Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harris' "Disability and Super-Ability"

Harris, John (2007). “Disability and Super-Ability" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 86-108.

Harris argues that it is not wrong to prefer to produce or even prefer to be a nondisabled individual rather than a disabled one. He argues that all people are equal, have the same moral worth, and that it is wrong to discriminate against disabled people, but that it is fallacious to assume that to prefer to have a child without disability is an affront the existence of an existing disabled person. Any argument, then, that opposes human enhancement on these grounds does so on a fallacious sense of fear that it has a negative objective cost to a disabled community. He grants that there may be a subjective cost to a disabled person for others choosing children unlike them but that is irrational. Public policy or reproductive choice should not be based on the subjective, irrational thoughts of some individuals when the consequences of inaction does not promote a bettering of lives or decrease in suffering. It is interesting that he agrees that the “disability question” is the most plausible argument against legitimate attempts to make better people.

Harris states, “… it is better that a child be born without disability but not that a nondisabled child is better than a disabled child” (p. 89). He makes an interesting distinction between reason and justification. An in vitro patient may have a reason for not selecting a disabled embryo but the justification would be in terms of entitlement to decline to implant at all, i.e., choice. He agrees that the idea of selecting a nondisabled embryo over a disabled one is based on the notion that disability is disabling and therefore undesirable from the point of view of choice. A disabled person may still have a life worth living and he argues that it is better to have a child with disabilities (unless there is a component of suffering involved) than no child at all. If we have the choice of an embryo, however, we should choose a nondisabled over disabled because of the idea of a better life. He does not define disability in terms of any conception of normalcy nor does he think it depends on a prediction of the subject of the condition will feel. It is simply a matter of best functioning for the best life. Normalcy is a vague term that is constantly changing due to advancing medical and other technologies.

Our parent’s DNA goes into our DNA makeup so any genetic “harm” is causally related to them but only morally so if they are aware that they were likely to transmit those harms or if they were aware that a procedure or other event could have made a better child. Again, to prefer to remove disability is not the same as preferring nondisabled persons over disabled. In this respect, it is not an existential preference. He then discusses his view on abortion, which is pro-Choice and may not be relevant to our project as to why. This will be a good discussion point with Jim. He does appeal to Jonathan Glover and argues that he does not think his (Harris) view provides an ugly attitude towards people with disability. I’m not sure that Harris’ view is strong enough to resist this claim because it does fall into a regress that leads to the extinction of certain types of societies, i.e., deaf, paraplegic, etc. There may be different types of disability that need to be teased apart. Ridding the world of cancer does not mean lack respect for people with cancer but there does seem to be something different concerning deaf culture when many in that culture claim that they have no desire to hear. Is their desire delusional or without a point of reference or is their claim based on something that hearing individuals cannot comprehend such as an increased capacity for touch and the beauty that comes along with it? Harris comes back the same point repeatedly: we have reasons to start out in life with any unnecessary disadvantages, however, slight.

He concludes by addressing what he calls the “Beethoven fallacy”. To choose not to have a child with inherited syphilis is not to say that the world would be better off without Beethoven. Modern notions of choice and intervention may not affect the “who” is born in the same way that it may not affect who I am if my parents were frisky in November versus December. There is more choices other than abortion that affect whether we ever to be. The argument for potentiality can only go so far. He does not address the “super-ability” that I was looking forward to reading but it is a natural extension from disability to super-ability if one accepts the claim that line between treatment and enhancement is at minimum blurry and sometimes the same.

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