Thursday, August 24, 2006

Another Fundamental Question

In related developments, commenter Evonne Acevedo at Ballastexistenz takes exception to my suggestion that a disabled person would not wish their disability on others:
GG’s most telling remarks had nothing to do with the egg = person debate at all; they were something to the effect of “Well, of course people with disabilities are just as worthy as everyone else . . . but surely they wouldn’t want to *wish* their disabilities on anybody” . . . and other comments that more than implied that he (she? I dunno) thought that genetic screening and prevention accordingly was a swell idea . . . and which therefore implied that (s)he does not view life with a disability as an equally worthy life. But each time anyone attempted to address the more fundamental views associated with the original post, GG fell back into the “Hey, take it easy, all I’m saying is an egg is not a person” mode.
I think that Evonne's response conflates two ideas which I hold to be distinctly separate:
  • Recognition of the personhood and inherent worth of disabled individuals.
  • The preference for ability over disability.
So I'll raise again the question which I raised in my previous post: Can you acknowlege that someone's physical state is sub-optimal and still recognize their personhood? I'll use Evonne's phrase "equally worthy life" as a jumping off point. Equally worthy of what? Recognition of personhood? Respect as an individual? The right to coexist with other people and not be molested? If I express a preference for having both of my legs does it logically follow that I must treat the person who has none as somehow less of a person than I am? No, not through any chain of reasoning that I can come up with. It is certainly the case that many disabled individuals are treated as non-persons for just such reasons, but the point that I think its key to highlight is that such treatment is not rational. Its the result of irrational prejudice, not any sort of reflective or deliberative process. The comments quoted by Evonne do not reflect a belief that disabled people have less worth, but rather that living life as an able-bodied individual is preferable to living life as a disabled individual. Now, let's assume that the opposite is true, that prefering ability over disability intrinsically diminishes the lives of disabled people. Such a statement has a pernicious effect in the emphasis that it puts on a person's disability. Rather than treating a defect of mind or body as incidental to someone's personhood it puts that disability at center stage. It seems to say that, because a disabled person is disabled, they are fundamentally different from an abled person. It doesn't allow the abled and disabled to look beyond their bodies towards their shared humanity. Isn't that the diametric opposite of everything that the disability-rights movement tries to do? Personhood should not be confused with biology, something which I've noted in the past. The concerns about the ramifications of acknowledging the utility of ability, or the inconvenience of disability, rely on a biological definition of personhood which fetishizes the body over the person as a whole. So, strangely enough, I think that an argument can be made that concerns about PGH etc. are actually counterproductive, because they put so much emphasis on the body and not enough on the Ghost in the Machine.

10 Comments:

Blogger ballastexistenz said...

So, are you saying, that when you select one embryo over another, that the "Ghost in the Machine" (whatever that is) in one magically transfers to the other?

Are you saying that consciousness is separate from the body? As a cognitively disabled person, I can certainly attest that my consciousness is heavily shaped by my brain.

So much of this seems like abstract academic-land word-world nonsense to me.

2:45 PM  
Blogger GG said...

Ballastexistenz -

Well, in the case of most embryos I'd argue there's no ghost at all. Prior to oh, say, 25 weeks (at an absolute minimum) the biological structures needed to give rise to any sort of conciousness do not exist. I think this is one of the areas where our two understandings diverge. Prior to the emergence of conciousness two embryos are genetically distinguishable (and, in that sense, not interchangeable). However, from an individual rights standpoint they are interchangeable since, lacking consciousness, they don't qualify as a person. You can prefer one over the other with violating either's (nonexistant) civil rights.

This doesn't ignore the fact that there are societal implications in which you choose. But I'm wary of constraining one individual's choice (to implant or not) based on claims about the relative net benefit to society. That seems to be the essence of the argument that you (and others) are making, that society (or some segment thereof) benefits in the long run by not engaging in any sort of selection.

This stance (my apologies if I've mischaracterized it) seems to put an awful lot of value on the chance meeting of sperm and egg, as if nature has some pre-destined " correct" ratio of black/white, abled/disabled, etc. which we'll get to if we just leave well enough alone.

Regarding your second questions, conciousness is not separate from the body; its a product (in some nebulous and ill-understood fashion) of the nervous system. What I was trying to say (albeit poetically) is that there is an essential "me" and an essential "you" which is largely independent of the physical form of our bodies. If I lose an arm, or if a girl with scoliosis gets her back fixed, we're still the same people we were prior to our changes.

Changes to the brain, on the other hand, may very well cause an associated change the person. But, barring a catastrophic injury, that doesn't change the fact of personhood.

If we recognize that the important and valueable parts of what make a person "a person" are largely distinct from physical form then there's no harm done to anyone in acknowledging that some physical forms are more suited to daily tasks than others. Such a recognition allows us to shift our focus to the non-tangible (but infinitely more important, IMHO) aspects of personhood (character, capacity for reflection, etc. etc. etc.).

5:25 PM  
Blogger ballastexistenz said...

The most likely things that would've gotten me (or a kid I might have in the future) screened out are:

1. A genetic difference that results in both different brain and rest-of-body structure. (Not Down's, but that's the general sort of idea.)

2. A genetic difference (or really probably a combination of many genetic differences) that results in different brain structure.

Therefore, neither of these things are things that I would be "the same person" in your sense without.

Of course, given that the entire structure of my body and even my face may have been shaped different if I didn't have a so-called genetic "defect", I'm not so sure on this brain-as-self body-as-thing-for-propelling-self division.

More complicated than that at the very least. As far as I can tell, I exist within my whole body, not just the part inside my head, and for that matter not just on the part inside my head that most people give the credit for "personhood/consciousness" to. Given that I've spent a lot of my life outside the Singerian definition of consciousness/personhood, and given that people like with my "impairments" do some of our best thinking outside the realm of what cognitive science considers higher-order cognition, I've got a very different take on that one as well.

6:22 PM  
Blogger blue said...

GG says: But I'm wary of constraining one individual's choice (to implant or not) based on claims about the relative net benefit to society. That seems to be the essence of the argument that you (and others) are making, that society (or some segment thereof) benefits in the long run by not engaging in any sort of selection.

This stance (my apologies if I've mischaracterized it) seems to put an awful lot of value on the chance meeting of sperm and egg, as if nature has some pre-destined " correct" ratio of black/white, abled/disabled, etc. which we'll get to if we just leave well enough alone.


Interestingly, with only changing a very few words, I could argue the same thing, which, imo, is the whole point of this debate.

Here. I've fixed it: But I'm wary of constraining one individual's choice (to implant or not) based on claims about the relative net benefit to society. That seems to be the essence of the argument that you (and others) are making, that society (or some segment thereof) benefits in the long run by engaging in selection.

This stance seems to put an awful lot of value on the chance meeting of sperm and egg, as if there is some scientifically or socially "correct" ratio of black/white, abled/disabled, etc. which we'll get to if we just use the technology to manipulate the population.

3:41 AM  
Blogger GG said...

If nature is blind, and individuals aren't qualified to make such choices, then who is left to decide?

8:41 AM  
Blogger blue said...

I'm sorry, GG. I don't quite understand the question. I haven't said individuals aren't qualified to make choices anywhere. The use of the word "blind" in this conetext in interesting though.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Ampersand said...

If I express a preference for having both of my legs does it logically follow that I must treat the person who has none as somehow less of a person than I am?

No, it doesn't.

But if you suggest that the person born with no legs ought to have (natural) legs - and that their life would have necessarily been more fulfilling for themselves, or more desirable for society, had they had both legs - that does imply that not having legs lessens one's worth as a person.

The question isn't what people personally decide for themselves. It's what decisions society, and social attitudes towards disability, push everyone towards making.

I think that every woman has the right to decide what does and doesn't go into her body, and to make the abortion decision for herself. But just because I adamantly favor her right to an abortion, doesn't mean I'm obliged to agree with the reasoning behind every abortion. (I also think sex-selective abortion is wrong, but I nonetheless think women have the right to have sex-selective abortions if they want to).

Nor am I obliged to not object when the medical establishment provides biased or one-sided information about disability to prospective mothers. On the contrary, I think that having more information from disabled people & their parents would give prospective mothers more choice, not less.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Evonne Acevedo said...

One could use (and plenty have used) ornamental semantics and the premise of hypothesis to mask an agenda for eliminating any minority group. Frankly, and again, it’s evident to me that this post and its parent post are motivated more by intellectual argument for intellectual argument’s sake, and you, GG, are driven by the sheer momentum of making a detached, nebulous, clinical and ultimate “point”. And you’re very good at that – kudos. But the eugenic implications here are more than theoretical.

Disability IS as intrinsic to individuality as is race, gender, sexuality, etc. – and “no legs” IS as good as “both legs”, just as “black” is as good as “white”. I of course understand that your stance is one of imposed practicality; i.e. you perceive that, for example, walking is better than not walking. But the barriers you suppose are presented by disability no longer are – and in the case of people who are neurologically atypical, may never have been – those of mechanics; we are a civilized society, and our potential for accommodation, just as, it seems, our potential for elimination, is immeasurable. Why the majority seems to prefer elimination is beyond me – I suppose convenience is an unfortunate institution of civilized society. But we’re human. And nature is not “blind”. Not, in any case, in the context you use “blind” – willy-nilly, haphazard, incidental, oblivious. (And neither, as a rule, are people who are blind. Thanks, blue.)

The barriers (and what you presume make a disabled life less desirable) that exist are imposed by social discrepancies and bigotry. You know, of course, that to suggest that it’s best to pre-select white over black, or to “correct” black to white if a “defect” slips through, is offensive. And you of course understand why it’s offensive. And once the insult is made, falling back on technicalities (like “25 weeks”) means little to the group you have essentially placed on a lower rung of a perceived societal hierarchy. There is very little redemption to “I wouldn’t wanna be like you”.

That was my original point; I never really cared about the scientific nuances involved. I just discovered this discussion was carrying on without li’l ol’ me, and thought I’d best say something. Thanks to all who addressed the nuances, though. I’m crawling with Supertramp songs.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

Well, I wouldn't want to be neurotypical. Not that there's anything wrong with being NT, but I like the way I am.
However, many people assume that if they'd rather be one way than another, others have or should have the same preference. In my case, I think it's equally sad if an NT wants to become autistic as if an autistic wants to become NT, because both are unlikely to be particularly happy people. (There lies the unhappiness in the stereotype of disability, that they 'long to get out of that chair and run' or the equivalent.)
There is also the issue that normal people often overestimate the unpleasantness of being disabled (due to the stereotypical view of disability as a tragedy). I've argued against accepting the statement 'if I was like that, I'd rather be dead' as indication that you should kill a person who can no longer express their opinion, for the simple reason that many who can describe their opinions after acquiring a disability have been found to adjust to it and then live far happier lives than they expected they would.
With regards to whether something is separate from who you are, I used to think you could clearly divide that. I don't anymore. Eye color is clearly not part of who someone is, cognitive style clearly is. However, deafness can be a greater or lesser part of who someone is, depending on factors such as when they became deaf, how they communicate and so on. And skin color isn't always separate from identity either. Someone who grew up in Zambia as a black person obviously is different from someone who grew up in Canada as a white person.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

Oh, and I'd rather have a pet rat than a hamster, but if I was given a hamster I wouldn't kill it and try to get a rat next time. Animals don't have the same rights as humans, and you are legally allowed to kill them (although if you do it in a particularly horrible way you could get in trouble). And many people consider animals to lack consciousness.

1:26 PM  

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