Faculty at Rhodes College Urge Cancellation of Online Talk by Peter Singer (updated)


The Department of Philosophy at Rhodes College is scheduled to host an online event tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon on pandemic ethics, featuring a conversation with Peter Singer (Princeton) and the philosophers at Rhodes. Faculty in other departments at the College have called for Singer’s invitation to be rescinded, owing to their understanding of his views about disability.

A flyer for the event featuring Peter Singer.

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program sent out an email to the college community that said, in part:

We, the faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program, wish to express our deepest dismay at the invitation of Professor Peter Singer to our campus. We believe that proceeding with this event as currently structured could further alienate students, faculty, and staff, particularly after the unresolved racist “incident” [story here] against African Americans that occurred in early September. 

Professor Singer’s longstanding advancement of philosophical arguments that presume the inferiority of many disabled lives is dehumanizing and dangerous. The creation of a hierarchy of lives as a justification for the allocation or denial of limited resources (whether “pleasure,” medical care, insurance, etc.) is a logic that has a long and violent history. It is a logic that underlies eugenicist arguments marking various marginalized populations as unfit to be a part of the advancement of the human race…

Disability scholars have critiqued Singer’s body of work across a range of themes, and we encourage anyone who reads Singer to also read this rich scholarship. Salient among these themes for the purposes of a panel on pandemic ethics is the denial of some disabled people’s full humanity and the premise that certain disabled people have lives that are less worth living than “normal” people (with whom they might be competing for medical resources). Given that COVID is one of the most profound disability rights issues of our lifetimes, it would seem that any panel on pandemic ethics would include disability scholars (especially given their significant challenges to Singer’s credibility in this area). 

Rather than suggesting an alternative structure to the event such as the inclusion of one of the aforementioned disability scholars, though, the faculty instead says:

[W]e affirm our dedication to disability justice and urge the college to withdraw the invitation. We stand next to our students who are working hard to fight for their ideals of equality, fairness, and diversity, not as lip service, but as the basis of reflection and action. We cherish and advocate for freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not deny others their humanity. 

Some history faculty also sent out an email objecting to the event:

As historians, we the undersigned condemn Prof. Peter Singers’ abhorrent views that some humans have less value than others. We object to inviting him to Rhodes College to speak as part of a “Pandemics Ethics” panel. Positioning him as an expert on ethics only legitimizes his reprehensible beliefs that deny the very humanity of people with disabilities. Hypothetical philosophies on morality cause real violence. We historians are all too familiar with ideas that justify labeling marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations as “life unworthy of life,” and the murderous consequences for those deemed “unfit” to live. Adhering to the College’s own IDEAS Framework that seeks to foster “a sense of belonging” and embrace “the full range of psychological, physical, and social difference,” we historians assert that Prof. Peter Singers’ blatant inhumanity has no place in serious academic exchange here at Rhodes.  

While statements of support for people with disabilities is of course laudable, and criticisms of Singer’s views may be worth making, it is unfortunate that these faculty chose to combine this expression of solidarity with a call for action that would violate the academic freedom of their colleagues in the Department of Philosophy.

Photo of a sign for a “speak out” in support of persons with disabilities at Rhodes College.

Fortunately, the Rhodes College administration did not cancel the event. Rather, apparently with the view that the best response to problematic speech is more speech, the interim president and provost wrote the following:

Yesterday a member of our faculty informed us of his profound disturbance caused by the invitation of Princeton University Prof. Peter Singer to speak on a Rhodes “Pandemic Ethics” virtual panel next week.

We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel. At the same time, our community’s values compel us to denounce some of the views he has expressed repeatedly over years through various addresses, writings, and media interviews.

Fundamentally, Rhodes College is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values extend to every member of our community, including individuals with disabilities. While we view the invitation to Peter Singer in light of our commitment to free and open dialogue at a liberal arts college, his views on disability are unequivocally antithetical to our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We reject and condemn in the most forceful manner possible any views that call into question the value and worth of all human life. It is within this context that we make the following affirmations:

    • We affirm our strong belief in an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible community – as outlined in the College’s IDEAS framework – one in which the worth and dignity of all persons is championed and supported.
    • We affirm particular support for disabled members of our community who, justifiably, have expressed anger, outrage, and offense at some of Prof. Singer’s writings. Not only does Rhodes not tolerate discrimination on the basis of disability, the College also strongly believes that disabled people enrich our community by their presence on our campus. We affirm this while recognizing that we still have much work to do as an institution to support individuals with disabilities.

As an academic institution, we re-affirm our Statement on Diversity, which expresses our commitment to providing an “open learning environment,” where “freedom of thought, a healthy exchange of ideas, and an appreciation of diverse perspectives” are fundamental. It is this commitment to freedom of expression that allows academic departments to invite a variety of speakers to campus to enrich the educational experience of our students. Nevertheless, they should do so with responsibility, as well as with careful attention to our values as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.

The Department of Philosophy at Rhodes is chaired by Rebecca Tuvel (who readers may recall from this controversy). In response to an earlier call to rescind Singer’s invitation (see update 1), she emailed a statement from her and her departmental colleagues to the college community:

We write in response to one of our colleagues, who has publicly expressed concern about the Philosophy department’s invitation to Peter Singer—and he has every right to do so. The objection raised is apparently not to the topic, but to the speaker. We are of course aware that Professor Singer has advanced philosophical arguments on bioethical issues that many find not only disturbing but deeply offensive, a reaction by no means confined to members of the disabled community. Indeed, the organizers also take issue with some of Dr. Singer’s views.

Serious intellectual exchange about matters of significance cannot avoid sometimes causing anger, offense, and pain and no one should be cavalier about that fact. It is not clear to us, however, what follows from our colleague’s understandable expression of disturbance at some of Professor Singer’s views. Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college? If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange and that premise, we think, is incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree. 

It’s an excellent response.

A speak-out in support of people with disabilities at Rhodes College was scheduled for earlier today.

UPDATE 1: Professor Tuvel has clarified that the email from her and her colleagues was sent out prior to the other emails mentioned in the post. It was sent in response to the following email from Charles Hughes, Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College:

(PDF of the above letter here.)

After the controversy surrounding the event with Singer grew, Dr. Tuvel sent out a different email to colleagues around campus clarifying Singer’s views, concluding:

I realize that now is not the time to get into the weeds of Singer’s utilitarian ethics. Should there be interest at some point down the line, I would be more than happy to organize a reading group and/or zoom event where myself and other members of the Philosophy department can clarify Singer’s views on these incredibly sensitive topics. At some point, I think our community would also benefit greatly from an event devoted to discussing these delicate matters. On pains of intellectual and moral failure, such an event would absolutely need to include experts in disability rights (such as Professor Charles Hughes), parents of children with disabilities, and relevant others…

UPDATE 2: Eric Sampson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Rhodes, wrote up a document clarifying Singer’s views for others at Rhodes and defending the decision to invite him to speak:

You can view Dr. Sampson’s document as a PDF here.

UPDATE 3 (9/29/01): The word “some” was inserted at the start of the paragraph about the email from history faculty after it was brought to my attention that not all of the history faculty signed onto it.

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David Shope
2 months ago

“If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange”

That is clearly NOT the premise. The reasons given are not about the emotions of those calling for Singer to be disinvited, they are about the content of Singer’s views. Feelings of anger and dismay are not mentioned anywhere in the reasons given for disinviting Singer. The closest is the mention of student alienation in the first. The core reasons have to do with claims that Singer’s views are dehumanizing and harmful.

You might, on principled grounds, agree that academic freedom rules out the call for a disinvitation. You might, on substantive grounds, hold that Singer’s critics misrepresent or misunderstand his views. But calling this an excellent response is like calling an “Well I’m sorry you got upset” apology an excellent apology. It utterly fails to address the reasons given. Report

Last edited 2 months ago by David Shope
David Shope
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

I want to add an update to my remarks in light of Update 1. I interpreted Rebecca Tuvel as responding to the letters quoted in the original post, but it was in fact responding to a different letter from Charles Hughes. While Hughes’ letter does mention anger and dismay, it provides substantive reasons and even textual quotations for argument. So, I think my point still stands.

That said, since I’ve been critical, I want to give due praise the further email quoted from by Tuvel in Update 1 which seems to me to be an attempt to address the substance of the criticisms in a helpful way. Especially its deliberate calling out of the need of expertise outside of philosophy.

This contrasts significantly with Eric Sampson’s response, which especially in the section on expertise is, frankly, condescending by somehow erasing the experts such as disability scholars who have raised these criticisms and instead presenting a picture of critics as essentially uncritical hangers-on, the equivalent to anti-vaxxers who have ‘done their own research.’

I also can’t see how it is an accurate representation of Singer’s views. Sampson heavily emphasizes that Singer’s position on infanticide only applies to very severe disabilities which are going to be exceptionally rare. Only the ones which create sufficient suffering that life would not be worth living. Sampson characterizes criticisms of Singer as taking narrow statements about *these* disabilities and generalizing them to all disabilities. Yet, in Practical Ethics, here is Singer on Down Syndrome – neither rare, nor, by his admission, incompatible with a life worth living:

Prenatal diagnosis, followed by abortion in selected cases, is common practice in countries with liberal abortion laws and advanced medical techniques. I think this is as it should be. As the arguments of Chapter 6 indicate, I believe that abortion can be justified. Note, however, that neither haemophilia nor Down’s syndrome is so crippling as to make life not worth living, from the inner perspective of the person with the condition […]That a fetus is known to be disabled is widely accepted as a ground for abortion. Yet in discussing abortion, we saw that birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line. I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be ‘replaced’ before birth, but newborn infants may not be. Nor is there any other point, such as viability, that does a better job of dividing the fetus from the infant. Self-consciousness, which could provide a basis for holding that it is wrong to kill one being and replace it with another, is not to be found in either the fetus or the newborn infant. Neither the fetus nor the newborn infant is an individual capable of regarding itself as a distinct entity with a life of its own to lead, and it is only for newborn infants, or for still earlier stages of human life, that replaceability should be considered to be an ethically acceptable option.” (p. 164 – 165 of Practical Ethics, 3rd ed.)

This hardly seems to be the very narrow range of permissibility that Sampson makes out Singer’s position to be. Maybe he has revised his positions since Practical Ethics and has not made any adjustments to the 3rd edition in light of this. Sampson, as an expert, can surely enlighten about this. But I think the above quote makes clear that there is at least a historical basis for the kinds of criticisms levelled against Singer that is more substantive than Sampson makes out. Report

Dr. J
Dr. J
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

Fair enough, but keep in mind that Sampson is responding here not to disability scholarship on Singer, but the specific claims coming from those Rhodes faculty protesting Singer’s talk. Responding to these caricatures of Singer’s views, Sampson correctly notes that “Singer has never advocated for anything approaching the ‘genocide’, ‘extermination’, ‘slaughter’, ‘forced sterilization’, or ‘targeting’ of people with disabilities’” – all views (apparently) advanced by “Rhodes faculty members or students.”   

Singer does offer a broad defense of infanticide, since he holds it is permissible to abort and kill even those fetuses and babies who would lead good lives. But, as you rightly note, this applies to all infants, not just disabled ones. Thus, those faculty claiming that Singer “targets disabled people” are mistaken. Indeed, at the policy level, Singer only ever ‘advocates’ letting parents decide whether to keep their newborn babies – disabled or not. This is further consistent with Singer’s point in the quote you cite; far from devaluing people with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, Singer reminds us that “neither hemophilia nor Down’s syndrome is so crippling as to make life not worth living.” Again, Singer clearly states that “the principle of equal consideration of interests rejects any discounting of the interests of people on grounds of disability” (PE, 165).
 Report

David Shope
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

“Singer has never advocated for anything approaching the ‘genocide’, ‘extermination’, ‘slaughter’, ‘forced sterilization’, or ‘targeting’ of people with disabilities’” – all views (apparently) advanced by “Rhodes faculty members or students.”  

Ok, where? I don’t see that in any of the letters. Given that Sampson begins by characterizing “the first rule of responsible intellectual engagement and argumentation” as “if you’re going to criticize someone for the views they hold, you had better represent those views accurately” he seems to focus only on the criticisms that are the most extreme. By his account, even less extreme criticisms would be inaccurate, but he doesn’t engage with them, including several in the letters from faculty quoted in the Daily Nous article.

I’d also like to push back on your defense, because non-discrimination in certain respects, like the permissibility of infanticide, is hardly the whole story. Consider the following quotes (bolding mine)

“If we favour the total view rather than the prior existence view, then we
have to take account of the probability that when the death of a disabled
infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a
happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled
infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed
by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the
haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

The total view treats infants as replaceable, in much the same way
as it treats animals that are not self-aware as replaceable (as we saw in
Chapter 5). Many will think that the replaceability argument cannot be
applied to human infants. The direct killing of even the most hopelessly
disabled infant is still officially regarded as murder. How then could the
killing of infants with far less serious problems, like haemophilia, be
accepted? Yet on further reflection, the implications of the replaceability argument do not seem quite so bizarre. For there are disabled members of our species whom we now deal with exactly as the argument suggests we should. [Singer then goes on to defend the replaceability argument]” (PE 3rd ed, 163)

“Prenatal diagnosis, followed by abortion in selected cases, is common
practice in countries with liberal abortion laws and advanced medical
techniques. I think this is as it should be.” (PE 3rd ed, 164)

“I conclude, then, that a rejection of speciesism does not imply that all lives are of equal worth. While self-awareness, the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future, the capacity for meaningful relations with others and so on are not relevant to the question of inflicting pain—since pain is pain, whatever other capacities, beyond the capacity to feel pain, the being may have—these capacities are relevant to the question of taking life. It is not arbitrary to hold that the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities. To see the difference between the issues of inflicting pain and taking life, consider how we would choose within our own species. If we had to choose to save the life of a normal human being or an intellectually disabled human being, we would probably choose to save the life of a normal human being” (Animal Liberation, 40th anniversary edition – not using a pdf so I don’t have a P# but it’s in the first Chapter)

Singer very clearly makes normative claims that DO discriminate between disabled and non-disabled lives. While he does not advocate for a policy of mandatory eugenics via prenatal selection or infanticide, it seems to me (correct me if I am wrong) that he thinks that the voluntary practice of this form of eugenics is, on the whole, the normatively correct path to take. In the Animal Liberation quote, he also talks quite literally about the worth, value and equality of lives.

I’m sure some critics do attribute views to Singer that he simply doesn’t hold and that his views are far from implying. I’ve seen enough of Twitter to expect that. But many of the criticisms mentioned in the letters quoted above, and that I have seem elsewhere, do not in fact seem to be so obviously false or ungrounded. Surely, if we are being intellectually responsible, those deserve careful consideration and treatment. Especially in light of the fact that they are coming from a marginalized group that has been subject to horrific violence on the basis of consequentialist reasoning.Report

A Professor at Rhodes
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

As a Rhodes faculty member, I can tell you that Sampson is directly quoting from different faculty emails that flooded the listserv this past week. Some highlights: “‘Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college?’ My answer to this question is ‘yes’ — to the extent that he advocates for the killing of a particular group of people.This is not merely ‘controversial’, it is actually genocidal.” “I know how hurt I would feel if a speaker were invited to campus who advocated for eugenics for populations that I am a part of (e.g., queer, Jewish). While as an able-bodied person I cannot know exactly how my colleagues with disabilities feel, I have full trust in their descriptions of how hurtful this is and the kind of message it sends to them and our broader community.” “If Rhodes College is anywhere near serious about the values it allegedly, purportedly supports, the College should move quickly to create a venue where we can bring in speakers to make the point that killing disabled people is a murderous, uncivil idea, one that has no place in a civilized society, and is a position a shade more than ‘problematic.’” “Open advocacy of the killing of Jews or Blacks would be anathema, beyond the pale of civil, intellectual exchange. The open advocacy of murdering disabled people is merely ‘controversial’, and in no way should disqualify one from speaking at the College.” “There are plenty of Covid ethics experts out there who have not argued repeatedly and publicly for eugenics.” “If we want serious engagement with pandemic ethics, let’s find a speaker who can do that without the specter of eugenics. No one should be asked to defend their humanity as an intellectual exercise.” Sadly for the state of our college, Sampson is not the one guilty of exaggeration here.Report

David Shope
Reply to  A Professor at Rhodes
1 month ago
  • “‘Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college?’ My answer to this question is ‘yes’ — to the extent that he advocates for the killing of a particular group of people. This is not merely ‘controversial’, it is actually genocidal.”

This does seem exaggerated, but as far as I can tell (see my prior direct quotes from Singer), he does think that certain groups of people would, in an ideal world, be eliminated prenatally (or postnatally if prenatal detection is not feasible) and replaced with people with better hedonic prospects.

  • “I know how hurt I would feel if a speaker were invited to campus who advocated for eugenics for populations that I am a part of (e.g., queer, Jewish). While as an able-bodied person I cannot know exactly how my colleagues with disabilities feel, I have full trust in their descriptions of how hurtful this is and the kind of message it sends to them and our broader community.”

The quotes I gave in my previous post are consistent with support for non-coercive eugenics. This does not seem like an exaggeration at all. Several of these quotes focus on eugenics, so if you interpret Singer differently than I do in my above post, maybe you can explain why you think it is a misinterpretation to understand his endorsement of prenatal selection using abortion for disabilities like Down syndrome is not eugenics.

  • “If Rhodes College is anywhere near serious about the values it allegedly, purportedly supports, the College should move quickly to create a venue where we can bring in speakers to make the point that killing disabled people is a murderous, uncivil idea, one that has no place in a civilized society, and is a position a shade more than ‘problematic.’”

It’s hard to tell how exaggerated this is, since it’s unclear if the author attributes to Singer the view that killing disabled people, in the technical sense of moral persons that philosophers like Singer use it, is permissible or if they are responding to Singer’s view that killing disabled infants is permissible. In the latter case, I don’t see the exaggeration. If we’re going to be hyper-literal, careful readers of Singer in this dispute, let’s be hyper-literal, careful readers of critics as well.

  • “Open advocacy of the killing of Jews or Blacks would be anathema, beyond the pale of civil, intellectual exchange. The open advocacy of murdering disabled people is merely ‘controversial’, and in no way should disqualify one from speaking at the College.”

This one does seem exaggerated, since Singer probably can’t be accurately characterized as openly advocating for murdering disabled people, even infants.

  • “There are plenty of Covid ethics experts out there who have not argued repeatedly and publicly for eugenics.”

I don’t know enough about Singer’s public speaking to judge this one, but as far as I can tell, he is on board with a form of eugenics.

  • “If we want serious engagement with pandemic ethics, let’s find a speaker who can do that without the specter of eugenics. No one should be asked to defend their humanity as an intellectual exercise.”

Attributing to Singer a specter of eugenics hardly seems an exaggeration. The second sentence depends substantially on what characterizes a person’s humanity.

I appreciate the insight into the sorts of exchanges Sampson is responding to. His presentation of Singer’s views, and characterization of the criticisms, still doesn’t seem like a fully accurate representation.Report

Dr. J
Dr. J
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

If this counts as charity, we need to name a new fallacy after it. First, there’s an enormous difference between Singer’s suggestion that a world with more hedons would be a better world and these individuals’ repeated claims that Singer advocates for the killing or even murder of a particular group of people (yes, the terms here matter enormously). Second, the faculty member comparing Singer’s liberal eugenics to the Nazi eugenicist programs to wipe out queers and Jews elides a critical distinction between two wildly different senses of the term ‘eugenics’ (not to mention the insult to Singer, himself a Jew). In a recent piece, Singer et al suggest it might be prudent to opt for a different term than ‘eugenics’, given the latter’s “association with forced sterilization programs in the US and Nazi Germany, as well as the Nazi program of euthanizing disabled people, and the mass murder and attempted genocide of Jews and Roma during WW2…. While contemporary bioethicists disagree about whether the state should play a role in helping parents discharge their procreative obligations, none think the state should engage in the mass sterilization or murder of their own citizens. In other words, the rejection of Nazi-style eugenics programs is unanimous” (Monash Bioethics Review, 2021)

Finally, to the quote about Singer’s “open advocacy of murdering disabled people”: I’m glad you acknowledge this one “seems exaggerated” and that Singer “probably can’t be accurately characterized as openly advocating for murdering disabled people…” (!) What an extraordinarily weak defense of Singer in response to such an outrageous misrepresentation of his position.Report

Dr. KG
Dr. KG
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

We regularly teach Plato, who specifically argued for infanticide for and discussion of these beliefs is often fruitful for students who almost always reject Ps view (as well as his authoritarianism) But after reading They know why they hold the view they hold are are not just mindlessly paroting what were were taught as childen (This applies even more so the critique democacy, as Plato’s arguments are in my view the best anti-dem and being able to discuss and,for most of us, reject such arguments ( Should be ban Plato? ) Should Arisotle be purged frorm the academy b/c of his defense of slavey, or Schopenhauer because of his hyper misogyny That a so called liberal arts college would engage is such rampant anti-intellectualism s involves a deep mistake regarding the goal of liberal arts and philosophy in particular. We teach in order to challenge sudents to think for themselves, to consider arguments and counter arguments–and think for themselves instead of parotingn what their parents, church, peer group, Ayn Rand or whatever. It is a cliche that the solution to bad speech is more speech, and I remember distinctly when the Klan came to Eastern Iowa there would be 20-50 hooded racists and much greater number of counter demonstrators.

I am not saying I agree or diagree with Singer, I actually am sympathetic to his views on effective altruism (though with reservations), On euthanasia of the seriously disabled infants, I doubt he is right–way to broad a category of disabled–eve once down’s syndrome (!!!)(I hope he changed his mind on this) But I don’t think I am a genocidal maniac*if* a baby is born with only a spinal collumn, or if there is extremely good medical reason for thinking the child would live a very short and painful existecce,So these are rational issues to discuss.
FWIW I am sympathetic the disability rights–Esp with regard to many people on the autistic spectrum who, despite what family or even friends might want do not want to be”cured”[ not dissing other aspects of DR movementI am just most familiar with the strugglea of people on “the spectrum” But this is a debate we should have, It helps neither the cause of truth or morality to sweep arguments under the rug, even when they violate a very well cherished ethical (not so sure that Tukla should emphasize ‘trusting experts too much [in philosophy, not science] Focus should always be on the argumentsReport

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Dr. KG
1 month ago

Just to emphasize a point I posted about earlier elsewhere in this discussion, and which I think some people may be missing: when you suggest that you hope Singer has changed his view with respect to infants with Down’s syndrome but not with respect to infants with other features, I think you need to be a bit clearer about what you want him to change his view to.

As I understand it, his view about both of these cases is the same because his view about all infants, including ones that we would typically label as not at all disabled, is that they may be permissibly killed if the parents (or other interested adults) wish it, if nobody wants to adopt the infant, and (if we adopt what he dubs the “total” view) if we replace the infant. There is no special category he applies just to (e.g.) “disabled” infants or anything like this, at least as far as I read him.

So when you ask him to change his view about some infants but you’re happy with his view about others, you’re asking Singer to rather radically rethink things by carving out a special category of infants who are badly off in certain ways and who it is permissible to kill, and a larger category of infants who it is not permissible to kill. But he does not think we can do this without, among other things, trampling on abortion rights, since he doesn’t think there are morally salient features that infants have and that fetuses lack.

And notice Singer would perhaps suggest that his existing view creates much less of a hierarchy between e.g. disabled and non-disabled infants than the one you are suggesting. So we might worry that the change you are proposing, at least in Singer’s eyes, is going to make things worse for humans with certain disabilities, rather than better, because now they and they alone are liable to be permissibly killed as infants, compared to the rest of the humans (including those with Down’s syndrome) who are not.

I may be misreading you by understanding your claims about permissibility. It is possible you are suggesting that killing some infants is mandatory, and that Singer correctly notes this in the case of infants born with only a spine, but incorrectly includes the Down’s syndrome infants in this category. If that is your suggestion, then you are misreading Singer, who I think has been rather clear that it would never be mandatory to kill an infant with Down’s syndrome any more than it would be mandatory to kill any other infant.

(Again, disclaimer: I end up on the opposite side of what I take to be Singer’s view. So I am not endorsing anything. But I think we want to be clear about what his view is!)Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
1 month ago

Just speakng in the first person, if I was to be alive for say, five months and in constant agony, I would literally be better off dead.this is an uncommon and very extreme type of case, but as Thomson says about Abortion, there are cases and there are cases…
When I ran over a squirell, I felt bad, but I did not think I committed murder. Of course we all want (I hope) the least harm possible, but sometimes (rarely) infantile euthanasia is justifable for this reason–my only concern is that people would reach out for this sort of extreme case and expand it. via invalid slippery slope arguments. I think I am taking a more or less moderate positoin, one that prima facie is opposed to involuntary infantile euthanasia but recognizes there are extreme cases(suppose you were the parent of a constantly suffering child of the sort I mentioned would you consider it obviously immoral to end such a life. Obviously it could be immoral–But would it not be better for you to discuss and argue the issue with me than for you to shut me out of the debate so that I go on being a martyr for free speech and, assuming your view is correct, go on believing false things. if we want our beliefs to be rational we must allow them to be challenged.. Yes I am a big fan of J.S. Mill–the arguments in on liberty are not deep, but they are important and once you think about them (or once think about them) common sense. Historically moral progress has occurred when we Stopped the gag rule on slavery, stopped ignoring or trivializing feminist voices.. that isx when we engage in critical intelligent debate. i don’t have a strong view one way or the other on euthanasia (except the point about downs syndrome and, i fear some people lump autistic people into the same group of undesirables… but these are conscious beings ( I think value only obtains with respect to conscious states, and some conscious states are very bad indeed) Maybe I am wrong.. come at me, give me an argument [ I am probably more likely to be wrong than others as I am not a medical ethicist and have not thought these issues through as much as others. Again, those of you who have thought it through more, give me your reasoning. The idea that we should accept beliefs just on faith without allowing for criticism is the way of the authoritarian, not the free liberal democrat. Then again, maybe liberal democracy is a sucky government form–again, give the argument. Really to deny this is to deny the value of philosophy, to be what Socrates calls in the Meno a mysologic person. that sort of view is just darkness to me… a depth of intellectual feebility that, alas is quite common ( I don’t mean primarily philosophers) But as educators we want to help students get out of it and think for themselves (do I contradict myself, very well, I guess I do, I think one problem with moral philosophjy is that there are lots of views are plausible… but when taken to extremes they are….. well that is how we get counterexamples!
So, OF course I would agree that a Nazi prof who uses her ethics class to endorse the final solution ought to be fired.. but this is an extreme case–it goes against my general principles, but general principles, in my view, are either vacuous or allow for exceptions.Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
1 month ago

how is this different from recognizing that running over a squirell, a conscious being who suffers as the car bears down over him/her, is idfferent from running over a one year old? we all recognize gradations of value. I also want to take back what I said about universal ethical principles being vacuous if they admit no acception–I think something like Kantian respect for the value of an individual may apply univerally, though I would not apply it as Kant did (if my child was suffering grievously and about to die anyway, I think I AM respecting her by killing her (Rachels is spot on about the distinction between killing and letting die)Report

David Shope
Reply to  Dr. KG
1 month ago

I am not sure if this is directed at me (reply threading has gotten wonky), but I just want to say that I have not suggested, and would not suggest, eliminating Plato, Aristotle or even Singer from the curriculum. Teaching about a philosopher (especially historical ones) is an entirely different context from giving a living philosopher an invitation to give a talk. And, as remarked in another comment, I am not sure whether ultimately disinviting Singer would be the correct thing to do in this case.Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

but you assume you are RIGHT.. as if you you had authoritarian control over truth. ANd that is almost always a bad thing. But let me know defend Singer, not on euthanasia, which I hope I have indicated I don’t really aggree with, but on effective altruism and animal rights. I am a poor sinner. But after reading Singer “Famine, Afluence and morality” I definitely gave more to help out those that are suffering than I did before. Also, I am a poor sinner in that I eat meat. But I now eat meat when i get a strange craving.. maybe once a week, and definitely try to avoid factory farming. Both of these ethical positions are entirely salturary and helpful. I don’t get why people focus just on the euthanasia case and ignore his other wonderfullly beneficient views.. IS it specisism?

Isn’t it clear that the beneficial effects of Singer;s views on poverty and animal welfare have had a huge positive impact, whereas his euthasasia views are quibbles amongst philosophrs (mostly)
And I still have not heard an argument against EVERY case of infantile euthanasia–I think Singer’s problem is that instead of focusing entirely on the welfare of the child (as I said some people alas are better off dead).. A good thought experiment would be this. Suppose you had a child with an incredibly painful ailment and no real hope for recovery. IN the afterlife, would that chlid thank you? I think s/he would I(I would!!!) If not then I am wrong .. again these are issues to be debated, not trivialized or demonzied./ Singer’s problem is that he includes (i think) not just the welfare of the child, but the convenience of the parents and society (hope I am wrong here.. but that is how it sseems) I think that is wrong. BUt it is still a position that is open to rational discussion. anti-rationalism is the road to tyrany.. LOOK AT HISTORY sorry, i was emoting there. but i treally believe in reason, construed broadly to include phenomenology and the cognitive aspects of our emotions. .I don’t think we have any other grounds for thinking anything is right or wrong or true or false.Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  Dr K
1 month ago

I am sorry if I am parodying the view, but it is as if babies without brains have more value on your view than pigs with quite sophisticated ones. I don’t see this having any philosophical justification, though some relligious traditions may insist on it.. I say this as as a theist, albeit perhaps an unconventional one. If there is a God of love that love permeates all creation, not just us poor idiotic humans.,Report

David Shope
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

I might well be digging in my heels and being too charitable, but:

(1) You think the the most apt summary of Singer in the context of this discussion is that he suggests “that a world with more hedons would be a better world.”

This is, apparently, the summary you give as a model of accuracy in contrast to critics’ characterizations. This despite the fact that Singer has publicly argued in the NYT that disabled people might reasonably be denied life-saving medical care in cases of rationing, and has argued in favor of the practice of using prenatal testing and abortion to eliminate disabilities such as Down syndrome in a Practical Ethics – along with the extension of such practices to infanticide.

(2) Your interpretation of this quote:

“I know how hurt I would feel if a speaker were invited to campus who advocated for eugenics for populations that I am a part of (e.g., queer, Jewish). While as an able-bodied person I cannot know exactly how my colleagues with disabilities feel, I have full trust in their descriptions of how hurtful this is and the kind of message it sends to them and our broader community.”

is that it is “comparing Singer’s liberal eugenics to the Nazi eugenicist programs to wipe out queers and Jews” despite not once mentioning Nazis or coercion. You then go on to mark only the distinction between coercive eugenics and non-coercive eugenics, as if the ONLY reason the person quoted might feel angry or hurt at someone advocating eugenics for queer or Jewish people is if those eugenics were coercive.

We are not going to be able to have a productive discussion. You insist on the most extreme possible interpretation of critics, even when less extreme interpretations are readily available (do you really not think it would be disturbing if Singer argued the same things about queer or Jewish people as people with Down syndrome?). You also insist on vacating Singer’s positions of any action guiding force, despite direct quotes I’ve provided showing that he normatively endorses certain actions, actions that involve killing (in the case of infanticide) and letting die (in the case of medical rationing).Report

Dr. J
Dr. J
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

You incorrectly describe Singer as “in favor of using the practice of prenatal testing and abortion to eliminate disabilities such as Down syndrome.” He never says we ought to “eliminate” such disabilities; he only ever defends allowing parents the right to choose how to proceed following prenatal diagnosis. Directly from the horse’s mouth from an interview at inside higher ed this week on the controversy at Rhodes (my emphasis): “Clearly, these faculty have not thought very deeply about these questions. They say that they object to my advocacy of allowing parents to choose euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants (as they may do in the Netherlands, for example, in accordance with the Groningen Protocol). They say that this is ‘eugenicist’ and ‘denies the very humanity of people with disabilities.’ I challenge these faculty to explain to their students and the wider public their position on abortion following prenatal diagnosis that indicates a serious disability, or on allowing parents to choose to withdraw life-support from severely disabled infants in neonatal intensive care units, knowing that the infants will then die.”

I agree with several others’ assessments of Singer’s views on these matters. As Daivd Weltman, states, “There is no special category he applies just to (e.g.) “disabled” infants or anything like this…If that is your suggestion, then you are misreading Singer, who I think has been rather clear that it would never be mandatory to kill an infant with Down’s syndrome any more than it would be mandatory to kill any other infant.” 

And from Alastair Norcross: “There would have been more net goodness in the world if, instead of me, my parents had had a different child who was a bit more conscientious, a bit less selfish, more good looking, with more hair, and better eyesight. None of that entails that hedonistic maximizing utilitarianism endorses the murder of me, or of anyone else who could be or have been replaced by someone who would contribute more to net utility. Judgments about total value don’t translate simply and directly into judgments about what kinds of actions to endorse. To think they do is to take a ridiculously simplistic, but distressingly common amongst supposedly smart philosophers, approach to utilitarianism. Any cursory acquaintance with the world in which utilitarian judgments are to be made is sufficient to show that these criticisms of the theory are complete straw men.”Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Dr. J
Dr. J
Dr. J
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

With his growing shift in favor of hedonistic utilitarianism, I wonder if Singer still maintains that “the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities.” If an individual’s life has more pleasure than pain, a hedonist should not care whether one has these further cognitive capacities or not.
 
Further relevant is the slippage between the everyday concept of disability versus disease. A disability does not automatically imply that one’s life contains vastly more pain than pleasure; for this reason, it is wrong to discriminate based on disability alone. But certain diseases cause pain so excruciating and unbearable that many people prefer not to go on living, hence Singer’s defense of euthanasia.
 
It’s true that Singer thinks parents should be able to abort or kill a newborn for seemingly any reason. Since no newborn has personhood, infanticide does not wrong the newborn, although it may have damaging effects on the parents, the medical profession, and society at large – effects that weigh against infanticide. But insofar as there is no morally bright line between the moral status of a newborn and that of a very late term fetus, it is in principle allowable. Still, while Singer has argued that infanticide is permissible, I wonder if he would defend the practical permissibility of infanticide – given all the negative consequences that could result from mainstreaming the practice (including how horrified people would be). Here it’s interesting to note that far from being an idea too horrifying to even consider, however, infanticide was commonly practiced across a variety of cultures throughout history.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Dr. J
David Shope
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

With his growing shift in favor of hedonistic utilitarianism, I wonder if Singer still maintains that “the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities.” If an individual’s life has more pleasure than pain, a hedonist should not care whether one has these further cognitive capacities or not.”

That may well be, but I think the quoted passage from an special anniversary edition of Animal Liberation released 6 years ago is sufficient basis to make it not unreasonable to interpret Singer as having a view that there is a hierarchy of lives, which was one of the criticisms levelled.

As to the rest, it’s not really infanticide that’s the issue. You haven’t addressed at all the quotes that I gave, which seem to me at least to show that Singer thinks it would be better, all things considered, for disabled fetuses/infants to be replaced with nondisabled ones. It’s not just a question of meeting the threshold of having a life worth living, for Singer there are evaluations beyond that threshold about more or less worth living based on expected wellbeing.

Hence, for example, his suggestion that healthcare be reasonably rationed on the basis of disability (using QALYs) in the 2009 NYT article that Charles Hughes links:

“Health care does more than save lives: it also reduces pain and suffering. How can we compare saving a person’s life with, say, making it possible for someone who was confined to bed to return to an active life? We can elicit people’s values on that too. One common method is to describe medical conditions to people — let’s say being a quadriplegic — and tell them that they can choose between 10 years in that condition or some smaller number of years without it. If most would prefer, say, 10 years as a quadriplegic to 4 years of nondisabled life, but would choose 6 years of nondisabled life over 10 with quadriplegia, but have difficulty deciding between 5 years of nondisabled life or 10 years with quadriplegia, then they are, in effect, assessing life with quadriplegia as half as good as nondisabled life. (These are hypothetical figures, chosen to keep the math simple, and not based on any actual surveys.) If that judgment represents a rough average across the population, we might conclude that restoring to nondisabled life two people who would otherwise be quadriplegics is equivalent in value to saving the life of one person, provided the life expectancies of all involved are similar.”

He considers a literal objection that this discriminates against disabled people, but provides arguments against the suggestion that QALYs should be based on disabled people’s judgments about quality of life with their disability. He concludes by endorsing QALYs as “the worst option except for all the others.”

Report

Prof123
Prof123
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

Thank you for the Singer quotation on QALYs. But should this quotation (and others like it) really put Singer beyond the pale of polite company, unworthy of being hosted for a college lecture?

The quotation raises an important issue, and stakes out a position on this difficult terrain. Singer does not propose this position gleefully. Instead, he seems to recognize that it appears ghastly, and he recommends it as the least bad among a menu of bad options. (It’s “the worst option except for all of the others.”)Report

David Shope
Reply to  Prof123
1 month ago

Thank you for the Singer quotation on QALYs. But should this quotation (and others like it) really put Singer beyond the pale of polite company, unworthy of being hosted for a college lecture?”

I haven’t weighed in much on the prospect of the disinvitation itself for two reasons. One is that I think there is worthwhile criticism of the dismissive responses some have made about the substance of the criticisms themselves. Even if a principled stance on academic freedom settles the disinvitation question, it doesn’t justify dismissiveness about the underlying criticism. The other is that I feel torn in a lot of different directions. I’m honestly not quite sure what I think.

On the one hand, I can appreciate the importance of fairly hardline stances on freedom of speech and academic freedom. There is a lot of room for abuse when it comes to censorship, and historical precedent that shows we ought to fear that even if it seems like any given instance looks reasonable and beyond the pale.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of historical precedent that shows the dangers of positions like those Singer takes (positions that, cards on the table, I think are false). Singer’s influence is actually very much a reason to take those especially seriously (in contrast to some folks who think it more or less guarantees him a seat at the table). I think ‘But at least his heart is in the right place/he’s not very strident about these stances’ has about as much weight here as it does justifying imposing restrictions on speech that seem well motivated and intended to be implemented carefully. Sure, in the ideal realm of imagination it’s all fine, but how is it going to play out in the messy real world?

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me the precise scope of academic freedom should be here. Surely a community has a right to make decisions about who they want to come and give special talks, and not inviting someone or disinviting someone to speak seems like it is consistent with that right. Surely Howard University is under no obligation to invite Charles Murray to speak there. If somehow through a fluke Charles Murray was invited to speak at Howard University, it seems strange to then insist that academic freedom requires that he not be disinvited in the spirit of open discourse. Not giving someone special invitations to give talks does not seem equivalent to me to censorship or other more significant restrictions on speech or academic activity.

I should note that you asked two questions, so to address the other one: I’ll say I don’t think Singer himself is ‘beyond the pale of polite company.’ My standards for ‘who might reasonably be shunned in day-to-day society’ are certainly much more stringent than my standards for ‘who might reasonably be excluded from being given special platforms for expressing their views on certain issues.’Report

Dr. J
Dr. J
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

Again how we define ‘disabled’ matters tremendously. Singer does not think just any manner of being ‘disabled’ negatively impacts well-being – e.g., compare 1) a condition so severe that the baby lives for weeks in utter agony before succumbing to their ailment, to 2) a ‘disability’ like Down Syndrome, knowing full well that many people with Down Syndrome lead lives filled with more joy and happiness than those without it. While Singer thinks it’s permissible to commit infanticide in a broad range of cases for disabled and non-disabled newborns, he only thinks it’s obligatory when a life will contain so much pain and suffering that it would be worse than death.Report

John
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

Very juicy post. You carved up Singer really nicely.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

(Disclaimer: I’m basically on the anti-Singer side in this debate, although the non-philosophers on my side do us few favors when they present Singer’s views uncharitably [this doesn’t include you, David!], and I don’t think the proper response is to protest against his talks on unrelated issues.)

I am not a Singer expert, so it’s possible he’s written stuff on this I’m unaware of. But in fact his view is even more permissive of infant killing than you are suggesting, David. Any infants may be permissibly killed, so long as the parents don’t mind and so long as there’s nobody who wants to adopt the infant (and so long as they replace the infant, if we adopt what Singer calls the “total view”). (See pages 151-4 of Practical Ethics 3rd ed.)

He thinks that practically speaking this question will typically arise only in cases of severe disabilities, since other parents don’t want to kill their infants. Thus he includes a special discussion of disabled infants later in the book, but as far as I can tell there is nothing special about them ethically, as far as Singer is concerned. Presumably the only reason he singles them out for discussion is that this is a live topic of debate (whereas killing other infants is not), and the book is called Practical Ethics.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

Shall we establish committees of dehumanizing and harmful ideas to adjudicate what ideas are dehumanizing and harmful, and therefore can’t be defended? If not, who or what is supposed to adjudicate this?Report

gradstudent100
gradstudent100
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 month ago

“Who or what is supposed to adjudicate this?
We are supposed to adjudicate this, together. If I call some idea dehumanizing or harmful, that doesn’t mean that I think that some committee ought to rule out defending it from on high. It simply means that I don’t think you should defend it. It’s part of a healthy culture of deliberation that no evaluation of the ideas of others is considered off limits. Free deliberation will involve working through the question of whether certain ideas are dehumanizing or harmful as well as whether they are incorrect.
Frankly, a conversation where each person is too afraid to say that a certain idea is dehumanizing or harmful for fear of being called intolerant seems far more stultifying to me than the conversation that currently exists, flawed as it may be.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  gradstudent100
1 month ago

You make it sound as if it’s the people who are trying to stop Singer from speaking who are the real victims here, because others criticism them for being intolerant. Well, who is trying to silence whom? Who is creating the hostile atmosphere for whom? No one is silencing Singer’s critics, so far as I know. They can have an entire conference on why Singer’s views are harmful and dehumanizing and I doubt any of the people defending Singer here would care.

Sure, each of us can decide what ideas are harmful, dehumanizing and bad in other ways. But each of us can’t decide what viewpoints everyone else is allowed to listen to in virtue of that fallible judgment.Report

gradstudent100
gradstudent100
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 month ago

I didn’t say that anyone was a victim in this situation. I actually didn’t refer to the situation with Singer at all. I was just responding to your remark which implied that criticizing an idea as dehumanizing or harmful in public means that you are committed to setting up some sort of “committee” with the prerogative to decide which ideas are too harmful to be defended. I wanted to point out that criticizing an idea as harmful or dehumanizing does not mean that I think my judgment to that effect should be enforced by some authoritarian committee, anymore than your judgment that my speech is intolerant commits you to thinking that my speech should be forbidden by committee.

But since you brought Singer’s situation up, nobody is silencing anyone in that situation. Publicly criticizing Singer’s views and calling for Singer to be disinvited does not “silence” him, nor is it an attempt to “decide what viewpoints everyone else is allowed to listen to.” If the critics of Singer were attempting to use force to prevent the philosophy department from inviting Singer or to attempt to prevent Singer from speaking, that would be a problem. But they are not doing that. They are trying to give reasons to the philosophy department and the community at large for why the philosophy department should not come have him speak. That is not “silencing.” It is a form of public advocacy.

If Singer is disinvited, will he have been “silenced?” Well, there are plenty of people that the philosophy department at Rhodes did not invite to give a talk in the first place. Are they “silenced” because they are not able to give the talk? If not, then Singer won’t be silenced if disinvited either.

To be clear, my own view is that Singer should not be disinvited. But I don’t think imputing authoritarianism to the people who argue that he should be is fair or correct (though there are likely some people with authoritarian attitudes who think Singer should be disinvited, just as there are likely some people with authoritarian attitudes who think that he shouldn’t be).

You might disagree with what those who think that Singer should be disinvited say about the value of Singer’s work or what they say about whether disinvitation is an appropriate response, but they are not compromising any important freedoms in doing what they do. And when you criticize these other people as intolerant, you do not compromise their important freedoms. As I said, nobody here is a victim.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  gradstudent100
1 month ago

You express worries about a stultifying atmosphere in which people are afraid to call ideas “dehumanizing” and the like. It seems a weird complaint to make in light of the fact that it’s the people who call Singer’s views such things who are trying to prevent him from speaking. The only stultifying atmosphere relevant to this conversation is the one that people on that side are creating. And, colloquially, preventing someone from speaking in this way is “silencing” that person.

As far as the “nobody’s freedoms are being violated” point: see my second reply to Derek below about culture versus rights. Maybe nobody’s libertarian rights are being infringed, but that isn’t everything we care about.

I find this very funny. When it comes to “cancel culture” some speak as if the standard for “force” that is of moral concern is at a very high bar: threats of violence or violations of constitutional rights. But then at the same time, pervasive subtle power structures are really worrisome when it comes to racism and sexism. Now I think it makes sense to talk about social pressures as a kind of “force” that can be morally concerning, and when I do, I’m actually agreeing with the people who express worries about subtle forms of racism that might be pernicious even if they don’t manifest in violence.

What we’re looking at here is not just others speaking their minds about Singer’s work, but a concerted effort to pressure the department to disinvite him. And surely worries about making enemies with faculty members in other departments can be a substantial pressure. This could certainly come up later in situations in which funding is at stake. And how would you feel to be a student in one of those departments petitioning against Singer if you were privately sympathetic with his views?Report

gradstudent100
gradstudent100
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 month ago

Regarding your first paragraph: I’m not saying such a stultifying atmosphere currently exists. I am saying it would exist if we listened to you about what kinds of debate we should listen to. I think a world where people refrain from “calling out” speakers in roughly the manner that people have called out Singer today would be a worse one on roughly (John Stuart) Millian grounds. That is, it enriches everyone intellectually and morally when many different opinions are given voice in the public arena. If people followed your recommendations and refrained from calling out Singer, we would lose out on these benefits. Of course, this argument would fail if the calling out violated anybody’s rights or was “bad speech” that didn’t contribute anything of value. But I disagree with both of these ideas.

You say that people are trying to prevent Singer from speaking. They are asking the philosophy department not to have him over for a talk. This is just not preventing him from speaking in general. He still has all sorts of avenues for speech and all sorts of audiences. If the goal were to prevent his ideas from being heard by others, then calling him out in this way would be very counterproductive because of the attention that ultimately draws to him and his ideas. For these reasons, I don’t think that Singer is being prevented from speaking or being denied an audience in any sense.

I read your response to Derek Baker below. I pretty much agree with what you say there in that I don’t think that anybody’s rights have been violated, and that the primary issue here is what kind of culture we want to live in. (Though I want to note that your comments “committee of dehumanizing and harmful ideas” are surprising to me in light of the position you take in that comment. It seems like attributing to others the view that a legal structure for forbidding certain kinds of speech ought to be set up is at odds with the view that the main dispute here is not about formal legal structures but about extralegal social/cultural norms.)

I think where I differ with you is that I think that calling out Singer is a positive contribution for the roughly Millian reasons I mentioned earlier; that it adds to the diversity of opinions in the public sphere, which educates and enriches everybody. You worry that this kind of speech has various negative consequences, such as making students and others who might be privately sympathetic to Singer’s views feel worried about making enemies in the department. I agree that these are genuine negative consequences of the speech that those calling out Singer engage in, but I disagree that these consequences are by themselves reason to refrain from engaging in that speech. Part of having a healthy culture of free expression means recognizing and dealing with the problems that free expression causes without compromising on that expression at all. When publicly voicing strong opinions about ethically charged matters creates problems, we should not jump to the conclusion that people ought not to speak but rather try to think of some other solution. Presumably there are ways for members of the relevant department members at Rhodes to make a public commitment that they will treat members of the university who disagree with them on the Singer issue fairly. Maybe there isn’t a good solution like this or the solution is unlikely to be implemented — I am not familiar enough with the details of the situation at Rhodes to know. Regardless, having a commitment to a culture of free expression means accepting the negative consequences of free speech even when it is difficult to completely ameliorate them.Report

Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith
Reply to  David Shope
1 month ago

The reasons given are gross (and given that the writers are allegedly scholars, likely willful) misrepresentatations of Singer’s views. I”d say Tuvel is being far too generous in granting these calls any legitimacy.Report

R W
R W
2 months ago

“The creation of a hierarchy of lives… is a logic that has a long and violent history.”

So I assume all the members of the faculty in the Rhodes College Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies are Vegan? Otherwise that would be rich coming from them in the context of trying to condemn Singer.Report

Benjamin Ward
2 months ago

I get the sense that these criticisms of Singer are vague and amorphous. Does he actually come out and say the sorts of things these objectors are mentioning, or is it all a bit of broken telephone? It’s unfortunate to see that they don’t provide any kinds of references to passages or talks by Singer.Report

Michael Siciliano
Michael Siciliano
Reply to  Benjamin Ward
2 months ago

I really wish they’d specify what it was that they were reacting to. I’ve read and taught Singers material for years, and the only thing that sounds close to what they’re talking about is the concept of hierarchical biocentrism. That being said, one can easily be a higher or biocentrist without advocating against people with disabilities.Report

Sam V
Sam V
Reply to  Michael Siciliano
1 month ago

Singer is not even a biocentrist. He advocates for *equal* consideration for the interests of sentient beings (not lifeforms in general).
I hardly see how that would be compatible with the idea of hierarchizing human lives, which he is accused of (he simply says some life might not even be worth living, stressing on extreme cases, a point which seems self-evidently true).Report

Chris Surprenant
2 months ago

Rebecca Tuvel has, once again, shown that she is a phenomenal voice for academic philosophy and defender of the values of open engagement and discourse which are central to what allows universities to function in their appropriate capacity.

Even if you don’t agree with Singer or find his views disturbing, how can anyone with a PhD in philosophy, never mind a faculty member at a university, think it is appropriate to try to get an event with him cancelled or to remove him from a panel?Report

Mark Oppenheimer
2 months ago

Ronald Dworkin famously said that that “morally responsible people insist on making up their own minds about what is good or bad in life or in politics, or what is true or false in matters of justice and faith. Government insults its citizens, and denies their moral responsibility, when it decrees that they cannot be trusted to hear opinions that might persuade them to dangerous or offensive convictions. We retain our dignity, as individuals, only by insisting that no one — no official and no majority — has the right to withhold an opinion from us on the ground that we are not fit to hear and consider it.” Calls to cancel Singer’s talk are infantilizing of students at Rhodes. Good on the philosophy department for holding the line in the face of enormous pressure.Report

Preston Stovall
2 months ago

Posted without comment. Currently located in the “Heap of Links” at Daily Nous.

Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

From the linked article: ““cancel culture.” This is the alleged tendency of online “mobs” to attack some target for their ideological impurity, often resulting in the target losing their job (hence being “cancelled”).”

The article is framed explicitly as a response to a frustratingly poorly argued piece in the Atlantic, which itself is focused on the alleged scourge of faculty firings.

I think Singer’s job is safe.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

Quibble about one’s frustration (or not) over the poorly argued article if you’d like. Either way, this situation presents a clear case of a group of people (read: mob) calling for the revocation of a professional function for an individual on the basis of his views. And the thing is, most of us can’t count on being Singer, nor do we have his job security. So call it whatever you like, it is instructive to compare such downplaying of “cancel culture” with occurrences like this.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Part of the point of the linked article is that there have always been problems with institutions finding ways of suppressing viewpoints they don’t like. This isn’t good, and we should object to it when it happens. But the “cancel culture” narrative relies on the idea that things have gotten worse. My own view is that this is obviously not true of the culture at large–a much larger range of views gets published now than in the past. Maybe it is true specifically within academia, but I’m skeptical. In any case, Singer seems like a particularly bad figure to point to in making the case that things have gotten worse, given that he has been a target of these kinds of protests and complaints for decades.

I’d also say that while in general revoking an invitation to a professional event on the basis of one’s views is bad, things get more complicated when one’s profession is the sharing of said views. It isn’t like his views are irrelevant to his professional contributions.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Derek Baker
1 month ago

Also, just to ward off uncharitable readings, when I say “complicated” I mean complicated–as in it is hard to say what academic freedom requires in a lot of these cases. I will add that in this particular case, asking the college to cancel the talk after the department refused is out of line and should be criticized.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Baker
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Derek Baker
1 month ago

Hi Derek. As I see it, cancel culture isn’t only (or even primarily) an institutional problem — that’s part of why it’s called a culture. As to whether your view is right, and your avowed skepticism, I invite you to look over the essays linked here:

https://heterodoxacademy.org/?s=the+skeptics+are+wrong

https://heterodoxacademy.org/blog/student-hostility-free-expression-behaviors-surveys/Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Preston Stovall
Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Yeah, I guess I don’t really think that the cultural stuff is that important, and that free speech and academic freedom are pretty much institutional values. The big problem is that I can’t figure out what the people concerned about culture want. It sounds like these blog posts want more open expression, and also want more civility. But civility and open expression conflict with each other. Debating in a civil manner often requires a lot of self-censorship. Maybe we need more self-censorship on hot button topics, but the blog posts seem to regard that as bad too.

They complain that students now put a higher value on classrooms that make them feel comfortable. But they also complain that students feel like they’re walking on eggshells. But isn’t the latter a complaint that students don’t feel comfortable? How do we solve the problem, other than asking some of these supposed SJWs to stop expressing some of their opinions about how others are wrong?

I mean, some of this stuff points to potential problems. But some of it is just silly: “During my first days at Smith, I witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word “offensive” was almost always included in the reasoning.”

Part of free speech is you are allowed to tell another person that their opinion is wrong, and you are allowed to include the word “offensive” in your reasoning.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Derek Baker
1 month ago

Hi Derek — thanks for the thoughtful reply. As I see it, you’re hitting on some of the salient issues: how do we balance freedom of expression with civility; how do we balance the comfort of the people wielding institutional force in order to pursue political goals, with people who are made to feel that they must walk on eggshells as a result?

I’ve looked at some of the data in detail, and if it’s correct that political polarization has been growing since the 1990s, in part fueled by the rising partisanship in humanities education, then I think the majority of us who are actually in the middle on most issues owe it to one another to try to drown out the extremists by speaking to those who are also in the middle, but are on the other side of the divide on certain issues. That is, we owe it to one another to model the kinds of ameliorative conversation that helps the sensible people in the middle avoid the fanaticism of the extremists.

https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2020/06/23/education-as-a-public-resource-for-addressing-american-political-polarization/Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Derek Baker
1 month ago

Hi Derek,

I disagree with you in that I think the problem has notably gotten worse in the last decade. But suppose for the sake of argument that I concede the point. How much difference would that make? On the issue of police brutality, many conservatives have made the point that there’s a lot less of it now than there was in the past, the 1970s for example. That helps to contextualize some of the concern about this, but it only goes so far. A reasonable person could definitely think police brutality is a major problem today even though it used to be a much worse problem. So the same point I think applies here: how much people were “cancelled” or quasi-cancelled in the past doesn’t seem like the most fundamental issue. Giving new attention to a longstanding issue is often worth doing, and maybe the recent concerns about “cancel culture” are an example of this.Report

Derek Baker
Derek Baker
Reply to  Spencer Jay Case
1 month ago

Hi Spencer, I don’t disagree with the normative point. I said that even if things aren’t getting worse we should still criticize violations. But I think getting clear on whether things are getting worse or not is important for two reasons. First, I think it is important to try to assess to what extent the complaints about cancel culture are really complaints about less free speech, versus the fact that we have a much greater range of voices with access to mass media than ever before, and so arguments and criticism are getting much more extreme than lots of people are used to. I think some of the complaints about cancel culture are real. But a lot of them honestly strike me as elite centrist pundits getting pissed that the audience can now make fun of their articles on Twitter and mistaking their wounded pride for a commitment to free speech. I worry that what some of these figures really want when they talk about free speech is a return to the good old days in which the range of opinions that could get access to a mass audience was much more limited, and so they could count on the criticism of their views always being moderate and polite.

The second reason why it is important just has to do with the specific point that the linked article was making, that these comparisons of what is going on now with the Cultural Revolution or Puritan suppression of rival religious views are unwarranted, given the evidence presented so far. I’ve seen several people, including relatively famous writers, suggest on Twitter that this could lead to a new form of totalitarianism. So putting things in perspective seems important.Report

Spencer Jay Case
Spencer Jay Case
Reply to  Derek Baker
1 month ago

Yeah it’s relevant to the direction we’re headed, that much is true. I don’t think what’s happening with Singer here is anything like the worst kind of case. Singer is going to have an audience even if he can’t give this particular talk. Same with Ben Shapiro and various other “cancellation” targets. There’s something particularly perverse when it’s directed at ordinary people, say students who have their acceptances to ivy league schools rescinded because they said something racist on Twitter as a teenager. Surely, there needs to be some sort of social statute of limitations for informal penalties. That sort of thing certainly is new because the technology just didn’t exist twenty years ago. But I also think the appetite for penalizing people for wrongthink and wrongspeak wasn’t quite as pronounced in the early 2000s as it seems to be now.

“Free speech” is a stumbling block to intelligent discussions of this because the term is vague between concerns about rights and other sorts of moral concerns about speech norms. We’re not talking about First Amendment rights in most of these cases (though in Singer’s maybe we are). My view is that a rights paradigm isn’t very helpful here. The problem is that we don’t want to live in a society in which people do everything within their rights to punish others for expressing views that they disapprove of. A society like that is going to be a nasty, intolerant, insufferable place to live in regardless of where we draw the boundaries of the legal and moral rights of individuals. So I do insist that it really is an irreducibly cultural problem.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

“There is a morally pressing issue here, and that issue is more important than the details of any specific argument, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t quibble with those details which I consider beside the point. Instead, I invite you to take the time to read what I and others have already written on this topic and defer to our superior insight.”

Hmmm… Maybe this really does point to a wider problem in our intellectual culture.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Bowman
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

What?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Perhaps I was a bit uncharitiable in my reconstruction, but I couldn’t help but be struck by your insistence on the reality of the problem of ‘cancel culture’ combined with an apparent disinterest in the details of the skeptical argument you were mocking – which in many ways resembles the moral certitude and rush to judgment the participants in ‘cancel culture’ are often said to be guilty of.

In any case, you are having a much more productive conversation with the other Derek B, so I’m happy to bow out.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Bowman
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

This does seem pretty determined to miss Derek Bowman’s point. There’s a difference between threatening someone’s job or interfering how they do the core functions of that job and wanting to deprive them of a perk like giving a talk. If students were arguing that someone should be fired for covering Singer in class or even publishing a paper sympathetic to his work that would be a different thing entirely or if they were arguing that professors shouldn’t be allowed to teach Singer that would also be hard to defend. But the issue here is whether Singer ought to be able to give a talk. Maybe he should. I tend to think so once he’s actually been invited though if I were the committee setting these things I’d fight tooth and nail not to invite him in the first place. But it’s just sloppy (at best) to put disinviting a speaker on the same level as trying to get people fired or meddling in how people teach in the actual classroom. Now I take it that some Rhodes faculty may have grounds to complain on that score given what some posters have said but Singer doesn’t.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 month ago

The issue is whether there’s a culture that is attempting to “cancel” the opportunities that people who hold verboten views would otherwise have. And the attempt to cancel Singer’s invitation is an instance of that phenomenon. Furthermore, if someone who wasn’t in a position with the kind of job security that Singer has was faced with this kind of mob mentality, the distinction between cancelling a talk and getting fired from a job is pretty slim. So the issue is the culture of cancellation that episodes like this evince.Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

One incident or even several incidents do not prove a trend. If my friend tells me he got mugged that doesn’t prove that there’s a crime wave or even that the neighborhood is particularly dangerous. Nor does one snowy day here and there prove that climate change ain’t happening. All this stuff about “cancel culture” has the textbook hallmarks of a dumb moral panic like “stranger danger.” A few people (usually with an ideological axe to grind) focus on a few high profile cases without regard to the larger situation to argue for some grand horrifying trend that threatens our very way of life. And of course when someone actually does dig into the real data and finds it’s all incredibly overblown, which is exactly what this article does, the people who peddle moral panics do exactly what you’re doing and fall back on anecdote. One troubling thing here is that philosophers, who pride ourselves on such analytic acumen, keep making mistakes I’d flunk a student in critical thinking for. But while the sloppiness of all this is annoying and embarrassing it’s not the worst part. The worst part is that the very moral panic some people in the field are determined to whip up threatens to have the chilling effect on speech that they claim to be so worried about since many people will censor themselves out of fear of the boogeyman of the online mob.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 month ago

One incident or even several incidents do not prove a trend. 

Right Sam. Data proves trends. That’s the point of the Heterodox Academy articles: one set concerning changes in attitudes, and the other (mine) encouraging we look at whether behavior is changing.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Preston Stovall
Evan
Evan
Reply to  moose
1 month ago

Interesting data. But there are approximately 1,276,900 professors in the US.

426/1,276,900 = 0.00033 => 0.00033 x 100 = .033% of incidents occurred.

From a particularist perspective, we could argue whether or not the 426 incidents constitute violation of academic freedom or were justified. However, from a generalist perspective, we cannot and should not conclude (based on this data) that there is widespread violation of academic freedom as a whole in the U.S.

Source:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htmReport

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
JTD
JTD
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

This is a silly strawman Evan. No one arguing that there is a problematic “cancel culture” in academia has ever based their argument on the premise that a significant percentage of academics in recent years have been “canceled” or credibly threatened with “cancelation”. Rather, the claim is that a small number of high profile “cancelations” or credible threats of “cancelation” have set a much narrower Overton window in academia which a significant percentage of academics now fear to cross lest they face serious personal and professional consequences.

All this is rather obvious. Can you imagine someone responding to the claim that academic freedom is under threat in Orban’s Hungry by saying “I can only find a dozen documented cases of Orban’s regime punishing academics who said things he didn’t like. That’s a tiny percentage of academics in Hungry so I don’t see how there is a serious problem here”. That’s a silly response that misses the point.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

How is it a strawman if that’s what the common arguments have been made? Your alternative argument here is actually new to me. And so at worst, it’s a red herring.

As well, you assumed that “professional consequences” are the same in Hungry (or other unjust societies) and the US. But are they? What are these professional/personal consequences in these countries compared to the US?Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
ehz
ehz
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Dividing the number of incidents by the number of professors is completely meaningless. A more meaningful comparison might be the number of incidents and the number of potential incidents — cases in which academics voiced unpopular opinions, controversial figures were invited to speak, etc.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by ehz
Evan
Evan
Reply to  ehz
1 month ago

I have considered that approach, but did not flesh it out because I didn’t have data.

And also, I’m not sure what people would consider instances of violation of academic freedom. If students protested a speech, is that a violation? If a petition was made telling organizers to not invite a speaker, is that a violation (even if these approaches did not result in actual dismissal of the person)?

I think before any such research is made into this, we need clear definitions/descriptions of what constitutes a violation of academic freedom or free speech in the first place.

Therefore, even if we modified my argument to include your suggestion, it still stands since we lack such data at the moment. And so, we shouldn’t be making hasty assumptions. At best, we can take a particularistic or targeted approach to these 426 incidents.Report

John
1 month ago

Objectors should show up to Singer’s talk, listen carefully and sincerely to his arguments, then deliver their devastating objections showing why they think he’s so plainly wrong.

After that, to echo a point above, they should all clink glasses at their favourite vegan restaurant.

(These objectors are all vegans, right?)Report

Simon
Simon
Reply to  John
1 month ago

Why do you have to be vegan to disagree with Singer on these issues?

You don’t need to demonstrate a commitment to the welfare of (non-human) animals in order to promote the (equal) rights of people with disability. It’s hardly unreasonable to believe that severely disabled human lives are vastly more morally important than the lives of prawns, crabs and chickens, no?Report

R W
R W
Reply to  Simon
1 month ago

It is more a jab at their very likely position of hypocrisy that if they are trying to cancel Singer on the grounds that he creates and supports a hierarchy of life, namely between those humans who are severely disabled and those with normal functions, then to be consistent they must also cancel themselves for creating and supporting a hierarchy of life between humans and nonhuman animals. You can hardly single Singer out for ostracization for committing the crime of hierarchy-creating amongst living beings when you yourself blatantly do so, just in a more socially-accepted way. The irony is that Singer has famously argued very vocally for veganism, so they must have blinders on to miss how their argument could very easily be turned against them if they themselves are not vegan.

Also, I would contend that it is very unreasonable to believe that severely disabled human lives are vastly more morally important than the lives of sentient nonhuman animals, to say that is simply species-membership bias, but let’s not get derailed into talking about speciesism and animal ethics.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by R W
Simon
Simon
Reply to  R W
1 month ago

Thanks for your response. I agree that it would seem hypocritical to argue for Singer’s cancellation on the grounds that he privileges certain forms of life while being complicit/involved in practices that do the very same thing (and in a far more brutal way). However, I think it’s a very uncharitable and simplistic depiction of Singers ‘opponents’ and their arguments against him, which is somewhat ironic given that the commenter is suggesting it’s Singer’s views that aren’t being judged on their genuine merits (which I would accept they often aren’t).

Indeed, there are several ways people take issue with Singer’s brand of utilitarianism and its application in relation to this issue. Some point to the fact that he pays little attention to the causal role played by built and social environments in the well-being of people with (even profound) disabilities. Others note that Singer just doesn’t seem to have a good understanding of the experience of disability.

Such views sometimes stem from a human rights focused Capabilities approach to justice. Within these ethical models, issues related to animal welfare may be treated separately, or indeed discounted as of little importance relative to social justice. As such, the proponents are not hypocrites if they enjoy a steak, and you would have to subscribe to Singer’s views on the moral irrelevance of species distinctions to think that they are.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Simon
Kaila Draper
Reply to  Simon
1 month ago

no, no one’s wellbeing is automatically more important than anyone else’s wellbeing.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Kaila Draper
Simon
Simon
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

Of course, you’re free to adopt that position, but it is just that – one position. There are plenty of philosophers who vehemently disagree with Singer’s understanding of our moral obligations to non-human animals, who think that we do have automatic obligations to human beings irrespective of their cognitive capacity (and all the rest).Report

Moti Gorin
1 month ago

No better argument for the value of a philosophy education than these sloppy calls for deplatforming.Report

ehz
ehz
1 month ago

Charles Hughes seems to misquote Singer in his letter protesting the invitation. Singer never says that killing “defective infants…cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self‐conscious beings.” In fact, the expression “defective infants” does not appear once in Practical Ethics (at least in the second and third editions; I don’t have access to the first). The actual quote is: “Infants lack these [rationality, autonomy and self-awareness] characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings or any other self-aware beings”.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by ehz
Dr. J
Dr. J
1 month ago

I’m astounded that a college president and provost would so boldly state the following: “While we view the invitation to Peter Singer in light of our commitment to free and open dialogue at a liberal arts college, his views on disability are unequivocally antithetical to our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion.” I presume neither the college president nor provost is a philosopher, which makes this statement’s audaciousness all the more appalling. I wonder: how much time passed between Hughes’ initial condemnation and the president/provost’s decision to issue this statement? Apparently, enough time for these non-philosophers to roundly condemn Peter Singer’s views as unequivocally antithetical to their college’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.Report

Not a chance
Not a chance
Reply to  Dr. J
1 month ago

I agree that it’s repugnant. But I’m not astounded, because the presidential condemnation is surely just about the optics. (That’s not to say that the faculty condemnation is also about the optics; I’m sure they’re sincere, even if misguided.)Report

B. Kleinfeld
1 month ago

This strikes me as a great model for dealing with oft-heard claims to the effect that brining so-and-so to campus would be dangerous for vulnerable community members or make people feel unsafe. So we have no choice but to cancel the event.

Sampson writes, “But notice that the claim that bringing Singer to Rhodes makes Rhodes unsafe for disabled people is an empirical claim—a claim about the probability of violence toward people with disabilities—that we can check. And that claim is false. If it were true, we would expect to see a disproportionate number of violent attacks against disabled people wherever Singer expresses his views. Singer teaches at Princeton on a regular basis. Is Princeton overrun with violence against people with disabilities? Are such crimes even more prevalent at Princeton than other universities? No. Indeed, I’m willing to wager that Princeton is among the safest places on the planet for people with disabilities. Singer has given public lectures at hundreds of universities over his 50-year career. Does the rate of violence against people with disabilities increase shortly after a Singer visit? No. What, then, is the evidence that Singer’s view harms or risks harming people with disabilities?”

It shouldn’t go unnoticed that claims about safety are almost always offered without any evidence, even when we should expect to see such evidence if the safety concerns were legitimate.Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  B. Kleinfeld
1 month ago

but this is itself empirically unjustified. Singer himself has engaged with disabled activisits, and from what i a recall (long ago NYT article, they were able to discuss these issues rationally.Your comparisons or totally off the mark–even for Singer (who, as I said, I thnk overemphasizes the disability in disability, as it were) Think philoosphically please.. suppose your child was about to die, hAD ad nothing to look for except suffering. Would you not be treating your child with respect, with kindness,with compassion,, by killing him/her.Note this sort of thing happens unofficially all the time for what i consider trivial reasons (e.g minor mental impairment, autism, and downs syndrome–again this is not my field, so I am open to corectionn on empirical points) D is wroo you think it wrong to “put to sleep” a cat that is in severe pain> if so why not? The only reason I can think of is irrational specisism…I don’t want anyone put to sleep, oerto suffer, but sometimes to prevent the latter you need to do the forme.Again. consider teh thought experiment–this is how I would think of it were i a parent–would my child thank me for ending her life when i encounter her in the afterlife?if yes morally ok, ifno, I am being selfish.Report

Kaila Draper
1 month ago

I may be one of the few who finds some of Singer’s views absolutely morally horrific but who also regards Singer as a fine moral philosopher and also one of my moral heroes in virtue of having done far more than I can dream of doing in terms of helping those in need and eroding human supremacism. I could see arguing that his horrific views warrant not providing him with a platform on issues related to disability–although I think even in that domain it would be counterproductive to deny him a platform–but on other issues let the man speak.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Kaila Draper
J. A. Wilkins
1 month ago

Rhodes College, formerly Southwestern-at-Memphis, seems to have perhaps matured some since its days of claiming to be a Christian school while refusing some Christians admittance if their skin was too dark..

As I recall the language of the preface to the course catalogue at that time it was said that such education as the school offered “takes place best and most fully in an environment dominated by the Christian spirit.”

I note also Rhodes and Princeton both have, however peccable, Presbyterian antecedents. In addition to the schools’ organizational ties, it once had on its faculty the father of former Princeton and subsequent U. S. President Woodrow Wilson.

It is entirely decent and in order, fully apt and prepared, that such a discussion as this concerning the putatively disabled should be taking place there now.

We all have handicaps, including the professor from Princeton. In some of us they can be seen or heard. In the rest they can be even more serious.Report

ZAN Thornton
1 month ago

Is the assumption that disabled infants would want, as their parents want them dead because their lives are a burden?
Data shown that medical doctors severely underestimate disabled folks values.
Should not disabled folks be included in this debate?

Nothing about us without us! I’m a liberal 2 Spirit Queer Veteran with several degrees. This isn’t cancel culture ( we’ve been debating Singer for over 20 years see notdeadyet.org.
Somehow folks forgot that sometimes 2 sides of a story is the ableist vs disabled:
The negative views of disabled folks impacts our lives, and by allowing a nondisabled person to denigrate us disabled veterans, elders, youth, etc is not good journalism not good model for Rhodes or any school.
It’s not fair to compare apples and oranges ( compare BIPOC vs Disability issue from an esteemed Prof at Rhodes).
Yet Ableism and racism do have common points: de-humanize the ‘other” ( severely disabled infants, dehumanize BIPOC by systematic racism). Its not free speech but protected values of the college that are paramount. Would you accept an antigay professor who said kill all the queer babies? I bet not. One reason is there is no test for lgbtqia2s+, but because we have a test that says likely but usually not 100% the infant will be disabled. So I’m on outside here:
I’m disabled mom 4 with 1 Deaf CP kid whose parents left her to die. I’m grandparent , with 4 of 5 grandkids with disabilities. Now I’m great grand parent, no disability.
Point? Values come 1st; does Singer impact negatively about disabled folks ( yes). We learn hopefully in college, that inference, logical tricks, & perhaps debate teams. This case is clear from disabled liberal view: representation matters. Singers reputation proceeds him, and the college failed to address Ableism, racism, and other isms relating to this panel.
It’s never too late to say no. 1
It might be time to say so.Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  ZAN Thornton
1 month ago

What?Report

Rachel Heimann Mercader
1 month ago

I am concerned that Rhodes faculty may not be aware of how many times a student has complained to the college, or just publicly out loud or online, about something yall said or did in class, or wrote in a book “that was so offensive” they demanded you be fired for it.

On the other hand, while I went to Rhodes, President Hass was so anti-freedom of speech and expression she/the administration threatened to sue the student newspaper a few times, calling any critique of the college “defamation”. It resulted in an entire year of the paper being shut down because students were too scared to write anything. Now that she left, the paper is running again —barely– (and Matt Gerien her biggest ally in shutting down the paper, left Rhodes a few weeks after).

So please don’t ruin the momentum with this. Free speech and debate are necessary.

Class of 2020Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 month ago

Critically minded philosophers who genuinely want to transform the oppressive and exclusionary mechanisms and practices of philosophy should scrutinize how the apparatus of disability has been systematically depoliticized in the characterization and discussion of this event, an ensuing discussion that is otherwise claimed to be about political conflict, that is, to be a political dispute about academic freedom. Note, for instance, how Rebecca Tuvel uses words like ‘delicate’ and ‘incredibly sensitive’ to describe the terms and subject matter of this conflict. Note, furthermore, the lack of a materialist, structural, and systemic analysis of (the apparatus of) disability and ableism in Eric Sampson’s remarks about safety and violence against disabled people.
 
This depoliticization of the apparatus of disability reinforces and reproduces a medicalized and individualized conception of disability according to which disability is a politically neutral, naturally disadvantageous, personal misfortune, a property, characteristic, or difference that certain individuals embody or possess. As I argue in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, this individualizing and medicalizing conception of disability lies at the heart of the subfield of bioethics and indeed structures and reproduces bioethics as a noble, politically neutral, and disinterested domain of inquiry.
 
Notwithstanding Sampson’s flourish according to which Singer is the “most famous and influential philosopher,” Singer didn’t create bioethics (or the ableism that motivates it). The apparatus of disability (one of whose mechanisms is ableism), which generated and consolidated bioethics as an instrument and technology of neoliberal power, created Peter Singer. Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 month ago

This is an example of the sort of objection that people have, do, will, and should raise against some of Singer’s views. Objections, not deplatformings.Report

Junior faculty
Junior faculty
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 month ago

I am trying to grasp what you’re saying here. Isn’t Tuvel treating this like a political issue, invoking a set of norms specially crafted for and often used to govern discourse, learning, etc. around political, contested topics? I can see why someone may want to disagree with Tuvel on substance of the norms or actions that should be used to govern ‘politics’/political issues, but I can’t see how she could be understood to “depoliticize” the apparatus of disability. Can’t political issues, or disputes around political structures/apparatuses, be ‘delicate’ or ‘sensitive’ in a community with pluralistic views (or political orientations)? Should we deny that?Report

Jason Brennan
1 month ago

We should cancel Rhodes College, as it is unworthy of hosting Peter Singer, and thus does not deserve its endowment.

Seriously, hasn’t Singer contributed more than like the entire college?Report

Bob Fischer
1 month ago

Let’s keep in mind that as much as this is about Singer, academic freedom, cancel culture, and any number of other issues, it’s also about a college that is making life inordinately difficult for one particular woman. Rebecca Tuvel is an excellent philosopher, a tenured faculty member, and a department chair. But instead of backing her in any meaningful way, Rhodes is hanging her out to dry in an attempt to placate a vocal group of students and professors. Rhodes is hardly unusual: other colleges have done the same; many others will follow suit. But I think it’s essential to think about how we, as members of the profession, can support other philosophers whose institutions have abandoned them. I hope you’re okay, Rebecca.Report

Andy Lamey
Andy Lamey
Reply to  Bob Fischer
1 month ago

Well said, Bob.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Bob Fischer
1 month ago

Yes, without question, Rebecca Tuvel deserves everyone’s support.Report

Rachel Heimann Mercader
Reply to  Bob Fischer
1 month ago

In this case, it was really more so two, or a handful, loud (and well-liked) professors who have a uniquely large student social media following, basically incite student outrage using the most inflammatory language possible, without citing their sources or even suggesting their students do their own research.– instead, they shared screenshots of paragraphs without context and highly suggested that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is pure evil 🙂

C/O 2020Report

Rhodes & Disabled
1 month ago

I am a member of the (non-philosophy) faculty at Rhodes, but as I am pre-tenure, I feel compelled to write anonymously. Although I strongly disagree with Dr. Singer’s views on disability, I support the decision by the Philosophy Department to invite him for a discussion on Pandemic Ethics. Among the most distressing features of the debate among faculty at Rhodes (most of which has occurred on the college’s internal FacStaff listserv) was the way in which certain individuals claimed or implied that standing in solidarity with the disabled community at Rhodes *required* one to oppose this event or that anyone who did not do so was not an ally of people with disabilities. As a person with a disability and a family member of someone with a severe mental illness/disability, I have (nonetheless) been made to feel that by not opposing the event, I am not a genuine member of this community. It has been claimed/implied by many opposing this event that they are doing so in order to protect people with disabilities from harm. It is important to point out how this rationale perpetuates a view that disabled people are fragile and especially vulnerable, so much so, that they must be protected from the challenges typically confronted by the able-bodied. Or worse, the implication is that people with disabilities cannot be expected to distinguish between imminent harm and the kind of nuanced argumentation presented by someone like Singer. These are both demeaning and distinctly “ableist” assumptions being made by folks who supposedly support the disabled community. These individuals also appear to assume that they alone are entitled to speak for this community. It is especially rich coming from faculty who seem utterly uninterested in addressing the material interests of Rhodes’ disabled community—e.g. adequate health insurance, proper accommodations, etc. Fortunately, some faculty (in particular, those with disabled children) have taken this as an opportunity to draw attention to these more pressing issues of justice and inclusion. Perhaps some good will come from this yet.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Rhodes & Disabled
1 month ago

What a sad situation it is for US colleges and universities that sensible, junior faculty members feel as if they cannot express positions like this publicly to their colleagues.

Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope you can help change the culture at Rhodes or that you’re able to move to another school that appreciates open discourse and the free exchange of ideas.Report

Moti Gorin
1 month ago

It occurs to me that there’s plenty of moral relativism among anthropologists, and some people may find moral relativism to be extremely offensive. Is it really the case that human sacrifice, genocide, etc. might be morally right for an individual or a culture? We need to think hard about whether relativists should be welcomes on our campuses.Report

David Macauley
1 month ago

The New Puritans prefer to squelch speech and speakers rather than engage it and them, even when the subject (pandemic ethics) is not about what they object to.

I highly doubt many (or even any?) of these same people challenge the “hierarchies” (their word) that place human animals above nonhuman ones, a point and position for which Peter Singer is well-known. (Perhaps someone at the college should put this question to them publicly and watch them squirm in their moral high chairs.)Report

Melinda C. Hall
1 month ago

The question is whether and why he should be invited to speak on this panel, not whether he should be “allowed” to do philosophy.Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Melinda C. Hall
1 month ago

This is the question the Rhodes philosophy department asked and answered in the affirmative.Report

B. Kleinfeld
Reply to  Melinda C. Hall
1 month ago

Your question is “Why should philosopher Peter Singer be invited to speak at a philosophy department event on a pressing matter of applied ethics about which he has written many articles?” Is this a serious question? I feel like even a cursory knowledge of Singer and his work answers this question immediately. But I’m happy to see your list of obviously better candidates for the invitation.Report

Ranjeet Shekhar Tate
1 month ago

I’ll believe the “free speech” BS when we have a debate or talk about the inherent inferiority of cis het able white men.Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Ranjeet Shekhar Tate
1 month ago

Make the argument and publish it in a peer reviewed journal that’s similar in status to the journals Singer publishes in. I’ll invite you to give a talk.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Moti Gorin
JTD
JTD
Reply to  Ranjeet Shekhar Tate
1 month ago

I would be very happy to see this debate happen. There are actually people out there who believe that males, or “white” people, or heterosexuals are inherently inferior. I think there is good evidence against such views, but I’m not dogmatic about this and I am willing to consider evidence to the contrary.

For example, perhaps males are, by their biological nature, more disposed to maladaptive aggression, self-aggrandizing, and free riding, and this makes them inherently inferior to women. I don’t think that this argument stands up for a number of reasons, including that I don’t even think the notion of “biological nature” that it appeals to is legitimate. However, although I am pretty sure that I am right in my assessment of this argument, I accept some small chance that my assessment is wrong and that these kinds of reasons do in fact demonstrate the inherent inferiority of males. Therefore, a debate where a capable advocate makes the best case they can in favor of male inferiority serves the useful value for me of “keeping me on my toes” and continuing to stress test my own favored theory of inherently equal sexes.

I would also be happy to see this debate because, as I said before, there are people who really believe these things. Insofar as I think their views are incorrect and can lead to morally bad outcomes, I think that having suitably qualified experts debate them and provide clear refutations of their arguments is the best option. In the absence of open debate, their views would tend to fester in certain fringe environments, and their exclusion for mainstream discourse would make it easier for them to convince others that they have plausible evidence (“If our evidence is so bad then why do the so-called-experts refuse to discuss it when they could presumably easily refute it. Could it be that we actually have strong evidence that they are afraid to confront”). While I appreciate the concern that letting them into the debate risks further legitimizing their view, I tend to think that, if our aim is to limit uptake of their views, then having experts engage with and refute their wronghead ideas will bring greater success.

So, I would be happy to see these controversial claims debated and my reasons for this do not at any stage appeal to the “free speech” rights of those who hold these views.Report

Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I’m always a bit shocked by the regular response of “Is this really a *trend*, exactly? I just know of a few cases.”

In 1697 — not many years before the birth of David Hume — Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy. He was a student at the University of Edinburgh and made some irreligious remarks. Hence, the charges, trial, and execution.

He was the last person in Great Britain to receive the death penalty for blasphemy. There hadn’t been many cases like that in the years leading up to his execution, and there turned out to be none at all afterward.

Now, I’m curious: suppose you were a student at the University of Edinburgh in that same year, or even a few years later. Another student whispers to you that he feels he has to keep some of his religious doubts in check. What would your response be? Would you dismiss them in a cavalier manner with a remark like “Oh, come on: what are you worried about, that Aikenhead thing? That’s *one case*! U. of Edinburgh is clearly a place of robust, healthy debate between doubters and believers; if there aren’t that many atheists professing their views on campus, it must be because they recognize their own folly or have been whipped up into a sort of paranoia. These fears are wildly out of proportion”?

Of course not. What one learns from something like the Aikenhead case or even the Singer case is that

a) many people are *inclined* to take effective action against people whose views they oppose;

b) these people are committed enough to this that they will organize themselves into a campaign to carry out their ends, and will not hesitate to use (at least) public shaming as one of their tactics;

c) these people are, moreover, often capable of *succeeding* in their aims in the current environment, even as they call upon the authorities (university chancellors, etc.) to do their bidding;

d) these people are so brazen as to commit these acts in a very public manner, and thereby demonstrate that they cannot easily be stopped. This effectively informs everyone else that, while Singer, Aikenhead, Tuvel, and the like can easily become personal targets, the members of the mob will never be held personally accountable for anything.

The attack on one person is bad in itself, but its obvious and expected effects are to intimidate thousands of others into silence.

I find it alarming that so few defenders of these actions ever indicate the slightest awareness of the broader and greater effect of these actions. I can’t imagine that they would miss this vast silencing effect if the political valence of the speaker and the mob were reversed.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Questions:

1) Do you think it’s fair, accurate, and non-fallacious to compare what happened back then to today? Why?

2) Would you suggest we limit free speech of “mobs” in order to advance the free speech of particular people?

3) Where does public criticism or even shaming fit in your argument? Should they be legally allowed or not?

4) If not, how could the law even regulate and enforce such a thing?

5) If outrage and shame is common, prominent, and amplified by the internet and social media, then how would you suggest dealing with it, if not by limiting internet usage for everyone thereby limiting free speech?

6) So if we should be worried as you want us to, then what should we do about it given the number of uncontrollable “mobs” that are out there?

I’m going to go with your argument because I prefer to get to the core issues of my interlocutors arguments. I’m curious to know how you would reconcile the conflicting issues of your stance on this issue.Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

(This is a response to Evan). For my own part, while I’m sympathetic to the sort of argument Justin is making, I don’t think there’s any obvious connection between doing so and supporting any particular legal reform. There’s a tendency in contemporary discourse to think that any kind of cultural criticism must ultimately building up to “and here’s the appropriate policy response to these issues.” At least, that’s what you seem to be presupposing in most of your questions.

For my own part, I think it’s reasonable to merely identify what you take to be a cultural problem, while remaining agnostic about which, if any, would be good public policy levers for addressing it. I’d be happy if discussions like these could lead to members of the Rhodes faculty who called for disinviting Singer to reconsider their stances. But I certainly don’t want any laws or college policies forbidding them from advocating for his disinvitation.

I’ve seen some people advocate reforming “at will” employment as a response to “cancel culture”, and while I think that’s an idea worth taking seriously, I don’t think all cultural criticism must be a prelude to public policy discussion.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 month ago

Thanks, Daniel. Well put.

To answer your questions, Evan:

“1) Do you think it’s fair, accurate, and non-fallacious to compare what happened back then to today? Why?”

Yes, for the simple reason that it’s non-fallacious to compare anything with anything else. Any two things are similar in some ways and different in others. What these cases have in common, though the topics change, is that some people with social power (though they tend to deny that they do) use that power to intimidate and punish those who say things they don’t want said. What are the grounds for saying that they hold power? That’s very simple: if they didn’t hold power, they could not get people fired or publicly destroyed, and their threats would be laughed at. And in fact, they have got many people fired by pressing their employers to fire them, and those employers have fired them because they in turn are intimidated by the power these groups wield.

“2) Would you suggest we limit free speech of “mobs” in order to advance the free speech of particular people?”

You seem to think that I’m an advocate of some radical free speech policy in which absolutely anyone can say absolutely anything without consequence. I am not.

I do hold, however, that a college or university must be a place for free inquiry into all general matters pertaining to ethics, history, the sciences, and so on, and that attempts to limit that freedom of inquiry should be stopped. Regardless of whether people have the right to *say* that a speaker on such a topic should be uninvited or a professor fired for holding the ‘wrong’ views on one of these issues, the college or university should never knuckle under to mob pressure by doing so.

“3) Where does public criticism or even shaming fit in your argument? Should they be legally allowed or not?”

As Daniel Greco says, I’m not making a legal argument at all. Are you asking whether I hold that people should have the legal freedom to say whatever they like to damage and destroy someone’s reputation if they feel like it? No, I don’t think that. Is that inconsistent with my view that universities should be places of free inquiry? No: at least, I don’t see what the inconsistency is supposed to be.

“4) If not, how could the law even regulate and enforce such a thing?”

Well, there could be (and are) laws against libel and slander, for instance. But I suspect that you wrote this under the misapprehension that I’m a defender of unlimited free speech even when it involves direct and ongoing harm to people’s reputation, or repeated urging of people to do terrible things, even to the point of threatening them with harm if they don’t comply. That is not my position at all.

“5) If outrage and shame is common, prominent, and amplified by the internet and social media, then how would you suggest dealing with it, if not by limiting internet usage for everyone thereby limiting free speech?”

I don’t have a position on that. Certainly, we should fight back against attempts to bully people into groupthink by shaming and intimidating those who disagree with certain views. I don’t have some grand theory about the form that should take.

“6) So if we should be worried as you want us to, then what should we do about it given the number of uncontrollable “mobs” that are out there?”

Well, for one thing, when a college or university comes under attack, internally or externally, by a group that tries to pressure it into firing or no-platforming someone who is to present an unpopular view on an ethical or political issue, we should push back against it. Moreover, if a college or university administrator knuckles under and fires the person who has unpopular views, or sends the message to the mobs that they have the power to cancel things like a Peter Singer talk just through their pressure (and hence that they can expect that the college or university will repeatedly bend to their will as their demands become more and more extreme), that administrator should presumably be fired for failing to understand or care about the core purpose of a university or college, or for being too much of a coward to stand up against intimidation.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 month ago

I agree that there shouldn’t be laws against such a cultural phenomenon.

But the questions that arose during this whole ordeal for me were: Is Peter Singer the only competent bioethicist that could speak on these issues? Why invite such a controversial figure in the first place? What is the fundamental end of the talk? And could inviting Singer to speak be instrumental to achieving such an end in the first place? Could other non-controversial ethicists be just as instrumental as well?

It’s important to keep in mind that every invite of some scholar inevitably entails disinvite of other scholars due to space and time. I think we should invite lesser-known scholars who are also competent and who aren’t so controversial due to fairness. As a famous scholar, I’m pretty sure Singer gets invited to plenty of talks throughout his career already. I think organizers tend to have a knee-jerking impulse to invite a scholar that happens to be relevant *and* very popular even though such popularity comes with social antagonism.

If I were organizing such an event, I’d want to invite other lesser-known but competent scholars to give them a chance to voice their ideas especially those of marginalized backgrounds. Due diligence is an underrated virtue these days.Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

“every invite of some scholar inevitably entails disinvite of other scholars due to space and time.”

I don’t think this is right. Or at least, I think there’s a difference between *dis*inviting, and not inviting. Certainly it’s true that philosophy departments have limited budgets and time, and can only have so many speakers. So if someone on the philosophy department colloquium committee brought up considerations like yours in the context of arguing that we shouldn’t invite Singer, that would be totally fine. As you say, most people are inevitably not invited to speak, most views are not represented.

But when a department has already decided to invite somebody, and then members of other departments say the university should rescind the invitation on the grounds that the speaker has defended morally abhorrent views, that sends a very different message.

Suppose I’m a graduate student trying to decide what topics to write my dissertation on. Suppose nobody working on utilitarian ethics was invited to give a talk at Rhodes college this year. I’m sure I wouldn’t notice, and that wouldn’t at all deter me from working on utilitarianism.

By contrast, if I see something like this, I’m definitely going to think twice about working on utilitarianism. And I put things at that level of generality on purpose; I think the aspects of Singer’s views that have drawn criticism are hard to extricate from some much more general utilitarian commitments.

Since I don’t want graduate students to think it’s a professional liability to do ethics from a utilitarian perspective, I’m much more worried about the message sent by *dis*invitation than *non*invitation.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Daniel Greco
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 month ago

Yeah. That is the word. But proactively, I hope this is a lesson learned. Philosophers are quite popular nowadays amongst other academics. Philosophers more and more can’t shield themselves from criticisms from other scholars, which is good actually. It shakes up philosophy every now and then from its isolationism.Report

Adam Rigoni
Adam Rigoni
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Yeah, nothing better than people who don’t read your working criticizing it based on summary and excerpts.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Adam Rigoni
1 month ago

Eh philosophers already do that with each other as well. Look at all the strawman on this website comment section 🤷🏽‍♂️Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

If the organizers of the Rhodes conference had made the decision to forego the benefits of a prominent philosopher like Peter Singer, and had chosen instead to invite some lesser-known philosophers because they thought it would be good to bring in people with views one hears less of than Singer’s, I don’t see what the objection would be. Certainly, I would not have objected to that. Or if the organizers of the conference had decided to invite only unpublished or early-career philosophers as a way of giving them a chance to support them in their work, that would have been fine with me, also. I also have no problem with conferences reserved for graduate students or undergraduate students.

If some people who weren’t on the organization committee for the Rhodes conference had wished that the conference would have been more like what I just described in the previous paragraph, it would have been fine with me if they had started their own alternative conference. It’s not very expensive to organize and publicize these conferences nowadays, since so many of them are on Zoom. If they had wanted a conference reserved for less famous philosophers than Singer, they would simply have had to put together a speakers’ list (it’s not difficult to find early-career philosophers keen to give a talk at a conference), spread the word around, and they’d get whatever attendance they’d get. All that sounds perfectly unobjectionable to me.

But the thing is, they did not do that, as we’ve seen. They tried to prevent the invited speaker from giving a talk, and to pressure the Rhodes administration and conference organizers into doing their bidding; and in the process they publicly and, I think, injudiciously ran down the character of one of our colleagues. That’s what I object to.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I’ve always considered schooling to be like a home almost. Even if your department is separated, you’re still part of the campus. Growing up, my parents always negotiated who to invite into our homes. Even if they disagreed, they discussed it. In my family, if you want to invite somebody over, you need to discuss with everyone or inform them beforehand.

Similarly, I think if you want to invite a speaker to your university, you need to inform your colleagues beforehand and discuss it with them. Shared governance requires inter-departmental communication and not just intra-departmental communication. I think I’ve talked about this before on here. Deja Vu.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

But a philosophy department, or the profession, or a college, are not like your home in that way. At home, you may make all sorts of arbitrary rules to keep certain conversations or people out if you or others find them unpleasant. An academic unit or discipline are much more like a courtroom where ideas are argued for or against and judged, and the main point of the whole business is to arrive at a fair verdict after due consideration of all the relevant arguments and lines of evidence, and to pass on this spirit and heritage of inquiry to the next generation of thinkers and citizens. If we’re not doing that, then we simply fail at the key roles we are paid to perform. Disinviting speakers or firing people because some people don’t like what they have to say is like prohibiting defense attorneys from entering the courtroom or arguing in defense of clients the court feels are heinous. A home, by contrast, is something you choose for yourself and are not paid to be a part of, and into which you have no duty to bring a wide range of people and viewpoints.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I said *beforehand* if you read carefully. By all means, discuss it with your colleagues before you officially invite them. Debate about it. Discuss it. Vote on it. Put your reasons on the table amongst your colleagues.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

My point doesn’t depend on the before/after distinction.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Well, I also used the qualifier “almost” in the first sentence for a reason. I don’t claim that they’re (completely) symmetrical. I try my best to make sure that every word I use is intentional.

So do you agree or disagree that departments should discuss, debate, and/or vote on inviting a speaker before officially inviting them?Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Yes, all that is fine, provided that they don’t make their decisions on the basis of what conclusions they find pleasing or displeasing to hear argued for, or on the basis of what conclusions the candidate speakers have argued for elsewhere.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

What should they base their decision on instead?Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

I’m not sure who you are, Evan; but at a certain point, I just have to assume that you know how philosophy is meant to work, and hope that you don’t actually think that it involves surrounding yourself with people who say things that please you, and otherwise leave you to it. I feel that that time has arrived by now. Take care.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I’m not sure how that answers my question but okay.Report

Junior faculty
Junior faculty
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Imagine the bureaucratic hell we would descend to if we all had to vote/discuss every speaker invite of every one of our department colleagues. We descend further into the inferno if we start having to consult with the history, sociology, or econ department. I think the system this would entail is ridiculous–the reason we dole out responsibilities (e.g. someone being in charge of a speaker series) is precisely because we trust our colleague’s professionalism and expertise enough to take on the task on their own. If they want our help, they can ask, but otherwise, run free. This doesn’t free them, of course, of responsibility–there are things they can do that are wrong. But it does free them from having to deliberate with us beforehand about decisions they make (and it frees us from having to deliberate with them!).

As an aside, my family was different. In our household, it would seem kind of ridiculous for my mom to have to deliberate with my father over who she could invite over. We all lived there, we all had different social relations, and we were all trusted with an authority to invite people we enjoyed. My mom could do something inconsiderate–invite over someone who has been rude to my father, or invite someone over too late–and hence they could have a conversation after. But never was there an expectation of consultation beforehand. The same went for what friends I could invite over once I was a teenager. Maybe we were too free-thinking or a fake family, but I tended to like this system, where there was trust but also accountability if someone did something rude.

Trust, here, is key. The University trusted the department to invite their own speakers (rightfully so) and the department trusted someone–Tuvel & her colleagues, or some subset of them–to take on that role (rightfully so). To turn around, and locate our gripe with the situation by saying “Well [x party] should have been consulted!” is not just mistaken, but a violation of the trust that was vested in them. It is wrong, and so is what the University is doing now is disavowing the decision.

The only gripe that can be had consistent with the vested trust is that the colleagues with whom it was vested ,while properly seeking no beforehand input, still did something inconsistent with their personal or professional obligations. So you can argue that inviting Singer was irresponsible for some reason, but not because there was a failure to consult with others.

I think it is clear that inviting Singer was not irresponsible in the end, but that’s a different issue. My only aim here is to say that the family analogy and the maxim of deliberation it suggests fails to point out what was wrong here.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Junior faculty
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Junior faculty
1 month ago

First, I said the word “almost.” Like I said to Justin Kalif, I don’t claim they are symmetrical. Nor do I deny that there is room for flexibility of norms and expectations in the family. I used the analogy where it is relevant. We (should) know analogies are not identities. So please keep up with the discussion on this particular thread.

Second, I also used the qualifier “or” to suggest that departments can *inform* each other beforehand. If there is an objection, perhaps the philosophy department can take that objection into consideration before formally inviting Singer.

Third, I don’t know the ethos or mission of the university and so I don’t know if such act by the philosophy department was an actual breach of trust. We can go case by case when it comes to breaches of trust since what they trust each other with is bound up with the ethos of the university.

Fourth, from a consequentialist perspective, even if you are right about the cons of such a practice, what do you think the negative consequences would be if things stayed the way it is or if they never communicate with each other or be transparent with one another beforehand?Report

Junior faculty
Junior faculty
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

I never relied on the idea that you identified the family with this situation. I disputed that the moral principle (requiring consultation or deliberation) your analogy meant to support–arguing it neither applied to the university, nor was it even necessary in the family context. I am not sure where you think I went wrong, but my argument stands that the family example is not instructive.

Second, do we have reason to believe this invitation was kept secret? Wasn’t this whole thing spurred by the fact that Singer’s invitation was announced, i.e. the community was informed? Was anything else required?

Third, I don’t think this trust relies on the ethos of a particular university. I guess some universities may be particularly illiberal, but that would not be a university, proper, in my view. Regardless, I cannot imagine a plausible fact pattern for Rhodes College where it would be the case that the institution did not trust the department with this responsibility. Do you imagine Rhodes actually has a system requiring pre-approval of speakers?

Fourth, yeah, bad stuff happens. But bad stuff happens also if the Provost becomes the monarch of the university, deciding who comes and who doesn’t. This is not just about moral values, I should say, but also efficiency.

Even so, trust should be part of the university, in spite of whatever bad consequences might flow, on my view. Controlling things because ‘bad stuff might happen’ is precisely the inclination that academic freedom, interpersonal toleration, liberal values, and trust (take your pick of which you support) is meant to guard against.

Finally, you’re not arguing in good faith–you’re making me argue on your behalf. You suggest ‘negative consequences’ without saying exactly what you’re worried about and why this should change my position; accusing me of not understanding analogical reasoning despite my careful dissection of your analogy and whether it achieved what it was meant to achieve; and saying essentially ‘I guess it depends’ while not offering an even plausible fact pattern where my analysis would not apply to this case. I hope I’ve clarified my position, but I will not be responding further.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Junior faculty
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Junior faculty
1 month ago

Was this invitation announcement made before or after the fact (official invite)? This is what me and Justin were talking about.

What do you think trust consists of? What are they expecting each other do to or be? If the school ethos involves doing research but your department is lazy and rarely does research, then isn’t that a breach of trust?

And why bring up the Provost? This is about shared governance. Your argument here is a red herring/irrelevant.

So, you’d allow more of these kinds of incidents of people demanding dis-invitation after the fact because my proposal is inefficient or worse for academic freedom?

Have courage to your use your own understanding as Kant suggested. Don’t be coward junior faculty.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Similarly, I think if you want to invite a speaker to your university, you need to inform your colleagues beforehand and discuss it with them. Shared governance requires inter-departmental communication and not just intra-departmental communication.

This is absolutely, emphatically, not how a university works. It’s not a collective that, collectively, exercises its academic freedom and academic judgement. It’s an umbrella that allows any of its formal or informal subgroups to exercise their own academic freedom and academic judgement.

If the Philosophy Faculty collectively decides to invite a speaker to their Big-Name Annual Lecture, that’s up to them, and only them.

If the informal Mind and Language subgroup in the Philosophy Faculty wants to organize a seminar series and choose their speakers, that’s up to them, and only them.

If the graduate students run their own workshop, have the funds, and invite an external speaker to that workshop, that’s up to them, and only them.

And if I personally book a room and invite someone to campus to give a guest seminar, that’s up to me, and only me.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by David Wallace
Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

We’re talking about what *should* be. Not what *is* the case. Hence why I asked the normative question to Justin:

“So do you agree or disagree that departments should discuss, debate, and/or vote on inviting a speaker before officially inviting them?”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

If you think academic freedom either is, or *should be*, something exercised collectively by a university’s faculty as a whole rather than something the university guarantees for its members individually, then you are just using the concept in a way that’s radically different from its normal meaning.

(Put another way: I’m also speaking of what should be the case, not (just) what is the case.)Report

Last edited 1 month ago by David Wallace
Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Okay, then how did the philosophy *department* (a collection of philosophers) come to its decision to invite Singer?Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Also, if each individual academic (should) get to invite somebody, then how do you reconcile that with space, time, and budget limits?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Who you can invite is a matter of academic freedom.

Who you can pay to invite is a matter of your research budget or research allowance (but being told you can’t spend it on inviting speaker A but you can spend it on inviting speaker B is a violation of academic freedom).

Whether you can book a room at a given time is a matter of your institution’s space management policies. (But being told you can book a room for speaker A but not speaker B is a violation of academic freedom.)

What to do if you book so many people that you haven’t got time to listen to them all is between you and your diary.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

I can tell you what I think should be the case, in case you are interested. I think departments should be free to set their own rules about how speakers are invited. If a department decides, collectively, that all speakers have to be debated on and approved by the whole department, that’s up to them. Depending on the size of the department, that may, or may not, be a sensible policy, but the policy itself should be left up to the department. The department may, of course, decide that some speaker series should be decided on by the whole department, and some should be decided by some designated subset of the department (including an individual member). Again, that’s up to the department to decide. A department may even decide, if it wants to, that any of their speakers must be announced to and/or approved by other elements of the university, before issuing invitations. I would argue vigorously against such a policy if, per impossibile, my own department were to propose it. What I would definitely and categorically oppose would be any suggestion that departments have anything other than a self-imposed obligation to even inform other departments (or other elements of the university) of their intention to invite a particular speaker, before issuing the invitation, let alone that they should have to obtain approval in advance from any of these other entities. This would be such an egregious violation of academic freedom and faculty self-governance that it would be clear that anyone making such a suggestion has no clue about what these notions involve.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 month ago

So if more of these subsequently demanded dis-invitations occur, do you think they pose a greater threat to academic freedom than not having negotiated with or informed other departments beforehand about the potential speaker?Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

“And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.”Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Thrasymachus, is that you?Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Hm, no, Aethelred, I believe I detected a quite different accent.Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

“So if more of these subsequently demanded dis-invitations occur, do you think they pose a greater threat to academic freedom than not having negotiated with or informed other departments beforehand about the potential speaker?”
Since I don’t think that not having negotiated with or informed other departments beforehand poses any threat to academic freedom, the answer is obvious. But perhaps you meant to ask about the requirement to negotiate with or inform beforehand other departments? In which case, obviously that poses a greater threat to academic freedom than demands for disinvitations coming from a noisy and uninformed group of fellow academics. Especially when the administration doesn’t cave in to such demands. I find it hard to believe that you are arguing in good faith here. Do you really want every other department in the university to run their proposed speaker list by your department (and every other department)? Can you imagine the extra stupid busywork that would make? Imagine one of the now thrice weekly department meetings at which we have to examine and approve the slate of speakers for the Integrated Physiology Department. Next up, Electrical Engineering. And don’t miss Wednesday’s three hour meeting. We have Theatre and Dance, Applied Mathematics, and, of course, Religious Studies to oversee. We can’t let that lot invite an Old Testament scholar with the wrong views.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 month ago

I understand your frustration. But let me make it clear: I never suggested there should be a policy requirement. Perhaps a weaker prudential argument is that you should inform your colleagues about wanting to invite a highly controversial speaker before officially inviting them. The condition is that the speaker is *highly controversial* which is probably rare anyway so I doubt it will be inefficient or institutionally messy as you claimed.

That is also what I have alluded to since I said you can also just *inform* them about it prior to and if they object, you can put their concern into consideration. But that does not mean you are required to do what they say. This is what I have been suggesting in my arguments if you read *carefully* and *charitably* of course.

Though of course, my worry here is that it might cause resentment amongst faculties. The recent event at Bowling Green is an example. Such resentment may impede on the academic experience of students. I’m just saying a bit of transparency isn’t necessarily wrong or even harmful to academic freedom.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

OK, so now you are presenting a somewhat more reasonable suggestion. But even so, how is it supposed to be implemented? Let’s say that you inform other departments of your proposal to invite Peter Singer, knowing that he is controversial. And let’s say that some of them respond in the way that people at Rhodes responded. You are faced with a bunch of people saying “you can’t invite that monster”, based on flagrant misreadings of his work (on topics other than what you want to invite him to speak about). Do you then say “Oh well, I guess we can’t invite him after all, because these people are incapable of understanding what he is actually saying”? If I object to an Old Testament scholar, based on my uninformed and untrained reading of what she says, can I legitimately expect the faculty of the department whose job it is to understand and evaluate such scholars to cave to my demands? You seem to be so determined to cling on to your position that you are just digging in, despite it being demonstrated to you how unreasonable it is.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 month ago

Jesus Christ (no pun intended), I wrote: “But that does not mean you are required to do what they say.”

If you’re a professional academic, you seem to have reading problems for one.

You don’t have to give in to their demands. But you should listen to what they say and offer your rationale at least. Mutual understanding is important. But of course, the philosophy and anthropology departments are doing these things *after* the fact which thereby unintentionally end up politicizing this issue even more and may influence other departments across the nation to have a very retroactive response to it which may harm actual academic freedom.

Perhaps you can tell them to issue an alternative statement instead saying that they as a department don’t endorse or agree with some or many of Singers’ (or whoever else’s) views if they care about marginalized people or their moral reputation.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Evan
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

If you’re a professional academic, you seem to have reading problems for one.

One of the things one learns as a professional academic is that if your audience misunderstands you, you should try to restate your position more clearly, rather than insulting them.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

It’s not an insult. It’s an observation. Know the difference. I didn’t call him any derogatory names.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

If – purely hypothetically – I were to say that your comments on this blog demonstrate an almost complete ignorance of even the rudiments of the issues concerning academic freedom in the modern university, and that engaging with you is increasingly a waste of my time, I think you might reasonably feel insulted.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Feeling insulted is not the same thing as being insulted. Again, know the difference. Second, I’d ask you to provide me references to such literature if you know so much about academic freedom. I’m not an ordinary person you’re talking to here. Just saying 🤷🏽‍♂️.Report

Travis Timmerman
1 month ago

Singer’s view seems much more egalitarian than many people, including Singer himself, let on.

Now that he’s inclined towards a kind of hedonist act-utilitarianism (rather than a two-level preference-based utilitarianism), Singer’s view entails that any sentient creature can live a life as good as any other. The way society is structured causes gross inequality in distributions of well-being, as do differing natural life spans. But it’s clearly possible on his view for the life of any creature to contain as much good as any other. 

It’s actually perfectionist views, certain desire satisfaction views, objective list theories with species-norm goods, natural kind views, and views that appeals to higher/lower order goods, and the like that strike me as positing an objectionable hierarchy of lives. These views seem closer (though still relevantly different and tangentially related, at best) to the horrific grossly immoral views underlying the historical atrocities Singers’ critics point to in arguing against his view. (Note: I’m not saying we should deplatform anyone who holds these alternative views about well-being or even that we should be confident these views about well-being are false.) 

Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests also does away with any hierarchy of interests based on moral status. The like interests of every creature is equally important in our moral deliberation. The fundamental units of intrinsic value (hedonists would, of course, hold that is pain and pleasure) are equally important for everyone. Though, the principle of equal consideration of interests generates this verdict on any account of well-being and not just hedonism. Any unit of well-being for one creature matters just as much as it does for any other creature, according to this principle. There’s no favoring or prioritizing well-being for one creature over the same amount for another based on the type of being they are. Alternative views often appeal to moral status as a grounds for giving a certain good to one creature over another (with a supposedly lower moral status) even when it’d benefit the other creature even more. This seems morally objectionable to me and it’s something that Singer’s view seems uniquely positioned to avoid. 

So why is this fact so often overlooked? One reason is that Singer, I think, inadvertently invites misinterpretations of his view when using phrases such as the “value of lives.” When discussing saving lives in triage cases or when considering questions about how bad death is for various beings, Singer will write things like “a rejection of speciesism does not imply that all lives are of equal worth.” 

Now, the claim that “not all lives are of equal worth” is often, perhaps understandably, misinterpreted as a claim about humans having different moral statuses or as a claim that the like interests of some humans should be prioritized over other humans or as a claim that some physical or cognitive abilities are *intrinsically​​* better than others. But that is not what Singer means here and not what he thinks. 

What he means concerns two more fundamental claims. First, Singer assumes that different sentient beings have different total well-being levels. I don’t know if anyone denies that claim. Not everyone’s life is of equal prudential value for them. Some humans and non-human animals have harder lives than others. Some get more prudential good in their lives than others. Second, now that Singer is inclined to accept some kind of hedonistic act-utilitarianism, he thinks that a world with more net happiness in it is better than one with less net happiness. And, of course, he thinks moral agents are obligated to perform the relevant alternative available to them that brings about the greatest net happiness. Maybe you wish to deny that is the correct way to rank the goodness of worlds or maybe you think morality requires that we bring about some worlds that are truly worse than others. There is good debate to be had here. Still, the claim in question doesn’t seem obviously false or close to being beyond the pale.

These two claims imply, for instance, that if you can save one of two lives, you should save the life of the person who would get more well-being out of being saved. This thought seems to underlie commonsense judgments that one should generally save the life of a teenager over, say, a supercentenarian. The thought is the teenager will miss out on more good life than the supercentenarian simply in virtue of how much time they have left to live and so the teenager should be saved. 

Now, one might accept Singer’s moral claim and the general non-moral claim about differing well-being levels, but deny (on empirical grounds) the expected well-being level Singer attributes to the lives of some humans with disabilities. I write “some” because Singer doesn’t think all disabilities even typically detract from one’s total well-being, even in our ableist societies. I think there’s good objections to be made in this realm and good discussion to be had. But, again, Singer’s non-moral view here isn’t beyond the pale and given how receptive he’s been to criticisms about all of his views over the years, there’s good reason to think that engaging him with good counterarguments will be dialectically effective or, at least, the best way forward. On the other hand, attempts to deplatform him have, thankfully, consistently failed. Even when protestors manage to get some talk of his canceled, this ends up making the news. Then Singer gets to give the talk in a different venue in the same area and, thanks to the news coverage, many more people come to the talk and read about him and his work. Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Travis Timmerman
1 month ago

As a hedonistic utilitarianism, does Singer accept not only Parfit’s repugnant conclusion but also the especially repugnant conclusion that there is some number n such that one ought to kill (or even reduce to misery and then kill) 10 billion children who would otherwise live long and blessedly happy lives in order to bring into existence n people who would otherwise not exist and whose lives would be just barely worth living? If so, then his views are obviously false and beyond the pale. I don’t know Singer’s views well-enough, though, to know if Singer’s hedonistic utilitarianism can avoid such a repugnant conclusion. However, it is his willingness to replace lives with more pleasant ones that strikes me as morally beyond the pale and it is that willingness that, I think, rightly gets him into hot water in terms of its potential implications for disabled people.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

He’s a preference utilitarian.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Oh, wait, didn’t realize he may have changed his view. Still, if you can be de-platformed for being a hedonistic utilitarian… I mean, really.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

De-platformed for being a hedonistic utilitarian of the maximize-total-utility sort that, at least in principle, endorses the murder of disabled people in order to bring other people into existence whose lives would produce more net pleasure.Report

gradstudent100
gradstudent100
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

To follow up on Kaila Draper’s last comment: I think it’s important to point out that in the context of this conversation, disagreements about what you ought to do are more important than disagreements about matters of abstract moral theory. I do not think that there would be the same response to a hedonistic utilitarian who explicitly argued that hedonistic utilitarianism did not under any circumstances justify the killing or letting die of disabled people. (This person might be wrong about the consequences of hedonistic utilitarianism, of course). I also think that if Rhodes invited a deontologist who argued that some disabled infants lacked the moral status to have rights against being killed, there would be a similarly angry response there (again, regardless of whether this hypothetical person was applying their abstract deontological theory correctly).Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait… I can hardly believe this is under discussion…

Are we actually at the point now where people are calling for people to be no-platformed for holding a view like *hedonistic utilitarianism of the maximize-total-utility sort*, because that view entails some things some people find morally undesirable?

Really???

The thing with normative ethical theories is that they all have some undesirable consequences somewhere or another. The whole enterprise of normative ethical theory — the whole project — its entire modus operandi — centrally involves normative ethicists trying their best to argue for the various positions, while refining them as needed. And, yes, surprising ethical claims are made in the process, and we have to weigh the shocking implications of one view against those of another. That’s the whole enterprise. We’re talking about a core area of philosophy here.

So what’s the idea? That we should stop doing that, and replace it with a process in which certain people (and which people? The loudest? Those who dominate the Twitterverse?) sit on their thrones and decree in their wisdom, for the rest of humanities, which moral views get to be maintained in the process and which do not?

I’m seriously trying to understand whether I’ve got that right.Report

Adam Gibbons
Adam Gibbons
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Since all extant normative theories have undesirable consequences, the obvious conclusion is to de-platform everybody who does ethics.Report

gradstudent100
gradstudent100
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I do not think anyone involved endorses the claim that Singer ought to be deplatformed for endorsing hedonistic utilitarianism. The charge (discussed by David Shope’s comments above) is that Singer endorses the following claims:

  1. Hedonistic utilitarianism is true.
  2. Hedonistic utilitarianism permits the killing of disabled infants because their disability will make their life less good, from a hedonistic utilitarian perspective.
  3. Therefore, it is permissible to kill disabled infants because their disability will make their life less good from a hedonistic utilitarian perspective.

You might disagree that this is an accurate reconstruction of Singer’s position. But note that nobody, not even the most extreme of Singer’s critics, has a problem with claim 1 — that Hedonistic utilitarianism is true — on its own. So Justin Kalef’s claim that “are at the point…where people are calling for people to be no-platformed for holding a view like *hedonistic utilitarianism of the maximize-total-utility sort*, because that view entails some things some people find morally undesirable?” is false. At most, people are calling for Singer to be no-platformed because he endorses the conjunction of 1 and 2, and their consequences. I personally am not sure on whether this is an accurate reconstruction of Singer’s position, and I think that the call for his deplatforming would be misguided even if it were accurate. But I want to make it clear that the claim being advanced by the deplatformers is not the radically antiphilosophical one that Justin Kalef ascribes to them.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  gradstudent100
1 month ago

I merely put together two comments from Taila Draper’s. One was a claim that Singer’s “views are obviously false and beyond the pale” if they have these theoretical entailments: the second clarified that we might not be surprised that someone should be “de-platformed for being a hedonistic utilitarian of the maximize-total-utility sort that, at least in principle, endorses the murder of disabled people in order to bring other people into existence whose lives would produce more net pleasure.”Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Who are you arguing with? I’m not calling for anyone to be de-platformed. And no one is suggesting that someone should be de-platformed for defending a dumb theory. But in virtue of taking his theory (perhaps too) seriously, Singer has made some remarks about replacing disabled people that have led to calls for him to be de-platformed.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

And… do you agree with us, Kalia, that it shows a shocking lack of regard for freedom of inquiry that those calls have been made, and do you object to the de-platforming despite your view that Singer maintains a dumb normative theory?

Or do you think, “Well, who cares, academic freedom only applies to people who accept theories I deem more sensible?”

Or something else?

Because it really seems, in the context, that you were saying it wasn’t highly objectionable and worrying that this attempt was made to de-platform him.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

I apologize for using ableist language.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

De-platformed for being a hedonistic utilitarian of the maximize-total-utility sort that, at least in principle, endorses the murder of disabled people in order to bring other people into existence whose lives would produce more net pleasure.

Isn’t the ‘disabled people’ bit a red herring, though? A hedonistic utilitarian of the maximize-total-utility sort will, at least in principle, endorse the murder of basically anyone in order to bring other people into existence whose lives would produce more net pleasure.

I’m not an ethicist, but isn’t it just a general feature of utilitarian (and indeed consequentialist) ethical systems that they struggle not to endorse all manner of moral atrocities in extreme thought-experiment contexts where the net result is that the world becomes a better place? I thought that was a large part of the general deontological criticism of utilitarianism?Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

The attempt de-platform Singer was a response to remarks he has made about replacing disabled people. Hence my focus on that implication of the theory in response to Justin. I don’t recommend de-platforming Singer, but I do understand why some find some of his remarks about replacing disabled people to be beyond the pale. Luckily for consequentialists, there are consequentialist theories that don’t have implications as horrific as “replacement murder” (if I may call it that without being misunderstood).Report

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

The argument that maximizing hedonistic utilitarianism endorses the murder of disabled people also applies to the murder of anyone who could be replaced by someone whose life produces more net pleasure. It’s not about disabled versus abled people. There would have been more net goodness in the world if, instead of me, my parents had had a different child who was a bit more conscientious, a bit less selfish, more good looking, with more hair, and better eyesight. None of that entails that hedonistic maximizing utilitarianism endorses the murder of me, or of anyone else who could be or have been replaced by someone who would contribute more to net utility. Judgments about total value don’t translate simply and directly into judgments about what kinds of actions to endorse. To think they do is to take a ridiculously simplistic, but distressingly common amongst supposedly smart philosophers, approach to utilitarianism. Any cursory acquaintance with the world in which utilitarian judgments are to be made is sufficient to show that these criticisms of the theory are complete straw men. Perhaps it will be objected that, yes, of course the theory doesn’t actually justify murder for replacement in the real world, but in principle it could. Well, in principle, so could divine command theory (if god commanded it), and the Categorical Imperative (if that also commanded it).Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 month ago

Alastair, I think you’re entirely correct philosophically to make that point. But I’m beginning to have a better sense for this strange new philosophical fashion, and I’m not sure that the in-crowd would join us in seeing this as a philosophical error. The question for them isn’t whether some theory has particularly bad implications for the groups or interests they hold to be sacred, but whether they have bad implications for them at all. If they do, then nothing outside that spotlight focus seems relevant to them. The theory has some unsettling implications for them (nobody else matters at the moment), and so the theory must go.

I predict the following as a likely development of this approach over the next year or two. A two or three views on sociopolitical issues will be presented, to great acclaim on social media. It will be pointed out that those views are not only dubious but actually logically incoherent. This will lead to some mirth and mockery, but the retort will come that this doesn’t matter if we instead use some form of paraconsistent logic. Immediately, classical logic will be cited as the true culprit here, particularly as it enables people to poke fun at the two or three trendy new ideas that everyone will by this time pretend have always been accepted by just about everyone, forgetting that nobody had heard of them as recently as October 2021. Meanwhile, some diligent garbage-sifters will dig up some incriminating quotes by classical logicians. Finally, some innocent classical logician with no idea that any of this is going on will be invited to a conference, and will be hit in the face with a bewildering firestorm of controversy. Cue the peanut gallery to say, “Well, it’s not like this is the *only* problem with classical logic: people have raised problems with it for decades now. Maybe it’s time to…”Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I didn’t realize that rejecting a theory because of its absurd implications was so novel. I must be a trailblazer.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
1 month ago

Obviously the argument doesn’t apply only to replacing disabled people. Perhaps the context here might help to explain to you why I focused on the implications for disabled people. Also obvious is your point that the utilitarian can consistently believe that x would maximize utility but endorsing x would not. You may have noticed that I never said anything inconsistent with that obvious point. Not sure why you find it worth pointing out that other theories might (for all we know?) have some of the same disgusting implications as total utilitarianism. If they do, so much the worse for them, maybe? Your implicit suggestion that “the theory doesn’t actually justify murder for replacement in the real world” would need to be defended, of course. Often, such moves by supposedly smart philosophers are just rationalizations to save a theory. For me, the fact that the theory in question does justify horrific murders in hypothetical scenarios is a good enough reason to reject the theory.Report

Travis Timmerman
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

That’s a good question Kaila. I appreciate your reply and your first comment in this post. I’m not sure what the answer to your question is, but now we’re moving beyond the realm of what first-order claims Singer endorsed in print to the possibility that there’s morally bad implications of the normative ethical view he now accepts. 

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Singer has worked out, in print, the details of his favored form of hedonistic act-utilitarianism in such a way that it either does or doesn’t avoid the so-called Repugnant Conclusion. Though, I know he has weighed in on debates about population ethics in the past, so I may very well be wrong here. I don’t believe he thinks there’s moral reason with requiring force to create “happy” people (even if that would make the world better) and so that would avoid the conclusion that it’s obligatory to create the presumably repugnant worlds.

Setting aside views about the criterion of right, however, there’s still the issue of ranking the goodness of worlds and, when it comes to that issue, the Repugnant Conclusion seems to be a problem for anyone and not just those who accept the standard maximizing impartial consequentialist views. After all, seemingly plausible axioms about how to rank the goodness of worlds are consistent with lots of different consequentialist and non-consequentialist views and those axioms can lead to different versions of the Repugnant Conclusion.

Singer has gone back and forth on the Replacement Argument and he used to think anyone, disabled or not, who wanted to live could not be permissibly killed and replaced with a happier person. Since babies and fetuses don’t have a desire to live, he thought they (disabled or not) could be permissibly replaced because their death would not be bad for them. Now, maybe even that has changed as a result of his change in normative ethical views. I’m not sure and don’t think he’s said one way or the other in print. Though, again, someone correct me if I’m wrong. 

It’s worth emphasizing that the implications you point to arise only if one accepts a certain set of views in ethics beyond hedonism and act-utilitarianism. One must also accept actualism (at least in any remotely real-life cases of replacement) and totalism and reject other views, such as the procreation asymmetry. None of these views, in themselves, are considered beyond the pale and rightly so. None are even obviously false. So, I have a hard time seeing how we could condemn Singer (or anyone) if it turns out that they accept the conjunction of these views. At least, if the views are consistent and there’s decent arguments for each that don’t simultaneously work as arguments against the others, it seems reasonable for people to accept the set as a whole, though their credence in the set should be lower than it is for each individual member of the set. But I digress. 

I also find it odd that we don’t apply this type of criticism consistently to other ethicists. As pointed out above, I don’t see attempted deplatformings of other ethicists because of the (possible) first-order implications of their normative or metaethical views. Should subjectivists be deplatformed because they think rapists can be obligated to rape people? Should cultural relativists be deplatformed because they think slavery was permissible? Should Kantians be deplatformed because they think you shouldn’t harmlessly (or barely harmfully) treat someone as a mere means in order to prevent genocide? Should nihilists be deplatfored because they believe Hitler did nothing wrong? I find the implications of these views utterly morally repugnant and, unlike the “especially Repugnant Conclusion,” most concern real-life cases. 

Clearly people who hold them shouldn’t be deplatformed. Why? Well, one reasons is that most of these views are not obviously false. Serious philosophers continue to defend each of these views, except perhaps cultural relativism, which is naively accepted by lots of serious non-philosopher academics. Nor do these defenses contain obvious mistakes, though I think arguments for each for each of fail. Now, if these meta and normative ethical views aren’t obviously false because of their first-order implications, then I don’t see how Singer’s could be. Another reason is simply that it would be harder to get at the truth if we deplatform anyone who holds these views. We’d also make it harder for proponents of such views to recognize the falsity of their views and change them accordingly. These Millian arguments seem to apply to Singer’s views as much as any other. 

Now, someone else suggested that a relevant difference with Singer is that he actually thinks about and addresses the first-order implications of his meta and normative ethical views. The thought seemed to be that it’s permissible to invite people who hold moral views with reprehensible implications so long as the person holding the view doesn’t publicly recognize its reprehensible implications. That doesn’t seem like a morally relevant difference to me at all, though it does track how people in fact act for some bizarre reason. 

Not only is this not a relevant difference, but implementing this as a social rule is a bad idea because it creates a perverse incentive structure. We are rewarding speakers for being deliberately obtuse about the implications of their own views and punishing those, like Singer, who actually think about the connections between meta, normative, and applied ethics and how the arguments for accepting positions at one level bear on the viability of positions at a different level. Discouraging this would make it harder for us to accurately assess the plausibility of views at each level. In order to get to the truth, it seems to me that we should actually encourage people to think long and hard about the implications of their views at any level and to be fully transparent about their views’ implications. (Also, it’s not as if some pernicious implications of, say, Kantianism or subjectivism or some kinds of utilitarianism aren’t obviously transparent to any philosopher. So, it seems weird to suggest we should only go after people who publicly recognize and grapple with the first-order implications of their views.) 

Sorry for the long reply. I’ll quickly end on a tangential point. I admire Singer for never trying to deplatform people who defend views he thinks are morally repugnant. He never tries to silence people who think it’s permissible to cause unfathomable suffering to tens of billions of non-human animals each year in order to better satisfy affluent people’s gustatory pleasure. He never tries to deplatform people who think it’s morally permissible to get some comparably trivial good for themselves at the expense of saving the life of a human child living in extreme poverty. Singer must think these views are at least as morally repugnant as his critics think his views are. Admirably, however, he continually engages with them in good faith. He often goes so far as inviting people to his classes to criticize his work. If memory serves, I’ve gone to talks where he brought in critics with his own research funds so they could publicly criticize his work. I admire the length he goes to in order to engage in good faith with people who disagree with him. Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Travis Timmerman
1 month ago

Thanks, this is very helpful. I have no interest in de-platforming anyone. If I refused to talk to anyone who, in my opinion, held morally repugnant views, I would be alone with my cats–and their predatory nature would give me pause.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Kaila Draper
Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

But, Kalia, you didn’t say “Oh, if that’s what he thinks, then remind me not to get into a conversation with him.” You specifically mentioned the de-platforming of Singer (your last comment started with the word ‘De-platforming’), and you said that his view was ‘beyond the pale’ and that it ‘rightly gets him into hot water.’

I’m sorry if I misinterpreted what you said, but it seemed — and still seems — to me that you were referring to the attempt to de-platform him (I’m not sure what else in the context would count as the ‘hot water’ that he ‘rightly’ gets into for his views, since that’s the topic of the thread), and saying in such a thread that his views are ‘beyond the pale’ seems like a moral indictment and a nod toward those who publicly persecute him.

But if you really just meant that you personally wouldn’t like to have a conversation with him but nonetheless oppose the de-platforming attempt, or if you’ve come to think that now after mulling it over, I’m satisfied and am glad to consider this a simple misunderstanding on our part, in which case I withdraw my unhappy astonishment while still maintaining that the unfortunate interpretation was not implausible.Report

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Correct me if I am forgetting something I did say, but I don’t think I said, “Oh, if that’s what he thinks, then remind me not to get into a conversation with him”. In my first or second post in this thread I mentioned that I regard him as a moral hero. It’s been a long time since the last time we spoke, but all of my conversations with Peter Singer were lovely, and I would certainly enjoy the opportunity to speak with him again.

By “rightly getting him into hot water” I did not mean “rightly provoking calls for him to be de-platformed”. I meant “rightly provoking strong criticism for holding a repugnant view”. As I said in the post just referred to, I could see someone making an argument for him not to be provided with a platform on certain issues pertaining to disability, but I added that I think it would be counterproductive not to provide him with such a platform. And, by the way, I also draw a distinction between not inviting someone and disinviting someone in terms the extent to which, in the typical case, academic freedom would be at stake.

My post that began with the word “De-platforming” was a response to yours and the idea was to complete your sentence in a way that would make it closer to being accurate as an explanation of why there have been calls for Singer to be de-platformed. I was merely trying to point out (too obliquely no doubt) that it’s not really his theory per se that leads to calls for him to be de-platformed. It is the consequences that he thinks his theory has for whether and when it is morally acceptable to kill disabled people, consequences that he himself thinks constitute the correct view about such cases.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kaila Draper
1 month ago

I see. Well, I still find some of this puzzling; but now that you’ve clarified (as I understand you) that you don’t support someone’s being de-platformed merely for holding a normative ethical view, I think it would be idle for me to raise these issues any further. Thanks for your response, Kalia.Report