Toward an Abolitionist Genealogy of Bioethics

In recent years, philosophers have increasingly engaged with each other in passionate discussions about academic freedom in the discipline of philosophy and academia more widely, as well as participated in heated debates with members of the broader public about freedom of speech in society generally. The topics around which the most impassioned discussions and debates have thus far revolved include: the philosophical legitimacy of so-called gender critical feminism; the publication of articles about supposedly innate differences between allegedly natural races; and the extension to philosophers Peter Singer and Kathleen Stock of invitations to present their work, given the former philosopher’s remarks about the permissibility of infanticide in the case of disabled infants and the latter philosopher’s renown as a leading advocate of gender critical feminism, with its claims about the immutability of binary sex.

Most left-leaning philosophers denounce the transphobia that motivates gender critical feminism, repudiate the scientific racism that underlies views about innate racial differences, and condemn the claims about infanticide and disability that Singer has articulated. Nevertheless, many of these apparently progressive philosophers remain resolute that the principle of academic freedom demands that Singer, gender critical feminists, and other proponents of disparaged views must be allowed to advance them without fear of repercussions.

Notice the disparate levels of generality at which these repudiations take place. Although Singer’s arguments about disability are repeatedly condemned in the philosophical community, the systemic and structural character of the eugenic ableism that precipitated the arguments has gone virtually unaddressed and flourishes unabated. Condemnation of Singer’s views about disability is advanced exclusively as the ethical response to egregious claims of an individual philosopher, effectively obscuring and deflecting attention away from the historical conditions of possibility for his views and the comparatively pernicious ableism that other bioethicists produce.

The singularity conferred upon Singer’s arguments–which in turn frames common objections to them–enables both the eugenic impetus of the field of bioethics and the grievous statements of other bioethicists to remain systematically unchallenged, to be neutralized, and to persist, especially insofar as these statements (and the assumptions on which they rely) are routinely perpetuated in undergraduate bioethics classes, classes that are regarded as standard “service” courses and hence are a lucrative and vital part of philosophy department curricula and university infrastructure. Indeed, most philosophers treat bioethics as an innocuous “applied” subfield of the discipline that can generally be ignored; that is, although many philosophers eschew the arguments that Singer makes, they deem the subfield of bioethics itself—in which the value of disabled people’s lives is candidly adjudicated and the ontological status of disability is typically taken for granted—to be largely harmless, politically neutral, and insignificant.

Although disability bioethicists, too, insist that Singer’s claims about disabled people are morally reprehensible, their critiques are not sufficiently directed at the subfield of bioethics either. On the contrary, disability bioethicists are convinced that their work will serve to educate mainstream bioethicists (and the public at large) about the circumstances of disabled people’s lives, has the potential to improve the message about disability that the field of bioethics conveys to philosophers and the general public, will broaden the range of materials that bioethicists teach their students about disability, and will shift the focus of research on disability that bioethicists and other philosophers develop. For disability bioethicists, the governmental and eugenic character of the neoliberal values and beliefs about disability and disabled people that bioethics promotes are accidental features of the enterprise rather than its defining characteristics and the conditions of possibility for its very existence.

In other words, one of the presuppositions that underlies the efforts of disability bioethicists is the belief according to which the field of bioethics is not itself an instrument of power, not a technology of government. Disability bioethicists—although both critical of the views about disability and disabled people that certain bioethicists expound and inclined to point to systemic ableism in the field of bioethics more generally—aspire to modify and strengthen bioethics by correcting and eliminating biases and discriminatory assumptions that they perceive to shape some contributions to it.

Thus, philosophers who self-identify as disability bioethicists regularly participate on panels at bioethics conferences, collaborate with bioethics institutes, support mainstream bioethicists whose views are widely regarded amongst disabled people as detrimental to them, and aspire to publish in bioethics journals that these mainstream bioethicists produce. Disability bioethicists seem not to understand that an insidious feature of neoliberalism is its capacity to refashion itself in the practice of auto-critique, that is, to co-opt critique as means to achieve its own goals. Indeed, disability bioethics may be one of the most effective strategic mechanisms to emerge from the apparatus of disability and the biopolitical forms of neoliberal power that motivated it to coalesce.

Nevertheless, I want to point out that there is nothing necessary about the subfield of bioethics that demands that it should be fixed rather than abolished. If we can imagine a civic future for society without the police and prisons (and we must do so), then we surely can (and must) imagine a professional and intellectual future for philosophy without bioethics. Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach to inquiry will be crucial to the task of this transformation. Foucault adopted genealogy to critically inquire into the history of necessity on a given topic and the historical emergence of the necessary conditions for states of affairs, underscoring the importance of contingency and questioning what has been taken for granted as self-evident. Foucault’s genealogies are concerned with questions about the conditions of possibility for who we are now, that is, questions about how our current ways of thinking and acting came into being.

An abolitionist genealogy of bioethics would therefore put into relief the historical emergence of bioethics and the contingent character of its perceived indispensability to current modes of philosophical practice, including how debate about one of the historical conditions of possibility for the field of bioethics—namely, the conviction that certain people are not entitled to live–is cast as a justification for the field’s emergence and continued existence.

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