them.

Not just implausible, but accidentally sinister as well.
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Joe Stramondo
Joe Stramondo
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Thanks for this comment, Shelley.

Firstly, I’m not sure if we ought to exactly characterize the notion that disabled people are inevitably worse off in virtue of their disability as “hate speech,” simply because I am not sure I have a good enough handle on what the necessary and sufficient conditions should be for characterizing anything as hate speech. What is clearly true, however, is that the simple assumption that the disadvantages of disability are natural and inevitable preclude any serious commitment to the notion of disability rights. I am generally not the biggest fan of using the language”equal value of lives” and I am not yet ready to commit to the idea that the the biological features of a body that are typically characterized as disabilities are pure social construct (though I am not willing to commit to any competing ontology of disability either). Yet, I don’t think adopting this view is even necessary for understanding why a view like Savulescu’s (or Brock’s or Daniels’ or Singer’s ) that naturalizes the DISADVANTAGE of disability and frames it as inevitably disadvantageous contradicts the basic logic of disability rights. The very idea that social/political remedies for the disadvantages of disability are possible and morally required assumes that the disadvantages of disability are the kinds of things that can be remedied by these means. To me, whether disabilities are natural kinds doesn’t matter so much as whether the disadvantages of being disabled are natural. When you make THAT claim, you are basically denying the existence (or at least the relevance) of all of the structural discrimination experienced by disabled people and arguing that there is no justification for taking steps toward justice for us because the cause of us being badly off is biological and not something that is subject to the discourse of rights.

If anyone is interested in versions of this argument that are most fleshed out than what is possible in a blog comment, in addition to Shelley’s work, I’d suggest:

https://philpapers.org/rec/STRHAI

https://philpapers.org/rec/AMUOAB

https://philpapers.org/rec/AMUBAD

https://hilo.hawaii.edu/~ronald/pubs/2005-Disabil-Ideol-QOL.pdf

Next, there is this issue of teaching work that advances what I take to be views that diminish disability rights. I don’t think Shelley or any other serious philosopher would make the case that these sorts of materials shouldn’t be taught. I teach readings by Savulescu, Brock, Daniels, and Singer that take what Barnes call the “bad difference” view of disability nearly every semester. What it is quite common and what I do take to be quite problematic is when these kinds of views are taught UNCRITICALLY. The first bit of evidence that I have for the notion that anti-disability rights views that naturalize the disadvantages of disability are taught uncritically as standard practice is because there are virtually no bioethics textbooks that contain scholarship from disability bioethicists that have been writing on issues like prenatal diagnosis, physician assisted suicide, etc, in ways that challenge the “bad difference view” for DECADES. (Every time Vaughn comes out with a new edition, I am disappointed). Next, there is the fact that so many commentators on this thread are so utterly unfamiliar with the argument that naturalizing the disadvantages of disability is deeply ableist. Teaching these sorts of views without balancing them with critical scholarship may be protected free speech, but it is also piss poor pedagogy. Maybe if folks taught this stuff responsibly, in a way that invited criticism and nuance, these students wouldn’t be going through all this trouble?Report

Matt
Reply to  Joe Stramondo
11 months ago

Do Brock, Daniels, etc. argue that “natural” or “biological” = “unchangeable”? That would be a really amazing view. (It’s a commonplace in discussions by people like Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin, for example, that bad eye sight is often natural and biological, but easily changeable.) But, if a trait or its impact is changeable, even though it’s natural or biological, why would its “naturalness” mean that there can’t be a duty to change it or its impact (if it can be done at reasonable cost and would make the people in question better off?) And if there can be a duty to change the trait or impact of a trait (even though it’s biological or natural), why wouldn’t those with the condition have a right to this, at least in most cases? I’ve not read Daniels on disability, but I’ve read lots of his other work, and it would seem shocking to me if he thought there were no such duties or rights, given his other views. This is getting us off topic a fair amount, and maybe I’m just misunderstanding the claim, but as put, it sounds really confusing to me. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Joe Stramondo
11 months ago

In addition to the point just made that something can be both natural and fixable by human intervention:

Why couldn’t it be the case that some *disadvantages* of disability are natural and others are social? “Disability” is a very broad and heterogenous category at the biological level after all, so it would be unsurprising if some of the things called ‘disabilities’ only cause disadvantage relative to a social context and others might be disadvantageous no matter what.

And why couldn’t it be that sometimes even when a disadvantage is social things cannot in fact be fully fixed by just convincing people they ought to have better feelings and attitudes. I’ll give a very personal example here. I have *visible* autism, by which I mean my natural sitting position if I’m at all anxious or excited is not still, but rocking back and forth quite vigorously. (It’s not a literally involuntary movement like a spasm, but something I naturally fall into without monitoring.) Now, this makes many other people quite uncomfortable. I also *strongly* suspect that it makes it really quite difficult for other people to regard me as sexually attractive. Now, some negative reactions that people have to this are clearly cases of bigotry to be dealt with by discouraging bigotry: i.e. the person who came up to me in a bar in Kreuzberg and decided to hassle me for looking weird. But because this rocking looks rather like an exaggerated version of distress in the average person, I find it very hard to tell whether a) it’s possible for people to learn not to find it off-putting at all, or b) it trips certain fairly automatic things in the brain for detecting distress in others that will always be there in any realistic social setting, and that will always create a certain amount of discomfort. I don’t see that I need to be certain the answer is a), before I start demanding that as much is done to improve people’s attitudes as is possible (and not ruinously costly.) This illustrates I think that ‘he disadvantages of disability are natural and inevitable preclude any serious commitment to the notion of disability rights’ Is setting up a false dichotomy between ‘can be changed completely’ and ‘doesn’t respond to social change at all’.

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David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

I should have added, ‘or by providing government resources or mandating accommodations from businesses and employers and public buldings’ to ‘And why couldn’t it be that sometimes even when a disadvantage is social things cannot in fact be fully fixed by just convincing people they ought to have better feelings and attitudes’. I’m aware that ‘social’ doesn’t mean ‘to do with the attitudes of individuals in a society’.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

I would note in passing that I certainly won’t be able to figure out whether a) or b) is true *just* on the basis of my lived experience. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Joe Stramondo
11 months ago

I agree that if you’re teaching Singer or Savulescu, it’d be a nice idea to teach critics of them like Barnes too. Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Joe Stramondo
11 months ago

Hello Joe,

I’m not sure most of the commenters assumed “natural” to mean “inevitable” here, so it may be that commenters and Shelley and you have been talking past each other on the issue of “naturalizing” disabilities. You’re certainly right that by describing disabilities as natural traits leading to inevitable disadvantage we would be undercutting legitimate claims of justice for the disabled. As David points out, however, both biological traits and social phenomena could be “naturalized” in this sense, so the issue seems orthogonal, which is why I think folks may have been talking past each other.

You write, “so many commentators on this thread are so utterly unfamiliar with the argument that naturalizing the disadvantages of disability is deeply ableist.” I just want to flag that I agree it’s plausibly ableist, but that I don’t think many commentators were engaging in a dialectic that suggests they are “utterly unfamiliar with the argument”. And accepting the argument doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to push back against Shelley’s arguments. Again, folks may have been talking past each other. Most of these commentators have also explicitly stated their repudiation of Savulescu’s view, while defending the reasonableness of his distinction between contribution to well-being and people’s worth.

Now, of course, the first horn of the distinction is more complex than Savulescu and others intimate, and it’s reasonable to challenge the idea that *most* disabilities *always* contribute (pro tanto) negatively to well-being, let alone necessarily make an all-considered net negative contribution. On this point, my favored view is Barnes’ “mere difference view”, but if I may, I’d recommend your article with Stephen Campbell, which I found extremely useful when I taught it last fall in my first-year seminar on the good life:

Stephen M. Campbell, Joseph A. Stramondo (2017), “The Complicated Relationship of Disability and Well-Being”. _Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal_ 27(2):151—184. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2017.0014

All this to say, it need not be ableist or ignorant to argue that, at least in some cases (whether they are primarily determined by biology and/or social factors), certain traits will in certain if not most contexts lead to recognizable disadvantages that one may want to avoid, and—that was really the initial bone of contention—that making a judgment about this fact need not carry any negative judgment about the worth of a person (not even, I would say, about the value of that person’s life, if we assume that a good life involves more than just prudential wellbeing). Whether such traits can be reliably identified and recognized in advance is a different and difficult question, as is whether there are spillover effects of accepting such judgments on the actual treatment or perception of disabled people (which I grant there might well be, although they are probably not, to use your term, “inevitable”.Report

Joe Stramondo
Joe Stramondo
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
11 months ago

Hi Nicholas,

Of course I agree that it is a false dichotomy to claim that disabilities (a very broad category) are EITHER naturally and inevitably disadvantageous or never disadvantageous. However, (as you point out with your reading of Barnes and my work with Campbell), it’s not really the disability theorists that are making this claim. Mainstream bioethics often commits to a very strong version of the bad difference view (in fact, so much so that Amundson referred to it as the Standard View) and seems to regard the disadvantages of disability as natural and inevitable. Daniels is a useful foil here. I am not referring to anything special he has written about disability, but his famous argument that translates a Boorseian view of health and disease into a political justification of providing a basic minimum of healthcare based on the assumption that disease/disability equates with disadvantage. He doesn’t have any nuance added to his view here. It’s quite straightforward. Disability (on a naturalistic Boorseian view) = disadvantage, and thus we should cure it. How often is Daniels taught in a way that doesn’t criticize this assumption? Missing this (to me) quite obvious point is what makes me think that many interlocutors on this thread are quite unfamiliar with this argument.

Turning to Savulescu, some of his more recent work (specifically his essay with Kahane in the Cureton anthology) does have more nuance that doesn’t straightforwardly assume that disability (in the colloquial sense) = disadvantage. However, the early article that these students refer to absolutely is built on the assumption that the disadvantages of disability are inevitable in very much the same vein as Daniels’ work. This isn’t surprising. After all, it is the Standard View. Report

Dennis Arjo
11 months ago

It’s good to read the students as charitably as possible, but some obvious points are missed here. The students begin with a call to treat the material they find objectionable as if it were criminalized—that is what they are calling for when they say “The relevant hate speech legislation should be amended to cover those groups, but failing that, internal university policy should secure parity between protected characteristic groups so far as it legally can.” This could only mean banning the works in question if they do indeed constitute ‘hate speech.’ I read the references to making such material optional and trigger warnings are a second best remedy.

The students are also rejecting the commonplace idea that professors, being experts in their fields, ought to be the ones who determine what material is covered in courses and programs, and that the institution, and not students, ought to determine what is necessary for matriculation. Academic freedom exists to protect the rights of professors to do their part in this model of education. The students expressly reject this: “free speech based arguments…are inapplicable when students to whom the speech is directed are required by the University to listen to the speech in question.” In other words, there should be no academic freedom in required courses.Report

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
11 months ago

I think a couple of different things are getting run together in your #2, but I take it the crux of the question here is a student’s right to opt out of material they judge to be offensive, or harmful, or what have you. I think that a) all students (not just those in listed groups) have a right to competently designed and taught classes; and b) life being what it is, a good education sometimes causes distress and bad feelings. I’m guessing almost everyone agrees. The danger is with using personal judgments and feelings to turn unhappiness in the b) neighborhood into complaints in the a) neighborhood. When this is or isn’t happening is where people disagree. I don’t think any policy is going to draw an effective line here. Students should have recourse against incompetent instruction, but not against material they don’t like.

I don’t know that the content warning issue is very real. Does anyone object to professors giving their students a heads up before wading into rough stuff? Freshman orientations and the like should probably have a blanket warning to the effect that college students are adults and will be reading adult material which sometimes might be kind of rough, but I don’t see a need for any policies beyond that. Philosophers teaching Savulescu and the like should be very sensitive to how it might affect some of their students, but that’s a matter of professional expectations and good teaching.

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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
11 months ago

“I don’t think encouragements to professors to adopt content warnings for certain materials is a violation of their academic freedom.”

I don’t think they’d just be ‘encouraged to’ under the motion’s proposals. The last point in the Appendix asks the University to “publish guidance to course conveners *requiring* them to take into account [the impact of prejudicial materials]… this should *require* trigger warnings on reading lists at a bare minimum.” (Emphasis mine.)

I suppose calling it ‘guidance’ technically gives some wriggle room (strictly speaking for guidance to require something would be a contradiction in terms) but I think the intended meaning is clear – even without allowing for the somewhat Orwellian way ‘guidance’ is normally used in UK HE.Report

BB
BB
11 months ago

I think you’re underestimating the significance of (2). Kant’s Groundwork and Second Critique would presumably amount to criminal hate speech under this definition, as would (say) Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist. There does not seem to me to be any question that a blanket prohibition against assigning texts like these in required courses would be deeply antithetical to academic values.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  BB
11 months ago

They aren’t trying to target texts like that. This is, like most fusses of this sort, about current politics. The actual targets will be this sort of thing (not claiming to have captured all of them): a) “radical feminist” stuff that says that trans women aren’t women, or women shouldn’t be allowed in “women’s spaces”, b) mainstream bioethics that assumes that being disabled typically makes you worse off, and we should avoid people becoming disabled if we can, and c) “race science”, i.e. stuff that points to the lower average scores on IQ tests of black people relative to white people and argues or at least speculatively entertains that there is a genetic explanation for this.

People will say that I can’t possibly know what I have in mind, but I’d note that the example they give of a target (Savulescu’s paper) falls under b). Report

Louis
11 months ago

I don’t know anything about the particular legal context here, i.e., how the Public Order Act of 1986 and its hate speech provisions have been interpreted and applied by courts in the UK and how, if at all, those provisions have been applied to universities and curricula and reading lists.

That said, it seems to me that a broader question raised by these sorts of controversies is whether students should be allowed (or encouraged) to shield themselves from exposure to views that are — either in an objective or a subjective sense (or both) — disturbing, challenging, and upsetting to them. I’d suggest that one way students learn to think well and argue carefully and persuasively is by having to confront views that are upsetting and even repugnant (or hurtful) to them. In the long run, students who are allowed to shield themselves from exposure to classist, racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist, pro-fascist, pro-authoritarian, xenophobic etc. etc. arguments when they are in university may be putting themselves at a disadvantage intellectually. That’s because when they leave university and start working/living as adults in “the real world” they are likely to encounter such views (unless they want to live in protective bubbles), and if they have chosen to shield themselves from exposure to such views as students they may be less well-equipped to counter them when they find those views in the world outside the academy.

There are no doubt individual cases at the extremes where, for example, a disabled (or differently abled) student should be given content warnings and opt-out avenues before being required to read an article that argues that certain disabled people are cosmic or biological “mistakes” or “errors” (if indeed any professor would assign such a piece in the first place). But granting the existence of such cases, it seems to me that the general presumption should be in favor of exposure to challenging and even repugnant views, not against such exposure.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Louis
11 months ago

Friendly addendum:

I agree that students should not be allowed to shield themselves from views that upset them. But I’m not sure I can agree with the reason you give, namely, that they need practice for the real world.

Out there in the real world, unfortunately, we are increasingly living in bubbles: living in politically homogeneous neighborhoods, eating at politically homogeneous restaurants, buying coffee at politically homogeneous coffee shops, shopping at politically homogeneous grocery stores, etc.

Perhaps we should draw attention, like Mill does, to the “pinched and hidebound nature” of those who shield themselves from free discussion. In other words, refer less to what students will fail to do and more on what students will fail to be.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
11 months ago

“Out there in the real world, unfortunately, we are increasingly living in bubbles … eating at politically homogeneous restaurants, buying coffee at politically homogeneous coffee shops”

Not for the last couple of months.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Ha! Touché.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Of course we’ve been living in a different sort of bubble in “the real world” these past couple months. (Though hopefully one effect of this experience will be to make clear that the bubble/real world dichotomy isn’t as clear as people sometimes think it is.)Report

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
11 months ago

To Animal Symbolicum, above:
Yes, I think you make a good point. Addendum accepted. Though since the degree of insulation or bubble-dom probably still varies somewhat, I might want to make both arguments (i.e., doing and being) to some extent.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Louis
11 months ago

Sounds reasonable to me, Louis!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

Two bits of relevant Oxford background (I’ll separate this out from my more substantive comments):

1) Not requiring students to take any courses containing hate speech – as OUSU defines it – would have pretty sweeping implications for faculty’s academic freedom because of the way an Oxford degree course is structured: courses are organized in a more centralized way, many more are compulsory, and (mostly because of the time demands of the tutorial system) there are just fewer of them. In philosophy, for instance, there is a first-year Ethics course (Introduction to Moral Philosophy) and a second-year one (Ethics) which are compulsory for the bulk of philosophy students – and basically no other Ethics courses anywhere else on the syllabus. (When I left there was talk of introducing an optional Applied Ethics course; I don’t know where that has got to.) These courses are taught in colleges by dozens of different faculty members, who have very considerable freedom to choose their own readings. So if there is some ethics reading that fails OUSU’s offensiveness test, to a good first approximation that would mean that it could not be taught *at all*.

2) In answer to Justin’s question, Academic Affairs and Equal Opportunity are OUSU officers (elected, paid one-year sabbatical officers), not University officers. The motion is actually binding on them, since it’s an OUSU motion (and they’ve complied with it, albeit in a rather carefully worded way) but they in turn only have the power to lobby the University.Report

JDF
JDF
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

The ‘organized centrally; taught locally’ model has another relevant aspect which makes these demands a bit odd in the context of the undergraduate philosophy joint degrees. A topic or an essay appearing on a faculty reading list is not particularly interesting or significant. The lists for most undergraduate finalist papers in philosophy anyway are massive, especially the two ethics ones (Ethics and Practical Ethics). Setting a syllabus for tutorials involves selecting around 1/2 or 1/3 of available topics. I’m not selecting eight topics close to my heart or the eight without which the semester is a waste of my time and their education. I pick ones which I think I am competent to teach, which jointly offer good coverage in preparation for the exam, and which constitute an interesting arc. More than eight fit the criteria. From there, I pick readings which I think form a good conversation on the topic. Again, more than the four or five I list fit.

If a student said that they would strongly prefer not to do topic X in Practical Ethics or Ethics or that some particular essay was too uncomfortably for them for whatever reason, I would just say ‘okay’ and pick another which fits. I would probably do so even if I thought that the student was being ridiculous since it really isn’t that big of an issue. I doubt that I’m an outlier here. And it isn’t like anyone forces students to go to lectures. So, it is a bit unclear what it would mean for any of this stuff to be ‘required’ for a student taking a paper, at least at the undergraduate level in philosophy papers.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

I read the motion rather differently from Justin, and much less reassuringly. Here’s my reading of what’s going on (OUSU=Oxford University Student Union):

1) The UK has hate speech legislation that restricts speech when that speech is seen as hateful on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. What counts as “hateful” is reasonably carefully, and reasonably restrictively, defined in that legislation; that said, there have been plenty of cases of public bodies overinterpreting that law, there is still room for debate as to its exact scope, and plenty of people (me for one) think it’s dangerous on net.

2) Because of this legislation, Oxford only protects academic free speech *when it’s legal*. That means that if an Oxford academic’s speech was hateful as defined in law, the university could take disciplinary action against them notwithstanding its academic-freedom policies – and, as I understand it, there would be no requirement for an actual criminal conviction for hate speech.

3) In principle, that gives Oxford a pretty expansive power: it could discipline academics for speech acts under its own interpretation of hate speech. However, to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t done so, and the hate speech exception is pretty narrow and hasn’t had much practical effect.

4) It is clear, both from the example in ‘Council notes’ (4) and from (1)-(2) of ‘Council believes’, that OUSU Council is operating under an extremely expansive definition of what constitutes hate speech, or at least what should be interpreted as hate speech in the University’s policy.

5) The motion, then, calls for Oxford to extend the category of unprotected speech from those categories contained in law to include hate speech related to gender identity, disability status and sex, under this extremely broad interpretation of ‘hate speech’.

If the University were to accept that, it would have far-reaching consequences. At present, when student activists demand that disciplinary action is taken against some academic on grounds of their views (like the student petition against John Finnis last January, or the demands for action against Selina Todd by OUSU’s LGBTQ+ campaign chair last April) the university’s academic-freedom policy means that those demands go nowhere. If OUSU Council’s proposal were accepted, the university could not simply resort to academic freedom as a defense: it would have to either defend those particular people on the merits, case by case, or bow to pressure.

Of course, the University did not accept it, and perhaps for that reason this isn’t worth discussing too much. (Students say dumb things about academic freedom; the University ignores them; news at 11.) But since the discussion here is actually about the content of the proposal, I want to point out how radical that content is, however remote the chances of it actually becoming policy. It goes well beyond the relatively specific course-design features that Justin identifies.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
11 months ago

There used to be a slogan around the internet: “Intent isn’t magic.” It is supposed to package up in a poignant way the idea that if one does something that is harmful, having not meant or intended harm isn’t making it any less harmful. It was (maybe still is?) predominantly used by marginalised groups who often have to contend with harmful claims, acts or ideas that are “not meant to be” harmful. But it cuts in all directions. If all there is to say in defence of these students is (a), i.e. that they are acting with well intent, then there isn’t much to say in their defence at all.

(The principle appears consequentialist on its surface but can easily be understood deontologically as well; neither are good intentions by themselves a virtue. Across the ethical landscape, intent just isn’t magic.)Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Hi David,
for some reason, I can’t respond to your comment about dinosaurs above. How is it known that dinosaurs got cancer and what its significance was for them? Did we learn that from medical anthropologists? We learned from anthropologists that our ancestors had natural sexes, didn’t we? At one time not very long ago, philosophers (and anthropologists) were almost unanimous in their belief that sex was natural. What has happened to the certainty about the body of knowledge that propped up that belief? I don’t think sex or cancer should be regarded as natural, as given.

I think that philosophers should ask why there is continued resistance to the claim that disability is a social phenomenon, an apparatus of power. What, for instance, is your investment, David, in arguing that disability is natural and hence naturally disadvantageous? Let me be clear about something: I am not trying to be adversarial or defensive. I would genuinely like to know what makes a philosopher who does not work on disability interested in rebuking the arguments of someone who does. If this post wasn’t about freedom of speech, would you be as interested in the discussion?

Do you read work in this area? Have you read any of my work on disability? Report

Not David
Not David
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

> I would genuinely like to know what makes a philosopher who does not work on disability interested in rebuking the arguments of someone who does.

Prof. Tremain, have you been to any conferences to colloquium talks where some of the audience members do not work in the speaker’s area? Let me be clear about something: I am not trying to be adversarial or defensive. I would genuinely like to know what your experience is like in this regard.

Plus, how does the disability literature in general or your work specifically help to elucidate the question “What types of natural traits could a person with as much worth as anyone else be better off without“? That’s what David’s comment responded to. Seems like a perfectly reasonable question in value theory in general to me. Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Not David
11 months ago

Hi Not David,
I think that philosophers should ask why there is continued resistance to the claim that disability is a social phenomenon, an apparatus of power. What, for instance, is your investment, David, in arguing that disability is natural and hence naturally disadvantageous?

My remarks about the social constitution of disability address your question about how my work elucidates the question of whether there are natural traits that make a person worse or better off. Most of my writing can be found on my PhilPapers page. Strictly speaking, I generally don’t regard my work as a form of value theory, though one could make the argument that all philosophy is value theory. Other philosophers of disability take their own approaches.

Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Hi Not David,
sorry, I’m encountering some problems with the blog. The first paragraph of my comment above should have said: I think the remarks I make before the ones you restate provide an important context. These remarks are: ….Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

As philosophers, we should be used, as a matter of practice, to other philosophers wondering what *reasons* we have for questioning their positions. All perfectly healthy.

But it’s quite different to shift away from reasons and arguments toward the question of what *motivation* or (even worse) *investment* philosophers have in questioning something. This very much sounds like a set-up for impugning the motivations and character of what could well just be honest interlocutors and enquirers, and even to impugn their characters in order to fend off uncomfortable rational criticism. Is it? Or is there some other reason for asking this question?

Even if such a question is asked innocently, one can perhaps see that it might have the effect of deterring all critics from taking their reasoning or inquiries any further. And that would seem a shame, because then we would have no way of knowing whether the position in question can be defended against the most powerful arguments.Report

Boethius
Boethius
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Hi Justin, I found this a useful articulation of something that I think is a widespread, if often implicit, methodological commitment amongst philosophers. Two questions/points, if I may (I mean these in good faith, in case my tone doesn’t come off):

(1) I take your normative upshot to be: engage your interlocutor in the space of reasons, don’t try to diagnose them in the space of causes! But your *reasons* for offering this norm have to do with likely if unintended consequences of violating it — i.e. that it will deter ‘all critics from taking their reasoning or inquiries any further’. Do you find it at all striking that you are saying that philosophers should desist from seeking out the truth on a particular question, i.e. people’s motivations for advancing certain positions, because doing so would have negative effects? I find it striking because I think (as evidenced by many of the comments here) that the philosophers who are resistant to what we might call the ‘motivational debunking move’ also tend to be resistant to the idea that philosophers should self-censor because of expected but unintended consequences of making certain arguments, e.g. Savulescu’s or Singer’s arguments about disability. (I’m granting such consequences for the sake of argument, just as I’m granting your claim about the silencing consequences of querying philosophers’ motivations.) Is there a tension here?

(2) You might respond by saying that questions of ‘investment’ are simply orthogonal to any questions of first-order philosophical interest, such that it is not ‘anti-philosophical’ to insist that philosophers don’t investigate them. But this is too easy. There is a large literature on the alethic ir/relevance of precisely these sorts of aetiological considerations. So it is at least nothing like settled science that an intellectual community’s ‘investment’ in advancing a theory is irrelevant to the question of that theory’s truth. Do you think that, when Charles Mills asks what investment Rawls had in writing thousands of pages on justice that assumes strict compliance and thus avoids questions of historical, especially racial, injustice, Mills is engaged in an inquiry that he shouldn’t, because it “might have the effect of deterring” Rawlsians from “taking their reasoning or inquiries any further”? (In fact, it did just the opposite, motivating some Rawlsians to try to loosen the assumption of strict compliance and turning towards non-ideal but still broadly Rawlsian theory.)

In short, Shelley’s question — “What, for instance, is your investment, in arguing that disability is natural and hence naturally disadvantageous?” — seems to me a philosophically good one. When I ask it of myself, I find it troubling in a productive way. This question might make some people uncomfortable. But then, on the view of the philosophers who are generally opposed to Shelley’s perspective on philosophical free speech, this isn’t reason not to ask it. And if the discomfort it prompts *is* a reason not to ask it, then that opens the way for assessing other bits of philosophical inquiry according to its likely, if unintended, consequences. But it seems to me that philosophers can’t have it both ways.Report

Not David
Not David
Reply to  Boethius
11 months ago

One can dance around it by going into dialectical etiquette or meta-philosophy however one wants, but it doesn’t address the fact that Shelley’s questioning

> What, for instance, is your investment, in arguing that disability is natural and hence naturally disadvantageous?

is orthogonal to the challenges presented to her view.

Also, the comparison to Charles Mills is inadequate. Mills never argues dinosaurs couldn’t have cancer, or anything, as David put it, “scientifically indefensible” like that; or, for that matter, when being challenged on the grounds that certain view is scientifically indefensible, argues that “very little of science has been established as irrefutable”.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Boethius
11 months ago

Just a reply to Boethius on a very interesting comment. You’re right of course that aetiology/causal stuff should never be off the table and that people shouldn’t be instinctively opposed to this sort of inquiry. However, there are a couple of real dangers here. First, and this is a charitable reading of Justin’s complaint, the move to aetiology is often used as an automatic *substitute* for first-order argument. It is hard to overstate how common this argumentative move has become. In Shelley’s case, there is a substantive disagreement concerning the social construction of cancer, but after merely giving a single, somewhat under-specified first-order reason for her position (variation in cancer rates), and after being confronted with the case of Dinosaurs, Shelley rather immediately moves to question David’s motives for opposing her. She is not alone here, this move is everywhere and I myself am guilty of it all the time. But one principle we might try to adopt is to not move to this higher-order stuff about motives until the first-order debate has been reasonably well-explored.

Second, in particular the online version of the “what are YOUR motives?” chess move has almost no rules, it is entirely unconstrained because the lack of first-hand, in-person interaction means that readers and commenters can always find it *somewhat* plausible that, let’s say, David is a closet ableist whose position on ‘natural traits’ is merely caused by the social advantages it brings him. But then David could just say: “well as a scholar of disability you, Shelley, have a deep personal investment in your position being right, and this is causing your resistance to ME.” And once again, we are precisely nowhere. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Boethius
11 months ago

Hi, Boethius.

I haven’t read the Mills/Rawlsians material, so I’ll just respond more generally to the questions you pose.

You point to the fact that I cite bad consequences as a reason for avoiding what you call the ‘motivational debunking move’ (but which is more commonly known as the psychological ad hominem fallacy!). Yes, bad consequences — but not just any bad consequences! The bad consequence is that the core purpose of philosophical inquiry — the reasoned pursuit of truth using the best tools we have — will be frustrated. This is what makes this sort of move illegitimate.

You seem to imply puzzlement over what it is that makes a question like ‘Is disability merely a social construct?’ a legitimate philosophical question, while a question like ‘What is David’s investment in questioning whether disability a social construct?’ is not. One thing I’m somewhat inclined to point to is the more general nature of philosophical questions: personal issues like ‘How many times this week, if any, has David eaten a bowl of corn flakes?’ are just too specific to be philosophical. Another thing I’m inclined to point to is the fact that one of the questions is psychological. ‘Is the Earth flat?’ is a geological question, but ‘Why do people believe the Earth is flat?’ is not. If geologists ran together questions within their domain with these sorts of psychological or sociological questions, the results might be interesting but they would certainly be a distraction from the geological inquiries. I think the same is true here.

But I won’t rely on either of those moves. Instead, my response is this: even if ‘What motivates David to question whether P?’ is allowed to be a properly philosophical question, it is clearly a different question than ‘Is P true?’ The question of motivation may be interesting, but it isn’t the same question. So a good response can be, “Let’s stick to the topic at hand, and discuss your other question later.” Since many of those untrained in careful reasoning easily confuse questions about P with questions about why people are motivated to believe or doubt P, these moves have a good chance of derailing substantive discussions.

I agree with you that it can sometimes be enlightening to wonder whether we just believe or doubt something because of our circumstances. But the proper solution to that is to step back and become more objective about the matter, listening carefully to the counter-arguments and objections and scrutinizing the logic carefully. For instance: if a philosophical theist comes to wonder whether she believes in God because it gives her life a sense of meaning, and whether the theistic arguments she accepts are just rationalizations, what she ought to do is consider the objections against those arguments carefully and objectively.

What if we were to approach philosophy differently, and allow the appeal to philosophical motivation to be a legitimate move? Just imagine how the arguments over the existence of God would go then: theistic philosophers would speculate that the atheistic philosophers actually are motivated by a hatred of God and by a desire to hide from the truth. Atheistic philosophers would speculate that theistic philosophers are just psychologically incapable of shaking off the dogmas they’ve held since childhood. Agnostics would speculate that theists and atheists are just not mature enough to handle uncertainty. In other words, everyone would act just as incoming freshmen do, before they have learned the rigor of philosophy, and nobody would have any need for disciplined argument analysis: the crudest weapons to reach for would then be the most effective. It seems to me that one of the strengths of philosophy is that it allows those who practice it sincerely to rise above that sort of mud-slinging.

Finally, I find it remarkable that these moves tend to be made so often by philosophers of a political stripe against their opponents, but never in the other direction. But why not? I’m sure we have all heard, many times, the suggestion that non-feminist philosophers refuse to accept feminist arguments or positions because they are psychologically invested in a sexist or even misogynist paradigm, or because of attention to their own privilege and interests. But would it also be legitimate to respond to an argument by a feminist philosopher by pointing to the fact that she is obviously invested in feminist philosophy and its political goals (or even in its preservation as a subdiscipline), and that this motivation, rather than the soundness or otherwise of the argument she raises, is all we need to attend to? Where would THAT get us?

If we have demonstrated that there is a flaw in someone’s argument, it can be interesting to retire from the philosophical question that we have now resolved and ask the psychological question of why the person made that error. But this retreat to psychology only seems appropriate then, when the philosophical question has been settled.Report

Boethius
Boethius
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Hello, Justin. I’m glad you clarified that you think that querying motivations is philosophically “illegitimate”. This is a much stronger claim that the one Joe above charitably interpreted you as making — viz. that aetiological questions should never be ‘off the table’, but that sometimes they are a (poor and distracting) substitute for old-fashioned first-order reasoning. I agree with Joe’s version of that point.

But I’m sceptical of your stronger claim that such a move is in principle ‘illegitimate’. Fwiw, I’m not at all puzzled by the difference between the questions “is disability merely a social construct?” and “what is our investment in resisting the idea that disability is a social construct?” The point I made — which you appear not to have grasped — is that there are decent epistemological reasons to think that the answer to the second, higher-order question bears on the first-order question. (Only someone who has a pre-Gettier epistemology would think that asking about the aetiology of a belief is always orthogonal to questions about the epistemic merits of the belief.) So I think you are wrong to say that, in principle, questions about aetiology, of which motivation is a mere instance, are in principle non-philosophical.
(Such questions might of course be wielded in non-philosophical *ways*, e.g. to silence someone or deflect debate. But I take it this isn’t the point you’re making. Or is that your notion of ‘illegitimate’?) Consider, for example, the way in which aetiological considerations have been leveraged by philosophers to argue for moral nihilism or anti-realism, mathematical anti-realism, mereological nihilism, atheism, etc. You might disagree with these arguments, but do you think they are non-philosophical?

By the end of your answer you have, I think, shifted the goal posts. You imagine a world in which philosophy is only conducted by psychological examination into why we believe the things we do. But who suggested that? Not me. I merely suggested, pace you, that questions about psychology can be philosophically relevant. Indeed, your choice of example is apt. Higher-order questions about psychology have played a huge role in the philosophy of religion: most obviously in debates about atheism and religious exclusivism, from the pre-Socratics to the Hick-Plantinga debate of the 1980s, but also in debates about the reliability of mystical experience. As a matter of history, it’s worth noting that these frequent appeals to psychology did not shut down debate, but instead helped philosophers of religion explore the space of reasons — even if, ultimately, debate ended in stalemates, as so many debates do.

Again, I’m not saying that querying motivation cannot be an anti-philosophical weapon. But I think you don’t have an argument for the claim that querying motivation is, in principle, philosophically “illegitimate”. Such questions can, in principle, bear on first-order philosophical questions of the kind you care about. What is more, the history of philosophy can show that they are at least sometimes practically useful for advancing first-order philosophy.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

Hi, Boethius.

You haven’t given any examples of the sorts of moves you’re talking about in these various philosophical disputes. If you would spell some of them out, I could comment; otherwise, I’ll just have to speak generally about this.

Perhaps you’re talking about something like this:

Moral Realist: ‘It appears to me that moral realism is true. I have no reason to doubt this appearance. Therefore, I am justified in maintaining that moral realism is true.’

Moral Anti-realist: ‘But look at this body of psychological evidence, which seems to show pretty clearly that you would believe in moral realism even if moral realism were false. Now, you can see that you’re not justified any longer in accepting moral realism without any supporting arguments.’

I think that *this* is a legitimate move on the part of the anti-realist, because it’s not an attempt to dodge an argument. On one way of seeing it, the moral realist has not yet given an argument. On another way of seeing it, the moral realist has given an argument, one premise of which is that she has no grounds for doubting her intuition that moral realism is true, and the moral anti-realist is undermining that premise. Nothing wrong there.

But contrast that with this:

Moral Realist: ‘Premises 1-9 here support, I think you will see, my contention that moral realism is true. And I have provided good support for all nine of the premises, responding to the main objections I’ve seen raised against all of them. Therefore, I’m justified in maintaining that moral realism is true.’

Moral Anti-realist: ‘Interesting. Yes, I can imagine that you’d love me to be drawn in to an analysis of the logic of your argument, wouldn’t you? But I think you’re overlooking something much more important than your argument itself, and we should talk about that instead: what is your *motivation* for putting forth this argument? Huh? Doesn’t the fact that you’ve taken the time to carefully build it all up, and collect the evidence, and think through responses to all the objections, show that you’re awfully heavily invested in maintaining moral realism? That makes you quite suspect, especially when you consider how terrible some moral realists have been, etc. etc.’

This time around, the anti-realist’s move is a blatantly illegitimate dodge. An argument is on the table, and it’s his responsibility to respond to it in the usual way (showing that one or more premises are false or dubious, or that the logic is faulty), or else to accept it.

You say, correctly, that you didn’t ever suggest that shifting attention from arguments and evidence to the arguer’s motivation and investment should be the *only* move that gets made. But if it were a legitimate move to make, why would anyone bother with the other moves at all? If I’m faced with an argument or objection or view that makes me uncomfortable, and I want to ward it off, coming up with a counter-argument or defense can be quite difficult. But I will always have at hand an extremely simple and effective alternative, if your way succeeds: I can simply raise questions about the motivations and commitments of whoever is arguing against me, and that’s that!Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

“The bad consequence is that the core purpose of philosophical inquiry — the reasoned pursuit of truth using the best tools we have — will be frustrated.”

I’d add that this consequence appears (to me at least) to be intended in Shelley’s “what’s your investment here?” question. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

The problem with moving to motive isn’t just that it can be rude or unfair to the person who’s motives are being questioned, it’s also that I can be an unwarranted way of avoiding scrutiny for confidently asserting something that you don’t actually know or have good evidence for. Further, it can be this *even when the person being accused of bad motives has the bad motives*. I mean, there’s no metaphysical law of justice which controls the social universe so that when someone looks for an argument for P with morally bad motives they’ll fail to find good arguments for P. Like, suppose I’m filled with a deep unreasoning bigoted hatred against disabled people (hopefully I’m not since I am disbaled), and therefore really want to refute the very strongly socially constructivist view of disability that Shelley is propounding because I associate it with disability rights activists and I hate them because of my aforesaid unreasoning bigotry. So I search for arguments against that model. Will the arguments I come up with be bad? Not necessarily, if I’m good with coming up with valid arguments from plausible premises, a skill I can perfectly well have even while being a disgusting bigot. Now suppose I make a good argument, and a disability right’s activist dismisses it by questioning my motives, even though they in fact endorse the premises in most contexts and the argument is valid. They’ve done something wrong, and the fact that I am a bad person does not change that, though it may mitigate it, in the sense that provocation by the bad behaviour of others can in general mitigate guilt for bad behaviour. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
11 months ago

For the record, I didn’t and don’t object to Shelley’s question about why I was investing time in this, and in fact answered that question.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I didn’t say anything about disability, and I’m not particularly invested in any view about it, although I am invested in trying to prevent philosophy ending up committed to positions that are scientifically indefensible. I’m afraid that I think it’s scientifically indefensible that cancer – or indeed biological sex – is some kind of human social construct, even in non-human animals, even in extinct animals. If you disagree then the differences between us are too large to bridge in a blog discussion, even without the problem that we’re getting a bit derailed from the main topic.

It’s also true that I was paying close attention to this thread because it’s about academic freedom and free speech, which are interests of mine; but to be honest, when I comment on a thread that I’m following it’s normally in the ‘seminar participation’ mindset that ‘Not David’ describes above, not for any deeper or more carefully considered reason.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Hi David,
yesterday, I listened to two fascinating and fun interviews that Jesse Prinz did (in late March and early April) for a podcast on mind, health, and consciousness. I googled and searched for them so that I could put links to them here for you. Unfortunately, I can’t find them now. In the interviews, Jesse talks primarily about his work on consciousness, attention, etc. But he also talks (and provides examples) about how very little of science has been established as irrefutable, including the “big” questions of physics. You might find these podcasts interesting even if you don’t share his views. I always learn a great deal from Jesse’s talks; his work has greatly influenced my thinking on historicism and relativism with respect to disability and a range of other issues. Would you like me to continue searching for them? Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

That’s nice of you, but to be honest I struggle to find time to listen to podcasts right now (COVID-related childcare constraints!) Thanks though.Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Understood. Best wishes.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley,

I’m a philosopher with a disability, but haven’t read much philosophy on the topic. So this question is a sincere attempt to understand what you’re getting at.

Why would we disbelieve scientific consensus on cancer in favor of alternative or your views? Why would we take a fallibility of science as evidence for your claim, rather than comparing the reasons we have to believe your claim as compared to the reasons we have to believe science? Isn’t it also true that many advocates use (social) science as a tool to debunk claims about ‘natural’ disabilities? I just can’t see how we get anywhere once we give up on science. And I certainly can’t see how we can selectively accept some science (e.g. science demonstrating the effects of environmental factors) and ignore other science that happens to run counter to a preferred view (purportedly because little science is irrefutable.)

Thank you.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, if science is fallible, how fallible do you think philosophy is? If one espouses epistemic humility regarding inferring cancer from the fossil record, should one not espouse at least as strong humility regarding one’s view of disability? Have you considered the possibility that you might be wrong? We can’t just assume the truth of your views. In fact, they’re very controversial; having read quite a bit about disability, I happen to find them implausible. So what gives?

More to the point, do you agree that, whether a trait is ‘natural’ or not by your lights (a fraught distinction to begin with, but let’s set that aside), there are some traits that one would be better off without? Or is there no such trait? Are you actually claiming that there is no possible trait that, if a person did not have it, they would be better off? You’re not denying that having metastatic cancer is bad, I hope, right? Whether it’s ‘natural’ or not is beside the point if we’re imagining possible conditions under which the person would not have developed it.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

”I would genuinely like to know what makes a philosopher who does not work on disability interested in rebuking the arguments of someone who does.”

Belief that one’s interlocutor is wrong?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, you write:

“How is it known that dinosaurs got cancer and what its significance was for them? Did we learn that from medical anthropologists? We learned from anthropologists that our ancestors had natural sexes, didn’t we? At one time not very long ago, philosophers (and anthropologists) were almost unanimous in their belief that sex was natural. What has happened to the certainty about the body of knowledge that propped up that belief? I don’t think sex or cancer should be regarded as natural, as given.”

I agree very much with what I take to be your implication that ‘Is cancer natural?’ and ‘Is sex natural?’ are apt to yield the same answer. For that reason especially, i think it will be helpful to hear more about your defense of the surprising claim that cancer is not natural but, rather, a sort of social artifact.

David Wallace has already introduced the issue of cancer in dinosaurs, which it seems you contest here. Do you also contest the existence of cancer in non-human animals living today? Perhaps you accept that nonhuman animals can have cancer, but maintain that only domesticated animals have cancer (perhaps only in the eyes of the humans who observe them?) Or is your view, rather, that nonhuman animals have cancer by virtue of their participation in animal societies that are themselves amenable to Foucauldian analysis? I’d be very keen to hear your take on this, if you please.

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Adam Omelianchuk
11 months ago

Precisely because “tabula rasa-style social models of disability” and “we should euthanize disabled infants to make the world a better place” views are prominent in the bioethics literature, it is fruitful to teach students about these views in a medical ethics course, if only, for the sake of comprehension of the various issues involved. That is what I do. I like to assign authors that are diametrically opposed, e.g. John Harris and Elizabeth Barnes, Peter Singer and Harriett McBryde Johnson, and J. Savulescu v. Michael Sandel. There are big issues in the philosophy of medicine being assumed or argued for in all of these issues, and it would be a disservice to students to censor half the dialogue, which will continue regardless of what is decided, as “hate speech.” The students are wrong about this. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

A little further evidence on how to interpret this motion: it’s a motion of OUSU (Oxford University Student Union) council, and OUSU council’s minutes are publicly available online. On a quick skim-through of those minutes for the current academic year, I find:

1st Week Michaelmas [Fall] term, report of LGBTQ+ campaign: “Moving forward we want to continue to encourage fresher engagement, continue to increase awareness of queer people of colour issues, and combat homophobia and transphobia in academia, such as getting rid of homophobic/transphobic professors and course structures. We’ve been protesting loads of other people.”

1st Week Hilary [Winter] term, report of LGBTQ+ campaign: “Academic free speech policy, trying to make sure that that’s reversed and that’s realistically difficult to achieve so what we want to do at the bare minimum is put trigger warnings so that at the very least any LGBTQ+ students can remove themselves or prepare themselves for debates about their identity which they don’t want to be made uncomfortable in. obviously we’d rather that those debates just do not happen but realistically we’re going to push for this in the meantime until we can achieve that.”

The LGBTQ+ campaign also originated the motion we’re discussing.

This seems to speak in favor of my rather negative reading (above) of the OUSU council motion: its goal is to remove academic freedom protections from academic staff so that the university can be pressured to dismiss them for their views, and to prevent certain topics being discussed at all; the trigger-warning material in the motion is a tactical move on the grounds that it’s a more plausible thing to get the university to agree to, not the desired end-point. I invite Justin to reconsider his view that “the students are arguing for a more-freedom, more-information, and more-speech approach to solving this problem, rather than censorship”. (That’s not meant as a gotcha comment: I know Oxford better than Justin and had access to more information.)Report

Cancersaurus_Rex
Cancersaurus_Rex
11 months ago

BROKE: There is a metaphysical gulf between humans and the animal kingdom because humans were made in the image of God.

WOKE: There is no metaphysical gulf between humans and the animal kingdom.

BESPOKE: There is a metaphysical gulf between humans and the animal kingdom because humans discovered sociology. Report

Instructor Gadget
Instructor Gadget
11 months ago

Troll Level 1000: Derailing a conversation about free speech by demanding justification for the claim that dinosaurs had cancer and claiming that the testimony of scientists isn’t good enough because they haven’t studied Foucault.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Instructor Gadget
11 months ago

I’d have thought that pseudonymity, snark, and piling-on were surer signs of troll-hood.Report

Instructor Gadget
Instructor Gadget
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
11 months ago

Fair point!Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Instructor Gadget
11 months ago

Respect.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
11 months ago

now that’s a wholesome exchangeReport

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Instructor Gadget
11 months ago

Sorry, hit the ‘report’ button by mistake here (on Instructor Gadget’s initial comment).Report

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
11 months ago

The social model of disability infuriates me. I’m in pain all the time, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at me. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know it from associating with me for a long time, unless I told you. I do not generally need extra accommodations (although standing in line for ten minutes is torture). So the badness of my condition isn’t due to how people react to it (largely, they don’t know about it), it’s due to the fact that it hurts.

The badness of my condition has very little to do (at least as I see it) with how people treat me or how the world is structured. Would it be slightly better for me if there were fewer instances where I’d have to stand still for a while? Sure, but I’d rather be able to go hiking than have a queue-less society. Would it be better for me if society valued the athletics capabilities my body has as much as they value the athletic capabilities of leBron James? Maybe a bit, but I’d much rather be able to move without pain. Are there far fetched social organizations where some people might prefer to have my body, rather than an average human body? Sure – perhaps para-masochistic technology becomes all the rage, and wealth and prestige are showered upon those who are able to electro-telepathically broadcast their pain to others. I don’t know what this has to do with the price of rice in China.

Now, there is a reasonable position that says that the badness of some/many/most disabilities is social. I think this position is right. But that’s not the position on offer. The position on offer says that disability is socially constructed ‘all the way down,’ but, construct me as you like, I would really just like to stop hurting. Another response I’ve gotten is the ‘no-true-Scotsman’ – What I have is an impairment, not a disability.

Since this thread is not really about the social model of disability – as a person with an (alleged) disability, does the fact that I find these positions infuriating (and a bit insulting, to be honest – I don’t want a participation trophy, I want my body to function better), and that I find them contrary to my interests (I wholeheartedly support medical research into making it so that no one ever has physical conditions like mine) and perhaps even prejudicial (‘no-true-Scotsman’ stuff) mean that no university professor should ever present them to me? Should we do away with the whole field of disability study, at least at the undergraduate level, if there are disabled students who feel aggressed upon by arguments for the social model of disability?Report

Ben Almassi
Ben Almassi
Reply to  InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
11 months ago

Invisibly Disabled Philosopher writes, “Now, there is a reasonable position that says that the badness of some/many/most disabilities is social. I think this position is right. But that’s not the position on offer.”

Just my two cents:

The social model of disability is a model, and we’re definitely free to evaluate how well we think the model works in making sense of specific disabilities, as well as disability generally. You don’t have to adopt or reject the social model wholesale, anymore than you have to adopt or reject the medical model wholesale for any and all disabilities. Certainly some people advocate these as categorical, but the models themselves don’t require an all-or-nothing application.

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Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Ben Almassi
11 months ago

Ben: since each of the models makes certain ontological commitments, they do in fact require what you suggest they don’t. If one doesn’t hold either of them consistently, one is in fact holding a different, or hybrid model or approach. I know that many disability theorists have argued that one can hold both simultaneously; I think they are incorrect. By analogy, would it make sense to argue that some genders are constructed but some are natural or prediscursive? I discuss (at length) the ontological commitments of various models of disability in the second and third chapters of my book. I generally use the term ‘medicalized conception’ rather than ‘medical model’ because I think the conception shifts within limits, that is, within constraints. I explain why and how in my book.

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher: My position does not assume the British social model of disability or any other social model of disability. I think the idea that the claim “disability is constructed all the way down” does not and cannot account for subjective experiences such as pain misconstrues what social construction entails or involves. It is perfectly consistent to argue that something is both socially constructed and real. In any case, I think that disability is an apparatus of power, not merely a form of social oppression or discrimination, as the British social model assumes. I understand that you may nevertheless remain infuriated by my position. Report

Ben Almassi
Ben Almassi
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Thanks for the response, Shelley. (And just to be clear, I didn’t mean to be speaking for you or on behalf of your position in my comment.)Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Ben Almassi
11 months ago

No worries, Ben!Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

I object to the view that ‘pain’ is socially constructed not because I believe it shows that pain is unreal, but because I believe that when I feel pain, typically, if society were arbitrarily different, but my brain and body were in exactly the same internal state, I would still feel pain. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

Note that I don’t have a *pain-related* disability. I mean this about pain in both disabled and non-disabled subjects in many cases. (I’m not claiming there are no cases where someone’s sensation counts as pain only because they so interpret it, and they so interpret it only because of social factors.) Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

My guess is that this was also ‘Invisibly Disabled Philosopher’s’ objection to the social model. Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

David,
do you know what the social model is and what its central “principles” are?

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David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

I know, in general terms what it is, but no I don’t have specific expertise on what it’s academic proponents have actually said.

So you might say that I don’t know enough to comment. But note that I didn’t say *anything* containing the words ‘social model’l. I said that it seemed bad to call ‘pain’ a social construction, because most pains would still be there if you held physical factors about the subject constant but varied the social situation in which they were embedded arbitrarily. Now, maybe you’ll say that proponents of the social model use ‘social construction’ in a different way, on which what I said about pain is compatible with pain being socially constructed. But in that case, I think the burden of proof is on you to explain what the alternative claim is. If it’s a claim about how pains are caused, rather than what constitutes them, then it’s technically consistent with ‘pain would still be there if you held the physical state of the subject constant and varied the social stuff’. But I find that claim deeply implausible: if I stub my toe on a tree root while out for a walk, there’s not interesting sense in which this is *caused* by the way the social world I inhabit is ordered. If it’s the claim that *some* pains have social causes, then yes, of course that’s true. But that’s uninteresting. It implies nothing, by itself about which pains are or aren’t socially caused, so it tells us nothing about whether Invisibly Disabled Philosophers pains are socially caused. Maybe you still get to call them ‘socially constructed’ because your using that to mean ‘a type of thing that is sometimes socially caused’, but it’s now completely unclear that anything normatively interesting follows from being ‘socially constructed’ in that sense, since being ‘socially constructed’ *in that sense* is compatible with it being completely impossible for society to prevent your pains no matter how society is ordered. Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

David,
[I’m putting my reply to your comment here because for some reason I can’t respond below your comment.]

You said: “I know, in general terms what [the social model] is, but no I don’t have specific expertise on what it’s academic proponents have actually said. So you might say that I don’t know enough to comment. But note that I didn’t say *anything* containing the words ‘social model’”

But you did say something about the social model. You said: “My guess is that this was also ‘Invisibly Disabled Philosopher’s’ objection to the **social model**.” (my emphasis)

Among other things, your last remark assumes that InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher has aptly described the “social model”. I have tried to indicate that this is not the case. There are in fact various versions of the social model, not one. That’s why I distinguished the British social model from other versions of it. Despite the fact that you, admittedly, don’t know what *the* social model assumes, you have proceeded to make some pretty confident claims about its understanding of pain as socially constructed.

My subsequent remarks will simplify discussion of the social model which I discuss, in all its complexity, in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of my latest book.

In fact, the dominant version of the social model, what I call the “British social model,” is perfectly compatible with a conception of pain as a natural, prediscursive property, not socially constructed, but rather a feature of some “natural,” i.e., prediscursive, impairments. Some other “social models” of disability make the same sort of assumption. Again, the position on disability as an apparatus which I have developed (which I do not consider a social model) does not deny the experience of pain, though it does advance the view that disability is socially constituted “all the way down.” By the way, the title of my book that I refer to above is _Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability_ (U of Michigan Press).
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David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Okay, your right, I did say that it was their objection to the social model. I missed it when I re-read because it was in a second comment.I suppose I should have said that it was their objection to what they take the social model to be. Sorry.

But my main point was simply that I took their objection to the view that pain is socially constructed to plausibly be that non-social factors can reliably produced pain in any possible social setting, not that pains are unreal, and that so understood, the objection wasn’t refuted by saying ‘socially constructed things are perfectly real’ and is, in my view independently plausible. I don’t think that depends on what *exactly* the social model is or isn’t. (I also highly doubt that it actually refers to a *single view*, on the general grounds that terms adopted by academic or activist movements to summarize a whole broad position rarely do.)

If you mean in the post immediately before this one I didn’t make any confident claims about what they mean by socially constructed. I started out by arguing that pains are not socially constructed on one fairly normal understanding of what ‘socially constructed’ might mean: i.e. constitutively dependent on social facts. I then *considered as possibilities* some other *hypotheses* about what people might mean by saying pain is socially constructed other than this, and concluded that none of them were both true and interesting. I didn’t proclaim that any of these or the original idea where definitely what everyone or even anyone who endorses the social model might mean if they said pains were socially constructed (assuming they do in fact say that.) In fact, I was careful not to do this.

Can you say *exactly* in what sense pain is social on your view? And what you take the truth of the claim that pain is social to imply, if anything, about whether InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher is right to think that their problems with their pain-causing condition couldn’t be solved by any plausible purely social change or that ‘the badness of my condition has very little to do (at least as I see it) with how people treat me or how the world is structured’. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
11 months ago

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher’s comment is rich with important points that seem to have been overlooked in this conversation. None of the responses to InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher so far address the issue raised in the last paragraph.

There are a range of questions on which those in the ‘social justice’ movement seem to agree that there are unacceptable answers. For instance: can some people be regularly mistaken in gender-introspection? Are there genuinely transracial people, just as there are genuinely transgender people? Do some racial minorities suffer from a ‘racism of low expectations’ that, while well-intentioned, hurts them in important ways? Etc. On most or all of those issues, one can find, *within* the groups under discussion, profound disagreement about whether the canonical ‘social justice’ position is correct. Nevertheless, it has long been routine for the social justice movement to denounce many of views on these issues as so unacceptable, disrespectful, hurtful, and even hateful that articles defending them should not be published and speakers who hold these views should be no-platformed.

Suppose I belong to one of these protected groups, G, and that I favor proposition P about this group. But the canonical position within the social justice movement is that P is an unacceptable view to hold about G, and that everyone needs to be taught that not-P is the correct view to be held about G. But I think, with some evidence, that not-P mischaracterizes me in a negative way, and that it is apt to have bad consequences, especially for G-members, in the long term. I’m opposed to P being promoted as the correct view on the subject, and I also am made very uncomfortable whenever I see not-P being presented without any fair discussion of its problems.

If ‘hate speech’ just referred to what most people think it refers to — statements like ‘Every G-member ought to be shot on sight’ or ‘G-members are innately inferior as human beings’ — then there would be no problem here. But the concept of so-called ‘hate speech’ we’re discussing here is so broad that it includes many positions that even those who hold them may see as the opposite of hateful. So, as a member of G, my own view, P, may well be deemed unacceptable and hateful. But a classmate of mine, who is also a G-member, may have the opposite feelings on the matter.

If the purpose of these restrictions is to protect me and my classmate from upsetting or socially harmful positions about us, as it seems, then InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher’s point must be taken into consideration here. Whether a reading for the course defends P or not-P, a member of G will be upset. So it seems that neither position should be acceptable in a reading. Also, whether P or not-P is socially harmful to members of G is a matter of controversy, whether or not a socially powerful group maintains one of those views as canonical and the other as heretical.

It seems to follow from this, just as InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher suggests, that, *if* the Oxford Students’ logic were taken seriously, no courses that involve students reading *either* defenses of P or not-P should ever be required.

It may be that, as suggested below, Shelley Tremain’s views would not be objectionable to any disabled people. But even if that were true, there are many views, popular on the social justice left, that are taught in courses whose students may find them objectionable views to hold about the groups they belong to. Should such courses be permitted to include readings espousing those views, under the Oxford Students’ proposal? How is this to be dealt with?
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Another Gopher
Another Gopher
11 months ago

I’m also invisibly disabled and feel the same way.Report

Tumor Haver
Tumor Haver
11 months ago

It is fascinating that the dogpile on Tremain over her comments on cancer led to ridicule concerning “dinosaurs have cancer.” It seems to have ignored both that she mentioned environmental factors in causes of cancer (given that they explicitly listed ‘cultural’ separately, this is worth noting), and her main target seemed to be a form of genetic reductionism. In any case, it is noteworthy that the whole reason cancer was brought up was an example of a trait that someone is clearly better off without. No one seems to have noticed that the link dump about cancer in dinosaurs has the scientists constantly, in their own words, calling it a disease and yet referring to the evidence as benign tumors in almost every case. This is likely because they are being interviewed, of course, but the public isn’t so dumb as to not understand what ‘benign’ means. Even David Wallace’s example of “metastatic cancer, while typically thought and treated otherwise, can weirdly manifest/spread itself as benign. The example only works if you beg the question. But it points to a lack of engagement with the philosophy of medicine on accounts of disease, and you very very quickly and easily slide into accounts of disability. And the same thing seems to play out: people very quickly and lazily and arrogantly assume that it’s just preposterous to think otherwise. Report

David Duffy
David Duffy
Reply to  Tumor Haver
11 months ago

Please – benign tumours often have severe consequences via effects of pressure on and replacement of the usual flourishing tissue.Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  David Duffy
11 months ago

And Shelley cast doubt on whether dinosaurs got cancer at all.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Another Gopher
11 months ago

Another Gopher,
your remark indicates that you misunderstood my claims about the social construction of cancer and my response to David’s remark that dinosaurs got cancer. My remarks in response to David are analogous to or at least similar to Justin E. Smith’s criticisms of Alex Bryne’s arguments about the metaphysics of sex. Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

I didn’t misunderstand you. Your claims about the social construction of cancer are laughably false.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Another Gopher
11 months ago

Another Gopher, your penultimate comment is that I “cast doubt” on whether dinosaurs got cancer. I did no such thing. Please read my response to David above. As you yourself acknowledge, I claimed that cancer (i.e., for dinosaurs and humans, and other animals) is socially constructed. The metaphysics of cancer is not self-evident, as you and others seem to think it is. Philosophers of science such as Anya Plutynski are developing a new field about the philosophy of cancer, asking questions about its metaphysical status, etc.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, thanks for the reference, I didn’t know about her work. Would you recommend a paper in particular, where Plutynski questions the meaning of cancer diagnosis independently of social construction? I take it that your objection to DW’s rejoinder was not that dinosaurs did not get cancer, but that what we mean by such claims, or how we classify cancers, is socially constructed––correct?

BTW, I regret my snarky comment about you never being wrong; you are sometimes wrong, sometimes right, as we all are. What I meant to say and should have said was that you often advance unfalsifiable claims which make it nearly impossible to agree or disagree with you without reading your book, and even then… without reading–and endorsing–Foucault. On the specific topic of naturally occurring traits that affect well-being, I think folks were asking for an actual objection to the distinction on which Savulescu relied that did not circularly presuppose the truths of your views. You seem to have tacitly accepted the claim that there is no such naturally occurring trait, but I think one may still expect an argument other than “it’s socially constructed”, which begs the question. Orthogonal to the natural/socially-constructed issue is the causal claim that screening and selecting for traits (whether or not they are strictly genetically determined) necessarily denigrates the worth of persons who have or would have had those traits. Here as well, I think folks expected some evidence, and your responses to Arthur Greeves were not very convincing (in fact, I found the dismissal of his first-person testimony insensitive). So the question remains, *even if* we endorsed your Foucauldian model of disability as an apparatus of power, isn’t it plausible to argue that there are some (socially constructed) traits that one would be better off without, and that saying so need not commit anyone to denigrating the worth of persons who exhibit those traits, even if (especially, I’m tempted to say), if those traits result from social construction?

Please, Shelley, take this in the spirit of a genuine exchange of reasons. We’re trying to understand your view, not to “pile on”, and not all of us have the time to read your book or the references you supply. I am for one genuinely interested in understanding your objections, and I also disagree with Savulescu. Circling back to the OP, I’m also curious: do you think that a view that construes a disability or a disease as “natural” in some sense, because of your rejection of Savulescu’s distinction, does not merit inclusion in a syllabus?Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Oh, I am really excited to a see a mention of Plutynski’s work. It’s so interesting, and so deeply researched. Plutynski spent years in tandem with oncoscience researchers and physicians. Her metaphysical/ontological work on cancer is as well informed as one could hope for a philosopher of medicine/science to be.

Here are a few links to more about Plutynski, whose work reveals that we (society, but also researchers and bioethicists and philosophers) make all kinds of ontological and metaphysical assumptions that underpin our conception of cancer, and which are not necessarily the case.

Her book, Explaining Cancer: Finding Order in Disorder https://global.oup.com/academic/product/explaining-cancer-9780199967452?cc=us&lang=en&

The NDPR review of Plutynski’s Explaining Cancer: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/explaining-cancer-finding-order-in-disorder/

And Plutynski’s Google Scholar page shows the breadth of her excellent work on cancer, evolution, and parsimony. https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=PkS_32cAAAAJ&hl=enReport

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Hi Shelley,

I’m not sure how your remarks address my concern. Let me first try to put it less polemically:

1) Chronic pain is a disability.
2) Chronic pain is not socially constructed.
3) Therefore some disability is not socially constructed.

It seems like you disagree with 2? However I’m not sure why. Here are some options:

Chronic pain is socially constructed because…

a) Social constructs are real, and can have subjective elements. – Agreed. I might subjectively feel that ordering a rare steak is manly. But that certainly does not imply that everything real/subjective is socially constructed.

b) Disability is ‘an apparatus’ of power/oppression/discrimination. I’m not sure what the apparatus is, perhaps it is calling some conditions disabilities, perhaps it is the negative view of disabled bodies? Which one of those physically hurts?

c) Everything is socially constructed? – I don’t think I’ve seen you say this, but if there is nothing that is not socially constructed then pain would be too. I can’t see any good reason for thinking this, however.

d) What it is to experience anything (including pain) is mediated through social lenses of (e.g.) power. – Maybe? As I said above, there are counterfactual social configurations that might empower those in chronic pain (in virtue of their being in chronic pain). And maybe in such scenarios the powerful would not call pain a disability, as it might be sought after and admired. But that doesn’t show that the physical condition itself is socially constructed, but just that various social organizations will interpret physical conditions differently.

It’s not clear to me how any of this makes the case that pain is socially constructed. So perhaps you mean something like ‘the disability related to the physical condition of being in chronic pain is socially constructed.’ But, at least as I see it, what’s ‘disabling’ (in the sense of the lack or loss of capabilities) about these conditions just is physical. I’m a financially secure tenure track academic. I have (some) prestige, and the social powers that I lack is not due to my physical condition.

Again, I’m not fully opposed to social models. I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the badness of being (e.g.,) deaf is almost entirely social (although the physical condition of deafness is not). My complaint is mainly that this model does not account for the badness of many physical conditions as resulting from their physical nature.

Justin Kalef – I agree, in an academic context views should stand and fall on their merits, and in an undergraduate context it’s even worth teaching views that have been shown to fall. Part of being an undergraduate student is that you don’t know what you ought to learn.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Tumor Haver
11 months ago

David Wallace’s original point was basically that cancer is a) not socially constructed and b) a bad thing for the person who has cancer. This is not really touched by anything you have said. (Note that ‘cancer is bad for the person with cancer’ is obviously implicitly being caveated with usually. No one would think that it is interestingly falsified by a single case where someone got a mild skin cancer that was treated easily and because they did so met and married their doctor, enhancing their life permanently. So it’s not really relevant if there are *some* medical cases where someone has cancer but it doesn’t lead to death or pain or loss of function.)

Whether Shelley actually disagrees with b) is hard to tell, but she certainly seems to disagree with a). Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tumor Haver
11 months ago

I feel a little silly pointing this out, because obviously most people reading this thread understand it perfectly well, but: ‘benign’ is a technical term in oncology. It means the tumor isn’t invading neighboring tissue and isn’t metastatizing. It’s good news, ceteris paribus, to learn that your tumor is benign, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good to have!Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Yeah, depending on the location, a benign tumor can be very lethal. Maybe more so than a malignant one that was caught before metastazingReport

David Mathers
David Mathers
11 months ago

Also, whilst this isn’t really the point, the first linked article says that dinosaurs got both benign and malignant tumors, though it does say more of the former were found:

‘The most common growths were hemangiomas – benign tumours of the blood vessels that are present in about 10% of humans. The 3.5 metre species Edmontosaurus was the most prone to cancer, and was the only one with a malignant tumour.’ The Ha’aretz article says dinosaurs got this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langerhans_cell_histiocytosis which can kill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langerhans_cell_histiocytosis#Prognosis The word ‘benign’ does not appear in. Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

David Mathers wrote: “Can you say *exactly* in what sense pain is social on your view? And what you take the truth of the claim that pain is social to imply, if anything, about whether InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher is right to think that their problems with their pain-causing condition couldn’t be solved by any plausible purely social change or that ‘the badness of my condition has very little to do (at least as I see it) with how people treat me or how the world is structured’.”

I direct you to my published work where you should find everything that you’re looking for. Most of my publications are posted on my PhilPapers page here: https://philpeople.org/profiles/shelley-tremain

I recommend that you read On the Government of Disability first. Then, in any order: This is What a Historicist and Relativist Feminist Philosophy of Disability Looks Like, Philosophy of Disability as Critical Diversity Studies, Feminist Philosophy of Disability: A Genealogical Intervention, Philosophy and the Apparatus of Disability, Biopower, Styles of Reasoning, and What’s Still Missing From the Stem Cell Debates, Foucault, Governmentality, and Critical Disability Theory: An Introduction.Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

I appreciate the reading order suggestion. It’s sometimes hard to know where to start.

Is it “On the Government of Disability” in Social Theory and Practice that you mean, Shelley, as the starting point? This one? https://www.jstor.org/stable/23559193?seq=1 Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Alison Reiheld
11 months ago

Hi Alison, yes, that’s the On the Government of Disability article. It’s on my PhilPapers page too.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Ok, maybe your position is too complicated to be explained on this thread. But can you at least say what it is in your view that InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher is getting wrong. Is she wrong if she thinks that her pain would be bad in itself for her regardless of social situation, and that *most* of the badness she gets from her pain is not the result of injustice in our society? Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
11 months ago

I wish we could get Shannon Dea on this thread. I bet she’d have a lot to offer on this front given her work on freedom of speech and academic freedom.Report

Alison Reiheld
Alison Reiheld
Reply to  Alison Reiheld
11 months ago

Oh, for folks who don’t know, Dea is a Canadian philosopher who writes the “Dispatches on academic freedom” series: https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/dispatches-academic-freedom/

Her piece “The uproar over taking ‘man’ out of ‘manhole'” for The Conversation makes me wonder what her take is on this issue. https://theconversation.com/the-uproar-over-taking-man-out-of-manhole-120821Report

Mich C
Mich C
11 months ago

I remember as an undergrad having to read articles about how gay people are immoral, women who have abortions are immoral, and other patently prejudiced claims, ostensibly so that we could be exposed to ‘both sides of the debate.’ Of course this creates a false equivalency. I hope this student campaign is a sign that the tides are finally turning.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Mich C
11 months ago

I agree: we’re clearly moving towards a much happier situation where students only have to read true things, and where universities don’t create a false equivalence between right views and wrong views.

There are some problems with deciding to who gets to conclude which are the right views and which are the wrong views (especially since we don’t them to accidently read the wrong views in the process of reaching their conclusion, but I’m sure we’ll overcome them.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

I for one look forward to having all the wrong ideas (and the people who held them) removed from the scene, so that the survivors will at last agree on all these issues. Then, we can really get down to doing some great philosophy.

Also, did you see that chocolate rations have now gone up to twenty grams a week? Wonderful times.Report

AD
AD
Reply to  Mich C
11 months ago

“women who have abortions are immoral”

You do realize that there is not a whole lot of agreement about abortion: the ethics of abortion is hotly debated. (Well, obviously you don’t realize this.)Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Hi David Wallace, you wrote:
“As a brief expansion: obviously environmental factors affect cancer rates. They affected cancer rates in dinosaurs too. (IIRC, the leading theory for why hadrosaurs got more tumors is that they ate lots of pine, which has lots of carcinogens). I don’t think that affects the dialectic, which was:
Arthur Greeves: what types of natural traits could a person with as much worth as anyone else be better off without?
Me: Metastatic cancer?
Shelley Tremaine: Research says that various forms of cancer are not ‘natural’.
Me: Dinosaurs got cancer [and, implied inference, therefore cancer is (at least sometimes) natural if any biological trait is].
If nonzero sensitivity to environmental factors renders a trait ‘not natural’, then there are no natural traits, and the whole discussion become s moot (and the supposed definition of ‘natural’ becomes silly, and therefore not something to attribute to a reasonable interlocutor unless forced to, on principle-of-charity grounds). One doesn’t need ‘research’ to establish that there are no natural traits in this silly sense, just attention to the obvious fact that organisms evolve under certain background conditions and their traits will manifest differently if you vary those background conditions – or to the even more obvious fact that organisms behave differently in hard vacuum than they do on the Earth’s surface.”

David, I hope you will reconsider the remarks you make after the “dialectic” that you have formulated. Here’s why I think you should.

First, my claim was not that “research” says that various forms of cancer are not “natural” but rather that evidence increasingly tells us that. Research is only one way to acquire evidence. Research is only one way to learn that cancer is not “natural”. Other ways to learn that beliefs about state of affairs, events, and other phenomena are not natural is by learning about and experiencing variations (with respect to metaphysics, epistemologies, values) among cultures and even subcultures, as well as learning about historical ruptures, transitions, discontinuities.

Ideas about disease, what it is, what counts as a disease, what ways to approach disease, etc. are not transhistorical or transcultural, not universal and timeless, not historical constants, but rather historically and culturally specific artifacts. The idea of disease itself has a history. In other historical moments, drapetomania, wandering wombs, and homelessness (among other things) were regarded as (natural) diseases. Diseases come into being and some go out of fashion. As Tanya Luhrmann has shown, there is great cultural variation with respect to hearing voices, schizophrenia, and other phenomena that dominant Euro-american culture medicalizes and increasingly regards as rooted in biology. The importance of showing cultural variation is (among other things) that it helps us de-naturalize styles of reasoning and ways of making up people, to use Ian Hacking’s phrase.

I don’t think the claim that there are no natural traits is “silly” nor that only an unreasonable interlocutor would advance it. Consider birth and death. Is it “silly” to say that these are socially constructed, not natural? The discourse around abortion indicates that ideas about birth aren’t universal or timeless. What about death? It turns out that death too has a history and ideas about it vary widely across cultures. In _Twice Dead_, for instance, Margaret Lock examines the contested transition from the belief that the cessation of the heart and blood-flow constitute death to the idea of brain death. Among other things, Lock highlights how medical and scientific interests, especially with respect to organ procurement, have, despite resistance across cultures, established brain death as the dominant, “scientific” understanding of (natural) death.

Feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science (among others) have done a great deal to identify the ways that a series of dichotomies have shaped modes of thinking in the West especially, including the nature-culture distinction in ways that subjugate certain social groups. My ideas about the naturalization of social and cultural phenomena are indebted to their arguments, as well as to the work of Foucault, Hacking, and Prinz. Foucault in particular has enabled me to recognize how modern forms of power produce “dividing practices” that identify people as (naturally) healthy or sick, (naturally) sane or mad, law-abiding or (naturally, pathologically) criminal in order to legitimize forms of social control.

Lastly, you misspelled my surname. 🙂

Report

Bart
Bart
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

“Other ways to learn that beliefs about state of affairs, events, and other phenomena are not natural is….”

I had thought that much of the disagreement here was due to conflation of (a) whether a phenomenon was socially constructed and (b) whether our beliefs/talk about a phenomenon were socially constructed. This quote indicates that my suspicion is correct. If saying “cancer isn’t natural, it’s socially constructed” means the same thing as “our belief that there is a thing, cancer, isn’t natural, it’s socially constructed,” then everyone here agrees with the latter claim, since it’s about as boringly true as “our belief that there is a thing, Sweden, isn’t natural, it’s socially constructed.”

More generally, I always suspected that Foucault managed to get more attention than he deserved by saying “X didn’t exist before such-and-such period in history!” only to obfuscate about whether he was talking about X, or the concept of X, or our beliefs about X, or etc.Report

Bart
Bart
Reply to  Bart
11 months ago

Sorry, my analogy is far from ideal. I should have used ‘black holes’ instead of ‘Sweden’ in my analogy.

It’s fair to say that Sweden per se didn’t exist before (and wouldn’t exist without) some social construction. However, while it’s fair to say that our beliefs about black holes wouldn’t exist without some social construction, it’s false to saw that black holes per se wouldn’t exist without social construction.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Bart
11 months ago

This apparent conflation is discussed at length in Hacking’s _The Social Construction of What?_ and in various other places, including his pathbreaking article “Making Up People.” Hacking (and Foucault) argued for a form of nominalism according to which beliefs/ideas/discursive objects and kinds of people are constituted in a dynamic (to use Hacking’s term) fashion: their construction goes Hand-in-hand (to use Hacking’s phrase). In my work, I discuss social construction with respect to human history and culture, though I note that some philosophers have argued that even the objects of the “natural” sciences didn’t exist before humans named them. As I argue in my book, for instance, Hacking argues that the distinction between human kinds and natural kinds cannot be sustained.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Sorry, I should have said: “As I point out in my book, for instance, Hacking…”Report

Another Gopher
Another Gopher
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

“I note that some philosophers have argued that even the objects of the “natural” sciences didn’t exist before humans named them.”

They may have argued it, but it is patently absurd. Black holes existed before anyone named them. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley, would ableism exist if false consciousness was total and no disabled people had ever named it? Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

“I note that some philosophers have argued that even the objects of the “natural” sciences didn’t exist before humans named them.”

No kidding. You’ve suggested as much as yourself. Unfortunately when invited to defend/elaborate on that highly counter-intuitive claim, you withdraw into completely uncontroversial territory, pointing out that *our ideas* about the natural world are achievements of human history, as if anyone doubts this. Nobody does. Report

Matt
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

For what it’s worth, I think this is a stronger reading of Hacking’s view than is required by what he says in the relevant texts. Maybe it’s the right way to understand his points, but I think it’s going beyond what he, himself, argues for. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Even if whether schizophrenia was seen as a disease was completely culturally various, that wouldn’t be *any evidence at all* that the traits that make up schizophrenia were not 100% genetically determined. (I doubt they are, as it happens, but that’s irrelevant to the conceptual point.) Whether the *evaluation* people put on X is determined by X’s biology, and whether X itself comes into existence solely on the basis of biology are separate questions. We can imagine a world where height is purely determined genetically, but the tall are a ruling class for purely social reasons. (In reality of course, height is not purely genetic, because nutrition and loads of other things matter.) Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

In brief:
– Sorry about the misspelling; that’s what I get for typing late at night.
– I was treating ‘research’ and ‘evidence’ as synonymous in this context. By all means replace ‘research’ with ‘evidence’ in my post if you’d prefer.
– I didn’t say that it’s silly to think that there are no natural traits. (As it happens, I am pretty unsympathetic to that view, but I didn’t argue against it.) I said that it would be silly to adopt a definition of ‘natural traits’ under which it’s immediately obvious that there are no natural traits.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

David,
I think that my comment addressed what you said in your comment. Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
11 months ago

Your main reason for thinking that some fact is socially constructed, judging by this comment, is the fact that there is disagreement around that fact. But that’s just, well, silly. According to that, the shape of Earth would be a socially constructed fact. Age of the universe would be a socially constructed fact.

No, the existence of diasagreement around P does not mean that the facts surrounding P are socially constructed. Very often, it just means that some people are wrong about P.Report

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
11 months ago

Some commenters are quite aggressively attacking Shelley Tremain for (as far as I can see) no good reason. She is defending a position and a metaphysics that (it seems) the majority of commenters do not hold, but she is doing so with argument and in (what appears to me to be) good faith. If the polemical nature of my previous comment contributed to this pile-on, I apologize. I left the rhetorical questions at the end of my previous comment unanswered, but I was not (as Justin Kalef notes) advocating that the defenders of social models of disability ought to be driven from the discourse with vitriol and political pressure. As far as I can see, Shelley has not argued that the competing theories ought to be barred from the discourse and we should extend to her the same courtesy.

Shelley, let me try to make my point a bit less polemically:

1) Chronic pain is a disability
2) Chronic pain is not socially constructed
3) Therefore, some disability is not socially constructed

It seems you disagree with 2. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems to have to do with the idea that the experience of a certain physical condition (such as one that produces chronic pain) is variable depending on the social discourse and power relations surrounding the condition. I’m happy to grant this, it is almost certainly true. What I don’t see is how it gets you all the way to ~2. At best it gets you to the hybrid position you mention – that there are both social and physical components to the disability.

I think the case of gender (which I do take to be socially constructed ‘all the way down’) is a nice contrast. I might subjectively experience that ordering rare steaks is manly. This might feel to me as purely internal and ‘natural.’ However, it is a created be the discourse surrounding the appropriate ways for male bodies to behave. But, crucially, although this discourse is constructed around a physical feature of the world (the male-ness of some bodies), it in a sense ‘floats free’ from the characteristics of those physical features. That is, we might change only the discourse, but not the physical condition, so that chewing through leathery, well-done steaks is manly.

However, it does not seem to me that the experience of chronic pain can similarly ‘float free’ from the relevant physical characteristics of the world. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
11 months ago

I think the aggression has to be seen in context. In this thread Shelley has: boasted about the field-shaking importance of her own work, told a leading philosopher of physics that he should really check out this exciting podcast by a philosopher of mind on why physics isn’t really on very solid ground (to which he responded with the utmost politeness), seemed to be dismissive of your personal experience with pain, repeatedly refused to answer straight questions, instead directing us to her collected works, reacted to Ray Briggs asking an entirely polite question about ‘how do you deal with X objection to the social model’ (essentially, your objection) by saying that she was assuming a different view of disability when literally all the comment did was ask the question, and then criticize Savulescu for not letting people determine the meanings of their own bodies, and *told the parent of an autistic child that his opinions about his child didn’t matter* (‘And: why are *your* and or *anyone else’s* beliefs about your son’s worth a consideration? They aren’t’) I understand that context matters for the last one, and I was somewhat uncomfortable with the commentator she was criticizing, but that is a pretty brutal way to put it.

No one has actually criticized any of this (up till now) except the refusing to give a straight answer. Yes, we have been pretty brutally critical of her views, but she herself is strongly critical of her opponents views!

Contrast the reception she’s gotten with Joe Stramondo, who seems to have a similar perspective on disability, but without the boasting about his own greatness, refusal to answer straight questions when they get difficult, or telling people their opinions about their own children’s quality of life are worthless. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

‘they’ for Ray sorry, not ‘she’. (They went by a different pronoun when I met them years ago, so I slipped and forgot.) Report

InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
InvisiblyDisabledPhilosopher
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

Fair enough.Report

Joe Stramondo
Joe Stramondo
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

I don’t have time to engage on this thread much beyond what I already have, especially because anyone with a serious interest in the views I have tried to defend would be better served by checking out the readings I suggested (especially the Amundson pieces). I will say one thing briefly about the very clear pile-on Shelley is experiencing since my name was brought into this as a counterexample.

First, let me say that I am not a regular reader of many philosophy blogs because I find the unprofessionalism displayed by commentators to be counterproductive. The treatment Shelley has received on this thread tells me that not much has changed. It is absurd to say that an underemployed, disabled, woman is “boasting” by referring people to her work, where her relevant views are developed in painstaking detail, rather than further engaging folks who are clearly pretty ignorant of this literature and frequently responding to her with juvenile sarcasm.

I don’t see the supposedly huge contrast between how I have presented my views on here and how she has. What I see is an enormous power differential between Shelley and I (as a white, cishet man on the tenure track and working for the most part in the dominant analytic tradition). To me, this power differential provides a far better hypothesis for explaining why we have had such divergent receptions on this thread than anything about how I have conducted myself.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Joe Stramondo
11 months ago

I didn’t say she was boasting by referring to her work, which would be ridiculous, I said she was boasting by saying her work had completely transformed the field in which she worked. That is, even if true, which for all I know it may be, is the single most boastful thing I’ve ever heard a philosopher say about their own work. And believe me, I have met and socialized with some of the most stereotypically masculine, hardcore analytic, aggressive philosophers to be found in academia. You’ve also deliberately left out all the criticism I made of her behaviour that you *don’t* have an excuse for, including the worst one (flat-out telling someone their opinion about the quality of life of their own child is totally worthless, without any tact at all to sugar it. And yes, obviously, I *do* understand why relying on parental opinion to make judgments about this is dubious. No, that does not excuse being brutal with parents about this, yes even including parents who’s attitudes to disability are less than perfect. (No, I am not saying it’s *impossible* for a parent to merit brisk dismissal, just that ‘I sometimes wonder whether being autistic makes my child worse off’ does not cut it for that. *I* sometimes wonder about that. Many people on the spectrum, including me quite often, have excruciatingly high levels of anxiety, and wondering whether this leads to a lower average quality of life isn’t the same as wishing us all dead. Indeed, one of the reasons that Singer-style views are discriminatory is because in other cases we don’t take the fact that someone has a feature that makes their life go worse as a reason to think that we’ve less reason to keep such people alive, although this is in fact a consequence of utilitarianism consistently applied. If the only way to disagree with Singer was by defending the idea that if X causes a thing broadly agreed to be bad in every non-disability related context (physical pain, mental anguish, earlier death*) this doesn’t make X even instrumentally bad as soon as X is a disability, then criticism of Singer would be on very shaky ground.
(*Yes, I’m aware there are many paradigmatic disabilities that cause none of these things. Which illustrates that whilst there may be shared *social* features of all disabilities, disability is in many otherwise a very heterogeneous category. It’s a mistake I think, to think that because there are common sociological things across the grouping, the answer to ‘is the badness of disability purely socially caused’ will be the same for disabilities, *because the answer to that also depends on the massively heterogeneous non-social features of the different species of the genus*.)

I haven’t been sarcastic for a second; I think one person has resorted to a brief passing snarky comment, whilst everyone else has been substantial and serious, even if confrontational. I’m also disabled (mildly autistic as I’ve already said; diagnosed as a child; having that labeled has fundamentally shaped my identity and experience of life). Part (though only a small part, admittedly) of why I give a damn here is precisely because I want to be able to meet and socialize with other people on the spectrum and discuss a society that can sometimes be quite harsh for us *without* having to adopt Shelley-like views wholesale or a Shelley-like way of expressing them to fit in. (To be clear, I don’t think that the fact that I find it uncomfortable itself gives other people a reason to abandon even a very strong commitment to those views: it doesn’t. Maybe I’m just wrong! But I do think it gives me a good excuse for expressing my feelings about the topic.) In the past 4 years, my entire employment has consisted of some minor tutorial teaching at an obscure university. Not even a temporary lecturing job. I live with my parents in my 30s partly because I have no money, and partly because my mental health is very fragile and I need a lot of support. I am at significant statistical risk of disability-related unemployment (to be clear, I don’t think this is why I haven’t found philosophical employment! philosophy is a pretty friendly environment for people like me I think). People like me are so often bullied in school as children that it’s actually been suggested as an addition to the list of things used by psychiatrists to diagnose the condition. But yes, she is a woman and I am not. So maybe she wins some silly game of measuring who is more vulnerable. (I mean the last point genuinely; I accept the view that men typically have more social power qua men than women have qua women.)

As for ‘ignorance of the literature’: You are of course correct that we are not experts on the philosophy of disability (and that my personal experience cannot substitute for this.) It is possible that we are simply misunderstanding things through lack of expertise, yes. But in our defence: Firstly, I doubt there is a single academic, or certainly a single philosopher who has *never* had a strongly negative reaction to a view outside their area of expertise and expressed it. If you don’t believe me, asks yourself how you’d react if an economist claimed that no one has ever acted contrary to their own considered preferences, because preferences just *are* dispositions to behave, or an evolutionary psychologist confidently proclaimed [sexist-sounding, prima facie implausible claim about how evolution has shaped our psychology]. Secondly, the view Shelley is taking isn’t just a view about disability, it’s a much more general social constructivism about everything. In that sense, every philosopher is to some degree an expert, because the view is so general. (Though, obviously people who’ve worked on constructivism are more expert.) Thirdly, and relatedly, her view has implications beyond the philosophy of disability. Insofar as other people have expertise on other philosophical topics, they can assess her view partly through whether it’s implications for things they *do* know about are plausible*. (Of course, they might be wrong about what those are, through lack of knowledge of the exact details of her view; but she hasn’t really said that anyone has gotten her wrong in that way.) Finally, whilst this technically isn’t a defence of the rest of us, since tu quoque is a fallacy, I’ll not that if you’re worried about speaking from ignorance, Shelley has been telling a philosopher of physics what to think about physics, and about whether scientific entities in the hard sciences are social constructs. She’s not a philosopher of *hard* science, right?
*(Compare: if I’m to assess someone’s claim about chronic pain not actually being a bad thing, I have to take seriously the testimony of people with chronic pain. But I’m *also* allowed to take seriously the stuff I already believe about pain from other sources of evidence, insofar as those beliefs really were what the other evidence justified, and I also have to take into account just how many of my other moral beliefs I’d have to jettison if I took their view and accept all the logical implications of it; or at least, holism here seems plausible to me.)Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

https://www.livescience.com/53777-titanosaur-dinosaur-had-tumors.html

“The 7-inch-long (17 centimeters) fossilized vertebra, discovered in 2012 in Brazil’s southern São Paulo state, belongs to a species in the Titanosauridae family, “the most abundant Cretaceous dinosaur family of South America,” the researchers wrote in the study.

However, the 90-million-year-old bone had an unusual appearance — a “small bony button-shaped protuberance,” the researchers wrote in the study. Curious, Barbosa and his colleagues decided to investigate the weird bump, which measured just 0.3 by 0.3 inches (8.6 by 7.5 millimeters).

They found evidence of two tumors, both benign, Barbosa said. One is an osteoma, a bone overgrowth, which the researchers confirmed with a computer tomography (CT) scan and an examination of the fossil’s structure.

The other, a hemangioma, is a harmless vascular tumor.

“We were very lucky finding this because we didn’t have any evidence of the hemangioma,” Barbosa told Live Science in an email. “It was diagnosed by [the CT scan], which was only possible because we were investigating the radiological appearance of the osteoma.”

The tumors, though examples of abnormal cell growth, should not be called cancer, he said. Usually, only harmful tumors are called cancer, and these tumors were benign, Barbosa said. Furthermore, because of the tumors’ location and likely small sizes, the dinosaur probably didn’t notice them, the researchers said.”

The above excerpt from the article linked at the beginning of this comment suggests that the identification of tumours (in dinosaurs) as cancer (or not), as harmful (or not), is an interpretive endeavour, a social construction. Report

Avalonian
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Of course we should be deeply careful to avoid thinking of bodily disadvantages as “natural” when they may principally be the result of unjust social or structural forces. But I’m afraid that this is the sort of reasoning that makes the rest of the academy think that the humanities are either pointless or pernicious. Of course, for any scientific fact the *process of identification* is social. That never implies that the fact itself– the harmful tumor– is a social construction. This is the basic error that sends so many people in the humanities veering off into bizarre forms of idealism (cf. Justin EH Smith, “The Anthropocentric Idealism of Judith Butler”).

Moreover, there are pretty good reasons to think that this sort of medical fact itself isn’t constructed: a harmful tumor will kill you regardless of whether any process of identification occurs. My grandfather died of a tumor no-one knew about. And no, the fact of his death is not a social construction, we can’t bring him back just by collectively hallucinating that he is back.

Why have so many academics decided that the best way to defend the oppressed is to embrace idealism? Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Reply to  Avalonian
11 months ago

My apologies. In my comment above, I should have acknowledged Dr. Susan Sterrett, who is Curtis D. Gridley Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Wichita State University and who directed me to the article cited in my comment.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Obviously *identifying* whether something is X is social, because it is something human beings do together in a group. But that’s not the same claim as that what it is for something to *be* X is for it to occupy a certain social role. It’s the latter thing people mean to be denying when they say ‘cancer isn’t socially constructed’. If all you mean when you say things are ‘socially constructed’ is that ‘for society to decide whether something is one of those things, a social process must take place’ then no one disagrees with you. But it’s not clear what interesting or important or surprising insights about disability follow from this. It doesn’t for example, follow from this that there would be no disabilities if we had a different way of thinking about or recognizing disability, or that certain non-social facts being true of someone can never be what makes them disabled. (I’m not actually committed to the view that there are physical facts that would make you disabled in any possible society whatsoever; my point is just that even this extremely strong claim is compatible with disability being ‘socially constructed’ if all ‘disability is socially constructed’ means is ‘when a group of people decide that something counts as a disability, their deciding is a social event’.)

Why doesn’t the fact that *identifying* whether something is X is social, mean that X itself is socially constructed in some more exciting sense, where whether or not something is X depends constitutively on social facts? Well, firstly, note that even if the process of determining whether something was cancer is social, that doesn’t mean that the properties by which people recognize cancer are social properties: that we have a social practice of identifying things as cancer iff they involve a certain kind of uncontrolled cell division with potential for metastasis* doesn’t show that the property ‘involving a certain kind of uncontrolled cell division with potential for metastasis’ is a social property in the sense of ‘a property things have because of how society is’ (let alone that they are social if we restrict that they ‘because’ here is read constitutively and not causally). So even whether something ‘has the properties which make us count it as cancer’ is not obviously ‘social’: what properties we count as adding up to being cancer is a social fact about us, but it’s not obvious why whether something has those properties is social. But secondly (and a little more controversially), even if the properties by which we recognize things as cancer *were* sociological properties, that wouldn’t necessarily show that being cancer is something things do in virtue of their social properties? Why? Well, the properties by which I recognize Xs might not be the properties in virtue of which something counts as X. I might recognize water by it being a clear drinkable liquid in rivers, but it might be that what actually makes something water is that it’s H2O. Equally, my method for telling whether something is cancer might be ‘ask an oncologist’, but that doesn’t mean that what makes something cancer is that an oncologist says it is (or mistakes about what’s cancer would be impossible.)

Now, I think maybe your thinking that the fact that the scientist says something about how it wouldn’t be right to call the tumor ‘cancer’ is a way of them implying something like ‘there is no fact of the matter here about whether it’s cancer, but we make a decision to call things like this not cancer’. Now firstly, even if this did demonstrate that whether the particular tumor in question was cancer was ‘socially constructed’ that wouldn’t show that there is *never* a case where the facts about whether something is cancer aren’t socially constructed. At most, what it would show is that facts about whether something is cancer are socially constructed in cases where the properties of the thing itself don’t fix whether it is cancer or not, because it has some of the properties constitutive of being cancer but not others. But secondly, it’s not clear that it follows from a) it’s not the case that: independent of what anyone thinks, the tumor is cancer, b) it’s not the case that: independent of what anyone thinks the tumor isn’t cancer’ and c) people made a decision to say it was not ‘cancer’ that how it is in respect to whether or not it’s cancerous is fixed by our decision. Why not say instead that, objectively, as the tumor is a borderline case, it’s indeterminate whether it’s cancerous or not and this indeterminate not because of what anyone thinks, but because of how the tumor behaves and what being cancer consists in, but that *also* scientists know that it’s indeterminate whether it really is cancerous, but have made a decision to use the word ‘cancer’ in a way that leaves it out?

*It’s not relevant whether this is precisely scientifically accurate; the point I’m making is conceptual.Report

Lysette Chaproniere
Lysette Chaproniere
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
11 months ago

Shelley Lynn Tremain wrote: “ The above excerpt from the article linked at the beginning of this comment suggests that the identification of tumours (in dinosaurs) as cancer (or not), as harmful (or not), is an interpretive endeavour, a social construction.”

Does it, though? I agree it’s interpretive in that, since we can’t ask the dinosaurs whether they thought their tumours were harmful, or whether they even noticed them, we have to construct an interpretation of the available data. But that interpretation could be right or wrong. Either they noticed the tumours or they didn’t. At least in some of your earlier examples, our discourse can have an effect on the things and people we’re trying to merely describe. Perhaps some people experience their disabilities as harmful partially or entirely because they have been taught that disability is a harm, or I can imagine a case where part of the causal explanation for why someone has committed crime is that they were repeatedly told, as a child, that they are the sort of person who would become a criminal. These are self full-filling prophecies: you become a certain sort of person precisely because societal discourse constructs or represents you as that sort of person. Dinosaur cancer isn’t like that though. “Dinosaur cancer was harmful” can’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy; nothing we say now, millions of years in the future, can change what it was like to be a dinosaur, or what dinosaurs’ bodies were like.Report