More On How Bioethics Fosters Homogeneity in Philosophy and Society in General

It would be difficult to overestimate the constraining effects that the PhilPapers database generates for the development of critical philosophical work on disability. Nor could one overstate the deleterious consequences that accrue to disabled philosophers due to the structure of a spinoff of PhilPapers, namely, PhilJobs, the leading job board in philosophy whose architecture mirrors the organization of PhilPapers.

To make a long story short, the structure of PhilJobs, like the structure of PhilPapers, systematically precludes adequate reference to philosophy of disability and thus prevents both the creation of job postings in philosophy of disability and the specification of database searches for jobs in the area. To date, no advertisement for a tenure-track philosophy job anywhere in the world has designated philosophy of disability as either an area of specialization or an area of competence, despite the fact that research and teaching in philosophy of disability has been done for decades.

At present, jobseekers who specialize in philosophy of disability must represent their work in medicalized terms, that is, as a form of bioethics in order to be regarded as serious candidates for positions in the field. In other contexts, I have argued that bioethics is first and foremost a technology of modern government whose aim is normalization (and hence control) of the population. My argument in this context is, thus, that insofar as philosophers of disability are coerced to package their work as bioethics (or as critiques of aspects of bioethics) in ways that leave the fundamentally pernicious nature of the enterprise of bioethics intact, philosophy of disability and philosophers of disability are effectively put in the service of a form of neo-eugenics.

Let me underscore that the invalidation of philosophy of disability is enabled by the performative character of the individualized and medicalized classifications of disability that both of these databases reproduce. Job postings influence what philosophers regard as emerging and current research and as important areas of the field to develop in their own departments. Hiring departments, insofar as they do not see other departments recruit and hire specialists in the subfield of philosophy of disability, are neither motivated nor compelled to recruit and hire specialists in philosophy of disability themselves. Given that many specialists in philosophy of disability are disabled, the current classificatory scheme of PhilPapers and PhilJobs ought to be regarded as a mechanism that operates to reproduce the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in philosophy and sustain the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability.

In a number of contexts, I have challenged the classificatory structure of PhilPapers and PhilJobs, as well as the conventional understanding of philosophy on which it relies, arguing that the classification of subfields in philosophy, the relations between the classifications of the subfields, and the questions and concerns that these subfields comprise is no mere value-neutral representation of objective differences, relations, and similarities that await discovery and recognition; rather, classification and classification systems in philosophy (as elsewhere) are performative, contributing to the constitution of the value-laden resemblances, distinctions, associations, and relationships between phenomena and states of affairs that they put into place.

Although the formula of PhilPapers and PhilJobs demonstrates that many philosophers continue to represent philosophy as a value neutral, detached, disinterested, and impartial enterprise, my argument is that political, social, economic, cultural, and institutional force relations influence every aspect of the discipline (and profession) of philosophy. Every philosophical question and concern, as well as every subfield that these questions and concerns comprise, is a politically potent artifact of historically contingent and culturally specific discourse. As contingent artifacts of discourse, every philosophical question, every philosophical subfield, and every specialization in philosophy has a history (see Tremain 2013, 2017).

In short, PhilPapers and PhilJobs exemplify and reproduce the status quo in philosophy with respect to disability (and other social categories). For philosophers of disability notwithstanding, most philosophers do not consider disability to be pertinent subject matter for philosophical analyses of  power, domination, oppression, and inequality, but rather believe that disability is a prediscursive and politically neutral human characteristic, a natural disadvantage and personal misfortune that is appropriately addressed in the domains of medicine, science, and bioethics, rather than (say) social philosophy, epistemology, or metaphysics. In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I labour to show that the prevalence in philosophy of this individualized and medicalized understanding of disability, according to which disabled people are naturally flawed, is inextricably entwined with the exclusion of disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, from adequate employment in the profession of philosophy.

The exclusion of disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability, from full-time philosophy faculty positions is of course due in part to the institutionalized biases and structural inaccessibility that disabled people in general confront in academia. Many disabled students, regardless of the discipline in which they major, leave school before the completion of a graduate degree due to the structural barriers, institutional discrimination, and personal prejudice that they encounter in universities. Indeed, the growing incidence of student suicide on campuses throughout North America should itself be considered testament to the systemic inadequacy of supports for students who are positioned outside of the norms, expectations, and demands of the neoliberal university or contravene them in some other way.

Nevertheless, I maintain that certain metaphysical and epistemological assumptions; specific disciplinary approaches; and particular professional agendas, interests, and norms render philosophy distinctly hostile to both disabled people and critical analyses of disability. The prevalent assumption in philosophy that disability is a disadvantageous personal characteristic or property properly studied in medical contexts and the life sciences is the crux of the problem, a problem that neoliberalism has produced through biopower. Foucault defined biopower as the network of force relations through which biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy; in other words, how, beginning in the eighteenth century, modern Western societies directed forms of governmentality toward the features of human life in order to control and manage them. The production of disability has been integral to the strategies of this relatively recent form of power.

Insofar as the assumption according to which disability is a disadvantageous personal characteristic or property conditions the perceptions of and understandings about disabled people that philosophers hold, is it any wonder that disabled philosophers are not regarded as viable colleagues?

Indeed, the assumption that disability should be addressed in the domains of medicine, the life sciences, bioethics, and related fields has shaped philosophy departments, influencing hiring practices and decisions, as well as course curricula, conference lineups, the composition of professional networks and editorial boards, the contents of edited collections, and so on (see Tremain, 2017; also see Tremain, 2010, 2013, 2014). That the subfield of bioethics is financially lucrative for philosophy departments and for the neoliberal university more broadly goes considerable distance to ensure the endurance of medicalized and individualized understandings of disability in philosophy.

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