Peter Singer and the Mystique of Bioethics, Part 2

As I indicated in Part 1, although feminist bioethicists and so-called disability bioethicists too insist that Peter Singer’s claims about disability are morally reprehensible, they maintain that the field of bioethics itself is a noble and progressive enterprise within which one can selectively adopt a neutral stance on certain bioethical issues (Scully 2021). Indeed, disability bioethicists (as they refer to themselves) regularly participate on panels at bioethics conferences, join bioethics associations, work at bioethics institutes, and publish books on disability and bioethics. They believe that their work will serve to educate “mainstream” bioethicists about the circumstances of disabled people’s lives, improve the message that the field of bioethics conveys to other philosophers and the public at large, broaden the range of materials that bioethicists teach their students about disability, shift the focus of research on disability that bioethicists (and other philosophers) develop and promote, and so on.

The assumption that underlies the efforts of disability bioethicists is that the field of bioethics is not itself a technology of government. Instead, disability bioethicists, although they are critical of the arguments about disability that some practitioners in the realm of bioethics advance, aspire to reform the field of bioethics by correcting and eliminating the biases and discriminatory assumptions that they perceive to currently condition some corners of it. For these “disability bioethicists,” that is, the governmental and eugenic character of bioethics is an accidental feature of the enterprise rather than the impetus for the very existence of the enterprise or its defining feature.

Like more evidently mainstream bioethicists, in other words, disability bioethicists do not appreciate the productive character of power and thus misconstrue how ableism should be positioned in relation to bioethics; that is, these bioethicists do not seem to understand that bioethics is an expanding mechanism of institutionalized ableism rather than merely an arena and occasion for discrete instantiations of ableism. For feminist and disability bioethicists, ableism (and racism, transphobia, sexism, and so on) is a problem within bioethics that bioethicists who use different and even better approaches to bioethics aim to rectify. In short, feminist and (so-called) disability bioethicists continue to frame the relation between power and the subfield of bioethics in individualistic terms with reference to the unsavoury arguments of certain bioethicists and the unseemly consequences of certain practices.

In On Being Included, Sara Ahmed has explained how racism is individualized in this way within institutional settings, noting that other productive forms of power and the constitutive responses to them should be understood as similarly institutionalized. Ahmed writes:

The struggle to recognize institutional racism can be understood as part of a wider struggle to recognize that all forms of power, inequality, and domination are systematic rather than individual. The critique of the psychologizing of racism made by antiracist scholars and activists over generations is thus part of the struggle to recognize institutional racism (see Hesse 2004). In other words, racism should not be seen as about individuals with bad attitudes (the ‘‘bad apple model’’), not because such individuals do not exist (they do) but because such a way of thinking underestimates the scope and scale of racism, thus leaving us without an account of how racism gets reproduced. The argument can be made in even stronger terms: the very identification of racism with individuals becomes a technology for the reproduction of racism of institutions. So eliminating the racist individual would preserve the racism of the institution in part by creating an illusion that we are eliminating racism. Institutions can ‘‘keep their racism’’ by eliminating those whom they identify as racists.

My argument is that the very identification of ableism in bioethics with individuals (such as Singer) should be recognized as a surreptitious technology that contributes to the reproduction of the ableism that is a fundamental condition of bioethics. Indeed, tendentious constructions of the subfield of bioethics as a philosophically inconsequential, politically neutral, unmotivated, and innocuous field of inquiry are part and parcel of what I call “the mystique of bioethics.”

I use the term mystique of bioethics to refer to both (1) the mystical illusion that the field of bioethics is the domain of a distinct specialist knowledge that renders bioethicists uniquely qualified to adjudicate certain questions and concerns; and (2) the technology of this supposedly specialist knowledge whereby systemic social and political problems are mystified through medicalization and individualization. I concur with Michel Foucault’s evocative insight that “power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to an ability to hide its own mechanisms” (Foucault 1975).

An addendum to this post can be found here.

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