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…”
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 naïve 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.
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.