Of Mice and Arthur Caplan

Arthur Caplan, professor of ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and “America’s leading bioethicist,” according to MSNBC for which Caplan writes, has a new whimsical look at serious ethical issues. The book, Smart Mice, Not-So-Smart People, is light and bright; an easy read filled with Caplan’s views on a host of contemporary ethical issues. Missing, however, is any kind of justification for Caplan’s views: We’re simply told what he thinks about stem cell research, or smoking in Kentucky Fried Chickens, or growth hormones, but never is any of these views supported by argument. Surely, that’s an odd tack taken by the country’s leading bioethicist — unless of course the country needs more and better bioethicists.

When moral positions are advanced without argument, the positions can appear to be the consequence of prior political views or commitments. Caplan’s book, unfortunately, does nothing to dispel this suspicion: indeed, the book is so rife with name-calling characterization of opposed views, one has little choice but to think the country’s leading bioethicist is little more than the spokesperson for “the country’s” leading cultural perspective on these issues. That’s a precarious position for any philosopher, particularly since the tradition of philosophy since Plato has typically understood the philosopher as standing outside and even against his or her country’s perspective. Of course, that Caplan’s views are widely held is no argument against them; maybe even their wide acceptance places the burden on those of us whose views are held only by a minority. But presumably one of the jobs of an ethicist is to help people holding either minority or majority positions understand why those positions are true or false, good or bad. I shall show below an example from Caplan’s book that illustrates how it fails in that task.

In one essay, Caplan discusses the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby. The movie concerns two characters, one of whom becomes paralyzed and asks the other to help her die. As Caplan explains, many people and groups objected to the film’s depiction of disability and death. Caplan writes, “The very idea that a severely disabled person might decide that her life is not worth living has driven various folks in the disability advocacy movement, a few highly visible figures on the right-wing talk show circuit, and some in prolife circles into a frenzy.” Nice characterization, right, of the vocal opposition? Frenzy caused by the “very idea” someone might decide for death! Well, the dismissive characterization of the other perspective worsens. “Conservative Rush Limbaugh, who has struggled with addiction to painkillers without feeling the need to defend this moral lapse, could not contain himself from ranting about how bad this movie is…. Michael Medved, another right-winger… has seethed about this movie as well.” Insult, non sequitor, and more insult. I expect more from a professional ethicist, but maybe we’ll get that momentarily?

Turning to those easy-to-frenzy disability advocates, Caplan gives this gem: “Let’s talk some frank talk about the disability movement.” (This looks promising; some candid philosophical evaluation, here we come!) Caplan continues, “It’s not fair to lump together all forms of disability. Not all disabilities are the same.” (Ok. I’m not sure who denies this, and this isn’t quite the philosophical depth I was looking for, but I’ll play along.) He concludes a bit later, “Can those in the disability movement stop saying that wondering whether you would want to live trapped in a bed forever [forever?], capable of only moving your eyeballs, makes you undervalue life with a disability?”

This is the depth of analysis Caplan provides. Those who disagree are frenzied right-wingers or disabilities advocates who despite their various disabilities are apparently unaware — at least until Caplan enlightens them — that “not all disabilities are the same” (he didn’t bother, by the way, to show any evidence that the disabled are unaware of this). In other words, Caplan abandons reasoned, thoughtful analysis in favor of name calling and condescension. His approach to these serious questions is merely in terms of debased political rhetoric. He doesn’t even seem to realize that his dismissive and insensitive description of the quadriplegic “capable of only moving [his or her] eyeballs” ignores the obvious sentience of the person: is his abandonment of reason so comprehensive that he cannot even impute it to the disabled at all?

Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.

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