Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Theory Is Important

I had thought that I was done commenting about pre-implantation screening and its associated topics, but a recent comment by Evonne Acevedo requires my reply, at length:
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.
She is dismissing the entirety of my arguments on the basis that they're some kind of theoretical wordplay. If I were to pick a single theme for this blog, however, it would be that "theory is important". I'm going to make a statement of principle now... let's call it the Shiny Ideas Principle of Moral Reasoning:
It must be possible to reason about morality.
This is axiomatic; I'll defend it no further than to say that the alternatives provide no means to guide personal behavior. It follows from there that one must have a framework (a "theory of moral reasoning", if you will) to guide the decision making process. While we're at it let's declare a corollary about these frameworks:
Moral frameworks must be internally consistent.
Frameworks which are not internally consistent simultaneously prove and disprove a moral proposition; they cannot provide moral guidance either. These are the groundrules for discussion; anyone who disagrees with them should look elsewhere for conversation as I have no way to communicate with you. Ms. Acevedo (and anyone else who happens to read this) is welcome to accuse me of "ornamental semantics" (whatever that means). But to assert that my position is somehow invalid because because it is "intellectual", "clinical", or "detached" is totally without merit. The "point" which I'm trying to make is not "nebulous", its very specific: certain arguments against pre-implantation screening necessarily have implications for womens' reproductive choices.
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've never argued that disability is not intrinsic to individuality; a person's self-conception is certainly affected by their status w.r.t. ability/disablity. What I have asserted, however, is that focusing on ability vs. disability places an inappropriately high value on attributes which are not essential to a cognition-centered definition of "personhood". A person's particular self-conception has little or no bearing on their status as a "person". As far as "abled/disabled"/"black/white", I believe the comparison is inappropriate in this context; I'll address this shortly.
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.
Ms. Acevedo is correct in that my stance is pragmatic, but her assertion that it is pragmatism unbacked by fact is fundamentally flawed. Society's potential for accommodation is not "immesurable"; it might more accurately be described as "large but finite". Nor is it the case, as she seems to be asserting, that disability is not the hinderance that it once was. Since the crowd reading this seems to value personal experience (less "clinical", perhaps?), I'll provide an illustrative example from my own life: Me. I'm a field engineer for one of the big computer companies. I travel from customer to customer, setting up computer equipment in their data centers. This position requires manual dexterity (for the plugging and the tying and the screwing...), plus the ability to lift heavy equipment over my head for racking. Were I to loose my hands I'd be SOL; no prosthesis yet devised provides the manual dexterity and carrying capabilities that my job requires. However, society could accommodate me, right? In theory (there's that ugly word again), yes. But what would such accommodation entail?
  • A substantial modification of the design of every data center that I might visit so that I could rack equipment safely.
  • A re-design of equipment cabinets, so that I can rack and cable without good manual dexterity.
  • A re-design of computer equipment in general so that it doesn't require the ability to plug tiny things into other tiny things.
That's a tall order... how much would that cost? A lot, I can tell you that much. But what, specifically, does this example illustrate?
  • Accommodation is an imperfect substitue for ability
  • Accommodation has associated costs.
The theoretical cost to retrofit the world's datacenters to accommodate handless engineers is just ridiculous. At some point the cost in terms of people, money, time, and effort must outweigh the individual's right to be accommodated; the alternative is unlimited expenditure. Wouldn't it make more sense to suggest that I become a design architect instead, since they do most of their work on paper? Which brings me to the next blockquote:
Why the majority seems to prefer elimination is beyond me – I suppose convenience is an unfortunate institution of civilized society. But we’re human.
The reason that the majority seems to prefer elimination is because they recognize the limits of accommodation. No society, no matter how well intentioned, can accommodate every disability in every situation, simply because there is a limit to that society's resources. This is an unavoidable fact.
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.)
Though its tangential to this specific discussion, I'd ask Ms. Acevedo how she characterizes nature's behavior? Does she believe that there's some sort of a non-random pattern or purpose to the meeting of sperm and egg? If so, that would certainly have bearing on her argument against pre-implantation screening. However, it would seem to contradict the consensus among modern biologists.
The barriers (and what you presume make a disabled life less desirable) that exist are imposed by social discrepancies and bigotry.
Bigotry and social discrepancies are only part of the story. Certainly they cause a large amount of the problem. But even if you were to eliminate bigotry and social discrepancies you'd still be faced with some amount of "non-accommodation" due to resource limitations.
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”.
I think this is the section of her post which prompted me to write at length; she's setting up a straw man by way of an invalid comparison. So I'll go ahead and play her game. No, Ms. Acevedo, I don't know that selecting white over black is offensive; you've stripped out all of the surrounding context. So let me do everyone a favor by performing a "context restoration": "Abled vs. disabled": This is a choice, made by a woman, of whether or not to implant a particular egg. The genetic status of the egg is material to the decision for reasons outlined above. "Black vs. white": The phrasing of this choice makes it sound like it is being imposed by an external authority, especially the bit about "correcting" a "defect". Its also an extremely improbable situation; how do the sperm and eggs from a single mother and father have the ability to create both "black" and "white" children? At best you could have mixed-race children, and the decision might come down to "whiter-looking vs. blacker-looking". Lastly, "whiteness" vs. "blackness" doesn't suffer from the same limitations as "ability vs. disability"; there is no theoretical limit to the number of black (or white) people that society can accommodate, and so consequently no reason to ultimately prefer one over the other. So here, then, is why the "abled vs. disabled"/"black vs. white" comparison is inappropriate. The comparison fails on the following 3 counts:
  1. Locus of control: The "abled vs. disabled" question presents a woman deciding whether or not to implant an egg; the locus of control is internal. The "black vs. white" question seems to posit enforced selection by an outside agency, in which case the locus of control is external.
  2. Mootness/applicability: "abled vs. disabled" is a choice which is currently faced by women undergoing screening. "Black vs. white" is not a choice which is currently faced by women undergoing screening; the closest approximation is "whiter vs. blacker".
  3. Material effect: "abled vs. disabled" has a material bearing on the question, as described above. "White vs. black" does not have a material bearing.
As far as taking offense goes, I'm now going to accuse Ms. Acevedo of being "nebulous". "Offense" is a poorly defined term that is bandied about to cut off discussion of a subject or defend an indefensible idea, and often boils down to "I don't like it". What, exactly, is there to be offended about? I argued extensively that deciding not to implant an egg with a defect does not automatically imply a devaluation of existing disabled persons. Hell, I even got Ampersand to agree to that. The fact that Ms. Acevedo does not agree with the practice of pre-implantation screening does not give her carte blanche to claim offense. Now, our respective summations:
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.
Ms. Acevedo is taking the position that the decision not to implant an egg with genetic abnormalities is never OK. In doing so she creates a class of embryos which must be carried to term, which has implications for womens' reproductive choice. Specifically, it holds that society (or some segment thereof) has a legitimate interest in compelling a women to have children in order to meet social goals. This position undermines the concept of reproductive freedom for women.

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