The Personal Defies the Political - The recent NYTimes magazine had this fascinating article by a disabled person, Harriet McBryde Johnson, discussing her interactions with Peter Singer. (The NYTimes will try to charge for the article eventually; if so read it here or google for it.) Singer has pushed his liberal utilitarianism to the point where many people feel uncomfortable. In particular he propounds the idea that infanticide is acceptable in some circumstances - in particularly, when the infant is profoundly disabled. Naturally this makes Johnson, who was such an infant, very angry. She wants to hate Singer. Yet, she cannot. She ends up with respect for Singer:
The tragic view comes closest to describing how I now look at Peter Singer. He is a man of unusual gifts, reaching for the heights. He writes that he is trying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason, that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community and maybe even species -- to ''take the point of view of the universe.'' His is a grand, heroic undertaking.

But like the protagonist in a classical drama, Singer has his flaw. It is his unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently ''worse off,'' that we ''suffer,'' that we have lesser ''prospects of a happy life.'' Because of this all-too-common prejudice, and his rare courage in taking it to its logical conclusion, catastrophe looms. Here in the midpoint of the play, I can't look at him without fellow-feeling.

I am regularly confronted by people who tell me that Singer doesn't deserve my human sympathy. I should make him an object of implacable wrath, to be cut off, silenced, destroyed absolutely. And I find myself lacking a logical argument to the contrary.

I am talking to my sister Beth on the phone. ''You kind of like the monster, don't you?'' she says.

I find myself unable to evade, certainly unwilling to lie. ''Yeah, in a way. And he's not exactly a monster.''
Well worth reading, for the philosophy (though they're both wrong), and for the very honest and refreshing view of people with authentic, real, and painful differences. Yet they nonetheless interact personally with friendship and even grace. The personal, here, is not the political. It's worth thinking on why that is or how it can be.

I think Singer is wrong not in drawing out the implications of his philosophy, but in advocating utilitarianism to begin with. The problem with any philosophy grounded in utility is that utility can not be seen, nor measured. Absent that, problems crop up exactly like the one at the heart of the article. Johnson feels her life has value, to herself, and to "society". Probably Singer agrees, or at least he treats her that way. But how can either of them know whether or not her life (or his!), "really" is of positive utility? They cannot. Utility - of her life, or of his - is not measurable. There is no such thing as a "utilitometer" we can point at a person and objectively measure with.

Absent that, there is only opinion. Opinion can be wrong. I think that Singer grasps this, at least somewhat: otherwise he might advocate that the state should kill infants. After all, if someone's life is objectively going to suck, then it is not merely a "good idea" to kill them. Rather it is the duty of the utility-maximizing demos; and it should not be left to the parents to decide.

There are other, further, problems with utility. Here's one: the "utility monster". It may be that some people experience pleasure and pain much more strongly than other people. Take, for example, a psychopath who achieves tremendous sexual pleasure from torture. To a utilitarian, the psycho's utility must be measured against the disutility to potential victims. If his is greater, then society should condone torture (by him) - greatest good to the greatest number, you know. His victims can take solace in helping to create, overall, a happier world. This is, to a rights-theorist like me, horribly wrong. People are not means to the ends of other people, even if that would increase "utility". But you will never get that result in utilitarianism.

A final problem for utilitarianism is the problem of comparability. In the "utility monster" problem, and more broadly in utility theory, it is assumed that the utility that different people experience is comparable. My pleasure in eating an apple is greater than yours, or it is less than, or it is equal to. If utility is a single number, that must be true. But what if utility is not that simple? What if my utility for an apple is not a scalar - "1", but a vector - "(1,5,3)"? If yours is then "(2,4,2)", is overall utility increased if you get the apple instead? We simple cannot say - vectors are not simply compared as are numbers.

So, enough potshots at utilitarianism. Now I want to discuss Johnson. Her ideas are not as clear from the article as Singer's are. Nonetheless, I can see two big holes in her argument.

First, she is vehement that disability is not utility-reducing:
What has him so convinced it would be best to allow parents to kill babies with severe disabilities, and not other kinds of babies, if no infant is a ''person'' with a right to life? I learn it is partly that both biological and adoptive parents prefer healthy babies. But I have trouble with basing life-and-death decisions on market considerations when the market is structured by prejudice. I offer a hypothetical comparison: ''What about mixed-race babies, especially when the combination is entirely nonwhite, who I believe are just about as unadoptable as babies with disabilities?'' Wouldn't a law allowing the killing of these undervalued babies validate race prejudice? Singer agrees there is a problem. ''It would be horrible,'' he says, ''to see mixed-race babies being killed because they can't be adopted, whereas white ones could be.'' What's the difference? Preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not. Why? To Singer, it's pretty simple: disability makes a person ''worse off.''

Are we ''worse off''? I don't think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.
I believe being disabled would lower my utility. (My few weeks of life on crutches definitely seemed lower in utility, but maybe it just that I was not used to it.) But as I said previously, that's not actually measurable. So it remains just an opinion of mine, although, an opinion I feel that most sensible people would share.

The problem is, that opinion, even if widespread, cannot justify anything. It can certainly prevail de-facto in a democracy. But that does not make it right.

I do wonder, if Johnson were presented with a magic button that would heal her: would she press it? I believe she would. It is hard to see why unless you think that she thinks that her life would be better without being crippled.

But then again, I have seen reports of deaf parents selectively aborting to get deaf children. Perhaps Johnson feels that the challenges she overcomes are worth it. I don't agree with that, but then, in my hypothetical the button-press was not mine, but hers. If the button were presented to me (which would heal her), I would consult her if I could. If I could not for some reason, I would press it. That's my prejudice showing.

I definitely disagree with Johnson's ideas that "society" owes disabled people care. No, we are not born with positive claims on each other. Indeed, in the article Johnson makes it clear how much she depends on modern technology.
The sight of me is routinely discombobulating. The power wheelchair is enough to inspire gawking, but that's the least of it. Much more impressive is the impact on my body of more than four decades of a muscle-wasting disease. ...

I am in the first generation to survive to such
decrepitude. Because antibiotics were available, we didn't
die from the childhood pneumonias that often come with
weakened respiratory systems.
What of disabled people born 100 years ago? If we are to construct, as Singer wants to, an ethical theory that applies to all people, at all times, then it is obvious that disabled people cannot be "owed" antibiotics and power chairs, no more than they are "owed" corrective genetic manipulation by nanobots. Yet neither Singer not Johnson appear to notice this; I assume since they are both philosophically attuned to John Rawls.

Indeed, the very idea that disabled people are owed anything by their society, is an admission that they have "needs", which is to say, that they would be worse off than average people without extra help. And if one believes in scalar utility (I don't, but at least Singer does), then there is no way to avoid the idea that disabled people have lower utility, unaided. This is, in fact, common sense. Johnson seems not to see it, even though she certainly does see the ways in which her life is exceptional.

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