Thursday, October 6, 2011

Peter Singer, making me angry

Pretty much every time the subject of differences in the abilities and interests of “races” or sexes comes up online, there are a few people (not always the same people) ostensibly on “my side” who chime in to repeat the same basic line. It goes something like, “Anyway, group differences are merely statistical averages, so we can’t make assumptions about any individuals; moreover, people should have equal opportunities or treatment regardless of such differences.” These comments have always annoyed me, as the argument always seems to rest on the assumption that these differences do in fact exist. They’ve also bothered me because this line of thinking is so formulaic that I was sure it must trace to a common source, but didn’t know what it was.

It’s evidently Peter Singer. Chapter 2 of the latest edition of Singer’s Practical Ethics



is, quite simply, a scholarly nightmare. It’s also…(ironically) kind of unethical. I was a bit worried going in, since his discussion of Marxism in the previous chapter was simplistic and that chapter had hinted at some problems. The basic contention of the chapter at issue, one with which I generally agree, is that while people are not really all “equal” on every criterion, our treatment of each other has no business being based on people's capacities or characteristics other than the fact that they have interests. We all have the same fundamental interests, and any true ethics is democratic in the sense that everyone is considered a moral equal; everyone’s interests are given equal weight under the principle of equal consideration of interests.

Singer concludes the chapter with a discussion of disabled people, of whom he says
When we ask how such people ought to be treated, there is no argument about whether their abilities are the same as those of people without disabilities. By definition, they are lacking at least some ability that normal people have. Their disabilities will sometimes mean that they should be treated differently from others… The fact that a specific disability may rule a person out of consideration for a particular position does not, however, mean that that person's interests should be given less consideration than those of anyone else. Nor does it justify discrimination against disabled people in any situation in which the particular disability a person has is irrelevant to the employment or service offered (pp. 44-45).
Of course, as he notes, “people with intellectual or physical disabilities,” like the “gifted” or “geniuses” of whatever stripe at the other extreme, is a huge umbrella category, and anyone disabled in one way can be perfectly average or even immensely gifted in others. In fact, Singer could simply have written entirely about individuals. He could have spoken of people who are not bright, or talented, or who lack abilities considered important in a particular culture or area, or their opposite – people with extraordinary abilities on any particular scale. His fundamental argument is that none of this has anything to do with the moral consideration we grant any of these beings.

Singer doesn’t focus on individuals, though. Instead, the chapter is taken up with a discussion of alleged race and sex differences, and this analysis is, frankly, dreadful. Again, there’s really no reason for this discussion. His point could be made easily with reference to individuals. Singer repeatedly notes that it doesn’t really matter whether racial or sex differences in intelligence or other capacities or propensities exist. He’s only, he says, discussing them hypothetically because he wants to show that even if they do exist they should have no ethical ramifications. His arguments, he argues, “give no comfort to racists.”

Throughout the chapter, though, he shows his hand: it’s clear that he does believe these differences exist. It’s all there - The Bell Curve, the unspecified black US Olympic team, mental object-rotation, Greater Male Mathematical Variation, female verbal ability and recognition of emotional states, aggression, live faces vs. mechanical mobiles, evo psych just-so stories… And it’s all presented as if the scientific evidence is overwhelming, and social inequalities a result of differences in ability. For example,
[T]he fact that there are more males at both extremes of ability in mathematics, whereas females tend to cluster more around the average level, does support Lawrence Summers’ ill-fated remark about the relative scarcity of suitable female candidates for Harvard positions in those areas of science and engineering in which mathematical ability plays a key role. Only those with exceptional ability become professors, and even within that select group, only those among the very best have any prospect of becoming a professor at an elite institution like Harvard. It isn't difficult to see that males are likely to be overrepresented among those at the extreme upper end of the scale of mathematical giftedness.(p. 32).
Ay. Where to start? This is remarkably ignorant, on so many levels. I’m reading, and I’m fearing, but I’m thinking, “No, he wouldn’t possibly go there…”

And then…
In addition, the preferences young females show for playing with dolls, and young males for playing with toy trucks, have even been shown to hold for vervet monkeys! No wonder that parents continue to give their children the toys that they most desire and with which they are most likely to play (p. 30).
Veeeeeeeeeeeerveeeeeeeeeeeets! In the annals of racist and sexist “research” it has a lot of competition, but this may in fact be the stupidest article ever. (And so much for mere alleged statistical averages – now it’s “the toys that they most desire.”) Someone so deeply concerned with animal rights should stand with vervets against their use in research so profoundly dumb and pointless.

But this is just the most egregious element in a chapter that, without honestly acknowledging it, takes on board much of the range of racist and sexist contentions that have characterized the past several years. It’s almost as though Singer read one or two of the popular “difference” books and just swallowed it all whole. Throughout the discussion, he makes no effort to take seriously or engage with the extensive criticisms of the research he cites or the equally extensive counterevidence. He writes:
It would be inappropriate for me to attempt to assess the scientific merits of biological explanations of human behaviour in general, or of racial or sexual differences in particular. My concern is rather with the implications of these theories for the ideal of equality. For this purpose, it is not necessary for us to establish whether the theories are right (p. 25).
But then follows a lengthy discussion, after which:
...These are the major psychological differences that have repeatedly been observed in many studies of females and males (p. 29).
Followed by:
Adopting the strategy we used before in discussing race and IQ, I shall not go further into the evidence for and against these biological explanations of differences between males and females (p. 31).
Oh, of course not. This, again, given what he actually does write, is completely disingenuous. He presents the alleged scientific foundation for these differences (he never does even define “race” or point to any scientific basis for this concept) as though it were scientific fact. But of course these “theories” have no implications as such if they’re incorrect (as I discuss below, their existence as “theories” taken seriously has very real implications, but that’s something very different).

Indeed, as Singer sees it, antiracists and feminists – those dumb feminists never seem to understand! – are at fault for making a big deal of these beliefs, which we should all just admit to because they’re really not a problem at all. The (so ‘70s) opposition of these groups to the plain findings of science can only reflect ill-founded political sensitivities, fears, and feelings. “The opposition to genetic explanations of alleged racial differences in intelligence is only one manifestation of a more general opposition to genetic explanations in other socially sensitive areas,” he writes.
It closely parallels, for instance, the hostility of 1970s feminists [I love that it’s about the “1970s feminists”] to the idea that there are biological factors behind male dominance in politics and business. (Today's feminists are more willing to entertain the idea that biological differences between the sexes are influential in, for example, greater male aggression and stronger female caring behaviour. [???]) The opposition to genetic explanations also has obvious links with the intensity of feelings aroused by evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. The worry here is that if human social behaviour is seen as having evolved over millions of years and having links with the behaviour of other social mammals, we shall come to think of hierarchy, male dominance and inequality as part of our evolved nature, and thus unchangeable. Nevertheless, evolutionary explanations of human behaviour are now much more widely accepted than they were in the 1970s [?] (p. 25).
One of my biggest pet peeves is the formulation of explanations for allegations. Hypothetical explanations should be for actual, defensible findings. How do you have an explanation for something that’s simply alleged? Related to this is the charge that feminists – well, those clunky, outdated ‘70s feminists – have no arguments or empirical challenges to these contentions, only fear and irrational hostility. Regardless, the claim of blanket opposition to any "evolutionary explanations of human behavior" is a straw man.

And of course those 1970s feminists were so ignorant to think that biological essentialist arguments were a problem:
Although this question of origin is important in some special contexts, it was given too much weight by the 1970s feminists who assumed that the case for women's liberation rested on acceptance of the environmentalist view. What is true of racial discrimination holds here too: discrimination can be shown to be wrong whatever the origin of the known psychological differences (p. 29).
Singer’s views are amazingly clear in the following:
Some years ago an American sociologist, Steven Goldberg, built a provocatively entitled book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, around the thesis that the biological basis of greater male aggression will always make it impossible to bring about a society in which women have as much political power as men. From this claim, it is easy to move to the view that women should accept their inferior position in society and not strive to compete with males or to bring up their daughters to compete with males in these respects. Instead, women should return to their traditional sphere of looking after the home and children. This is just the kind of argument that has aroused the hostility of some feminists towards biological explanations of male dominance. As in the case of race and IQ, the moral conclusions alleged to follow from the biological theories do not really follow from them at all. Similar arguments apply (p. 32).
Great! The actual consequences that those dumb feminists think might follow from the acceptance of arguments in books like The Inevitability of Patriarchy really don’t! Peter Singer said so, or at least that they shouldn't, and the conclusions of philosophy books are binding. (Don’t even get me started on his ignorant claims about capitalism.)

This all rests on so many nonsense assumptions. Here’s my view:

1) The vast majority if not all of these shifting but resilient essentialist claims about race (not to mention the idea of biological race) and sex are wrong. They need to demonstrate their scientific worth in the face of challenges, and they haven’t.

2) The fact that so many, including so many in the media, are so willing to readily accept notions of difference that are based on garbage research and/or actively contradicted by the evidence makes me angry. It also makes me angry that distinguished scholars not only buy into this nonsense but go out of their way to include it in their otherwise intelligent books.

3) The idea that we – women and minorities - shouldn’t be concerned about these “scientific” racist or sexist claims is shockingly wrong. It’s a na├»ve notion that could only be held by the powerful. The effects of these claims aren’t determined or ameliorated by an ethics book. Their consequences are well established. (The same is true of nonhuman animals: The facts about orcas and people’s knowledge of them, for example, make a difference to how orcas are treated. If people believe that they’re generally unintelligent and asocial, they’re going to be treated as such.) This is reality, and it’s irresponsible - and therefore immoral - to ignore it. This doesn’t mean social realities are unchangeable, but that it’s unethical to write as though they don’t exist and one’s claims don’t fall on a fertile ground of racism and sexism.

I think the ethical course of action, given modern history and demonstrated social effects, for anyone writing or talking about racial or sexual differences in abilities/capacities/interests would be to

A) Not assume the biological reality of race, and in fact regard the notion critically.

B) Not make or repeat claims about these differences unless these claims are supported by solid and extensive scientific evidence.

C) Consider alleged evidence critically. This means not just critically evaluating this evidence but seeking out and taking seriously critical perspectives and opposing evidence.

D) Consider alleged evidence historically. This means learning the history of racist and sexist “science” – and this goes well beyond eugenics - and viewing contemporary “findings” in this line. We need to appreciate both contemporary and historical variation, and go out of our way to learn of examples that contradict our notions of what’s natural, aware that our ideas of human nature are bound to reflect the prejudices of our own times. This epistemic ethics is part of the practical ethics Singer talks about.

Singer says:
It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers [ahem], from which our fathers [ahem] freed themselves. It is more difficult to search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold (p. 49).
Yes. Let’s all do this.

UPDATE: I wrote this post a few days ago, and at the time I assumed that I’d have few problems with the later chapters. I was wrong. This surprised me given that, as with the chapter I talk about here, I agree with him on the most central points. I’ll probably post about his childbearing and abortion sections soon.

5 comments:

  1. Let me just address your lede.

    “'Anyway, group differences are merely statistical averages, so we can’t make assumptions about any individuals; moreover, people should have equal opportunities or treatment regardless of such differences.'...
    this line of thinking is so formulaic that I was sure it must trace to a common source, but didn’t know what it was. It’s evidently Peter Singer."

    I had to LOL. As someone who has typed very similar words more than once, I can assure you that I've never read Singer. No, it came right out of my own head.
    The first clause is a simple fact about the statistics of differences between groups. Usually the point is raised because somebody else is yammering about radical skepticism of gender essentialism and/or arguing with anecdotes and/or using terms like 'standard deviation' without a clue what they mean, and you therefore quote it here out of context. The simple fact is that any two groups will have different averages for any identical measurement, and with a big enough sample size almost any difference can be 'statistically significant'. Lots of people don't understand that.

    The second clause is a general statement of humanist ethics. Nobody needs Singer to tell them to value equality.

    If it's formulaic, that's because it's just so elementary.

    But the whole lede is disingenuous anyway, because Singer never (afaict) makes the statistical point, and I know you don't disagree with the ethical point. Your problem is with Singer's assertions and assumptions that differences between groups exist in the first place.

    *picks up 10-foot pole*

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  2. I have to say, Chas, that you are extremely hypersensitive. I wasn't thinking of you at all when I wrote this, but you appear to think it was directed at you.

    I had to LOL. As someone who has typed very similar words more than once, I can assure you that I've never read Singer. No, it came right out of my own head.

    Sure. You invented it all on your own.

    The first clause is a simple fact about the statistics of differences between groups. Usually the point is raised because somebody else is yammering about radical skepticism of gender essentialism and/or arguing with anecdotes and/or using terms like 'standard deviation' without a clue what they mean, and you therefore quote it here out of context.

    Oh, sure. "Radical skepticism of gender essentialism" is hilarious, though.

    The simple fact is that any two groups will have different averages for any identical measurement, and with a big enough sample size almost any difference can be 'statistically significant'. Lots of people don't understand that.

    You don't know what you're talking about with regard to Singer's argument.

    The second clause is a general statement of humanist ethics. Nobody needs Singer to tell them to value equality.

    The argument isn't simply to value equality. I can see here again that you don't seem willing to read the work in question - even if it's one with which you're likely to agree - before arrogantly summarizing it to people who have. I have zero patience for this, in my comments or anywhere.

    If it's formulaic, that's because it's just so elementary.

    You have only the most elementary understanding of what "it" is.

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  3. But the whole lede is disingenuous anyway, because Singer never (afaict) makes the statistical point, and I know you don't disagree with the ethical point.

    He's not talking about randomly chosen groups, but about alleged "racial" and sex differences and their implications for ethics. He's saying essentially that his arguments won't help racists or sexists because even if these essential differences exist individual people should be treated equally (when it comes to medical school admissions and AA, he creates something of a mess). Since the alleged group differences wouldn't be ethically meaningful in any case, as he notes, he doesn't need to talk about them at all, but he then proceeds to write about them as though they do in fact exist, based on the same garbage we often see. Then he mentions again how they really shouldn't matter, so women and minorities should stop making a big deal about these claims. This is unethical by scientific and his own ethical standards.

    And there's nothing disingenuous about what I wrote. I find the repeated line - often with the same phrases - irritating, as I do even those memes with which I agree (e.g., "There's no such thing as alternative medicine. If it's shown to work, it's medicine" and the like). But the crux of my problem is, as I said, that the argument is often phrased in a way that makes it clear that the person saying it believes that the "race"/sex differences do exist, and is in essence saying to the people arguing precisely this question a) that they shouldn't care that other people believe these differences exist because it has no impact whether they're thought to exist (which is false) and b) that they do exist.

    In an argument about the existence of alleged differences, these comments add nothing. They don't provide evidence of differences, merely the insinuation that they're real. In a discussion of practical ethics like Singer's, these comments add nothing. Singer points this out repeatedly, and then proceeds to dedicate several pages to claims about the alleged differences. Whether people believe these differences exist, of course, has important social and political consequences, so claims about them carry ethical weight and an ethical responsibility. Singer fails here, as do you.

    Your problem is with Singer's assertions and assumptions that differences between groups exist in the first place.

    Of course! That's what I said. Read my post again. I said that I generally agree with the ethical framework (which doesn't require anything in the way of a discussion of alleged "race" and sex differences. What I have a problem with are some of the incidental arguments, claims, and hypotheticals that accompany the main planks of his argument. So you're really just repeating what I've written. You're confused.

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  4. As someone who has typed very similar words more than once, I can assure you that I've never read Singer.

    If you're going to keep saying stupid things like this, I don't know if we can have a conversation. I wasn't claiming anyone who made the formulaic remarks in that context had read them in Singer directly, but that he was the source of this particular combination of ideas and phrases (the book is not new). In your case, the chain could be very short, though: Singer's influenced Dawkins - and vice versa, I believe - and you've read Dawkins.

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  5. OK, I hate to keep using this analogy because there are significant differences, and in this case it somewhat simplifies and flattens the ethical points made by Singer, but...

    Imagine - and it doesn't require much imagination, as it's to some extent the case - that there were a bunch of theist and more general sites and groups focused on the alleged differences between theists and atheists, especially the alleged inferiority of atheists (atheists are ungenerous and immoral, hyperrational, unloving, arrogant, can't appreciate beauty, lack civic consciousness, and so on). Many of them believe these differences mean that atheists should be excluded from certain areas of life and shouldn't have full rights to political participation, or that on this basis theists should have some privileges.

    Others, including noted scholars, argue that even if these differences exist, they shouldn't effect how atheists are treated as individuals. Their arguments, in their own works and when they visit atheist sites or threads, consist of "Well, even if atheists tend, for example, to be less moral, this is merely a statistical average, and they should be treated the same." They then frequently go on to imply that atheists are in fact inferior on the dimension in question, citing debunked junk research, and reflecting on their annoyance that atheists energetically dispute the claims about differences. On any thread on which atheists are discussing discrimination against them or institutional bias or criticizing the theists' claims about them, several theists show up to repeat the "Even if you're not as good *wink, wink*, everyone should be treated equally" line, often adding with a smirk "...and one of you made a weak claim at #456, so you don't understand the science of religion."

    Again, it's not really comparable to what women and minorities face constantly, but I hope it gives you some sense of what I'm talking about.

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