Letter to the Editor, sent to Queen’s Journal by Professor Adèle Mercier, Department of Philosophy, on 29 September 2012, in response to editorials of 28 September 2012. (The Journal did not publish the Letter.)
Christine Overall is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She is one of the most innovative philosophers anywhere. For her work to be summarily dismissed as irrelevant by such thoughtless, hollow and patronizing platitudes as: “There is value to philosophizing on certain topics, but the arguments presented by Overall are too abstract and inapplicable to carry any significant weight in modern society”, repeated in an orgy of vacuity: “While philosophizing on these questions can be interesting, Overall’s argument ultimately has very little sway in the real world” –is unworthy of the mouthpiece of an institution of higher learning. It embarrasses us all.
With available contraception, reproduction becomes optional. With options come choice, with choice, increased responsibility. Contrary to the Journal’s claim, a great many “questions on the ground” follow straightforwardly from Overall’s invitation to view childbearing under ethical lens rather than as biological destiny. New technologies allow octogenarians to bear children: should a child’s feelings about having octogenarian parents figure in the decision to bring them into existence? A sixteen-year-old wants a baby so someone will love her: is that an acceptable reason to bring someone into existence who did not consent to being so used? A country (or planet) is overpopulated: is it simply a right to indulge our “basic instinct” to add more humans to the problem? Potential parents are carriers of genes destined to cause suffering to any child they conceive, they live in conditions of violence, war, pestilence and famine, that will condemn their offspring to same… These are substantive, serious questions “on the ground.” They force us to rethink our glib assumptions that children should be produced as long as it satisfies our own desires to produce them, and that it is morally acceptable for humans to proliferate themselves at the expense of other species. Many of our instincts we aim to overcome; why not this one?
Ironically, in the next column over, while denouncing “needless spending on sexual violence” that might “unintentionally upset students who don’t want to pay for that” (Egad!), we are offered this deep insight: “The idea that sexual assault is okay begins when children start forming their views on the world. The only way to stop the assaults in the community at large is to deal with this problematic mindset early on.” Any chance this “problematic mindset” could be related at all to the unethical mindlessness of the parents who brought those children into the world?
A philosopher is someone with a certain kind of imagination: the capacity to project from the actual to the possible. The better angels of our nature are inspired to greatness by such imaginings. Not so the clueless judges of Overall’s work. “Na-a-a,” say they, without a flicker of lucidity. “Too abstract” and “out of touch with the more specific questions that matter on the ground.”
The Leaders of Tomorrow these anti-intellectuals with their patronizing smugness and cheap perspectives? Plato help us all.
Department of Philosophy