The Music of Parenthood

One of the main ideas in my book The Philosophical Parent is that children are second selves but separate. This may seem like a dubious, dangerous, narcissistic view, but I don’t think so. Loving another as yourself doesn’t have to lead to imposition and domination.  It can even make us receptive. I’ve particularly seen this in our family’s history when it comes to music.  (I discuss the view with respect to more consequential matters in the book.)

Here goes, from the earliest days onward:

At first there were certainly impositions. A friend suggested Burl Ives as a much better alternative to Raffi, the “Bananaphone” guy. And so we were able to cut back a bit on Raffi and listen to great songs like “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” On the other hand, my tastes did change in response to theirs. Our kids (boy-girl twins) were obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, playing with the trains and watching the videos. The theme song sounded to me—no, not annoying, but like the uplifting soundtrack to their childhood.

By the time our kids were five, we parents decided we’d allowed our kids take over the airwaves long enough—this was before people plugged into their own private devices—and wrested back control with a lot of Beatles music. After that, there was a parting of the ways. Our kids expressed a mysterious hatred for the Fleet Foxes, cared little for Arcade Fire. Old loves of ours, like Leonard Cohen, were anathema.*

Meanwhile the two of them had discovered radio Disney and various now unmentionable and relentlessly cheerful hit-makers. By age 10, we could meet on the same ground by listening to Coldplay but on the whole there was our music and there was their music.

Then, when they became teenagers, things started to change. “Love the Way You Lie”, the Eminem song (featuring Rihanna), reverberated through our house in 2010—with lyrics that are an affront to feminism and ethics. I analyzed it, criticized it, condemned it … and loved it! Just as surprisingly, Kanye West’s egomania was not a barrier to my becoming enthralled with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which my son played constantly for the next year.

A year later, my daughter started playing what at first sounded like sheer cacophony to me: lots of Animal Collective (example: “For Reverend Green”) and Neutral Milk Hotel. What my kids liked, I listened to differently, and very often liked too. Later on, my tastes expanded still more—to Bjork, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, and on and on. And then, briefly, there was a period of perfect convergence—with Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and an occasional Leonard Cohen song on the household playlist.

Once my children left home for college two years ago, I wondered what would become of my musical tastes. Had they been permanently transformed? I find I still love the music they got me to listen to. But my pre-parenthood musical tastes are reasserting themselves. Yes, we are all going to see Sigur Ros and the Fleet Foxes this summer, but I’m listening to more opera, more classical music, more of my beloved female singer-songwriters, like Aimee Mann.

If children are like second selves to their parents, that doesn’t mean we tyrannically control every inch of their lives. It means we easily put ourselves in their place, and are therefore open to experiencing their cares, concerns, and preferences. We try to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, but we keep our own eyes and ears as well. We are influencers, at least for a while, but out of identification, we are also influenced.

*My son can still recite this haunting lyric: “And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure, He drowned himself in the pool, His body is gone but back here on the lawn, His spirit continues to drool” (One of Us Cannot be Wrong) Thanks a lot!


Having Fewer Children Because of Climate Change

You care about climate change, so should you have fewer children?  Here's an article in the Guardian that argues for this, and the accompanying graphic.

The pitch here is to the individual. Like you might decide to recycle or wash in cold water or eat less meat, in response to climate change, the idea is that you should decide to have a smaller family, in response to climate change.  

I find this way too simplistic, for many reasons.

Many of the circles on the graphic have no downside. It's all good, if people recycle. However, it would be problematic if a lot of people had fewer children.  If you had one child instead of two, and so did a lot of people for the foreseeable future, that one child would be facing a very troubled future. She would be more burdened with responsibility for older members of society than we are at the present, and as she aged, she would suffer from there not being enough people to meet her needs. If the population decrease were dramatic, it could easily be true that her future would be far more marred by the population decrease than by climate change. It's notable that in countries (like Japan) where there is concern about climate change, but also a shrinking population, the shrinking population is seen as a curse, not a blessing.

Now you might say that these worries are misdirected. Very few people are actually going to have fewer children for environmental reasons. But if that's true, there has to be another worry. The children of the people who procreate less are more likely to care about environmental issues--people do tend to pass on their beliefs and values.  But then, you have to worry that governments are going to be less likely to take needed action on climate change when the voting population shifts to being created by the least environmentally concerned people.  For environmentalists to have fewer children might leave us with a world of Trumpians marching toward total eco-disaster.  Well, maybe!  (I'd like to see someone make a dystopian movie with this premise.)

Let's dig a little deeper.  It's interesting what's on the graphic and what isn't.  You can certainly suggest to people that they buy hybrid cars and wash their clothes in cold water, but certain things are beyond the pale.  There's no circle for ending your life at age 40. But that circle would be huge (about half as big as the one-less-child circle).  There's no circle for refusing medical care after the age of 70, even though that tends to involve a lot of energy and resources.  That would also be a big circle. Some sacrifices can't be expected--they're of a different order altogether.  Sacrificing a second child is that sort of sacrifice for many of us. Why?  My new book explores this in the first several chapters.  Even without a long further story, you can see the graphic is odd. It's not clear skipping child number two should be on the graphic, side by side with changing lightbulbs and washing in cold water.

Bottom line: I don't think any individual should think "I must have fewer children, because of climate change," especially if they live in a society where procreation is already at the replacement rate. Climate change is a problem but population shrinkage is also a problem, so it's not at all clear that one is the best solution to the other.

But if you do live in a society with a growing population, it's another story.  In that case, there may be ways for change to take place without individualistic moralizing.  Such a society shouldn't valorize huge families and shouldn't stigmatize people who have no children or very small families. In ballooning societies, it's all to the good, environmentally, if people don't think of having a family as their primary vocation.  I'm just not convinced that it's either convincing or reasonable to say, even to those people, "you should wash in cold water, recycle, and skip your longed for second child."


Choosing life, choosing death

Julian Savulescu and Peter Singer take a position that seems right to me on the question of Charlie Gard--see their opinion on the matter here. They think the parents ought to be allowed to take the baby to New York for further treatment. But their reasoning puzzles me. Here's how Savulescu and Singer support their stance on Charlie Gard: in cases of "reasonable disagreement, we believe that we should accede to the wishes of the parents and err on the side of a chance of life. The alternative is certain death." I'm puzzled because "acceding to the wishes of the parents" can't always go along with "erring on the side of a chance of life," since some parents prefer death.

There's a moving example of this in a (New York Times) Stone column written by Gary Comstock. In this case there was probably reasonable disagreement, but the parents' wish was to let their baby die. What then? Should the wishes prevail, or should we "err on the side of a chance of life"? I wonder how serious Savulescu and Singer are about the second part. Should we "err on the side of a chance of life" even against the preferences of parents?

How decisive is it that parents prefer life, or don't prefer life, in these kinds of tragic cases which involve reasonable disagreement? If Charlie Gard's parents turned around and decided they wanted to withdraw life support, I wonder what Savulescu and Singer would say. Now "acceding to the wishes of the parents" would mean supporting them, but "erring on the side of a chance of life" would mean wresting away control. I think parents get to make these decisions (when there is reasonable disagreement), and not just when they choose life.


The Charlie Gard Case


The basic facts of the case are covered here.

Dominic Wilkinson has written an interesting commentary at the Practical Ethics blog--he sides with the decision of the UK court, which has been upheld at higher levels. He argues that there is too much suffering involved in continued treatment, considering the tiny chance of further treatment being beneficial. Julian Savulescu thinks, by contrast, that the parents ought to be able to bring the child to the US for experimental treatment, which has been offered by a US physician and has already been crowd-funded online. He's written several commentaries on the case, here and here.

Wilkinson links to a very interesting paper he (and others) have written on the difference between the legal approaches to these kinds of problems in the US and UK. They write that courts in the UK apply a best interests of the child standard, whereas in the US, courts give more weight to parental preferences and patient autonomy. However, he says the emerging consensus among medical professionals and ethicists in the US is that the best interests of the child standard is the right one.

After years of shifting standards on medical treatments, there is now a strong consensus in the medical and ethical literature in the United States that it is the best interests of the patient not the desires of the family or the personal predilections of the physician which ought to prevail. That standard does not rest on autonomy or an attempt to determine what the patient would have wanted, but solely on a concern for the patient's welfare. Such protection is particularly important with regard to infants and children because with it they are now seen not merely as the pawns of parents, but as patients in their own right. The implication is that although parents may continue to be involved in decision making for their children, they do not have an absolute right to refuse— or to require—medical treatment for their child. It is the child's best interests, and those alone, that are to be the focus and goal of medical treatment decisions made on behalf of children. 
Children are not "pawns of parents,"  the authors say. In his most recent blog Wilkinson says it another way:  children are not "property of their parents."  It seems to me that if we leave it at that--not pawns, not property--and say nothing more about what children are to their parents, then it's very hard to make sense of a part of the approach Wilkinson supports. Why is it that, though parents don't have an "absolute right to refuse," they "may continue to be involved in decision making for their children"?

There is some kind of special entitlement of parents to their kids that is not respected if we seriously, literally, across the board, adopt the best interests of the child standard. If we really did so, in all domains, many parents wouldn't even be allowed to have custody of their biological children, considering the availability of better equipped adoptive parents. But no--they're your children, so you get to keep them and you have quite a lot of decision making power when it comes to the way they are raised and treated.  I believe this is the consensus, both in the US and the UK.

But there are limits.  When parents start to make decisions that are too extremely at odds with professional medical judgment, they lose their prerogatives. So it's not that the best interests standard is the only one, and is allowed to prevail in every situation. It starts to trump everything else when the stakes start to be greater. Parents are not allowed to make terrible medical decisions on behalf of their children.

If that's right, the question in the Charlie Gard case is not simply whether it would be better for Charlie to be taken off of child support, but whether it would be glaringly, obviously better.  Are the parents making a huge mistake by trying to take him to the US, a mistake of the type that should remove them from making the ultimate decision?

Elysha Waldman, a palliative care pediatrician, sides with the parents in this New York Times op-ed. She says parents get to decide, but not no matter what.  US courts do sometimes step in and insist on what's in the best interests of a child, she points out. Unfortunately, she sides with the parents for the wrong sort of reason.  She doesn't say that taking Charlie to the US makes some medical sense.  She writes:
In the end, it doesn’t matter that Charlie Gard has become a household name. He is, ultimately, the child of Connie Yates and Chris Gard and they know better than hospitals or the courts about what is best for their terminally ill son.
No, parents don't magically possess a better understanding of what's best for their children than anyone else.

For me to think think the parents should decide, I'd have to think what they want does make some medical sense.  From all I have read, it sounds like they want to make a bad decision (Wilkinson is convincing about this), but I'm not sure if it's bad enough that they should lose the usual prerogatives that come with being parents.


Compassion or Indignation?

Conservatives in the house and the senate are trying to get rid of the  Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, the requirement that everyone must purchase health insurance or pay a fine.  When you get rid of that, you reduce the number of relatively healthy people who would have been in insurance pools, so that those who remain have greater needs and have to pay higher premiums.

Liberals who think we need the individual mandate tend to talk the language of compassion.  "These poor, benighted people are sure they won't need medical care, but they could be blindsided by some catastrophic illness or accident or crime.  So they may be in trouble down the line, in addition to those who may wind up with no health insurance, because they can't afford the premiums." But there's another way to talk about the problem with getting rid of the individual mandate. Conservatives--and they're the ones in power, so we have to care about how they think--tend to care a lot about people being freeloaders and deadbeats and welfare queens and moochers. We're supposed to work hard and pay our own way, not depend on others.  In fact, it strikes me that this indignation over dependency is one of the most deep-seated elements of the Republican outlook. And so if we can talk about the individual mandate in terms of dependency, that would presumably be very convincing to many Republicans.  They'd have a reason to retain the individual mandate that didn't involve caring about people and their health problems.

But surely there is a reason to insist on the individual mandate that has nothing to do with compassion, and everything to do with indignation.  People who decide not to get health insurance, but wind up with a catastrophic medical problem, do wind up being deadbeats and freeloaders and all the rest--if you want to use that very colorful, judgmental language.  They wind up using the health care system that they didn't care to pay for, before they needed it.  There it will be, all ready for them, and they will not have paid their fair share for it.  Not only will it be available, not at all to their credit, but if they're sent bills post facto, they may never be able to pay them.  Conservatives should be appalled, considering they are appalled by all sorts of other dependency and freeloading and irresponsibility.

Of course, you don't want to be disingenuous, speaking a language you don't actually take seriously.  But liberals can talk this talk--if fact, they do so on occasion, just not so much in the context of the Obamacare debate. You're speaking this language if you think everyone ought to have their kids vaccinated, instead of counting on the herd immunity that's conferred when most other people have their kids vaccinated.  If you can get indignant about non-vaccinating parents, you can get indignant about people who don't plan for unexpected health problems and get themselves health insurance.

Why on earth do conservatives not see the similarity between their old enemies the welfare queens and deadbeat dads and the like, and the healthy folks they want to liberate from having to purchase health insurance?  I think they don't see it because the prototype of an uninsured person is a healthy, white, male independent contractor. They like the feisty independence of these people, but this can easily be reframed. Feisty independence? No, these are just freeloaders, people letting others create the system of care they themselves may ultimately need.

Sure, I'd rather speaking about care and compassion, but let's frame the issue about the individual mandate in the way that resonates with the people who have the votes!


Scattered Seeds

One of the key ideas in my new book The Philosophical Parent is that we see children as self-like because they "come from us"—in one of several senses.  I can't state this as any kind of a universal truth, but it tends to be true, and I think it's with good reason that we see children this way.  We're not delusional.  However, I do have to acknowledge some factors that either intensify the perception of children as self-like or decrease that perception.  I talk about sexism, poverty, high infant mortality rates, and so on.

One factor I didn't write about much is the attitude of sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogate children to offspring who did come from them, but with the understanding that someone else would be the parent.  That understanding is no doubt one of the factors that can decrease the perception of children as self-like.  Another factor that didn't cross my mind is the sheer number of offspring a person has. This issue comes up particularly in conjunction with sperm donation.  I didn't realize it until I recently heard Jacqueline Mroz on the radio talking about her new book Scattered Seeds, but sperm donors can have incredible numbers of children.  She talks about men making donations three times a week for years, and each donation being split into 10 or 20 portions.  The result is that some sperm donors have as many as 200 offspring!

Is there anything troubling about a sperm donor having 200 children?  In early chapters of the book Mroz focusses on Wendy Kramer, mother of a donor-conceived child, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, and a critic of the sperm bank industry.  Kids very often want to know about their biological father or even meet him. They see their origin as central to who they are.  Most sperm donors are open to being found and having a relationship of some sort with their offspring, but the worry is that the man's willingness is likely to be reduced, when he has not 2 or 10 or even 20 children, but 200.  You just couldn't experience meeting your offspring as anything terribly profound if you went through it 200 times.  Thus, some donor conceived offspring are doomed to feeling like a mass-produced product, in relation to their biological fathers.  Kramer favors federal regulation, record-keeping, and limits on the number of children a donor can produce.

Whenever Kramer is the focus, Mroz seems rather worried about the sperm bank industry and seems sympathetic to restrictions.  But in the last chapters of the book, the angst goes away.  She focuses on the offspring of Todd, an Apple Executive with 200 offspring.  He treasures all his offspring, inviting them for lavish get-togethers, giving them gifts and traveling with them, but restricting himself to a rich uncle sort of role, not crossing the line into playing an inappropriate father role. It's all good, from the kids' perspective too.  They don't see the father-child relationship or the sibling relationship being diluted or cheapened; they don't feel like mass-produced commodities. They feel like a clan, as opposed to a family.  Though they are actually half-siblings with the other 199 offspring of Todd, they regard each other like most of us regard cousins. As long as we're willing to expand our conception of family and kin, no harm done.

I'm not sure why she ends this way, as if this case were more representative, rather than ending with some of the more painful stories in the book--stories about donor fathers who want more of a relationship than their offspring desire, stories about kids who write Father's Day cards that they put in a box year after year, stories about marriages that fall apart, because donor fathers get more involved with their offspring than their wives can tolerate. If there were a limit of 10 children per donor, just as many parents would get to experience parenthood and just as many children would get to enjoy existing.  Wouldn't some of the problems with donor conception be alleviated?  Why not support more regulation?

Overall, this is a really interesting book, but I wish it had better "back material." It has no bibliography, so it's not easy to look up the books and articles Mroz references. It also has no index, so you can't look up, for example, all the references to Wendy Kramer or to other people who are discussed in multiple chapters.  It has endnotes, but instead of citing sources in the usual way, so people can consult them, Mroz always uses urls, some of them many lines long. (Where urls are appropriate, why not use a url shortener?)  Also, there are also a few errors here and there--doesn't she mean to say that George Washington was infertile, not impotent?  In one place the word should be "motility", not "modality".  But now I'm being picky!


Disussion Guide

A guide to The Philosophical Parent suitable for reading groups is here:  Illustrated Discussion Guide.  One of the illustrations, which were created by Becky Groves, is below.


Slaves and Grandmothers

The cover story in this month's Atlantic, "My Family's Slave," raises so many interesting questions.  Over time, Lola becomes very much like a family member, but not quite, as the family doesn't bother to meet her basic needs.  The story made me wonder how we would react if Lola actually were the author's grandmother.  Would her endless labor to support the family be more acceptable and admirable, or would we just think she was a grandma-slave? What difference do family relations make?


A Failure to Engage?

I thought the conflagration about Rebecca Tuvel's transgenderism-transracialism article was dying down--with academic norms prevailing.  The editor of Hypatia, Sally Scholz, expressed firm, unwavering support for Tuvel.  The associate editors who apologized for the article were very clearly shown to be not in a position to represent the journal.  Tuvel's colleagues expressed support for her.  Colleagues and friends rallied to her side in respected publications.  The right and the good were prevailing, I thought.

But no, the not right and the not good are back in town, in the form of this article by one of those who wrote the original letter calling on Hypatia to retract Tuvel's article. Shannon Winnubst wants to "reclaim a narrative spinning increasingly out of control." The right narrative, on her account, is one about how Tuvel's essay got published, despite its "arrogant disregard" for the relevant fields of philosophy.  Hypatia failed Tuvel, she says, by letting "subpar scholarship" be published in a "flagship journal."  It also failed the field of feminist philosophy. The community of scholars tried to help the benighted scholar at conferences, but to no avail.  Her article got published, despite not engaging in the right way with "critical race theory and trans studies."  And then, people began to be harmed, according to the associate editors at Hypatia, who apologized for "the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused."


Transgenderism and Transracialism

Another day, another controversy in the philosophy world.  The latest is about "In Defense of Transracialism," an article by Rebecca Tuvel, which was published in the feminist-journal Hypatia. A petition complaining about the article, signed by over 800 academics, enumerates a bunch of alleged problems with the article. The journal (or "a majority of associate editors") has apologized for publishing the article, though hasn't retracted it.

My take on the whole thing is that Tuvel's article is seen as dangerous not really because of her minor faux pas, where language is concerned, and also not really because she doesn't engage with the "right" literature, but due to "fear of modus tollens syndrome."


Laura Kipnis's Controversial Book

I thought I'd write a few posts about Laura Kipnis's controversial book Unwanted Advances:  Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.  I listened to the audio version of the book, so can't go back and check passages.  This will have to be a bit impressionistic.

Half the book is about several Title IX investigations that happen to involve philosophers. The other half is a general response to the way sexual behavior is currently constrained on college campuses, due to Title IX and campus policies.  Today I'm going to write a bit about this second, general response.

Kipnis thinks Title IX intrudes too much on the messy business of sex and romance both between students and between students and faculty.  She has a lot to say about how student-faculty relationships can lead to student-faculty marriages, and about how students are not simply exploited by powerful professors, but can be attracted to them. In fact, they can find their power and status attractive. Why is that always so terribly bad?


Proper Indignation

There's a passage from Aristotle that's been coming to my mind constantly since the election.  It's about the virtue of proper indignation.
For the properly indignant person feels pain when someone does well undeservedly; the envious person exceeds him by feeling pain when anyone does well, while the spiteful person is so deficient in feeling pain that he actually enjoys other people's misfortunes. (Nicomachean ethics, Book II ch. 7)
Proper indignation?  Yes.  How could Trump be rewarded with the presidency--the highest conceivable honor--after being a racist birther, after a lifetime of being a con-artist and an exploiter of women, after bullying all of his opponents, after demonstrating total absence of relevant knowledge and showing himself unfit for the office in every way, after lying incessantly and in fact showing total disregard for the difference between truth and falsehood, after losing every debate, after inciting violence and bigotry, after using dirty tactics against Hillary and all of his other opponents, after not revealing his tax returns, after Trump University, after .... This is the ultimate in doing well undeservedly, and we're going to be witnesses to this injustice every day for the next four years.


Top Ten Horrors

I'll go with the New York Times' estimate that there's only a 16% chance of Trump winning tomorrow, but it still fills me with horror.  16% of a really bad prospect is a really bad prospect.  I've been thinking about why this horrifies me so much--what are the worst things about a Trump future?  My top 10 list:

  1. A completely unfit, unqualified con-man wins instead of a clearly qualified and competent woman. Two messages: knowledge and skill don't matter ... men have a huge advantage over women.
  2. The man who promoted birtherism for five years is rewarded for it.  Message: racism and outrageous outright deception are perfectly acceptable.
  3. 20 million people lose their health insurance and everyone else loses all the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, because Trump and other Republicans say "repeal and replace" but actually have no replacement.
  4. Deportations of immigrants, no path to citizenship, an end of welcoming desperate refugees into this country.
  5. Supreme Court turns more conservative for many decades, with resulting threats to reproductive rights and marriage equality.
  6. Unstable, brash, ill-informed commander-in-chief, sure to make the world a much more dangerous place.
  7. International climate change agreement abandoned, posing serious risks to generations to come.
  8. An exploitative, demeaning attitude toward women and girls becomes normalized by the fact that the world's most honored leader exemplifies it.
  9. The repulsive way Trump ran his campaign--non-stop lying, name-calling, threatening to imprison his opponent, abusing the media, total lack of civility--all of that now the norm.
  10. Miscellaneous nightmares:  Michelle's garden mowed down, the White House sprayed gold, Trump vampyric wife and children haunt Washington......
OK, enough.  I'M WITH HER!


Is it selfish to procreate instead of adopt?

Adam Ferner asks this question in a video publicizing the procreation forum in the new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine (which I guest-edited)--it's a question that is addressed by many of the authors that contributed to the forum (Gerald Harrison & Julia Tanner, Sarah Conly, Bernard Prusak, Tina Rulli, Elizabeth Bricker, Rivka Weinberg).

I won't try to summarize the debate in the forum--you should subscribe to the magazine so you can read it!-- but can't resist responding to Adam's question.  For another response, have a look at the various points Denise Cummins makes here.  As an adoptive mother and cognitive psychologist, she has a lot of relevant expertise and experience.

Adam's response is Yes--procreating is selfish, because (roughly) adopting benefits an existing child in need of parents, whereas procreating brings a brand new child into existence, a child who would not have been in need of rescue if they'd remained non-existent. And on the other hand, adopting provides just as much of the most important kinds of satisfaction for parents.  So far procreating just sounds irrational.  It starts to seem selfish if you add that people choose procreation (despite the superiority of adoption) out of some sort of selfish preoccupation with their "lineage".


The Minority Body

About 10 years ago I took a trip to Hawaii with my husband and kids and stepped on a sea urchin as I clambered out of a kayak onto a rock. The pain was excruciating and I spent the next several days not enjoying the gorgeous sights of the Big Island, but soaking my foot in salt and vinegar and googling "sea urchin."  The strange thing is that pretty soon afterwards, I didn't regret what had happened, but accepted it as part of what made this trip especially intense, vivid, and memorable.

When bad things happen, why don't we regret them?  I heard an interesting talk on this question at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress a few weeks ago--the speaker was Camil Golub, a philosophy PhD candidate at NYU. He skillfully canvassed a multitude of possible explanations, and settled on the idea that these kinds of bad-but-not-regretted events become a part of our biographical identity.  This isn't supposed to be a metaphysical concept--the idea isn't that I became a whole new person when I stepped on the sea urchin. Rather, in some looser sense, bad things can alter who we are, so that we can't distance ourselves from them without distancing ourselves from ourselves.  So we say we're glad these things happened, or at least don't regret that they happened.  This doesn't stop them from being bad things.  I highly advise all people to avoid stepping on sea urchins--it's excruciating and the resulting problems will absorb your attention for weeks to come.  However, if you do step on one, it's quite possible you won't regret it. That's a strange combination of assertions, but the biographical identity account makes pretty good sense of why a reasonable person might have that set of attitudes.

I found myself thinking about the sea urchin story and unregretted bad things while reading Elizabeth Barnes's new book about disabilities, The Minority Body. Barnes claims that disabilities (physical ones--she doesn't talk about mental disabilities) are mere differences, as opposed to being bad differences or good differences.  According to her, being blind, deaf, paraplegic, and so on, are akin to being gay or being male. It's value-neutral whether you're gay or straight, value-neutral whether you're male or female, she says, and it's likewise value-neutral whether you're blind or sighted, deaf or hearing, paraplegic or walking.  Golub said nothing about disabilities in his talk, but I'm inclined to think perhaps he gives us the tools to think about this more coherently.  Being blind is a bad thing some people might not regret, like my vastly more minor encounter with the sea urchin.  Reason: bad things sometimes become woven into our biographical identity. You can't wish they had been otherwise without wishing yourself away.

Barnes says no to that assessment.  Being blind is a mere difference on her view, not a bad difference. One of the main arguments she makes is that the mere difference view accords with the testimony of disabled people themselves.  She thinks we'd be doing these people a "testimonial injustice" if we insisted disabilities really are bad, even when they say otherwise.  Take, for example, this recent letter to the editor of The New York Times. 

Erin Hawley says she wouldn't want her disability taken away, despite "the pain, the anxiety and breathing problems."  Barnes calls these "local bads" and doesn't think they go to the heart of the matter.  She wants to respect testimony like Hawley's and classify disability itself as a mere difference.  But what is Hawley saying?  Her testimony is compatible with construing her disability as an unregretted bad. In fact, even her language is quite reminiscent of "biographical identity" talk.  "What I've experienced in life is a story worth telling, and road worth following, despite how society tries to tell us otherwise."

This business of respecting testimony is tricky.  Whose testimony counts?  Almost all of the testimony Barnes cites comes from disability activists, and surely that would be the group most likely to see their disability in a positive light. I also wonder about the point in time when testimony is revealing, as testimony can change. In the initial stages of going blind or becoming paraplegic, a person can find the changes excruciating (as Barnes certainly admits, calling these "transition costs"). A few years ago I met a very young person who had suddenly and permanently became paraplegic--clearly a very, very hard thing for them to face.  I'm pretty sure they weren't just distressed by the transition, but by the prospect of no longer walking, ever, and having other health problems.  This person would have testified, at that time, that their disability was an extremely bad difference. It could be that later on they developed a more positive attitude, but I see no reason to regard the later positivity as superseding the earlier profound disappointment. I don't see that only one of these attitudes reveals The Truth about disabilities.

In fact, I think Barnes herself doesn't even entirely respect the testimony that she focusses on, and this is an odd flaw she never addresses. The testimony she focusses on doesn't just support the mere difference view, it supports the good difference view. And in fact she paraphrases it that way, again and again, yet never acknowledges this particular gap between testimonial evidence and theory.  This is particularly apparent in sections of the book where Barnes is trying to explain why disabilities are mere differences, while cancer (or my sea urchin accident) is a bad difference, even though there are people who are glad they had cancer (e.g. Lance Armstrong says this in It's Not About the Bike). Disabilities aren't like cancer because, she says, people value disabilities.  She notes this over and over again--
[Joe (some imaginary cancer survivor)] doesn't value having cancer, even if he values some of cancer's long-term effects on his life. Linton and Dostoevsky, in contrast, ostensibly value being disabled. (p. 111)
LaSpina strongly rejects the idea of a 'cure' for her disability. She is proud of her disability, and describes it as a positive experience. (p. 116)
Disabled people aren't simply claiming to value 'who they are' as people. They are claiming to value disability. Valuing disability is the crux of the entire disability pride movement--with all its parades and its festivals. (p. 122)
Disabled people don't merely say that they value disability. They go on disability pride marches. They create disability-centric art, dance, and literature. They actively celebrate disability in myriad ways. (p. 141)
Barnes complains that this testimony is ignored by people who regard disabilities as bad differences--she urges "taking their word for it" (a chapter title). But taking this testimony at face value, you wouldn't just elevate disabilities from being bad differences to being mere differences, you'd elevate them to being good differences.  That's what people are saying here--they value disabilities, as opposed to seeing them as neutral.  Barnes seems to think she needs to go along with this, to solve the cancer puzzle, but in fact doesn't go along with it.  She thinks it's not positively good to be paraplegic or blind or deaf, it's value-neutral.

A philosophical theory about disabilities can't just take what people say and repeat it. If that was a sound methodology, what we'd surely have to say is that for some people disabilities are bad, for some neutral, and for some good.  A theory is inevitably going to sift and interpret and take into account considerations that go beyond what's on the minds of disabled people themselves. But that being the case, I think the bad differences view is just as much in the running as the mere differences view; both are at odds with what some people say to express disability pride.

In fact, I do think the bad differences view is the right view, but also think the concept of biographical identity supplements it helpfully.  Disabilities often become a part of "who we are" and are not later regretted, but they are still bad, and to be avoided.  Why are they bad? That's a big question I can't deal with in this blog post (I discuss it in chapter 6 of my book The Weight of Things).  But here's one thought about the issue.  Barnes points out that people with disabilities don't seem to self-report lower levels of well-being, in studies of happiness and life-satisfaction.  She also complains about entrenched ableism, prejudice, and failure to accommodate.  But this is odd--why such high well-being, if there's so much prejudice and failure to accommodate?

One possibility is that all the prejudice and failure to accommodate must harm people, so that the studies of well-being are unreliable.  But then perhaps they also don't tell us whether or not disabilities lower well-being.

A second possibility is that people with disabilities really do have high levels of well-being, and prejudice and failure to accommodate are still bad for some reason unrelated to the impact on well-being.  But then it's possible to say the same thing about disabilities. They could be bad, despite not lowering well-being. (But why?  Of course that's a difficult but good question.)

A third possibility is that people with disabilities have high levels of well-being, and this shows prejudice and failure to accommodate are value-neutral.  Surely that's absurd. Likewise, we wouldn't be forced to say disabilities are value-neutral, even if it were true that they don't reduce well-being.


Killer Immigrants

Damon Winter/The New York Times
There was so much about Donald Trump's speech last night that was dangerous and disturbing, but a little piece of it was also philosophically interesting.  I hasten to add: not in a good way!

Trump's case against illegal immigration partly turns on the fact that sometimes illegal immigrants commit crimes.  He furiously shouted every bit of the speech, but especially ranted about a "border-crosser" who murdered a young woman named Sara Root in Nebraska--someone who had just graduated from college with a 4.0 GPA (he said).  Of course this is very, very awful, but does it create a strong case against illegal immigration?

For some reason, it's tempting to think so, but the logic here is fraught with problems. One issue is whether illegal immigrants commit more crimes than people here legally. Apparently, they don't--in fact, they commit fewer crimes, as David Brooks has pointed out.  I suppose you could say the lower rate doesn't matter, that any crimes committed by illegal immigrants should be held against allowing them to stay or making it harder for them to enter the US.  But there's another issue here.

If the bad deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to keep them out, then how could you avoid thinking the good deeds of illegal immigrants are a reason to let them in?  A couple of good deed stories were in the news recently--the valedictorians at two high schools turned out to be illegal immigrants.  Even more impressively, if you google "illegal immigrant saves life" you come up with plenty of examples.

A curious inconsistency is that when conservatives talk about abortion, they sometimes have just the opposite focus.  Abortion might have eliminated the best among us.  I hear this sort of thing from students sometimes.  What if an abortion had eliminated Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs or even that genius, Donald Trump?  Tougher immigration laws, on the other hand, would eliminate the worst among us!

No. If you're going think about the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, you really do have to think about their good deeds as well.  You might not think the bad deeds are exactly cancelled out by the good deeds (does one saving-of-a-life cancel out one murder?) but it makes no sense at all to only focus on the bad deeds.


Two Headed Boy

There are so many terrible and ludicrous things going on in the world, it's difficult to focus on anything else...but I will try. Two-Headed Boy: it's a Neutral Milk Hotel song that I'm a little bit obsessed with at the moment. I'll come back to that--or rather, I'll come back to a two-headed girl.

Lately I've been trying to think about aging, and one aspect of the topic is personal identity.  Do we remain the same individuals even as we radically change in old age?   Accounts of personal identity can find it either easy or difficult to say we do.  Sometimes a view has to "just say no" and in other cases it takes a lot of fancy foot work to be able to say yes.  In the fancy foot work category is the new account of personal identity in Marya Schechtman's book Staying Alive.

The general idea of the book is that A and B are the same person just in case A and B have the same "person life." A person life is the kind of life that we live--a life that involves things like wearing clothes, having names instead of numbers, having interests and friendships, and so on.  If Bert, at 90, is living the same person life as Bertie at 10, then they are the same person.  In fact, Bert could even be the same person as a newborn or even a fetus.  The critical concept is "same life," which is supposed to illuminate when we're looking at one person, though possibly at two times, or we're looking at two.

Living the same life is not precisely analyzed in the book, but Schechtman is clear that it does not require going on with the same body.  If my cerebrum were transplanted into a whole new body, my life could continue, she says, and I would remain in existence. It's the ongoing person life that makes me me.

Now the plot thickens.  Fetuses and newborns don't really do much to live a person life, and sometimes very old people don't do much either. This is one of the places where Schechtman's book is most provocative.  She says, in effect, that it can take a village to make a person.  A very old person with dementia and other disabilities may only continue living a person life thanks to family members and support staff.  The elements that make a life distinctively human may have no meaning to the individual--they may be provided entirely by others. That dependence doesn't make a person life stop.  Even a person in a persistent vegetative state can continue not just an organismic life, but their person life, thanks to the support of others.

Likewise, she thinks, at the other end of life.  A newborn doesn't live a person life except thanks to his parents and other helpers.  The power of others is so great, says Schechtman, that they can even give a fetus a person life--by naming the baby, thinking about his future, etc.  If you've already readied the nursery, bought clothing, and started to think of her as being at the start of a person life, then your child's life has started.


I find the person life view at least intriguing, with respect to old age, but manifestly problematic with respect to the beginning of life.  One thing Schechtman doesn't say much about is cultural and personal variability when it comes to fetal and newborn life.  This is dealt with in fascinating detail by David Lancy, in The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.  As the title hints, there is amazing variability, across cultures, and even within cultures, in the way fetuses and newborns are treated.  In some cultures, they tend to be given person lives from the beginning of pregnancy, and in others the onset of a person life is delayed, so that the start of life is years after birth.  That strikes me as problematic for Schechtman, since I can't get myself to believe that persons start existing at different times depending on things so variable and extrinsic to them.

And then there are other problems. Take a person whose person life only starts some months after conception, because of the way the parents and surrounding culture think about when life begins. At four months gestation, perhaps, the parents see the child on an ultrasound and learn its sex. Perhaps because of the image, and because the risk of miscarriage is now low, and because of the sex information, they're now ready to give the child a name. They also start creating the child's nursery and talk about her to family and friends.  They even start dreaming about her future, accepting gifts like a little baseball bat or doctor kit.  Now a person life has begun, according to Schechtman.  Where there was a fetus, there is now a person, and they are non-identical. Some of Eric Olson's worries about fetuses (in his book The Human Animal) arise here.  Does the fetal pre-person just go out of existence, being replaced by the person?  Weird idea!  If, on the contrary, the fetus continues to exist, but starts "constituting" a person, there's a puzzle about whether the pivotal property--living a person life, on Schechtman's view--is possessed by both the fetus and the person or just the person. Both answers are unpalatable.


OK, let's get on with the two headed boy (or actually, girl).  Here's a case that seems problematic for Schechtman--a case where it seems clear that two persons exist, but on her view just one person exists, because there's just one person life.  The case comes from a This American Life Episode called "Switched at Birth."  In 1951 Mary Kay Miller gave birth to a baby under general anesthesia.  Another woman, Kay McDonald, gave birth in the same room shortly afterwards, and the babies were mistakenly switched.  When she got home, Mary Kay wondered whether she had the right baby, because the baby she brought home was two pounds heavier than at birth. However, her husband didn't want to pursue the issue, so she put it out of her mind. They raised the baby they took home and the McDonalds raised the baby they took home.  They had no idea there was any problem.

Now take the "two headed babies": MarthaSue, the baby who started off in one mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her; and SueMartha, the baby who started off in the other mother's uterus plus the baby who went home with her. Intuitively, MarthaSue and SueMartha are are just concatenations--there is no one person made out of two organisms, in the way the names suggests.  But on the person life view, it seems to me there might be.  We can easily imagine each set of parents endowing the fetus with a life, long before birth.  Considering that at this point it's the parents doing the endowing, the person life that starts with a fetus seems to continue in the body of the baby who comes home--a different organism.  That's the upshot of putting person-creating power in the hands of parents, instead of seeing it as residing in organisms themselves.  It becomes all important what they think about their child's lifespan, and these parents thought of the life that started before birth as continuing in the body of the child they brought home.

My gut feeling:  personal identity is not as social and extrinsic as that.  On the other hand, it does seem interesting and important how "the village" helps personhood along, both at the beginning of life and at the end.  There's something to that idea.