Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Breaking the Barrier Between Us and Others

By Chelsea A. Jack

Disability scholars aim to socially deconstruct naturalized, or seemingly inevitable and fundamental, understandings of what it means to be able-bodied or disabled.  As is the case with much postmodern writing, disability scholars forward their ideas with a general suspicion toward claims of knowledge fortified by dichotomous relationships, e.g. male/female, nature/culture, disabled/abled. However, this is not to say that actual differences do not exist among different groups of people. It is only to say that the barriers between “us” and “them” are never quite as solid as they appear, and that questioning those barriers allows for reimagined relations among community members.

Here, with disability scholarship as my primary example, I draw on the writings of three feminist scholars across different academic disciplines to show how a self-reflexive style can show the vulnerable relationship between the self and other. Such stylistic choices in favor of self-reflexivity betray the academic mantle of omniscience, or objectivity, that characterize arguments removed from the first person. Further, these choices can encourage reimagined relations with those we might understand as other.

When philosopher Eva Kittay has written against ideal theory in bioethics, she has made a strategically feminist move in her criticism of such theory and its proponents, specifically philosophers Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan: she self-reveals. For example, when she criticized Singer’s and McMahan’s theories concerning necessary cognitive and psychological criteria for the status of moral personhood, Kittay reveals that her own daughter, Sesha, was diagnosed as severely to profoundly retarded. Kittay shares that her own daughter might be counted among those whom McMahan has stipulated as undeserving of justice or life. Kittay purposes the developmental experiences of her own daughter as counterpoints to Singer and McMahan’s arguments that deny severely disabled and congenitally severely mentally retarded (CSMR) persons the status of moral personhood.    

In her own reflections on feminist ethnography, anthropologist Ruth Behar has contemplated the implications of acknowledging the place of “I” in the representations of others. In The Vulnerable Observer, Behar suggests that it makes scholars nervous to “forsake the mantle of omniscience” in favor of revealing personal stories into what we have been taught to think of as the analysis of impersonal social facts (1996:12). Both Behar and Kittay approach their own feminist scholarship with an appreciation for humility. Humility, for Kittay, requires both resisting the impulse to impose your own values on others and acknowledging what you do not know (2009:229). As Kittay writes about her own daughter Sesha, she admits, “What cognitive capacities Sesha possesses I simply do not know, nor do others. And it is hubris to presume” (2009:229). By utilizing a narrative from her own life, Kittay not only values humility as a maxim of ethical theorizing but her argument here is feminist for its ability to respond to the theme of vulnerability and marginality underlying subject-object formation.

When Kittay revealed her own relationship to disability, she created a space for conversation about “the tenuous nature of selfhood,” to borrow phrasing from feminist scholar Karen O’Connell (2005:219). In O’Connell’s analysis of the Romany term for the Holocaust – a term that translates to “the devouring” – she argues that attempts to expel unwanted people (i.e. the disabled, women, Jews) are never successful, since total expulsion is a myth. The existence of the self requires attempts to expel unclean and improper elements (218). In this sense, the constitution of threats to the self represents an exigency for the latter. The self, then, is a very fragile thing. This realization then becomes critical in the analysis of violence toward otherness, whether manifested against disabled people, people of color, or women.

How might self-revealing break down entrenched notions of “we” versus “them”? In what way do hypothetical analogies in ideal theory – such as Singer’s between cognitively impaired people and chimpanzees – reinforce epistemic structures of hierarchy and domination, where moral knowledge rests on obscuring the situated-ness of the author herself – situation meaning the circumstances that formulate our identity, i.e. race, class, gender – and the disturbing absence of disabled people in this theorizing? I personally admire those, such as Behar and Kittay, who betray the academic mantle of omniscience in order to advocate humility and recognize the vulnerability of the self.

Works Cited

Behar, Ruth. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kittay, Eva. 2009. “Ideal theory bioethics and the exclusion of people with severe cognitive disabilities.” In Naturalized Bioethics: Toward Responsible Knowing and Practice, edited by H. Lindemann, 218 – 37. Cambridge.

O’Connell, Karen. 2005. “The devouring: Genetics, abjection, and the limits of Law.” In Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges, edited by Margrit Shildrick and Roxanne Mykitiuk, 217 – 34. MIT. 

Chelsea is a Research Assistant at The Hastings Center. She graduated with highest distinction from the University of Virginia, where she received a B.A. in political and social thought and anthropology with a minor in bioethics. Her research interests include medical and legal anthropology, political and social theory, bioethics, and contemporary feminist thought. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Daniel Callahan Young Writer's Prize

Prize Summary 
This post is pleased to announce a new award, The Daniel Callahan Young Writer's Prize, sponsored by Daniel Callahan. Submissions will take the form of essays on a bioethics topic that are written as blog posts, designed for this blog, Bioethx Under 25. From all submissions, a group of finalists will be chosen and then an expert panel of bioethicists, including Daniel Callahan, will read the finalists' essays and award one prize amounting to $500. 

All submissions will be considered for publication on the blog and eligibility to be a finalist or receive the prize is dependent on willingness to edit and revise the essay for publication. Submissions will be judged anonymously. Please see guidelines below for further information. 

Prize Submission Guidelines
Essays must be 500-1000 words and original submissions to Bioethx Under 25 i.e. never posted before on the blog. 
- Essays must conform to all other submission guidelines for the Bioethx Under 25 blog and thus, be clearly related to bioethics and be written in an accessible manner. Please refer to the blog's About Page for more information. 
- Essays will be accepted from September 10th, 2014 to November 15th, 2014
- Any writer who is also a student in high school, college, or a graduate program is eligible to submit. Any writer who is not a student is eligible so long as he/she has not completed a PhD and/or worked more than 5 years in the bioethics field with a terminal degree (e.g. JD or MD). So long as the other guidelines have been met there is no age limitation or requirement for submission. 
- Writers are not eligible if they currently or have previously worked full time for The Hastings Center or Daniel Callahan. Anyone affiliated with Bioethx Under 25 in an editing capacity is also ineligible. 
To submit, please email with your essay attached in word format. In the body of the email please indicate that you are submitting for The Daniel Callahan Young Writers Prize and include your name, phone number, email address, current occupation and place of occupation (if a student, then your school, potential degree, and expected graduation year), and your highest degree attained with the school and year. 
- For any questions please email or comment below. 

About Daniel Callahan

Daniel Callahan is Senior Research Scholar and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center. He was its cofounder in 1969 and served as Director and President between 1969 and 1996.  Over the years his research and writing have covered a wide range of issues, from the beginning until the end of life. In recent years, he has focused his attention on ethics and health policy.

He has served as a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and is now a Senior Scholar at Yale. He received his B.A. from Yale and a PhD in philosophy from Harvard. He has honorary degrees from the Charles University, Prague, the Czech Republic, the University of Colorado, Williams College, Oregon State University, the State University of New York and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Callahan is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences; a former member of the Director’s Advisory Committee, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and of the Advisory Council, Office of Scientific Responsibility, Department of Health and Human Services. He won the 1996 Freedom and Scientific Responsibility Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the editor or author of 47 books.