Peter Singer and the Mystique of Bioethics: An Addendum About Academic Freedom in Philosophy

As I indicated in Part 1, many of the heated discussions in philosophy about academic freedom have revolved around the question of whether universities should extend invitations for speaking engagements to Peter Singer whose claims about infanticide and disabled infants most philosophers find reprehensible. In contrast to the reception of Singer’s work, feminist bioethics and (so-called) disability bioethics are generally regarded as progressive discourses that redress the bias and discrimination that (among other things) underlie Singer’s claims on this subject. I noted in Part 1, however, that the singular focus on Singer’s claims in this regard obscures the systemic nature of the ableist assumptions on which Singer’s claims rely.

Tendentious constructions of the subfield of bioethics as a philosophically inconsequential, politically neutral, unmotivated, and innocuous, if not progressive, field of inquiry are part and parcel of what I call “the mystique of bioethics.” As I pointed out, 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, through practices and strategies of mystification, systemic social and political problems are naturalized, individualized, and medicalized.

In Part 2, therefore, I drew on Sara Ahmed to discuss how this individualization in bioethics of ableism conceals the gravity of the problem that bioethics poses for disabled people (among others). In this brief addendum to the earlier posts, I want to turn the discussion back to concerns about academic freedom, tying bioethics and its rhetorical force to the apparatus of disability in order to do so.

My argument is that the apparatus of disability thrives in philosophy in large part because (1) critical philosophical analysis of the ways in which disability and ableism are materialized, naturalized, and individualized by and through the subfield of bioethics remains marginalized, dismissed, and even discredited; and (2) the philosophers of disability who advance the most comprehensive critiques of bioethics—that is, critiques directed at the motivational assumptions and aims of bioethics as an enterprise—are actively harassed, ridiculed, and remain almost entirely excluded from stable employment in philosophy. Indeed, the profession-wide ableist contract to quash the deepest, most comprehensive, critiques of bioethics is, I want to argue, the most consequential, most entrenched, and most obfuscated scandal in philosophy with respect to academic freedom.

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