(Post by Kevin Timpe)
I'm new to academic reflection on disability. While my wife and I have a six-year old whom we've known would very likely be disabled (and is, in fact, multiply disabled) for most of his life, it's not been until about a month ago, when the fall term ended and I could begin my current sabbatical, that I've been able to engage any of the literature. So I'm definitely a newbie--and not a disinterested one.1
Most of my previous philosophical work has been in agency, philosophy of religion, and ethics. While I think that all of these areas have 'practical' implications, they tend to be more abstract and impersonal. Even though debates in these areas can get heated, one of the things I've appreciated about the folks engaged in the debates in these areas is that despite our professional disagreements, they're people that I genuinely enjoy being around and we'll often go get drinks or dinner after conferences papers dedicated to why each other are wrong.
What I found pretty quickly, however, upon digging into the disability literature is that I become outraged by some of the views I encounter. These views aren't just (in my view) wrong, but (again, in my view) morally offensive. To hear individuals claim, for instance, that my son has no moral standing at all (despite never having met him); to ask, apparently in all honest, if the severely disabled have a right not to be eaten; to discover sterilization of some individuals with disabilities is not only legal but compulsory in some states--these, and other views, provoke a very strong visceral reaction.
In writing on the problem of evil, Eleonore Stump (under whom I did my PhD) writes that "philosophical analyses of the problem of evil can border on the obscene unless the pattern-processing of the intellectual exercise is coupled with a clear recognition of the awfulness of suffering."2 Some of what I've read regarding disability strikes me as similarly obscene, and in part for what is perhaps the same reason: in like manner to how some philosophical reflection evil reduces those who suffer to simply an object of study--a piece in a the machine of a philosophical view--so too some of what I'm finding in the literature seems to treat those with disabilities--including but not only my son--to an object in a way that reduces, or even explicitly rejects, his personhood. In what I think is a very powerful paper, "The Personal is Philosophical is Political,"3 Eva Feder Kittay describes some of the views she's engaged with as "abhorrent" (395). One reason for her reaction is how her daughter falls under some of those views: "For a mother of a severely cognitively impaired child, the impact of such an argument is devastating. How can I begin to tell you what it feels like to read texts in which one's child is compared, in all seriousness and with philosophical authority, to a dog, pig, rat, and most flatteringly a chimp; how corrosive those comparisons are, how they mock relationships that affirm who we are and why we care?" (397). Kittay gives two challenges that people in this kind of situation face. It is the first that I want to focus on here. "The first is to overcome the anger and revulsion that one feels when encountering the view that one's disabled child--or child with a particular disability--is less worthy of dignity, of life, of concern or justice than others" (398f). Now, I certainly agree that one has to be able to control one's anger and revulsion, that both can be an obstical not only to philosophical reflection, but also to advocacy on behalf of the disabled (as well as our own well-being for those of us that love these individuals). But it also seems to me that such anger is also important. Here it will probably be obvious that I'm roughly Aristotelian in my normative framework. But anger, even outrage, seems to me to be among those responses that are proper in this case of scenario. Sometimes, not getting angry about a view can be an indication of too little concern for just treatment of those who are the recipients or objects of those views.
So I'm wondering about a question that I hope can start a discussion here that can help set the tone for future posts in this blog. And even though I'm asking this question in the context of philosophy of disability, I suspect that a parallel question comes up in many, perhaps even most, of the other areas that this blog is for.
So, here's my question: what is the proper role of moral outrage in our philosophical theorizing about disability (or sex or race or ....)?
1. If anyone is interested in learning a bit more about Jameson, here is an interview I did a little over 2 years ago about him. We've learned more about his condition in subsequent years, but this is a good even if dated overview.
2. Wandering in Darkness, 16. In the second chapter of this book, there's a really good treatment of some of the limitations of analytic philosophy which I think also has implications for much of the philosophical literature on disability, at least that which is more 'analytic' in nature.
3. I'm working with the copy of this paper that's reprinted in Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Kittay and Carlson, which I highly recommend.