8/18/18

The Investment View of Parental Rights

Reading Joseph Millum's book, The Moral Foundations of Parenthood, I find myself feeling a lot of admiration for the book's intricacy and clarity, but also find myself in maximal disagreement. Chapter Two, on the acquisition of parental rights, is especially unconvincing. Millum proposes an "investment" account: you become a moral parent, a person with certain rights over a child, by doing work on the child's behalf. So parenthood is owed to the parent--it's what's deserved as a reward for the parent's investment. Non-workers don't have parental rights.

I don't find this very plausible. Start with a child born to a mother in the typical way. I have an unbudgable commitment to the view that the mother is a moral parent, but I don't think the investment theory does a good job of explaining this, as much as Millum does want it to. Millum says the mother has worked to produce the child, so the mother is a moral parent of the child. But is pregnancy work in the relevant sense? Pregnancy is burdensome and so is work (often). But of course, it would be illogical to conclude that pregnancy is work. All that is burdensome is not work. It's burdensome to endure the flu, but it's not work; you're not owed anything for enduring it. It's burdensome to menstruate, but not work; but you're not owed anything for enduring it.

Biological fathers get to be moral fathers, on the investment theory, but only to a minor degree before the child is born. All they can do is support the pregnant woman, which is a small contribution compared to pregnancy. Biological fathers who don't know about the pregnancy and can't contribute aren't moral fathers at all. Millum is prepared to bite these bullets, but there are limits to how counterintuitive he wants his theory to be. He doesn't want it to turn out that nannies are moral parents because of all the work they do on behalf of children. How to avoid that conclusion?

Millum's solution (p. 33) is to say that parents have a responsibility to provide children with generic goods (food, shelter, etc.) and filial goods (love, intimacy, etc.). "For the responsibilities to provide generic goods, it is possible for a parent to employ someone to carry them out on her behalf. In such cases, the parent, not her employee, will be deserving of the stake generated by the parental work, since it is she who is fulfilling the relevant responsibilities." (p. 33)

So the theory is actually more complicated than it would first appear. The account of parental rights actually needs the account of responsibilities that Millum provides later in the book (ch. 4). The idea is that working to benefit a child gives me a stake in the child, making me a moral parent, to the extent that in doing the work or having it done, I'm fulfilling my responsibility to the child. So the nanny doesn't acquire a stake in the child, no matter how hard she works, because she doesn't have, and isn't fulfilling, responsibilities to the child. Not only that, but I do acquire a stake, by hiring her: "the parent, not her employee, will be deserving of the stake generated by the parental work."

If I had the intuition that moral parenthood was a reward for parental work, I think I would mightily resist the idea of treating doing working, and having work done, as equivalent in their power to give a parent a stake in a child. Surely British aristocrats of yore couldn't acquire a stake in their children by having governesses do the generic work; nor can traditional fathers acquire a stake in their children by having traditional mothers do the generic work. Supposing that these people are parents, it's not at all because they deserve a reward for having other people do the work of caregiving.

My own view is that having parental rights in the core case (biological reproduction) centrally involve the simple fact that children come from other people (I elaborate in my book The Philosophical Parent). The case of the mother is most straightforward. The baby was once a part of the mother or at least generated from her parts. We don't have to say that baby-making is work to attach significance to the child's development inside the mother. A tooth falls out of Johnnie's mouth. Is it his to leave for the Tooth Fairy, or can his buddy George grab it?  It's his, of course. And of course he didn't in any meaningful sense work to produce that tooth. A brilliant idea pops into my mind, and I write it down. I didn't exactly work for the idea--it just occurred to me.  But it's origin in my mind gives me intellectual rights with respect to the idea. 

I think a mother's entitlement to her newborn is related to such things, not to the notion that work deserves a reward. The problem with attaching significance to these causal facts (this baby comes from this mother), in the case of procreation, is supposed to be that babies have all sorts of causes--not just the mother and father (p. 43). There are obstetricians, grandparents, etc. But similarly, ideas have all sorts of causes, as do teeth. I still think I have a right to the ideas and teeth that proceed out of my own head, and likewise have certain rights with respect to any baby that's the product of my own body.


5/23/18

Talking about Gender

Wow. There's been a lot of talk about gender at philosophy blogs lately.  I think it would take me all day to recapitulate.  But it started with this essay by Kathleen Stock, here, and ended with the long comment thread at Feminist Philosophers, here.  Here are a bunch of things I find odd and puzzling.

It's odd that so many feminists in the FP thread seem to go along with the idea that theorizing about gender is primarily the job of trans folk.  After all, there's already a voluminous philosophical literature about what sex/gender is, much of it written under the assumption that gender concepts matter to all women (and men). In fact, in much of this literature, authors explicitly announce that they don't want to just describe gender, but carve out an "ameliorative" concept of gender--a concept that is constructive for feminist purposes.  Surely the concept that's ameliorative for trans women isn't necessarily the same as the concept that's ameliorative for other women.  If "nothing about us without us" (such a great motto--it's taken from disability activism) then all women—no, all people—have to be free to participate in the debate about what gender is.

Here's another thing I find mighty puzzling.  In the Feminist Philosophers thread and elsewhere, the message I get is that you've got to be an asshole not to think that trans women are women, and trans men are men.  (I've seen this said verbatim, though maybe not in that thread.) I wonder what is actually meant by this.  I do think you have to be an asshole not to verbally categorize people as they please and not to use the gender pronouns people prefer. Well, either uninformed or an asshole.  But what does the non-asshole think about people's genders?  I am really not sure.  In fact, I'm not even sure what trans philosophers want us to think.  (Maybe they don't all want us to think the same thing?)

Take, for example, the highly regarded views of Talia Mae Bettcher.  Her view in the article "Trans Identities and First Person Authority" is that people have a sort of ethical authority about their gender. If someone makes a gender avowal ("I am a woman") then others ought to defer.  She has a bunch of nice analogies.  If your date says "I want to go home now" it's inappropriate to assess whether it's true that she wants to go home. Her avowal is sufficient to make you have to take her home. So we are to defer to people's avowals about gender, period.  But the deferral is ethical--it's something less than "you believe it so I believe it."

I actually find her article fairly murky, so I'm not bringing it up to say I'm entirely on board or to explain it thoroughly, but just to say that there seem to be much more nuanced views out there besides "trans women are women and if you don't think so you're an asshole."

One last confession of bewilderment.  I'm surprised that Kathleen Stock thinks that the Gender Recognition Act in the UK has so many disadvantages for cis women. It seems to me that in the US, this view is almost never expressed by anyone but transphobic, homophobic, conservative nutjobs.  They make up spurious worries that reasonable people should ignore.  But (it seems) there are people on my side of the political spectrum (like Stock) who think there are legitimate worries. Hmm.  I am skeptical but willing to read.



12/14/17

There are Males and Females Out There (How exciting!)

I'm feeling tempted to write an article (academic or otherwise) about how there are males and females out there. "Out there," as in the categories are not socially constructed.  Such a thesis is the worst possible thing to argue for. To most, it's absolutely boring. It's the "null hypothesis," the default, the usual assumption.  But to a minority (but a minority I care about) biological realism about sex is outdated and disproven, and also associated with right-wing intolerance.  Ugh!

Anyway, I do think there are males and females out there. I find it baffling that anyone thinks otherwise. When I think about this, I think about the whole biological world.  For example, I'm currently reading the very interesting book The Evolution of Beauty (by Richard Prum), which claims that ornaments on male birds evolved because of the selective pressure of female mate choice.  This may or may not be the correct theory, but you couldn't even state it if you thought male and female, as categories, were imposed on nature by the human mind.  All sorts of regularities and explanations would be missed if you couldn't see individuals as falling into sex categories in their very nature.  And no, it just won't do to affirm some sort of human exceptionalism, whereby birds have natural sexes, but humans don't.  Humans are different in some ways, but we're not that different.

You would think that, in response to the many many articles about books by feminist philosophers making the case that sex is socially constructed, there would be articles that say it is biological real and not constructed, but hey--it's the null hypothesis.  Nobody wastes their time arguing for something so dull. Because of the boringness of biological realism about sex, the idea doesn't even have much of a presence in the literature. Nobody bothers to address the skeptic, when they outline and defend their own particular brand of social constructionism.  Authors are worried about subtly different alternatives to their own views, but nothing so absurd and obsolete as the idea that sex is out there throughout the biological world, and not constructed by us.

So you can read people who just take it for granted that sex is biologically real (for just one example, Patricia Churchland in the book Touching a Nerveand you can read people who argue that sex is socially constructed, but without taking the skeptic seriously.  I don't see where there is a serious, in depth, scientifically well-informed debate between these two views.  And yet I keep searching....

12/13/17

The Books We Reviewed

Lately I've been seeing "best books of 2017" lists online, including five best philosophy books.  I can't see making this sort of list, since my reading habits are way too idiosyncratic.  However, I can tell you what we reviewed in The Philosophers' Magazine this year.  I'll also tell you the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading this year.

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment
Jason Brennan, Against Democracy
Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos
Steven Patterson, Square One
Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality
David Benatar, The Human Predicament
Peter Godfrey Smith, Other Minds
Einav Katan-Schid, Embodied Philosophy in Dance
Russell Blackford & Damien Broderick, Philosophy's Future
Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic
Nick Riggle, On Being Awesome 

So the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading.... (drumroll) .... is Peter Godfrey Smith's Other MindsHere's the review I wrote for Issue 78:

Peter Godfrey Smith’s new book on cephalopods would be lovable for its metaphilosophy and beautiful writing if it said nothing interesting about the octopus.  “Philosophy is among the least corporeal of callings”, he writes.  “It is, or can be, a purely mental sort of life.  It has no equipment that needs managing, no sites of field stations.” Yet his project, he says, had a “bodily side”. He started studying cephalopods while spending time with them underwater, primarily at a site that he calls “Octopolis” on the east coast of Australia. His book is full of boats and diving, as well as biology and neuroscience, so is it really philosophy?  Sure!  “Doing philosophy is largely a matter of trying to put things together, trying to get the pieces of very large puzzles to make sense. Good philosophy is opportunistic; it uses whatever information and whatever tools look useful.”
            In fact, the book does say all sorts of interesting things about the octopus.  It covers their evolution, way of evading predators, lifespan, habitat, odd mating rituals, and incredibly cool colour-changing skin, but it’s especially about octopus minds (hence, the title).  Do they really have minds? Is there something it’s like to be an octopus? Smith divides the issue in two: wondering whether the octopus has mere sentience, and then wondering about more sophisticated, full-blown consciousness.
The first thing he says about the sentience question is that philosophers tend to think of sensation as driving action, and think too little about action driving sensation.  You don’t just receive sensations from this page; you turned the page a minute ago in order to acquire new sensations.  Apparently the fact that you’re the actor can make a difference to the resulting sensations, as he demonstrates with a fascinating example involving tactile vision substitution systems for the blind. The device converts camera images into skin vibrations, so that when a blind person uses the device, a dog in their environment is experienced as a pattern of skin sensations. What’s interesting is that when they actively seek sensations, having control over the camera, the dog is experienced as “out there”.  Acting, instead of just passively receiving, makes a difference.
 This emphasis on activity rather than passivity is also in play in several discussions of perceptual constancy.  For a cube to seem like it’s the same size, as you get closer to it, you’ve got to not just be a passive receiver of sense data, but process inputs with an awareness that you are an agent, getting closer.  Ingenious experiments show that the octopus also gets the cube size right. When researchers reward octopuses for discriminating between big and small cubes, the octopus doesn’t make the mistake of treating cubes as bigger just because they’re closer.  Could the active life of an octopus make the difference between insentience and sentience?  The suggestion is that this may be so, though Smith really does just suggest, not insist, and he also explores other possible harbingers of sentience, such as integration of multiple senses and coping with novelty.
            The most fascinating chapter of the book is about the coloration of the octopus and cuttlefish. One layer of their skin is composed of chromataphores, which contain cells filled with colored chemicals.  They are surrounded by muscles that are controlled by the animal’s brain.  Stretching the cell makes the color visible and relaxing it makes the color invisible. The chromataphores are controlled by a cephalopod’s brain, giving rise to the intriguing possibility that when the animal’s skin changes color or exhibits patterns, something about the octopus’s mental state is revealed.  But what?
            An intriguing possibility is that the octopus is “chattering” as they move around, constantly changing colors and patterns.  Could that be a sign of octopus consciousness?  Smith tells a long story about human consciousness that connects it to human speech.  When we speak, the brain has to treat the incoming sound as “just me”, not confusing self-produced sounds with sounds coming from “out there”.  It’s the same theme as before – brains have to keep track of their own agency, to appreciate whether a change is inside or outside.  But if there are internal “just me” memos being sent and received, there’s an inner, silent correlate of speech. Maybe that’s central to our capacity for sophisticated consciousness.  And so could octopus color chatter be a sign of consciousness too? Smith rejects the inference for a very a very simple reason.  We hear our own speech, so have to distinguish it from sounds coming from outside ourselves.  But the octopus doesn’t see its own skin color!  Smith speculates that humans have “a more complicated mind” and “Cephalopods are on a different road.”
But wait, we don’t see our cheeks when we blush, but blushing does reveal inner emotional changes.  It’s a possibility too delicious to give up quickly. It might feel like something to be an octopus making as if to be a rock, or trying to scare predators with a psychedelic skin pattern, or changing from gold to red.  It might be incredibly trippy to be an octopus.

12/4/17

Metaphysics Isn't Ethics

I'm puzzled that in the literature on the nature of sex, gender, race, etc., there are so few philosophers who take a biological realist stance.  Maybe this is a function of who is drawn to these topics.  The biological realists might be among those not drawn. So you don't find many biological realists working on sex, gender, and race for the same reason you don't find many people who think animals don't matter among people working in animal ethics.

Here's what Dawkins says about sex in The Selfish Gene:
There is one fundamental feature of the sexes which can be used to label males as males, and females as females, throughout animals and plants  This is that the sex cells or 'gametes' of males are much smaller and more numerous than the gametes of females.  This is true whether we are dealing with animals or plants.
Male whales are the ones with the numerous small gametes and female whales are the ones with fewer, bigger gametes.  Same goes for all animals and all plants, if Dawkins is to be believed. And here's what Dawkins has to say about race, in a chapter of his book The Ancestor's Tale.  He says a race is like a sub-species, where the differences separating different subspecies are superficial and brought about when sub-populations live in different environments. (He makes some of the same points in this article.)

Of course there's a whole lot else that we think about sex and race.  Historically and still today, people represent sex and race as involving very big differences; and as being "essential" in the sense of profoundly influencing an individual's life; and as coming with associated norms, so that men are supposed to act one way, women another, or one race is supposed to lord it over the others.  A lot of those representations and norms are just plain false or ethically misguided, if sex and race are as Dawkins says.

But take note!  Being critical in that fashion is of course an option for a biological realist.  So there's nothing particularly anti-progressive about realism. In fact, I would go further. If I want to liberate myself and all women (for example) from the shackles of old norms and stereotypes, the language of falsehood works really well.  Women aren't like that. Those norms are groundless.  If social constructionism opens the door to saying certain ideas and norms aren't "inevitable" so does good old fashioned criticism of theories for being false, or norms for being inappropriate.

So what makes people prefer to speak of the social construction of sex, if they're critical of traditional stereotypes and norms, rather than speaking of the misrepresentation of sex?  Why do they think sex must go away entirely, no longer being seen as part of the pre-existing, mind-independent "furniture of the world"? Likewise, why do they want to talk about race being constructed by the racist, instead of saying it's horribly misrepresented?

An awful lot of the argument for social construction seems to have to do with grey areas, intermediates, borderline cases, vagueness, etc.  The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling claims that about 1.7% of babies are born intersex.  In each society those babies get sex-labelled in ways that have to do with the representations and norms we have regarding sex.  Fausto-Sterling makes a convincing case for that.  Why, though, should we conclude that the sexes of the other 98.3% are socially constructed?

The same thing seems to go on in the debate about race, except that the grey area is much more extensive due to intermarriage.  People who are in fact mixed-race get race-labelled (by others or by themselves) in ways that have to do with the full set of representations and norms we have regarding race.  Does that mean that all of race is socially constructed?  Why would anyone think so?

In fact, vast numbers of our concepts (maybe even most) involve grey areas in the same way that race and sex do.  There are clear cases of tables and clear cases of chairs.  Then there are stools.  A big enough stool is really a table.  But what about medium-sized stools? Are they tables or chairs?  There might be customs and assumptions that people use to settle such question, but so what? The reality of two categories can't be wiped out just because there are numerous entities that lie in between, and just because all sorts of norms and representations help us decide where to put the inbetweeners.

There is another reason why some people want to do away with biological sex as a reality "out there."  Grey areas aren't a problem for frogs, kangaroos, whales, and apple trees. But people have strong feelings about the way they're sex-labelled.  If an intersex person lives happily as a woman, it may be offensive to her for anyone to say she is in fact intersex, and not female. Likewise, even in cases where labels apply clearly, there can be preferences at odds with the labels.  A transgender woman may prefer to think she was not born biologically male.

I wonder, though, whether any theorizing about sex and race that tries to be sensitive in this way really deserves to be called philosophy or metaphysics.  How could the truth about what sex is turn on how people feel about how their sex is represented?  And if we do take into account such sensitivities, where will we wind up? It's certainly going to be a pretty weird philosophy or metaphysics that sees sex in humans one way, but sex in the rest of nature in another way.  Or that sees sex in all of nature in a way that's ultimately motivated by sensitivity to certain humans.

Of course saying sex is real, and not socially constructed, doesn't settle every question we might care about.  People don't just have sexes, they also have sex-identities.  (I agree with Heath Fogg Davis—in the book Beyond Trans— that this is a better term than "gender identity" for many purposes.)  When someone has a male sex but a female sex-identity, what then?  To my mind, this is an ethical question (and the answer is that sex-identity takes precedence).  It's a question about well-being and how to treat people.  I don't see how it can makes sense to let progressivism color what we think about what categories like race and sex are in the most fundamental, metaphysical sense.

11/16/17

Modest Social Construction

Lately I've been reading about "social construction"—what do people really mean when they say race or gender or anything else is socially constructed?  Talking about categories being socially constructed often seems to me to be a very misleading shorthand for a bunch of other things. What we often really want to say is that there is a certain phenomenon out in the world, but people think about it—divide it up—in different ways.  So, for example, there is the phenomenon of aging—it's surely a real part of biological organisms.  But it can be represented in different ways.  So one cultural group sees a 16-year-old as a child, while another sees a 16-year-old as an adult.  One cultural group thinks you're old by the age of 50, but another thinks you're just "middle aged."

Someone might say "age is socially constructed" to express all of that. And I do think people use the phrase that way. But recognizing this sort of constructing isn't as liberatory as social constructionism is supposed to be.  If age is socially constructed in this modest sense, it's not as if age would stop existing, if we didn't think about it.  It's also not as if we could replace current age distinctions with just any distinctions. Like a block of wood can be cut in multiple ways but not in all ways, aging has a certain amount of inherent structure.  You can't think of a five-year-old as an adult, though you may or may not think of a 16-year-old as an adult. So if age is socially constructed in this modest sense, our current categories are not inevitable, but age as a general phenomenon is inevitable, and all alternative ways of thinking about it are not equally possible.

I think this sort of modest social constructionism might be apt for thinking about some of the categories often represented as constructed. Sex, for example, seems socially constructed only in this modest sense and not in the extreme sense. We can draw lines in different ways, but sex is an independent reality in the natural world.  Animals and plants are sexed, it seems to me, even if there are some "grey area" cases.  I wonder how many supposedly socially constructed categories are actually only socially constructed in this fairly modest sense.

Bibliography (in case you're interested);

Ron Mallon, The Construction of Human Kinds
New Books in Philosophy interview of Mallon 
Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?
Asta Sveinsdottir, "The Social Construction of Human Kinds" (I'm about to read this, and might discuss in my next post)

11/1/17

New Books in Philosophy

I enjoyed having the chance to talk about my new book with Bob Talisse on the podcast New Books in philosophy! 

Historical Categories

Trans, by Rogers Brubaker, is a great book for those wanting to think about parallels between being transgender and being transracial.  Brubaker thinks being transracial is more of a thing than you might think (he has some fascinating examples that go beyond the Rachel Dolezal case), and he thinks it's illuminating to think about the two phenomena in parallel.  I recommend the book.

Here's one area of difference that he highlights (see pp. 135-142): gender is an individual matter, on any account.  We don't have our gender because of anything about our ancestors. Naturalists think we have our gender because of biological properties of our bodies. One trans-friendly view that's starting to challenge naturalism is the view that we have our gender based on our  sense of our own gender identity.  It's not a huge leap from the naturalistic view to the psychological view, since the sense of our own gender identity is another individual property. When it comes to race, though, ancestry—a question of history— is thought to be important. For example, to be black, arguably, one must have black ancestors. It would be a huge leap to replace the ancestry/history account of being black with a psychological view, since history is non-individualistic, but psychology is individualistic.  So the idea that someone could be "trans black"—black based on a sense of being black, and despite having no black ancestors—doesn't go down easily.

On this view, we're likely to be more open to trans-X when we already think about X individualistically, and merely have to shift to a different individualistic basis for X.  But we're likely to reject trans-X when we think about X non-individualistically.  I think this is confirmed when we think about various properties that depend on a person's life history, "outside the skin."  Being a veteran is having fought in a war.  If you didn't you're not a veteran, no matter how much you identify as one. Being a Penn State Alumnus is having graduated from Penn State. You're not one, no matter how much of a Penn State fan you are. Being a New Yorker is having lived for a significant period of time in New York. You don't get to be one by just acting like a New Yorker.  There's something to this idea that properties with a basis in non-individualistic facts are ones we're particularly reluctant to think about in a "trans" fashion.

Anyhow.  Good book, with lots of food for thought!


8/16/17

Think with Krys Boyd (podcast)



Here's the podcast of my interview on KERA today.  Krys Boyd and I are both big fans of using tiny post-its to mark pages! Our books looked like twins.


8/14/17

More About Gene Editing


I'm still thinking about that Time op-ed that objects to gene editing because, in so many words, if my parents had used it, my brother wouldn't have existed.  I went along with this assumption about existence in my last post on the subject, but only for the sake of argument.  It's actually quite debatable.

Suppose parents do want to avoid having a child with a gene for a serious disease, like the serious heart defect that was eliminated by researchers.  They can already do this, as long as both parents aren't carriers for the gene, by using PGD—pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Using IVF, multiple embryos can be generated and five-day-old embryos can be biopsied.  An embryo without the gene could be implanted and the rest discarded.  If people used this method, it's certainly true that certain possible people wouldn't be born. Looking at an actual little brother (Harry, let's say) with a heart defect, it's true to say if my parents had used PGD, Harry wouldn't have existed. The embryo that led to Harry would have been discarded.  Larry, not Harry, would have been born.

It's much less clear that this is true, if gene editing is used.  Using gene editing, the embryo carrying the faulty gene is allowed to develop, but the gene is edited out of it on day one, at the zygote stage.  Would Harry have existed if one of 20,000 genes had been eliminated from the same embryo—the one that actually led to Harry?  I think it's true that if an embryo is radically edited, it will lead to a different child being born.  But minor editing?  Is our entire genome essential to us, so we can't exist if even one gene is edited out?

We're not used to thinking about this, since an individual's genes have always seemed unalterable. It seems to me that we could easily get used to the idea that the same person could have existed with somewhat different genes, and the idea wouldn't be incoherent.  If I had the serious heart defect the researchers focussed on, and my parents had been offered the option of gene editing, and had been able to afford it, I can imagine wishing they had created me without the heart defect.  That doesn't sound like a metaphysical impossibility.

If that's the right way of thinking about things, the Time magazine author really has things all wrong.  PGD, which is already available, is the technology that could potentially have made the author's little brother not exist.  But that horse is already out of the barn.   CRISPR-cas9 would have given his parents the option of having his little brother, but protecting him or her from the disease he was born with.

If that's the right way to look at it—the same people can be born, despite gene-editing—then gene editing starts to look not just permissible in certain cases, but possibly even obligatory.  Suppose you knew your child might be born with a serious heart-defect, and you also knew you could check in advance whether he or she had the relevant gene, and you could eliminate it.  Certainly if there was a drug that would fix the heart defect, and you could take it during pregnancy, it would be fair to say you should take it.  It's really not clear why gene editing is different.

OK--there are a bunch of other puzzles here, having to do with who winds up being born, if either PGD or gene editing is used, but I'll save that for another day.


8/13/17

Radio Interview, Time Change

They're wisely devoting Monday's show to the events in Virginia, so I'll be on Wednesday at 1:00 instead of Monday.

8/11/17

Reviews of The Philosophical Parent

Nice review from Library Journal!
Library Journal  08/01/2017  Kazez (philosophy, Southern Methodist Univ.; The Weight of Things) begins by summing up the relationship between parenting and philosophy perfectly when she writes "having children turns every parent and parent-to-be into a philosopher." For this reviewer, the parent of two small children, that claim is as valid. The questions that arise for parents and would-be parents are numerous and cover a wide range of topics such as "Is there anything special about having a child?" to "Should parents reinforce gender?" Kazez helps with finding answers or at least showing the complexity of these questions by arranging the topics chronologically by stages of parenting and looking at them through the lens of different philosophical views and parenting experience. Most importantly, these chapters are also short and can be read individually so that parents can focus on topics of interest and actually finish reading them. VERDICT Kazez's combination of philosophy and parenting experience makes this work recommended for parents who are searching for answers to meaningful questions surrounding child-rearing.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI
There's also this Publisher's Weekly review, which I appreciate, but I disagree with what the reviewer says about my decision not to cover abortion.
Publishers Weekly  06/05/2017  Philosophy professor Kazez (Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals) uses a mix of philosophical proofs and science to explore a mix of theoretical and practical parenting questions. Questions in the former category include whether babies are lucky to be born and what parents are for; questions in the latter include whether to circumcise or vaccinate and whether to raise children with religious beliefs. She appeals to new parents’ innate sense of logic and ethics as alternatives to parenting experts. Kazez grounds her ideas in the Aristotelian perspective that a biological child is “another self, but separate” in order to understand parents’ intense identification with their children and the obligations conferred by this unique relationship. She picks and chooses her controversies carefully. For example, she explores the idea of when personhood begins while opting out of any discussion of abortion because, in her words, her intended reader is “deliberately pregnant and eager to become a parent,” but then dives into equally irrelevant questions regarding adoption and population control. Sections about how we treat our children later in life fit more into the parent-as-philosopher mode Kazez promises. Though her conclusions are far from groundbreaking, soon-to-be-parents will find thinking through her arguments a good way to engage their minds beyond the immediate practicalities of child-rearing. (July)
Important clarification: the intended reader of the whole book is not "deliberately pregnant and eager to become a parent." Different chapters focus on imaginary readers at different stages of becoming and being parents. In chapter 1, for example, the imaginary reader just wants a child, whether through procreation or adoption. So adoption is relevant there and discussed. In chapters 2-3, the imaginary reader wants a child, but worries about whether it's right or wrong to have one, given various worries, including worries about population. So overpopulation is relevant to the imaginary reader there.

In chapter 5, the chapter this reviewer is quoting from, I do start with the conceit that the reader is finally pregnant and eager to have a child. The chapter is about the developing zygote-embryo-fetus and when it begins to be the individual who will later be born. Abortion could have had some relevance here, for people who want to be parents, but want to end a particular pregnancy, but the literature on the ethics of abortion is vast and complex. This didn't seem like the place to get into it.

8/10/17

Worrying about CRISPR

Scientists have developed a new technology, CRISPR-Cas9, for editing genes in day old human embryos. The technology (explained here with terrific graphics) was used to edit out a gene that leads to a severe heart detect, though the embryos were then discarded.

We won't be using this technology to create genetically modified people until there has been a lot more research. There's also going to have to be an ethical and legal debate. Is there something worrisome about editing an embryo's genes?  There might be, but we need to be careful to have the right worries.  It's very easy to have worries that just don't make sense.

Take this Time Magazine op-ed, by Joel Michael Reynolds.  The title says it all:  Gene Editing Might Mean My Brother Would've Never Existed. His brother Jason had muscle-eye-brain disease and had "muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, severe nearsightedness, hydrocephalus and intellectual disability." Jason was lovely and beloved, and so Reynolds questions a technology that would prevent Jason from ever existing.

It's no fun criticizing someone who reveals love and grief in the way Reynolds does, but this worry about a specific person not existing is the wrong worry to have.  There are many things we do to control who is born that are either neutral or mandatory, but would alter who exists.

  • Picture the debate that went on before contraceptives were available. An opponent of legalizing contraceptives could look at his unplanned little brother and say that if his parents had had access to contraceptive technology, the boy wouldn't have existed. That fact surely has no weight at all, however much it may be painful to imagine a world without a specific person. 
  • Imagine a woman being told by her dermatologist not to conceive a child while she's taking Accutane, because Accutane causes abnormalities. She ignores this advice and conceives a child with some abnormalities. Should she really feel good about her choice, because without it, her child wouldn't have been born? 

We are simply confused when we object to an action or practice because, if opted for, this lovely and beloved child wouldn't have been born.  At the time that we're choosing the action or practice, there are millions of possible children who could come into existence, and there's nothing that says that the one who actually will be born should be born.

Reynolds is concerned that Jason be born, but also that people like Jason be born.  He gives us this description of Jason's life, to convince us that that he wasn't worse off than other children.
He lived past his first year thanks to marvels of modern medicine. A shunt surgery to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid building up around his brain took six attempts, but the seventh succeeded. Aside from those surgeries’ complications and intermittent illnesses due to a less-than-robust immune system, Jason was healthy. Healthy and happy — very happy. His smile could light up a room. Yet, that didn’t stop people from thinking that his disability made him worse off. 
This reminds me of the old joke: "Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln?" I don't see how a string of surgeries, complications, and illness, in someone who evidently died before the age of two, leaves very much to be good.  It's not ableist, but just realistic, to think Jason was worse off than other babies.

Reynolds chocks it up to ableism that many parents would like to avoid having a baby like Jason. But even he seems to admit there are health problems that ought to be avoided.
We, who are often still unable to distinguish between positive, world-creating forms of disability and negative, world-destroying forms — between Deafness, short stature or certain types of neurodiversity and chronic pain, Tay-Sachs or Alzheimer’s. It is with great responsibility that we as a society balance along the tightrope of biomedical progress. 
I don't know about putting muscle-eye-brain disease in the "positive, world-creating" list, as if babies could creatively construct their own distinctive way of life and identity, in the manner that some people with deafness and short stature say that they do.  The heart problem that was eliminated by the CRISPR research also doesn't seem to belong on the "positive, world-creating" list.

So what's the right worry to have? I do think gene editing could lead to far too much choosiness in prospective parents--too much constructing of the preferred child and too little receptiveness. It could be over-used. I don't think there's a good, coherent reason to think it should never be used.

8/5/17

The Page 99 Test

My book is featured today at The Page 99 Test.  I narrowly missed having to talk about a blank page.  Page 98 is one of those blanks you get when a chapter ends on an odd-numbered page.  Does page 99 reveal something about the whole book?  Yes, I think it does!  It reveals the way the book is scenario-driven instead of abstract, and some of the book's main themes and issues.  Thank you, Marshal Zeringue, for the invitation.

"Motherhood Isn't Sacrifice, It's Selfishness"

This New York Times op-ed by Karen Rinaldi has generated a huge number of comments, a lot of them negative. Goes to show that the way you say something is all important. Here's one of the more provocative paragraphs:
Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege — one that many of us choose selfishly. At its most atavistic, procreating ensures that our genes survive into the next generation. You could call this selfishness as biological imperative. On a personal level, when we bring into the world a being that is of us, someone we will protect and love and for whom we will do everything we can to help thrive and flourish, it begets the question, How is this selfless? Selflessness implies that we have no skin in the game. In motherhood, we’re all in.
Privilege? I have no idea why she says this. It's not as if we have to apply to become parents.  Everyone gets to become parents, if they're capable.  But "not a sacrifice" makes more sense to me and "selfish" makes some sense, but it's the wrong word. I think what she was really after, as a contrast with "selfless," is "self-interested." When we have a child "we bring into the world a being that is of us." Yes. Because my child is part of my extended identity, so to speak, when my child is better off, I'm better off. When my child is worse off, I'm worse off.  It's because we've enlarged ourself, thereby including our child as part of our extended identity, that caring for my child is self-interested.  But that doesn't mean it's "selfish." Selfish people don't enlarge themselves.

Since the self-interestedness of parenthood is really built in, and not just a feature of bad parents, she's off track when she writes that motherhood is a privilege (again, why a privilege?!) "that many of us choose selfishly."  But she gets back on track at the end of the op-ed.
If we start referring to motherhood as the beautiful, messy privilege that it is, and to tending to our children as the most loving yet selfish thing we do, perhaps we can change the biased language my mother used. Only when we stop talking about motherhood as sacrifice can we start talking about mothers the way that we deserve.
Again, there's the privilege talk, which I find bewildering.  But now the selfishness (no, self-interestedness!) is portrayed as built in.  It's not the bad mother who's selfish (no, self-interested), it's motherhood itself.  Much better!

8/4/17

Goodreads Giveaway

Enter the giveaway for my book!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Philosophical Parent by Jean Kazez

The Philosophical Parent

by Jean Kazez

Giveaway ends September 04, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

7/31/17

The Metaphysics of Pregnancy


I wish I'd read this Aeon article on the metaphysics of pregnancy on time to include the topic it raises in my book, The Philosophical Parent.  Suki Finn asks a great question, which is explored in a forthcoming article in Mind by Elselijn Klingma: is a mother a container for her fetus or is the fetus part of her?  They've definitely succeeded at two things: making the metaphysics of pregnancy seem fascinating and making the part view seem like at least a contender.

Let's first list the possibilities, along with some sub-options.

I. On the container model, the mother contains the fetus, which is "a distinct entity in its own right" (Finn, Aeon). I would add that if the mother is a fetal container, there are many kinds of containers.  Something inside a container can be non-dependent on the container—like a watch in a drawer.  But something in a container can be completely dependent—a brain in a vat needs its container. Containment plus connection is a possibility, and surely that's the possibility most relevant to pregnancy. (I used to have an ipod charger that both contained the ipod and connected it to a charger. It wasn't quite as cute as the one on the right.)

II. On the parthood model, the fetus is a part of the mother, like a tail is part of a cat (Finn, Aeon). Finn is not saying the fetus is really tail-like.  That example is just supposed to clarify what we mean by a part. If a fetus is a part of its mother, there are many sorts of body parts.  A kidney, a freckle, a tumor, some fat, some blood, a hand, a nose, the lower half of my body—they're all parts.  If you settle on the parthood model, your next question will be "what kind?"  Important clarification made by the authors: the parthood model doesn't rule it out that the fetus is a human being, or even a person.  The fetus might be a part of a human that's also a human being, like the mother. (More on that below.)

III. The parthood and container models are stated in such a way that they're mutually exclusive.  That's because on the container model, the fetus is not a part, but rather "a distinct entity in its own right."  Why not, though, contemplate an inclusive option? Could a fetus be both inside a container and a part of the mother?  I don't see why not.  Take a Russian doll.  The innermost doll is contained by the outer dolls.  At the same time, the innermost doll is part of the Russian doll. If it's missing, the Russian doll is incomplete.

The container model seems to be the received wisdom among philosophers, Finn and Klingma both say. In fact, I would say there's something a bit alien or even yucky about the notion of the fetus as a part of the mother. If fetuses grew on trees, we'd surely think of them as parts of trees (like apples are parts of trees).  It's a little weird to think of a fetus as being even remotely like a pre-plucked piece of fruit. Why?  Maybe that doesn't comport with what we see as the separateness and dignity of the baby-to-be. That dignity may not have to do with lofty notions like personhood and humanity. It might have to do with not-so-lofty notions of animalhood.  At the level of sheer gut feelings, I also find it odd to think of a fetal kitten as a pre-plucked piece of fruit.
These are real pears!!!
http://bit.ly/2we7aFo

But that's just a matter of initial gut feelings.  There are also some serious worries about the possibility of a human being having a part that's a human being, or a cat having a part that's a cat.  Finn discusses a puzzle about a person who's sitting in a chair, about to have a haircut.  Is the person minus the hair that's about to be a cut a part of the person who still has her hair?  If so, there would be two persons sitting in the chair, which is absurd. We can rule that out by postulating a "maximality principle":  a whole of a certain kind can't have a part of the same kind.  But that will stop a fetus, assuming it's a human being (at least at some point in gestation) from being a part of its mother.

I agree with Klingma (in the Mind article) that it seems odd to postulate the maximality principle in order to solve the haircut problem, and then apply it to the very different circumstance of pregnancy.  It's also true that we can easily think of things of kind K that clearly do have parts of kind K.  See picture on right.

All in all, I think Finn and Klingma make a convincing case that parthood is a contender.  I still think, though, that the container model (option II) is a contender.  There are a lot of features that make a fetus appear to be an entity distinct from the mother, and contained by her uterus, which is contained in her body.  I don't see why its connection to her, through the umbilical cord, and its total dependence on her throughout most of gestation, must make it a part of her. Think ipod in dock or brain in vat.

I'm pulled in both directions, which I think counts as success for Finn and Klingma. They have at least succeeded in making their case that there are two models worthy of consideration here, and not just one.