Ethical Embodiment and Moral Reasoning: A Challenge to Peter Singer

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This paper addresses Peter Singer's claim that cognitive ability can function as a universal criterion for measuring moral worth. I argue that Singer fails to adequately represent cognitive capacity as the object of moral knowledge at stake in
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    Ethical Embodiment and Moral Reasoning: A Challenge to Peter Singer Rachel Tillman  November 2011 Introduction At a 2008 conference called “Cognitive Disability: Challenges to Bioethics”, <1> Peter Singer presented a paper entitled “Speciesism and Moral Status.” <2> In this paper, Singer seeks to “clarify moral status”, which means, according to him, finding a criterion  by which it is possible to evaluate moral worth across species. He articulates a criterion he calls “cognitive ability,” asserting that it is possible to objectively compare species on the basis of this criterion. When he makes use of this criterion to evaluate moral worth across species, he finds that certain animals have a “higher” moral status than certain “severely cognitively disabled” humans. He then determines that we can reserve the notion of “personhood” for those beings that have enough cognitive capacity to project themselves into the future, and thus that killing certain “severely cognitively disabled” humans is a morally defensible action, because they do not suffer from such a death in the same way persons would. Like Singer’s conference respondent Eva Kittay, those who have personally known one or more human beings who are “severely cognitively disabled” are likely to find Singer’s conclusions abhorrent. Yet he continues to convince many of the validity of his arguments. Rather than argue directly against his conclusions, I want to propose that the best way to call them into question is to discredit his methods of moral reasoning. If these are problematic, his conclusions cannot hold. This paper uses feminist critiques of epistemology and moral theory to demonstrate why and to what extent Singer’s methods of moral reasoning are problematic. My principal claim is that Singer fails to adequately   "#$%&'( ")*+,%)-.# '., /+0'( 1-'2+.%.3 4 represent the objects of moral knowledge at stake in his theory. He thus fails to put forth credible epistemological claims, which undermines both the authority and trustworthiness of his moral theories and the morality of the actions called for by these theories. Such a feminist critique of Singer’s methods is highly significant for moral  philosophy. The rhetorical and argumentative force of Singer’s argument lies largely in its appeal to abstract universal methods of reasoning. Such methods ensure that Singer’s argument adheres to conventions of formal logic, which normally entail logically valid conclusions. These methods are widely used and accepted in moral philosophy. From a feminist perspective, however, it is precisely these universalizing methods that undermine the validity of Singer’s conclusions. By showing that the abstract, universal methods of reasoning Singer employs cannot unproblematically construe the objects of ethical inquiry, I show that these methods discredit their own conclusions. In so doing, I open up space for new understandings of appropriate methods in moral reasoning. My argument proceeds in three distinct phases. I begin by situating Singer’s method of moral reasoning squarely within what Margaret Urban Walker calls the dominant “theoretical-juridical model” of morality.<3> Such a method relies on abstraction and universalization to simplify and gain clarity about moral agency and action. Feminist theorists Lorraine Code, Sandra Harding, and Seyla Benhabib, among others, join Walker in problematizing this method of reasoning, particularly as a means for forging adequate moral theories. They direct their critique at the widespread theoretical assumption that subjects of moral knowledge and deliberation can and ought to be abstracted from historical, cultural, and relational contexts so as to be universal or substitutable. As these feminists point out, subjects of knowledge are determined by their   "#$%&'( ")*+,%)-.# '., /+0'( 1-'2+.%.3 5 historical, cultural, and relational contexts. Universal or substitutable subjects of knowledge cannot form the basis of a realistic theory about how moral deliberation and agency actually happen within the world. I want to extend this powerful feminist observation to illuminate the other part of the equation in moral knowledge, namely, the objects  of moral knowledge.   Since moral life takes place within a socio-cultural-historical context, the objects we seek to gain moral knowledge about   are also shaped and defined by their own historical, cultural, and relational contexts. One of the most blaring weaknesses of Singer’s reasoning is that he tries to use the process of abstraction and universalization to create a simple, clear object of knowledge, “cognitive ability” or “cognitive capacity” about which he makes knowledge claims which then form the basis of his moral theory. As I will show, rather than clarifying the moral issue at stake, this  process of abstraction undermines the possibility of accurate claims to moral knowledge, obscuring the object about which we are deliberating by eliminating some of its essential, morally relevant features. Secondly, I want to add an additional layer to our understanding of moral objects of knowledge by highlighting another highly important feature of objects of moral knowledge that Singer’s method obscures, namely their embodiment.  While most of the feminist literature on moral theory and moral epistemology focuses primarily on the importance of historical, cultural, and relational contexts, I argue that embodiment is highly significant to the construal of objects of moral knowledge. Methods of reasoning that rely on processes of abstraction and universalization inevitably eliminate embodied,  particular features of objects of knowledge in order to render them universal or substitutable. I argue that objects of moral knowledge are in the world, and thus that   "#$%&'( ")*+,%)-.# '., /+0'( 1-'2+.%.3 6 adequate representation of them requires  consideration of them as embodied  . This entails attention to empirical, developmental and temporal, as well as historical, cultural, and relational aspects of their existence. This focus on embodiment sharpens my critique of the way in which Singer uses abstract, universalizing methods of reasoning to posit “cognitive capacity” as a universal criterion for attributing “moral status”. Because cognitive capacity is inherently embodied  , Singer’s abstracted notion of capacity fails to adequately and credibly represent its morally relevant features within his moral theory. This renders both his theory and its implications highly suspect. Finally, I argue, following Walker, that Singer, as a moral philosopher, is part of an already existing moral landscape (1998, 4). To theorize about morality is to take part in moral life. Singer’s arguments are moral acts, and we must consider to what extent he is demonstrating that he can be trusted to theorize responsibly. As moral philosophers, we can use a feminist understanding and critique of Singer’s reasoning as tools both for engaging with the moral and ethical implications of Singer’s arguments and for helping others to see the implications of Singer’s work within its ethical context. The critique of methods of moral reasoning I put forth in this article is, I hope, an example of how we might be responsible to the objects of our moral reasoning as we attempt to find ways to adequately represent and responsibly deliberate about them. Feminist Critiques of Abstract Reasoning in Ethics  Singer’s approach to ethics falls within what Margaret Urban Walker calls the “theoretical-juridical model” of ethics. In  Moral Understandings  she argues that this model, which is derived from Sedgwick’s influential work in utilitarian moral theory, has  become the dominant model for thinking about morality in the twentieth century. As she   "#$%&'( ")*+,%)-.# '., /+0'( 1-'2+.%.3 7 characterizes it, this model assumes that moral theory consists in law-like, codifiable  propositions which issue from fundamental, impersonal, generalizations about moral life (38). Morality is something that moral agents can think or know, and it can be accessed in large part without recourse to empirical facts or social contexts. Moral knowledge is understood as timeless and “contextless” because it transcends all particular occasions or circumstances (8-9). Such a model, according to Walker, “shields from view the historical, cultural, and social location of the moral philosopher, and of moral philosophy itself” (56). According to such a view, moral knowledge is expected to transcend the  particularities of experience, which can only muddle the clarity of the detached, universal moral gaze (Code, 1991, 111). Singer’s theory that we can determine moral worth on the basis of cognitive capacity adheres closely to this model. Singer grounds his ethics in the explicit assumption that ethical deliberation is best done from a “universal”, meaning non-subjective, contextless, perspective. In fact, he notes in  Practical Ethics  that utilitarian ethical analysis is effective in finding the best course of moral action insofar as it relies on recourse to a “universal viewpoint” that abstracts out the particularities of each agent in order to be able to conclude fairly and objectively what action best promotes the greatest happiness (or best takes into account the interests of all) (1979, 10-13). The consensus within the history of philosophy, and particularly contemporary ethical theory, would affirm with Singer that appeal to universality is an important foundation for ethical reasoning.<4> I would argue that it is precisely the traditional reliance of philosophy on abstract, universal methods of reasoning that makes such methods seem a reasonable and valid
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