Philosophy of Disability Contra Bioethics

Behind the scenes, we are gearing up for Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 2 (#PhiDisSocCh2) which takes place December 7-10, that is, begins two weeks from tomorrow. You can still register for the conference here:

I’m extremely pleased about the line-up for this year’s conference. I’m also very happy that I will be dropping some of the new work that I’m doing. The new writing that I’m developing covers a range of topics, including philosophy of disability, bioethics, academic freedom, neoliberalism, and colonialism, drawing upon Kyle Whyte’s insights to do so.

My presentation at the upcoming conference is entitled “Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics.” Below, I have copied an excerpt of the presentation. Trust me: the entire presentation is HOT, HOT, HOT!! Register for the conference and don’t miss out on cutting-edge philosophy of disability.


Bioethicists, many of whom are very protective of their lucrative subfield and its interests, have created a veritable mystique around the bioethics project. For example, most bioethicists continue to depict infamous medical and scientific abuses as disturbing relics of days gone by, that is, as disruptions in the history of an otherwise noble endeavour that strives to ensure that established practices and new developments in biomedicine and biomedical science uphold the highest ethical standards.

Even the critiques of bioethics that feminist bioethicists and so-called disability bioethicists articulate implicitly or explicitly authorize the bioethics agenda by assuming the self-understandings and self-image that the subfield of bioethics represents; hence, the direction and scope of these critiques are for the most part limited to arguments against a particular biomedical practice or the position of a certain bioethicist, leaving the historical conditions of possibility for the overall enterprise of bioethics unexamined and unchallenged.

My critique of the subfield of bioethics constitutes a distinct departure from these other critiques of it. For my argument is that the subfield of bioethics, including feminist bioethics and disability bioethics, is a neoliberal technology of biopower whose increasing institutionalization and legitimation in the university, in the discipline of philosophy, and in public policy consolidate and conceal the fundamental role that this field of inquiry plays in biopolitical strategies of normalization and the government of populations. In short, the field of bioethics is and, since its inception, has been, biopolitical, a premier arena for the adjudication of biopower’s capacity to make live and let die. Indeed, as a technology of racism against the abnormal (to use Foucault’s insight), bioethics is a modern form of race science.

Not surprisingly, philosophers continue to regard bioethics as the appropriate domain in philosophy for critical considerations about disability, as the continuing lack of job opportunities in philosophy of disability and the simultaneous proliferation of jobs in bioethics and cognate fields plainly indicate. In Canada, for example, philosophers and bioethicists have played a fundamental role in the creation of a culture of eugenics within the discipline of philosophy itself and in Canadian society at large, both influencing the development and promulgation of some of the ableist legislation that I discuss in this presentation and ensuring that disabled specialists in philosophy of disability do not enter the ranks of professional philosophy in Canada.

Indeed, a growing number of bioethicists, both in Canada and abroad, dedicate considerable effort to the task of reconfiguring bioethics in ways that safeguard their own disciplinary, professional, and institutional jurisdiction over philosophical claims about disability. I want to point out, therefore, that bioethics operates as an area of philosophy whose guiding assumptions and discursive practices are tremendous obstacles to acknowledgement that the questions which the apparatus of disability raises are genuinely philosophical and recognition that disabled philosophers who investigate these questions are credible philosophers. Put directly, disabled philosophers of disability confront a wave of epistemic injustice and ridicule if they criticize bioethics too loudly, especially if they do so in ways that contest the consolidation and status of the field itself.

In short, bioethicists act as gatekeepers for philosophy, shielding it from an influx of disabled people into the ranks of the profession and guarding it from the incursion of philosophy of disability into the discipline. Of course, exceptions to this exclusion, exemplified by practitioners of so-called disability bioethics, are admissible and serve to disguise and legitimize the subfield of bioethics, typifying the polymorphic character of neoliberalism from which bioethics has emerged and enabling philosophy to proceed under the guise of political neutrality, objectivity, and disinterest. Indeed, the allegedly transformative subfield of disability bioethics actually enhances mainstream bioethics from which it appears to distinguish itself, sustaining the field of bioethics in general and enabling bioethics to expand its influence by refashioning itself as an autocritique.

By contrast, philosophy of disability is a fundamentally insurgent discourse which neither intersects with bioethics nor is derivative of it; that is, budding philosophers of disability should conceive their work as oppositional to bioethics and as a form of resistance to its eugenic impetus and medicalizing gaze, medicalization that increasingly implicates philosophy in the government of disabled people’s lives, while purportedly elaborating and informing their putatively self-actualizing choices.

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