I have sat in philosophy seminars where it was asserted that I should be left to die on a desert island if the choice was between saving me and saving an arbitrary non-disabled person. I have been told it would be wrong for me to have my biological children because of my disability. I have been told that, while it isn’t bad for me to exist, it would’ve been better if my mother could’ve had a non-disabled child instead. I’ve even been told that it would’ve been better, had she known, for my mother to have an abortion and try again in hopes of conceiving a non-disabled child. I have been told that it is obvious that my life is less valuable when compared to the lives of arbitrary non-disabled people. And these things weren’t said as the conclusions of careful, extended argument. They were casual assertions. They were the kind of thing you skip over without pause because it’s the uncontroversial part of your talk.
Now, of course, no one has said these things to me specifically. They haven’t said “Hey, Elizabeth Barnes, this is what we think about you!” But they’ve said them about disabled people in general, and I’m a disabled person. Even just thinking about statements like these, as I write this, I feel so much – sadness, rage, and more than a little shame. It’s an odd thing, a hard thing, to try to take these emotions and turn them into interesting philosophy and careful arguments.—Elizabeth Barnes, writing at Philosoph-her [HT Meena Krishnamurthy]
I sometimes fall into despair and think that my professional community, analytical philosophy, -- in which I have invested so much of my life and identity -- cannot be redeemed. It’s one thing to note, echoing Ruth Chang (recall and here), that our intellectual reflexes and moral sentiments are deformed by our disciplinary education; it’s another thing to note that as professionals in a zero-sum institutional environment we often lionize bullies (recall and here & here) and exhibit a party-line attitude toward those that approach philosophy from alternative viewpoints and with different sensibilities. But Barnes, who is one of my favorite metaphysicians, reports something far worse: our “casual assertions” exhibit much cruelty, even inhumanity, qua philosophers.
For, in analytical philosophy, “talks” are carefully prepared because we know that audiences are unforgiving—and that our intended discussion can easily be derailed by zealous scrutiny of details, even our throw-away remarks. (This explains how common it still is to encounter fully read papers.) We pride ourselves on our clarity, rigor, and care, after all, and we prepare focused talks. So, according to the self-image we embrace, we don’t let anything into these talks without some reflection and scrutiny. Barnes’s report reminds us that in the intellectual air we breathe, in the uncontroversial-background-assumptions that we collectively take for granted, there are noxious, even poisonous humors that are fully compatible with civility, politeness, and embracing S5 as the true modal logic.
I saw Barnes’s post widely shared with approval and admiration at blogs and facebook; even so, I puzzle over the lack of sympathetic shame, even embarrassment over our practices. For, Barnes’s experience(s) qua disabled person are not isolated. The history of philosophy is one long record of casually expressed norms of superiority (e.g., recall and here), and there is little reason to think that we do better than earlier generations (because our training is not geared toward preventing it).
As a sociological aside, Barnes notes that she had deferred her work on "social and feminist philosophy – especially philosophical issues related to disability" until after "having established a certain amount of professional security." That Barnes has achieved such security is a great achievement. But her frank admission suggests how deplorable the state of the profession is given that her calculation about deferring such work is -- given existing norms and incentive/reward structures -- eminently rational. We have, as a discipline, undoubtedly missed out on more voices that have never achieved the kind of security Barnes has and, thereby, have missed out on lots of arguments. This suggests that the intellectual status quo is probably more fragile than folk realize because its commitments have not been stress-tested against the best possible arguments.
Some other time I hope to return to a key theme in Barnes's post, which is about the bind she found herself in because she can't express her justified anger ("you are angry and sad about what is being said about your disability or how you are being treated because of your disability") without further professional cost or more engagements that generate anger and sadness (etc.). But here I want to focus on a feature of the passage quoted at the top of this post.
Barnes allows, perhaps for rhetorical purposes, that some cruel thoughts are less reprehensible if they would be “conclusions of careful, extended argument.” I am less sure. Arguments are tools at the service of practical reasoning, theoretical rationality, and perhaps, even the path toward truth; they are not, even the "careful, analytically rigorous" ones, self-vindicating in virtue of being “careful arguments.” (Barnes does not suggest this, so we may agree here.) There may be nothing more comical within professional philosophy than witnessing purported hyper-caution about one’s premises and inferential steps that are conjoined with an utter lack of judgment about, say, the nature of the issue at hand. Odds are that if cruelty is the consequence of a careful, extended argument then something has gone wrong somewhere; the lack of reserve in sharing the argument is a further sign that something is amiss.*
Now, most folk don't knowingly exhibit cruelty (one assumes, although sometimes I wonder). But it is not uncommon that when somebody is confronted with the impact of his/her casual cruelty (or carefully argued for cruelty) one often does not encounter a dispassionate attempt at exploring previously accepted norms of superiority, but one receives eloquent statements on the evils of 'political correctness,' the importance of 'freedom of speech,' or the deplorable state of 'call out culture' (or unwillingness to tolerate satire, hypersensitivity, etc.). To be called to account for the unintended, perhaps, consequence of one's (casual) remarks (or careful argument) is no fun, especially if it happens somewhat publicly, and so some defensiveness is to be expected. But it is noteworthy that such a response entails a further lack of recognition of the victim, of the harm(s) done, and even of one's own role as an agent within a variety of moral communities. There is an additional source of shame lurking here; for while Plato and Aristotle restricted the origin of philosophy to wonder, as Barnes more correctly notes, other painful emotions, including "sadness, rage, and more than a little shame," as well as, perhaps, despair, can also be the starting place for true philosophy.
 Barnes explicitly recognizes that careful arguments need not be ‘interesting philosophy,’ after all. If a reader is recalcitrant here, she may be tempted by the thought that arguments are constitutive of rationality. But even if this is a useful default position; it is defeasible. There are, for example, plenty of circumstances in which relying on heuristics rather than exploring the argument come what may is the wiser course.
*No, this is not a plea for a practice of noble lies through which we shield each other from uncomfortable truths; rather this is a plea for a conception of philosophy in which we properly own our words.