SAP Conference 2010

Since spending the weekend at the Society for Applied Philosophy’s conference in Oxford, I’ve been mulling over the ways in which a couple of the papers I head have implications for bioethics (if, indeed, they have any).

I’m glad to say that I took something interesting from all the papers I attended; but that of Kate Moran (Brandeis) has had me mulling things over for a couple of days.  She was talking about Kant’s views on education, and his claim that it’s better to have education based in public institutions than in the home.  Kant thinks that this is because domestic education is more likely to bring forth and reproduce “family mistakes” – the accumulated prejudices, biases and so forth of generations.  Domestic education, he thinks, stymies the full development of moral character; it also fails to counter egoism.

Moran wanted to defend the family here, suggesting that it’s actually much better than Kant allows at inculcating moral development; for example, given that it (generally) is a fairly stable institution, it teaches kids virtues like the ability to appreciate and accommodate others’ narratives and values.  The kind of intimacy you find in families, she claimed, “will be extremely useful in gaining access to […] others’ humanity.”

I don’t think that this defence works completely, and this is partly because I think that Moran has too optimistic a view of the kind of honest criticism to be found in families – isn’t one of the virtues of parenthood unconditional love, and that may foster egoism precisely because it means kids don’t have to negotiate others’ competing claims – and too pessimistic a view of the stability of non-family relationships.

But there’s something else going on, too.  Let’s allow that Moran is broadly correct in her defence of families as a source of moral education.  A reasonable question to ask in this situation is how big a family ought to be.  If it’s too small, then its capacity to inculcate an appreciation for others’ reasons for action, and an understanding of the narrative features of humanity, will be diminished.  Bluntly, you don’t get to appreciate the humanity of others if you never meet those others; so there would seem to have to be a minimum size to the family for it to have the distinct virtues Moran wants it to have.

But there’d also have to be a maximum size, simply on the basis that every additional child would make domestic moral education a small bit more like public moral education; the distinctive features of family life can get swamped.  (As one of the other members of the audience pointed out, there mightn’t be so big a difference between a well-run family and a well-run orphanage; but once you’ve made that leap, why not also introduce a well-run kindergarten as a comparator?)

So it would seem to make sense, if you want to take Moran’s line, to think that there is a kind of Goldilocks level at which moral education is best served – one in which you get the stability, continuity and intimacy of the family, combined with the critical possibilities of the public.

So far so good.  But now imagine that you happen to be born into a non-Goldilocks situation, and your moral development suffers in some way as a result.  It’s still likely that you’d receive some kind of moral education – and, at least if you go in for a Kantian kind of a priorism, you’d only be lacking in the skills of practical moral application; you’d still have access to morality and the Categorical Imperative in abstracto.  (It’s also interesting to note that, in many places, Kant’s practical worries do seem to be consequentialist by nature: we ought to eductate publicly so that…; we ought not – as per the Doctrine of Virtue – arbitarily to harm animals, or damage brute nature, so that…)

Why’s this important for bioethics?  Well, partly its because anything to do with Kant is worth mentioning anywhere in my view.  But it also speaks to questions about fertility treatment and the question of procreative beneficence.  Presumably, at least some of the points Kant makes about the benefits of public education translate to other contexts.  Hence we might well think that there is a “Goldilocks family”; that, for all kinds of reasons, its better to have n siblings, where 0<n<15.  (Obviously, I’ve pulled the 15 out of there air here; it could be 7 or 700; that doesn’t matter.)  Granted such a Goldilocks hypothesis, it might be possible for defenders of procreative beneficence to formulate some kind of policy about banning  further IVF once the number of children in a family reaches 1+n (noting that n siblings presupposes that there’s one extant child who is never countedn in n, else they wouldn’t be siblings at all).  But the same line of thought could also generate an argument for insisting that further embryos be implanted because it would be better for any extant child to have more than no siblings.

There’d be three major syumbling blocks to such a policy.  The first would come by virtue of an appeal to reproductive autonomy – and such appeals are generally fatal to procreative beneficence claims.  The second is simply the fact of the impossibility of implementation.  The third is that PB claims seem to founder on the non-identity argument anyway…

… which brings us back to the SAP.  One of the papers presented – Gerald Lang’s (Leeds) – claimed to have solved the non-identity problem.  (Lots of people seem to be working on this at the moment…)  The proposed “solution” looked to me to be heavily reliant on a kind of virtue claim – but, if I’ve understood things correctly, that isn’t likely to work, because non-identity isn’t a problem for virtue theorists, and Lang’s “solution” doesn’t actually solve the problem: it just denies that it’s a much of problem to begin with.  But I’ll have to think further about that, and to keep an eye on the journals – I think I probably missed something.

One thing I definitely did miss was Jakob Elster’s (Oslo) paper on how outlandish thought experiments can be and still be useful.  I regret not making it to this one; speaking with Jakob over lunch, he seemed to have something interesting to say (and something that may well have been relevant to some of the debates that have popped up in the comments to this blog over the months).  But I decided to go to the paper by Souzy Dracopoulou (Middlesex) on the utility of philosophy for policymaking – which was scheduled at the same time – instead… it’s just a shame that she decided not to go.  By the time the speaker and audience decided to write off that session, it was too late to gatecrash Elster’s.  Ho hum.

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