Reason and Its Discontents
–A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
[notations relating to this essay, "A Life Beyond Reason," are in brackets, and refer to page number for the printed essay, and paragraph. "Unspeakable Conversations" is an essay by Harriet McBryde Johnson about her acquaintance and debate with Peter Singer, and served as a distant background to this dialogue. I originally read it when it was first published, but I haven't looked at it in several years and didn't refer to it before I wrote this dialogue. I give full credit to her for my understanding of Peter Singer's positions.]
Characters: Chris Gabbard, English professor; Simplicia, an uneducated, superstitious Xianist;
Cameo appearances: Peter Singer, philosopher and bioethicist; Socrates, philosopher and dead white guy; René Descartes, mathematician and dead white guy; Aristotle, philosopher and dead white guy; Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and dead white guy Xianist; and The Referee, a conscience figure who calls penalties when logical fouls are committed. He’s not dead yet.
Uncredited appearances: Galileo, astronomer and dead white guy, whose idea for a dialogue I totally ripped off; and Sigmund Freud, psychiatrist and dead white guy whose title I totally ripped off.
S: Hello, Chris?
C: Yes- who are you?
S: My name is Simplicia. Like, “Keep it simple…”
C: I'm not sure why I'm here exactly. You said you could help me, but regarding what? My son?
S: I hope I can help you, and it does concern your son.
C: We need a van with a wheelchair lift, and a lift for household use, and we need a trained assistant- and money to pay for him...
S: I'm sorry. I think we already have a misunderstanding. You wrote in your essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education1 that you don't know how to explain to others that your son deserves the respect due to any human being...
C: That isn't what I said.
S: True– let's see... you said,
Especially in an academic environment that rewards being smart, how do I broach the idea that people with intellectual disabilities are fully equal?[6.5]
So I interpreted a little. I read that as meaning that you believe that your son is fully human, and that because he is cognitively disabled, people in academic environments would naturally think of him as inferior, but that this is unjust. Do I understand you correctly?
C: Of course he's fully human. I don't think there's any dispute about that.
S: Actually, there is a dispute about that. There was, even in your own mind before you had your son. You agreed with Peter Singer that in principle parents should be able to kill their infants up to a month old because they weren't technically human, by his standards. [5.1] At the time, you believed, as he still does, that "reproductive choice" trumped a baby's right to life because it had not reached a level of self-awareness and so was not human. I know I'm abbreviating his position, but that is what you said.
C: Well, yes. It's hard to think that way now, especially after 10 years.
S: What I really wanted to ask you was, on what basis you think that your son is "fully equal?"
C: That's just it. I know how I feel about him. I know that it's not reasonable, because when I think about what really being human is, he doesn't measure up, and yet I believe that he is equal even if others don't see him that way.
S: But he isn't equal if mental capacity is your measure. But then, who is? Are you sure you want to continue using mental capacity as the measure of a person’s worth?
C: In the academic community, that is the measure.
S: You understand, though, that if you stick with that, he isn't equal. And neither are you.
C: I'm not going to sit around and be insulted.
S: Nor am I. Equal, that is. Equality is a vague term- something your friend Socrates would have pointed out.
Soc: That's true. Each human being has unique characteristics that preclude absolute equality but as members of a group they have attributes in common that that make them identifiable as related, and of course there is a defining characteristic that distinguishes members of one species from similar species. Man is a rational animal. Man has logos. That is his specific difference.
S: When you made the statement "The unexamined life is not worth living for a man" did you mean that people who can't examine their lives, really incapable, that their lives were worthless?
Soc: I would certainly find my life worthless if that were the case.
S: But that would require your mind to change, right? I mean, you'd be different in your capacity.
S: Does it follow then that your concept of worth would also change?
Soc: Hey, I'm the one who asks the questions here...
S: Chris, I think that using intellectual capacity as a measure of the value of human life is problematic.
C: Yes, but you're alluding to a hypothetical change in IQ that still leaves a person with the capacity to reason. If the most intelligent people think that high intelligence is the most valuable characteristic a human being can have, the point is proven because the most cognitively capable have made that assessment. That a less capable person would make a different assessment is probably true, but their own capacity limits the validity of that assessment.
S: Referring back to your essay, though, you don't really talk about intelligent versus unintelligent. You talk more about "educated" versus "uneducated." [2.1, 2.2]
C: I think there is sufficient overlap to make the generalization.
S: We're back to precise terms here. Have you never met someone who appeared to be very intelligent but was "uneducated?"
C: There are exceptions to every rule.
S: Have you met anyone who could do things you couldn't because they had an understanding that you had no talent for? A plumber, maybe? Or a physical therapist? [3.3]
C: Wait a minute- my wife's very intelligent.
S: How much Kant has she read?
C: None that I know of.
S: Socrates? Aristotle? Samuel Johnson?
C: Okay, okay. I see your point.
S: No you don't. Socrates looked down on the people who weren't as smart as he was and wasn't very subtle about it. He made them look like fools. But in terms of day-to-day success, that is, leading a worthwhile life, many of the people he disparaged would have said their lives were great, while Socrates' own family would have said their lives stank.
C: But Socrates thought his life was the only one worth living...
S: Yes, and while he was living the good life, his wife and children suffered in poverty. How can a quality of life be measured without looking at its impact on others? Isn't that what Peter Singer does?
C: Yes, of course: that's how he supports his ideas about reproductive choice.
S: I have to admit I've read very little Singer, but he makes the news periodically and he had a famous debate with Harriet McBryde Johnson that I read about.2
C: She was a famous disability rights advocate and lawyer.
S: Yes, and an atheist like yourself.
C: Why are you bringing that up?
S: You brought it up. You're the one who can't justify your son's worth as a human being in part because all of the best arguments with the fiercest advocates are uneducated Christians.
C: They aren't the best arguments because they rely on superstitious beliefs as their foundation. [7.3]
S: Keep that thought. We'll get back to it. As regards Peter Singer, I see that you now disagree with him about infanticide and the ethics of euthanizing the disabled and the vulnerable. Can you just give an overview of his thinking?
C: Peter Singer thinks that rationally we should act in ways that optimize our well-being and productivity as individuals. To optimize our capacity to do that, we need to be able to choose what burdens we are willing to take on, and that includes children. Because very young children, and certainly fetuses are not self-aware, they are not “human.”[5.3]
S: So, if the birth of a dependent is deemed non-optimal, one can have an abortion.
C: Yes, but he goes further. Because very young babies have no reasoning capacity and no sense of self, they are not fully human, and therefore it should not be criminal to dispose of them.
S: Kill them?
C: Well, yes.
S: Under that kind of reasoning, your son isn't human, either.
C: Yes, yes, yes: that's what the essay was about.
PS: Let's be fair here. I'm sympathetic to Chris. But I think that the price he is paying and the price society pays for the üntermenschen is non-optimal.
C: I'm shocked to hear you use the term "üntermenschen."
S: Sorry, Chris. I should have warned you. I'm making this up, although I'm trying to be truthful. He probably wouldn't use the term "üntermenschen" considering his background, but it is apt.
C: What background?
S: His parents escaped Austria in 1938, but Hitler carted off his grandparents and killed them.
FA: ad hominem.
S: I know it's ad hominem, but it's a creepy fact that explains why the New York Times loves this guy.
C: Who are you talking to?
S: The referee. Think Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life."
C: An angel.
S: Uh, no- even I couldn't stoop to that level of suck-uppery. Back to Peter Singer...
PS: I can be objective about the ideas regarding reproductive choice because of my background. My grandparents were victims and there are certainly more humane ways of disposing of dependent non-humans, but in theory, society has an interest in optimizing individual well being and minimizing economic drag. Furthermore, my area of exploration includes ethical considerations. The people I'm talking about don't have a concept of themselves as humans, don't have a rational capacity and therefore no concept of themselves as separate beings.
S: The "people"?
PS: Figure of speech.
S: So Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research is good because the cells you're using are not only not human, they are being used to advance the well-being of actual humans.
PS: That's just it- they aren't human beings, but they are human cells.
S: But you can grow human beings from them. They are potential human beings, not actual human beings, like yourself.
S: Dr. Singer, are you a vegetarian?
PS: Yes- really, more of a vegan.
PS: Ethical considerations. I think that it’s wrong to exploit other species for the purpose of advancing our well-being.
S: Good-bye, Peter. Chris, as you can see, Peter Singer's "ethics" are based almost entirely on the perceived good of existing, healthy adults. Human beings lose status as they become dependent and vulnerable. Do you see anything wrong with that?
C: But he's so reasonable...
S: Please tell me what you mean by reason.
C: He uses facts and logic and not emotion- his point about objectivity proves that he doesn't let emotion interfere with rational decisions.
S: Quite apart from the fact that it proves no such thing, emotions are a part of what human beings are, and the range and depth of emotions set us apart from other species. Do you love your wife?
C: Of course, profoundly. What does that have to do with anything?
S: It's irrational. Didn't you ever watch Star Trek? You know- the whole logical-emotional back and forth between Spock and Kirk?
C: I've watched Star Trek but I don't know about Spock and Kirk. I'm a "Next Generation" person.
S: [We're all going to hell.] Chris, where would humanity be without emotion? When you teach literature, do you just teach technical communication or does the emotional use of language play any role in whether or not something is good?
C: Obviously, in literature, emotion is a big part of it.
S: And literature, good literature, conveys truth, doesn't it? I mean, by definition?
C: Yes. But too much emotion clouds issues.
S: Granted, when one is overwhelmed by emotion, it can cloud reason. But it's a reality of human existence, isn't it? And ignoring emotion is denying humanity.
C: I agree with that. I think that is what I've been struggling with.
S: Chris, let's say you've lost your keys. You're going to be late for an important deadline, and you can't find your keys. Then you find your keys. How do you feel?
C: Relieved, happy, I guess.
S: You feel an emotion. You gained knowledge and you feel an emotion. So, when you saw your son for the first time, what did you feel?
C: I felt deeply moved on seeing him. As I said in the essay, I had been feeling ambivalent...[5.1]
S: Yes, but your feelings became less ambivalent. Ambivalent means "both ways" what two ways were you feeling?
C: I know what ambivalent means. I have a Ph.D. in English, after all. Well, as I said, from my point of view at the time, he wasn't really human but he was the child we had joyfully anticipated so the news of his problems filled me with dread and yet I was powerless to solve the problem because even though he wasn't really "human," the laws wouldn't allow us to act in a rational way.
S: And that changed when you recognized him. I suppose you know what "recognize" means?
C: To “know again.”
S: So you knew something in that moment that dissipated at least some of the conflict. What do you think you knew?
C: I knew that he was my son, that he was human, and that I would love him.
S: Do you think that this was some sort of capitulation to "sentimentality?"
C: As I said, Peter Singer's description of my emotional response is reasonable. [7.8]
S: No, what he is really saying is that your willingness to sacrifice for your son against your apparent better interests, is unreasonable. In fact, he believes that you essentially “rationalized” your non-choice. I think that your emotional response, both immediate and long-term, come from an idea about your son that is legitimate, rational, and deeply humane. Furthermore, while your burdens are very great, society beyond the ivy-covered halls of academia, supports your knowledge and your emotions. And yet you are uncomfortable with having so much in common with people who you view as unenlightened. You've read Descartes?
C: "I think therefore I am."
S: Isn't that perfect? He was a philosophical scientist who had no use for the old philosophy, and wanted to quantify and systematize. He was also an atheist.
RD: But I was sneaky about it.
S: Thanks, René. We know. Anyway, he basically invented the scientific method: orderly experiments that accumulated data incrementally, precise records, and so on. This revolutionized the approach to science.
C: I know all that.
S: He was particularly interested in advances in medicine, to relieve suffering. Is this sounding familiar? At the same time, he disparaged other disciplines as being more or less useless because they didn’t convey any “practical” knowledge, and because they couldn’t be quantified. He really didn't think much of your pal Socrates or even Aristotle, who probably would have applauded his work, if not his philosophy.
A: πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται ϕύσει. σημεῖον δ’ ἡ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἀγάπησις·
TA: He says, "The natural path is to go from the things which are more known and certain to us toward things which are more certain and more knowable by nature."3
C: What does that mean?
S: Basically, it means that you start with what you know and then you carefully observe nature and use syllogistic logic to understand nature.
A: πού είμαι?
TA: τωτω, Δεν είμαστε πια στο Κάνσας.
S: Okay, okay: I'm just summarizing. Before you go, Aristotle, tell Chris man has a soul.
A: ο άνθρωπος έχει ψυχή
TA: Man has a soul. Some people say that man does not have a soul. Objection 1:
[blah blah] Objection 2 [blah blah]… Objection 19; [blah blah] … I answer that …
C: Who is the large fellow who goes on and on?
S: The Doctor. He also translates Aristotle. Anyway, they believe that man has a soul. Aristotle believed that the soul caused motion, and therefore anything that moved by nature, had a soul. But since the nature of movement was categorically different, different kinds of living things have different kinds of souls. Man is the only animal with an "intellectual" soul because he can perceive things with his senses and draw conclusions logically from what he learns by way of his senses. He also believed in a First Cause- a Creator, if you will. Now, I say "believed," but really, he came to that conclusion logically- rationally. He is the father of logos, after all.
C: But we know that things move because of biological reasons. So man doesn't have a soul.
S: Actually, we don't know how the first animate being happened from the perspective of modern biology. There are some theories- I learned about the most popular one when I was a graduate student in Biology, but it could never be shown experimentally, it's just a guess, really. In violation of Aristotle's principles, and Descartes’, too. And it isn't like physics, where you can measure stuff and see distortions and infer new particles or something. It's more like Frankenstein, which we know is fiction. Mary Shelley isn't 18th century but I bet you've heard of her.
C: Very funny. But back to what I know: even Aristotle says that we learn from what we observe. So if he thinks it's a "soul" that make movement, that's what he calls it. It's just a word. Who is the Doctor- is he from the Enlightenment?
S: 13th Century- you know, superstitious beliefs and Crusades and stuff.
C: UGH! The Dark Ages! Catholicism! Violent suppression of heterodoxy! No superstitious claptrap! [4.3]
S: Oh, speaking of which, don't you find it weird that you're actually afraid to come out and say, "My son is disabled, but he has dignity that should be respected by all?"
C: It's just that I can't find a rational basis for arguing that point in a community that values intelligence.
S: Does this community value intelligence above and to the exclusion of everything else? This is really quite an indictment of the academic community's extremely narrow view of humanity and worth. There's something really wrong with that community.
C: I can't say that.
S: I know: you're more Cartesian than you think. Anyway, there is a rational basis if you simply begin by thinking, "Yeah, I'm with Aristotle. There is a first cause." Then read the first two chapters of Genesis and imagine that the author is writing about something he knows that he can confirm through his own experience, you know, "Begin with what is better known to us..."
C: That's superstitious...
S: Oh, I see. You can toss out the odd Jesus quote when it sounds witty, but you can't read the text that makes Christians and Jews understand your son's worth the way you do. The texts that explain why you can have a source of knowledge apart from your senses. Would it surprise you to learn that some people read your essay and envied you?
C: Envied me?
S: Yes. For those of us who believe that there are sources of insight apart from our senses, what you experienced was a revelation that propelled you to great virtue.
C: But it was painful. My whole family is suffering...
S: Your son isn't. Your daughter, seeing your devotion to your son, feels more secure and will grow up without the prejudice and the cruelty that you did. You and your wife have given her a gift beyond price, even if you fantasize about having more money or chafe about doing without. By the way, I bet some Christian groups in your area are offering to spell you so that you can go to your training session so you can get extra work. Am I right?
C: Yes, but...
S: Just leave it there. Now is no time to look like a self-involved atheist. Anyway, I've made my case that you are making a rational choice. You have knowledge, an understanding of your son and his intrinsic worth. This knowledge came to you as you gazed on him for the first time, and was signaled by the positive emotions that you experienced from recognizing him. This knowledge is validated by the common experience of many and is entirely supported, indeed, codified by the [ahem] Judeo-Christian “superstitions” about human dignity.
C: Absolutely none of what you’ve said, and I’ll admit that I find it somewhat reassuring, really changes that fact that my son does not have capacities that are characteristic of humans. No independence…
S: Independence is only a matter of degree. No human being is completely independent. In fact, people die when they are alone. And it isn’t just that they need affection or caretaking: they need to be needed.
C: …no speech…
S: Stephen Hawking doesn’t have speech. And before you fall back on logos, I’ll remind you that Aristotle’s system of species relied on observation, not on genetics. The biological basis for species is in DNA, and in that light, capacity or incapacity of any attribute would be classified by Aristotle as an accident- like a deer with 5 legs.
C: …no discernable cognitive capabilities…
S: No, but he has something that no other animal has.
C: What’s that?
S: The love and protection of his father.
C: That is a gift from me- it isn’t an intrinsic characteristic of my son.
S: Is it really a gift from you? Before you saw your son and recognized yourself in him, you could not imagine the love you are now capable of. You were selfish and you became selfless. You said yourself that he gives you great joy. He laughs (which, by the way, is another distinctly human characteristic.) You are more than you were before he was born.
C: But I was always potentially capable, I just didn’t have an opportunity to realize that capacity.
S: Really? So, when you mocked your retarded classmate, where was your potential then?
C: I was a little kid myself. I was immature.
S: And when you adopted “The unexamined life is not worth living” as your personal philosophy and took it to mean that you didn’t have to examine why you were cruel, but instead to justify maturely the mockery of those who are less capable of examining their lives, where was your potential then?
C: But he’s my son!
S: Precisely. And you are actually more fully human than you were before he was born. His existence caused you to realize your potential. It took that relationship. You and he both became more human when you gazed upon him in recognition.
As to your question…
C: What question?
S: How to broach the idea of your son’s equality within the context of your community of “intellectuals.”
C: Oh, that. That’s still going to be hard, even if I bought into everything you’ve argued.
S: It’s not hard. Just do what you’re doing. Be a witness to your son’s humanity. Self-sacrifice and compassion have a funny way of convincing people of the truth. And when you’re feeling less defensive, open a Bible to those first two chapters of Genesis.