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01/29/2015

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Jeremy Fantl

Hi Kevin. Take a look at this terrific and emotionally honest and complicated piece by disability rights advocated Harriet McBryde Johnson describing her interactions with Peter Singer: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/magazine/unspeakable-conversations.html

Neal Tognazzini

A favorite line from P.F. Strawson's, "Freedom and Resentment":

"[The prestige of of theoretical studies] is apt to make us forget that in philosophy, though it also is a theoretical study, we have to take account of the facts in all their bearings; we are not to suppose that we are required, or permitted, as philosophers, to regard ourselves, as human beings, as detached from the attitudes which, as scientists, we study with detachment."

As for your question about moral outrage: I'm not sure. But it seems important to keep in mind that there's a difference between anger and outrage, on the one hand, and expressing that anger or outrage, on the other. Even among things that you might do to "express" your anger, some are more "angry" than others (if that makes sense). So your question might be asked about each of these things.

Tom Senor

Kevin,

Wonderful post. God bless you for taking on such truly important work!

BP Morton

Hi Dr. Timpe
I wrote you a long reply on my own blog at
http://lifebeyondbivalence.blogspot.com/2015/01/three-roles-for-moral-outrage.html

see what you think

Justin Caouette

Great question, Kevin!

In our theorizing I suspect enough to drive us to write as well as we can on the topic. Sometimes that will be minimal and other times it might be enough to question if it was too much. So my answer is I guess it all depends (super helpful, I know).

I've been thinking a lot about the fittingness of emotions - both feeling and expressing, so I'd be interested to hear what you and others think.

D

Great post! I sympathize with what your argue (I can't believe forced sterilization is still legal, even compulsory!),but the quote you choose to cite from Eva Feder Kittay is a horrible example of justified moral outrage.

I don't understand how someone could feel that it is corrosive of her relationship with her child and mocking of how much she cares for her child to have that child compared to a chimp (a dog,a pig, or a rat). Maybe a more reasonable response would be to think, "If my child is legitimately comparable to these non-human animals, perhaps those animals are worthy of at least a little of the love and respect that my daughter deserves..."

What's so abhorrent about being compared to chimps, dogs, rats, and pigs? Many philosophers (and likely the exact philosophers she's thinking of) think these animals should be granted person-hood precisely because they satisfy criterion for inclusion in the moral community. Often comparisons of this sort are made out of a love for and respect for the animals she's so offended by. Singer's comparison, at least, seems to be made for that reason. Having moral outrage at the very thought of the comparison, seems, to me, to fundamentally miss the point.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

Kevin,

Nice post. While I certainly can't imagine what it would be like to read others who are treating my loved ones with such moral disregard (and even disdain), I know a thing or two about moral outrage from working within the animal rights community. Watching videos of seals being clubbed to death, monkeys experimented upon, pigs in gestation crates, or dogs being skinned alive for the leather trade, I can be at the same time revolted, disgusted, and outraged.

The difficulty is holding on to the outrage--which can be motivating. Instead, there is a temptation to be so overrun by the outrage that it inclines one to simply turn one's head away. Outrage needs to be discharged or it becomes unhealthy. It can and should drive one to action. When it doesn't, it becomes impotent outrage--which can leave one feeling hopeless in the face of immorality.

So, I take it one of the challenges is channeling moral outrage in such a way that combating the source is both productive and cathartic. This is no easy task because outrage can be overwhelming--it can short circuit one's ability to think calmly and reflectively. If left unbridled, it can even lead one towards thoughts and actions that may themselves be inappropriate.

I take it this was partly Nietzsche's point when he famously said, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Because outrage isn't the kind of experience to come in moderation, it has the tendency to overrun us--threatening to turn us into the sorts of agents we might otherwise abhor. Fortunately, as philosophers, we can try to channel our outrage via argumentation.

But when arguments run out or are ineffective in addressing the inequities that outrage us, we can be left in a state of agitated helplessness--which in turn may lull is into simply turning our backs to the targets of our moral opprobrium. To avoid this, we must strive to fight back while resisting the temptation to stick our heads in the sand.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

D,

Hmmmm...I am not so sure that I have sufficient powers of empathy to pronounce with such certainty that Kittay's outrage is "a horrible example of justified moral outrage." Given that it's hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have a child with impairments and disabilities, it's harder still for me to imagine what it would be like to have such a child while at the same time reading arguments wherein children like mine are used as rhetorical tools to score points in debates about animal rights.

When you say, ""If my child is legitimately comparable to these non-human animals..." you have already assumed that the comparisons are legitimate. But a parent's strong connection to their child (impaired, disabled, or otherwise) renders it questionable whether the comparisons are either apt or appropriate. So, while you're right that those philosophers who draw these types of comparisons often do so in order to encourage us to expand the moral circle of concern to include non-human animals, they do so by dehumanizing the disabled and impaired.

As someone who thinks quite a bit about animal welfare (see my earlier comment), I am confident the same points could be made about what we owe to non-human animals without at the same time dehumanizing the most vulnerable humans. Given that this is so, I don't think Kittay has "fundamentally" missed the point. Instead, she is simply pointing out that the disabled and impaired have been unnecessarily misappropriated by philosophers for the purposes of scoring points in the debate about animal welfare. For those of us who think we owe better treatment to non-human animals, we can and should be able to defend our views without drawing comparisons between these non-human animals and disabled and impaired humans.

p.s. It's worth pointing out that Singer takes his arguments further than you suggest. It's not just that he says that to the extent that we care about disabled and impaired children we should care about non-human animals. We goes on to suggest that we should actually care more about the interests of latter than the former--which is the kind of dehumanization of the disabled that I take it outrages Kittay, Timpe, and others.

A

To reiterate something said above, unless one thinks that sentient non-persons are morally unimportant (a view that does seem to warrant outrage), I'm not sure why making moral comparisons between severely disabled humans and non-human animals would be worthy of outrage. Many people who draw the comparison between animals and severely disabled humans (e.g. Singer) also have the view that 'personhood' is not a necessary condition for moral consideration. For example, welfarist utilitarians generally believe that the welfare of pigs and chimps is as important as that of humans, that they should be given happy lives, that they can have meaningful relationships with humans and other animals, and that they should be legally protected from inflictions of suffering or death. Why is it so offensive for them to accord the same sort of status to severely disabled humans?

I'm not outraged by claims that white people and black people are morally comparable, or that men and woman are morally comparable. I'm similarly not enraged by claims that some human and non-human animals are morally comparable. It feels like outrage at these comparisons would imply that I had made an assumption that is itself worthy of moral outrage.

Nick

Great post. Of Leibniz's theodicy, Williams James wrote: "Truly there is something a little ghastly in the satisfaction with which a pure but unreal system will fill a rationalist mind."

I have no answer to your main question, but I do have an observation: I think that the phenomenon which enrages you has roots in the self-conception of Western, anglophone philosophy itself. Individuals can get away with saying that your son has no moral status at all because we, as a group, collectively conceive of ourselves in Socratic terms, as individuals devoted to truth at any price, as minds whose embeddedness in a body and a community is largely irrelevant to what we do.

A few of us talk Strawson's talk (see Neal's great comment above) but we nonetheless proceed to shower prestige and honor upon those who portray themselves as having escaped their own particular perspective and gazed upon the form of Reason itself. Until we start listening to those among us who have persistently and correctly warned us about this facade, your particular, contingent relationship to your son is going to get shunted into the "philosophically irrelevant" category. "Surely," this all-too-familiar figure amongst is is going to keep saying, "the philosopher's job is to deploy reason in order to seek the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be?"

Raistlin

Is it possible that what sparks the outrage is the fact that it is only "some" humans or even "some non-humans?" This seems to imply that there is some debatable quality which determines personhood or moral status, which some people, notably the disabled (which are someone's family) do not have. Which is to say, the status of the disabled as persons or as having equal moral status as their non-disabled human peers is debatable. That is what is offensive. Their moral status should not be up for debate. Now, if we were to open the comparison to ALL humans, then I think it would be much less offensive and serve the same purpose with regards to promoting animal welfare. (But thus, may be less appealing an argument, which seems to say more about general attitudes towards the disabled than about the argument in my opinion)

A

"Which is to say, the status of the disabled as persons or as having equal moral status as their non-disabled human peers is debatable. That is what is offensive."

If we try to define personhood as having morally relevant qualities, rather than in some ad hoc way like 'has human DNA', then there will almost certainly be humans that lack personhood. So people who think that personhood gives one intrinsic moral importance will inevitably think that some humans are of less moral importance than others. Someone with this first view would presumably say that disabled people are intrinsically less valuable than non-disabled people. That view might be offensive, but it doesn't seem like one that shouldn't be considered (and it's much less offensive if you don't think that lacking personhood vastly reduces one's moral importance).

Some people - myself included - don't think that personhood is a characteristic that makes one more morally important. I think that there's nothing intrinsically more morally important about the wellbeing of a human (disabled or otherwise) and that of a pig. But I do think that different human and non-human animals can differ in their moral value. People who bring about more wellbeing than me - either in themselves or in others - are more morally valuable than I am. So I think it's plausible that disabled people are just as intrinsically valuable as non-disabled people and non-human animals, but that disabled people will be less morally valuable than non-disabled people if they bring about less wellbeing, either in themselves or in others.

I'm not sure if this view is offensive or not, since it will probably end up saying that disabled people are in general less morally valuable than non-disabled people, but it won't say that disabled people are intrinsically less morally important than anyone else. Of course, the view could be both offensive and correct. While it's tricky to know how to handle hypotheses that are plausible but that people find hurtful, it doesn't seem like refraining from expressing or discussing these hypotheses is the right way to go.

"Their moral status should not be up for debate."

Why should we think that this is true of disabled people or anyone else? The moral status of everything is debatable. The moral status of different agents (human, non-human, disabled and non-disabled) are important questions and a lot hangs on them. I don't see why we should think that there's anything wrong with asking these questions.

Kevin

Great comments, all. I'm going reply to a number of them individually here. But I'm very glad for how the discussion has shaped up.

Jeremy, thanks for the link which I (and my parents) read with great interest last night. There are some thinks that Johnson says that I want to engage with in a future post.

Neal, yes I think I agree with everything you say.

Justin and Thomas (and some others), I think that a central role of proper anger is motivational. (Minor plug: Zac Cogley has a really good paper on anger in my "Virtues and their Vices.) Often, not getting angry is or can be a symptom that we don't take justice seriously enough, for example. Anger can motivate us to work toward rectifying that injustice. But I don't think that's the /only/ proper role for anger. I think that anger (and perhaps even some expressions of anger, to touch back to Neal's comment) even in cases where we can't do anything, and thus the motivational role of anger is moot. (Though perhaps we can think of the motivation as dispositional in nature, which would get around this kind of case.) I definitely agree with you, Thomas, that not having an outlet for such emotions can be unhealthy and lead to learned helplessness.

D and A (and Thomas in his reply to D), the degree to which you think the example is one of appropriate outrage will depend on what you think, for example, about the moral status of those with disabilities, the moral status of animals, etc.... I agree that these are important questions, but I don't want to debate those right now so much as think about the original question I initially posed.

Kevin

Nick, I was thinking yesterday (in response to a comment about the post on FB) that how we conceive of humans here is relevant, in a way that I think is parallel to some of what you're saying. Those with more Platonic/Socratic, or even Stoic, leanings will have a different view of the appropriateness of the emotions than someone (like myself) who's more Aristotelian (and I recognize there are other options, but the relationship between reason and the emotions is what I'm thinking of here).

Joe

A related question can be asked about how the presence of moral outrage or anger is often used to discredit a person's epistemic/moral/political position. This seems to be a common silencing technique, especially when a power differential exists because the one who is angry has an already marginalized social identity of some sort. There seems to be a double standard here when the person is coming from a position of privilege (i.e. being regarded as "passionate" rather than "irrational").

Raistlin

A,

I didn't mean to suggest that personhood and moral relevance were equivalent; I think just the opposite, which is why I mentioned both. I simply feel that the way Singer's argument is typically phrased (I've not read him myself), suggests that disabled persons have more in common with (some) animals than with non-disabled persons, as concerns moral status (and so ... ... we should give animals equal more weight as people). I was more trying to diagnose why such a comparison would spark outrage than to take a stance on the issue. I do think that such a phrasing or perhaps the interpretation/response to such a phrasing reflects the common perception of disabled persons. That is, if most people believed in a real distinction between personhood and moral status, there wouldn't be such an issue. Then again, I imagine suggesting that they are persons, but of lower moral value due to their disability, would still spark outrage, though perhaps not quite as strong as suggesting they're non-persons.

With regards to the original question though, I can't imagine outrage, or any emotional response, offers any logical strength to an argument. In fact, I think it may detract from the perceived logicalness of an argument. I think one might suggests it helps identify morally suspect, but otherwise logically sound arguments, but I feel that would just fall prey to some sort of cultural relativism. However, I would agree that it can serve as a great motivator, and is particularly useful in conveying ideas to and developing interest in arguments among the "lay" public (though I'm not sure how else to phrase that last idea, it strikes me as a bit dishonest/coercive ...)

Steve

Just a quick link that might be of interest.

Curtis and Vehmas (2013) discuss Kittay's view (along with McMahan's), including her claim about comparing animals with cognitive disabled people. See here:

http://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9781139225632&cid=CBO9781139225632A009&tabName=Chapter

Cheers.

Shelley

A propos one of the purposes of this blog, I would like to strongly suggest that a number of the claims that have been made in this discussion are examples of precisely the type of claim that creates a hostile environment in the profession for disabled philosophers. I want to suggest, furthermore, that this type of claim is very likely a key factor in the underrepresentation of disabled students in philosophy programs. Imagine yourself as a first-year disabled student sitting in a large lecture hall and your professor is saying some of the things about disabled people that have been said in comments above. Would you feel as if you belonged there? Or might you rather feel publicly humiliated and ashamed, regardless of what your classmates know about you? Imagine that you are that first-year student and your classmates know that you are disabled. Your professor has just said that many disabled people have less value than other people. You know that virtually every student in the lecture hall is now staring at you. Your professor has (inadvertently perhaps) turned you into a spectacle. Should you believe that you have you been treated with the same respect as the other students in the class? Will you ever return to that professor’s class? Will you ever feel comfortable with those classmates again? Or will you from now on worry that your professor [a person with authority and knowledge] has confirmed to them the biases about disabled people that they may have already held?

Jai Virdi-Dhesi

Hi Kevin,

What a timely post! I assigned the Kittay reading for my course, "Ethics & Disability" at Ryerson this week. Though my class is offered by the Philosophy department, all my students are enrolled in the School of Disability Studies--they work with people with disabilities, are disabled themselves, and/or have family/friends with severe disabilities.

In the course discussion board, I asked the same question: removing emotion out of the argument (and a second question, can emotion even be removed from this argument), what is the source of moral outrage? Among many perceptions, my students pointed out the concept of abelism; that in denying that the severely cognitively disabled lack moral standing, we are accepting the binary set by abelism; and this is problematic for those who adhere to the social model of disability.

On a related note, have you seen the collection "Disability and the Good Life," by Jerome E. Bickenbach, Franziska Felder, and Barbara Schmitz (Cambridge University Press, 2014)? Some of the articles address the points raised in your post and in the comments section. I wrote a review here:
http://centreformedicalhumanities.org/disability-and-the-good-human-life-reviewed-by-dr-jaipreet-virdi-dhesi/

-Jai

Josh

To follow up on Shelley's comment above, I'd like to ask 1) What would be the response if one changed the categories and 2) What *should* be the response if one changed the categories? For example, if a professor were to say "Someone with this first view would presumably say that women are intrinsically less valuable than men. That view might be offensive, but it doesn't seem like one that shouldn't be considered (and it's much less offensive if you don't think that lacking personhood vastly reduces one's moral importance) . . . People who bring about more wellbeing than me - either in themselves or in others - are more morally valuable than I am. So I think it's plausible that women are just as intrinsically valuable as men and non-human animals, but that women will be less morally valuable than men if they bring about less wellbeing, either in themselves or in others," they might get into some hot water. Would they deserve to, or are they just approaching a "legitimate philosophical question"?

Raistlin

Re: Josh re:Shelly,

Isn't this exactly what is likely to cause moral outrage? The extent to which it is regarded as a legitimate question can't be separated from the extent to which it's assumed the source of difference is (potentially) a cause for a different (read, lesser) moral standing or difference in personhood. It is hard to see how one can consider the question legitimate without also thinking that the cognitively impaired (but not the non-cognitively impaired), females (but not males), the deaf (but not the hearing), or more generally, the disabled/different (but not the able/"normal") are of tentative equal moral status at best (while the "normal" groups status remains unquestioned/assumed). One might try and take a neutral stance on the issue and place the moral/personhood status of both the disabled and abled groups under inspection, but given the (likely) underrepresetation of disabled persons in such discussion (not to mention related issues such as implicit bias), it seems hard to imagine that this would really circumvent the problem as opposed to just giving the question an air of legitimacy.

Kevin Timpe

Joe,

I do think that the concern about silencing is worthwhile. I suspect that whether a particular case of outrage involves inappropriate silencing will depend on whether that outrage is justified or not. And in this post, I was just trying to get at the point of outrage without wading into the issues of when it is justified. But that is definitely something that will need to be addressed at some point.

Jai,

I hadn't seen that book; thanks for pointing it out to me.

HiSci

Kevin,

You asked a simple question, though it does not have a simple answer.

1) As to the Nietzsche quote: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." This comes from a single aphorism and Nietzsche does not provide us with context, so we have to engage in educated guesswork as to its meaning. But I do not think he means, for example, the sort of thing we say when we argue against torture lest we become like our enemies, something that outrage might lead us to do. I think his concern was that as philosophers became more willing to "fight" the God of Xianity, they grasped more tightly to a kind of Christian ethic. This was certainly his concern about the Enlightenment and especially regarding socialism. The problem is not that the abyss empties us of morality; it is that the abyss is too frightening to behold, and it forces us back into some false ethical system ("The will to a system is a lack of integrity."). We cannot know fully what his transvaluation of values would have looked like, since he never completed that project. I suspect it would have involved a "longing for the picturesque at all costs." But it doesn't matter. His method ("doing philosophy with a hammer") precludes a universal substantive ethic.

2) As to the place of outrage per se, I think it can tell us something about ourselves. Academics deal with signs and symbols and it is all to easy to grow distant from ourselves, to compartmentalize. Outrage allows us to do a phenomenology of the self.If the academy is a giant echo chamber--and I think it is--then outrage does us a great service by allowing us to escape from the hall of mirrors we work within. The literature you are finding that disgusts you, that causes you to be outraged, is pandemic, multi-disciplinary, and growing. That being the case, you may realize that you are quite alone, though this blog is one means of being alone together with other like-minded people--like me.

3) What people like Kimberle Crenshaw and other members of the CLS movement (who brought both Nietzsche and Marx into elite law schools) argued is that ethics and ontology precedes epistemology. That means moral frameworks are largely incommensurable. Outrage can thus also be a means of motivating others who share our specific Gestalt, via awakening their "thymos", the part of us that demands respect for ourselves and others we esteem. That becomes important when it comes time to move from thought to action, from theory to praxis, since ideas are not defeated or defended solely (or even primarily) by arguments, but by passion, rhetoric, and forceful action. No Themistocles, no Plato or Aristotle.

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