Nearly every afternoon I drive to my son, David’s, place of employment and wait for the van containing him and his co-workers to arrive. There’s “J,” the lovable—to put it mildly—Korean kid who has a kind word for everyone and never fails to tell David, “You’re my friend.” (David’s response is, shall we say, less effusive.) There’s “A,” a young woman with Down syndrome who, like just about everyone with Down syndrome, is gentleness incarnate.
The idea that anyone would be less-than-outraged at the thought of harming or violating any of these people is an outrage to me. But not to the ethicist Peter Singer.
Now, I thought that Singer had exhausted his ability to appall me. After all, his views on disability and what we owe the disabled (answer: not much, if anything) are so well-known and so, well, appalling, that a fictionalized version of him was vilified and dispatched to Hell in Dean Koontz’s must-read “One Door Away From Heaven.”
It turns out that I have underestimated not only the depths to which Singer’s brand of utilitarianism will sink, but also just how far some disability rights activists will go in the name of autonomy and agency.
In October 2015, Anna Stubblefield, a professor of ethics at Rutgers’ Newark campus, was convicted of two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison. The victim was “D.J.,” a 29-year-old man with cerebral palsy “who cannot speak beyond making noises” and who, according to his family, “wears diapers and requires assistance with walking, bathing, dressing and eating.”
The details, laid out in this New York Times story, are disturbing enough. What’s even more disturbing was the recent attempt to exonerate Stubblefield by Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan. The New York Times’ headline, “Who Is the Victim in the Anna Stubblefield Case?” suggested that the answer was going to be “no one,” and the authors didn’t disappoint.
For Singer, a creature’s moral status, and its right to protection and dignity, is a function of its intellectual and emotional capabilities, not what species, i.e., homo sapiens, it belongs to. I say “creature” and “it” because, under this criterion, an animal, such as a dog, might be entitled to more protection that a person in a persistent vegetative state or even a person with severe cognitive disabilities.
Thus, it should not come as a surprise that a great deal of his and McMahan’s defense of Stubblefield’s actions centers on D.J.’s cognitive abilities, or lack thereof.
That defense took the form of a “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. The “heads I win” part was that D.J. may have had the cognitive capacity to understand and, thus, consent to Stubblefield’s actions.
The “evidence” for this argument relies on a technology, “facilitated communication (FC), that is, at best, controversial, and, at worst, a first cousin to the Ouija board. David Auerbach at Slate called facilitated communication and its defenders “a cult that won’t die.”
But even if you can convince yourself (which you shouldn’t), that there’s something to FC, keep in mind what was allegedly being “communicated”: consent to sexual relations with a caregiver whose power over D.J. was almost complete. Simple decency requires far more evidence of that consent than the zombie-like FC can hope to provide.
The “tails you lose” alternative was that if D.J. was “profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation.” Thus, “if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.”
In other words, people with insufficient intellectual and emotional capacities cannot be sexually violated because they lack the capacity to understand that they are being violated.
Let that sink in.
Coming from the man who (in)famously made the case for “selective infanticide,” this position isn’t surprising. Appalling, certainly, but not surprising. What is surprising is the ambivalence I found among some disability rights activists as I read about the Stubblefield case. They seemed to be more upset over how D.J. was treated by the court and prosecutors than over the possibility of his violation.
For them, the outrage was that “D.J. was not treated like a human with desires and dreams of his own, nor as someone who might be desirable to and dreamed of by someone else.” They felt that he was “being denied his rights to live fully and to be in pursuit of the life that he’d want for himself.”
In other words, by portraying D.J. as a victim, they diminished his agency.
Again, the only evidence they have of D.J.’s “dreams and desires” is FC, which is not all that different from relying on a tarot card reader in estate planning. Not coincidentally, the people making these kinds of arguments are far less disabled than D.J., and, to put it bluntly, have the luxury of being concerned about questions of agency and autonomy.
I can sympathize with this up to a point. Properly understood, the emphasis on agency—the ability to participate and, where possible, makes choices that affect your life—is a way of respecting a disabled person’s dignity. And, pardon the personal note, while my son may be autistic, he’s not stupid. (Last night, he read the headline about Bill O’Reilly being ousted from Fox News and asked me to explain what “sexual harassment” was. O tempora, o mores! )
But an overemphasis on agency, to the point that we want to push it on those who aren’t capable of exercising it, turns us from mutually dependent creatures who owe each other a moral duty of care and support to autonomous rights-bearing monads. Since any “right” is only as valuable as your ability to enforce it, where does that leave people like D.J.?
Ironically, all the talk about agency and the “right” to “live fully and to be in pursuit” of a life you have chosen is of a piece with Singer’s views on the moral status of the disabled. In both instances, the most important thing about disabled people is what they can do, not that they exist. What was going on inside D.J.’s head was more important than the betrayal of trust and the violation he experienced.
In his book “Dependent Rational Animals,” the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that, human life, at its best, is characterized by a “network of relationships of giving and receiving” in which what we are called “to give may be quite disproportionate to what [we] have received and . . . those to whom [we are] called upon to give may well be those from whom [we] shall receive nothing.”
This kind of mutual dependence and the obligations it creates are not dependent on cognitive or emotional capabilities or whether you are the subject of someone’s desires or dreams. All that matters is our shared creature-ness.
The superiority of this approach seems blindingly obvious to me. Perhaps that’s the problem: Blinded by the obvious, people are stumbling around in the dark looking for some other basis for human dignity and have settled for a Ouija board.
Like I said, appalling.
Image courtesy of scanrail at iStock by Getty Images.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.