Kevin Timpe's post entitled, "Moral Outrage", over at his and Thomas Nadelhoffer's new blog, Discrimination and Disadvantage, as well as this moving New York Times Magazine article by disability-rights advocate Harriet McBryde Johnson recounting her experiences meeting and debating Peter Singer, have both gotten me thinking about a more general issue that has bothered me for some time: namely, whether some philosophical questions, ideas, and arguments are simply wrong (and even vicious) to investigate.
On philosophy blogs, one often hears the refrain that we philosophers are/should be in the business of questioning everything--that nothing should be off-limits. As a staunch believer in free expression and academic freedom, I'm willing to accept that we should be permitted to engage in philosophical and scientific inquiry that others find hurtful, offensive, and morally outrageous. My question, though, is not about social policy, but about personal morality: that is, about what we should be willing to do ourselves, what kind of people we should be, and how these questions relate to philosophical inquiry (again, are there some questions we just shouldn't ask? Are there some arguments we just shouldn't make?).
Before I give the example that first gave rise to these questions in me, I'd like to begin by deferring to Timpe and Johnson. Timpe writes:
What I found pretty quickly, however, upon digging into the disability literature is that I become outraged by some of the views I encounter. These views aren't just (in my view) wrong, but (again, in my view) morally offensive. To hear individuals claim, for instance, that my son has no moral standing at all (despite never having met him); to ask, apparently in all honest, if the severely disabled have a right not to be eaten; to discover sterilization of some individuals with disabilities is not only legal but compulsory in some states--these, and other views, provoke a very strong visceral reaction.
Similarly, Johnson writes in detail of how harrowing her experiences meeting Singer have been. She writes:
It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called -- and not just by his book publicist -- the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that's not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live...
In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ''illogic'' of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness...
He responds to each point with clear and lucid counterarguments. He proceeds with the assumption that I am one of the people who might rightly have been killed at birth. He sticks to his guns, conceding just enough to show himself open-minded and flexible. We go back and forth for 10 long minutes. Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can't help being dazzled by his verbal facility. He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I'm not exactly angry with him. Yes, I am shaking, furious, enraged -- but it's for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.
Although I cannot (and will not) speak for them, Timpe and Johnson arguably imply that it is wrong and indeed vicious to entertain certain questions, ideas, and arguments, and indeed, that the very conception of philosophy that has led its practitioners to entertain those questions, ideas, and arguments--a conception of philosophy that coldly prioritizes Truth above all else, above flesh and blood human beings in particular--is in some sense morally rotten on precisely these grounds: the assumption that Truth is more important that human beings.
This is something that has long worried me, and which in my case emerged in a different area: the theological Problem of Evil. In his well-known work, "Why God Allows Evil", Richard Swinburne admits up front:
It is inevitable that any attempt by myself or anyone else to construct a theodicy will sound callous, indeed totally insensitive to human suffering...I can only ask the reader to believe that I am not totally insensitive to human suffering, and that I do mind about the agony of poisoning, child abuse, bereavement, solitary imprisonment, and marital infidelity as much as anyone else.
However, whenever I read something like this--when I read Swinburne's own answer to the Problem of Evil or hear some other philosopher of religion suggest that the problem has been solved, etc.--I can't help but shake my head in dismay. I experience Swinburne's words as a performative contradiction. When he writes, "I do mind about the agony of poisoning, [etc.], as much as anyone else", I think to myself: you just showed me that you don't! The agony of poisoning, child abuse, genocide, etc., are not things that one should "mind as much as the next person" (which sounds entirely cold to me); they are things that should inspire horror in you and lead you to think: I can't possibly answer the Problem of Evil; no one can. I experience it, in other words, as callous (to those who suffer) to even attempt to answer the problem. I imagine looking the eyes of someone who has suffered their whole lives with little or no recompense--a person for whom this world has been an abject nightmare--and I cannot imagine bringing myself to give that person any "solution" to the problem of evil in good conscience. And, I think to myself, if I couldn't say it to them--if they would think me a monster for trying to philosophically rationalize a world that they experience as a cruel joke--then I probably shouldn't say it, or think it, at all. I should instead--if I am to do justice to them, flesh and blood human beings--not even attempt to answer the question. Just like Peter Singer should not attempt to argue that persons with disabilities shouldn't be born.
Or so I am inclined to think. Am I wrong?