Utilitarian Thinking and Ableism

Content Note: Discrimination, Infanticide, Rape, Rape Culture, Systemic Ableism

"Ableism" written in white block letters on a brick wall. Key word: Peter Singer

Image Description: “Ableism” in white, block letters across a brick wall.


Two profoundly ableist articles had the disability community buzzing last week. Because of their subject matter, scope, and implications, it feels like many more articles were released, but it really is only two.

The first article discusses ethicist Athur Caplan’s argument for a blanket policy that organ transplants not be granted when people have “disabilities that impair you so that you cannot have any quality of life.” He used being in a “permanent vegetative state” as an example, but conceded later that people with Down Syndrome should be eligible for transplants because “they enjoy life,” and “they contribute to their families, and their families enjoy having them.”

Well, that’s very gracious of him.

What I do like about Arthur Caplan’s article is that, while he does take a stance on his position with which I’m uncomfortable, he also puts out a call for dialogue about where the line at which organ transplant should cease to be granted (and while disabled people aren’t mentioned specifically, he does recommend that disability groups and the “transplant community” be involved), and a fairly comprehensive list of talking points. I think that disabled people and their advocates have plenty of talking points to add, but I’m going to get to that.

I think that this was one of the most important talking points on his list, from a paper by SD Halpern and D Goldberg that recently appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine: “Some healthcare professionals contend that cognitive function should not be a basis for allocating organs because it allows healthcare providers to decide that some lives are more valuable than others.” We know from the organ transplant denial cases involving Amelia RiveraPaul Korby, and Lily Parra that this is already happening.

I want to move on to the next article and come back to this one.

Peter Singer, Disabled People and Rape

The other article that grabbed the disability community’s attention this week was about philosopher Peter Singer’s recent editorial in the New York Times about the Anna Stubblefield case. Anna Stubblefield was a professor at Rutgers University when she had sex with a disabled student, D.J., and was charged with rape. She was convicted in 2015.

Nathan Robinson’s “Current Affairs” article about Peter Singer’s editorial is very good and should be read in whole. It shows how Peter Singer actually argues that in the court proceedings for the Anna Stubblefield case, D.J. was treated in an unfair and ableist manner. Writer Astra Taylor interviewed a disabled woman who was in the courtroom during the trial and who absolutely agrees with Peter Singer.

Robinson’s article doesn’t explain, however, why Peter Singer then couldn’t leave well enough alone and suggest that if a person is intellectually disabled to the point where they don’t understand consent, they can’t withhold it, and therefore they’d presumably enjoy sex whether it was forcible or not. D.J. couldn’t speak, but even if they presumed an intellectual disability, Peter Singer posits, he must have liked the sex because he wasn’t struggling.

It reminds me of the 2014 case in Georgia where Judge Christopher McFadden overturned the “Guilty” conviction for a man that raped a woman with Down Syndrome three times in 12 hours because she didn’t “act enough like a victim.”

As Robinson says:

“The New York Times therefore just published a philosophical defense of raping disabled people, and Peter Singer has — somehow — reached a new low on disability issues. (Actually, to be precise, an argument that it’s not clear what the harm is in raping disabled people, along with the implication that non-consensual sex acts against physically and mentally incapacitated people aren’t actually rape anyway if the victims do not know what consent is.)”

Peter Singer’s argument is disgusting, but not unexpected. He has in the past:

  • Debated whether it might be moral to kill disabled babies, and decided that in some cases it might be immoral to let them live.
  • Said he couldn’t raise a child with Down Syndrome because it wouldn’t make him “happy” not to raise someone that would be his “equal”.
  • Suggested that the lives of intellectually disabled people are worth less than those of non-disabled people.

Peter Singer is a utilitarian philosopher. It’s important to note that, not just because of the reasons (outlined by Robinson in his article) that utilitarian thought just doesn’t work well when you use it to discuss people, but also because it makes so many damn assumptions.

And we all know how much I love those.

Utilitarian Thought and Assumptions

Let’s go back to Arthur Caplan’s article for a moment.

Because there aren’t nearly enough donated organs to meet the demand for them, the approach to how people get them has always been somewhat utilitarian, to make sure that they go to people who need them the most, who will get the most use out of them, and who will follow the post-transplant regimen properly. It’s unfortunate, but difficult decisions need to be made when allocating scarce resources.

However, there’s an assumption at the foundation of Arthur Caplan’s argument that intellectually disabled people are in a different class than non-disabled people. Not only should their suitability depend on the practical criteria outlined above, but also on a determination that it’s worth keeping them alive to begin with: Do they “enjoy life”? Do they “contribute to their families”? Do their families “enjoy having them?”

Utilitarian thought claims to be logical, but it’s so rooted in ableist assumptions that it’s downright dangerous when it’s applied to disabled people.

If you could go along with Arthur Caplan’s reasoning and (apparently) believe that those criteria are even remotely fair to propose, how would we measure how well they’re being met? What evidence of being “enjoying life” would a transplant team be willing to consider? Who does a person have to make “happy” to be considered? What barriers to potentially enjoying life (or to expressing that enjoyment?) should be taken into consideration? What does it mean, to “contribute to a family”? Does family have to be biological, or could it be friends? Should those two types of families be weighed differently, and how? What about people who, through no fault of their own, have seen little or nothing of their families and haven’t had the chance to make that many friends (like those that have been instititionalized for most of their lives)?

Is it right to assume that, in the absence of information from the person, that just because they can’t have what a non-disabled person considers a good quality of life, that they’re unhappy and wouldn’t want their life prolonged by an organ transplant?

Utilitarian thought claims to be logical, but it’s so rooted in ableist assumptions that it’s downright dangerous when it’s applied to disabled people.

Peter Singer assumes that there’s no harm when an intellectually disabled person who doesn’t understand consent and doesn’t struggle is raped. He can’t know that. He can’t read minds. He assumes that a low IQ = no inner life. As a bioethicist, he should know better. His assumption that everyone responds to rape by struggling is easily refuted. I hope that by now someone’s made him aware of just how ignorant he sounded.

I’m willing to believe that Arthur Caplan actually wants to do some good, even if he’s misguided, but I suspect that Peter Singer is really just an ableist fuck who tries to use ethics to justify his positions. And I’m sorry that the New York Times saw fit to print his tripe without a balancing article correcting his assumption about how rape could affect an intellectually disabled person, and that advised that lack of consent doesn’t imply consent. Don’t have sex with someone if you don’t have their consent, period.

Bottom Line

As icky as these articles are, I’m not all that shocked by them.

I wish I was.

It’s just not a shock anymore to that these attitudes like these are still out there. It’s disheartening, though, to always come up as the option that’s not as preferable in these utilitarian reasonings, especially when the ableism is so obvious and especially when it affects resource allocation and safety on even as a hypothetical.

True equality still seems a long way off.