Embryos, Egalitarianism and Prisons - Dinner Table Digest Nº 11

The Dinner Table Digest is an intermittent collection of interesting material from around the internet, curated by Peter Thurley at Dinner Table Don'ts. Subscribe today!

I wanted to take a moment and highlight a few thinkers from the Prospect Magazine’s list of Top 50 Thinkers in 2020. While I’ve got some scruples with the list (Ross Douthat, really?), there are a number of interesting intellectuals featured that pique my interest, for a variety of reasons. Before I highlight three thinkers today, all women, I want to acknowledge that the Prospect Magazine list, published in the U.K., is centered almost exclusively in the Anglo-European context. This means we must remember that there are a TON of excellent thinkers in lesser-known places, largely in Asia and Africa, that don’t normally receive global exposure, each of whom are doing great work.

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Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson works on theories of equality and egalitarianism. I’m a little upset that I have never heard of her before, since egalitarianism has one of my primary philosophical interests for a long time. Moreover, as a student of John Rawls, I am doubly surprised that I hadn’t heard of her, since Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism is the theory in which I rooted my defense of health care as a human right for my M.A. thesis in 2007. Pulling from a 2018 spotlight article from The New Yorker,

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down…. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,” Anderson wrote.

One of the key differences between much of my philosophical research, however small it may be, is that I have tended to focus on ideals. Over in the 13 years since I graduated with my M.A., I’ve come to understand that pragmatism matters just as much, if not more, than any ideal scenario. I’m looking forward to reading Elizabeth Anderson in 2020-2021.

Next up is a Black prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Doing a bit of reading about her, I am already inspired, especially as I grapple with the systemic racism built into North America’s law enforcement systems, including prisons. Gilmore isn’t afraid to challenge thought leaders either. As this 2019 New York Times Magazine profile, “Is Prison Necessary?” notes, she went up against no less than Black feminist icon Angela Davis, suggesting that it’s not private prisons that are the problem, but instead the very institutions of policing and prisons as developed and administered by government that are the problem.

“[Angela] Davis noted the “mistake,” as she put it, in the film “13th,” by Ava DuVernay, in sending a message that the main struggle should be against private prisons. But, she said to Gilmore, she saw the popular emphasis on privatization as useful in demonstrating the ways in which prisons are part of the global capitalist system.

Gilmore replied to her longtime comrade that private prisons are not driving mass incarceration. “They are parasites on it. Which doesn’t make them good. Which doesn’t make them not culpable for the things of which they are culpable. They are parasites.” And then she began a sermon on the difference between the profit motive for a company and how public institutions are funded and run. In her fluency on these subjects, a certain gulf opened between the two women. If Davis’s charisma could be described as unflappable eloquence, Gilmore’s derives from a fierce and precise analysis, an intolerance of vagaries, and it was Gilmore who commanded the room.

I have already challenged myself to consider the argument for abolishing the police service. I suppose that means that now is a good time to start thinking about the abolishment of the entire penal system, as we have traditional designed it.

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is a biologist interested in the very first minutes, hours and days of human fertilization. Specifically she studies how embryonic cells morph and change within the first 14 days, taking special note of the plasticity of early human cells. CalTech highlighted Dr. Zernicka-Goetz shortly after she brought her lab to that university, across the pond from her home at the University of Cambridge:

Her work [reveals] that the early embryo has astonishing flexibility. Cellular programs can identify and weed out abnormal cells, allowing normal cells to take over and the embryo to remain viable. “This was, to my knowledge, the first discovery of what happens to those cells,” Zernicka-Goetz says.

The experience left Zernicka-Goetz intensely curious about how a handful of cells becomes a complete person — with a brain, limbs and emotions, pushing the University of Cambridge professor to culture human embryos in the lab for nearly two weeks longer than anyone had done before. The feat was hailed by the journal Science as the “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2016. Since then, the now 54-year-old hasn’t faltered in her quest to understand the earliest stages of human development, a period when many pregnancies fail.

As you can likely discern, these questions, particularly questions on the transition from fetal cells to personhood, and their answers will likely inform some of the most fundamental questions around the abortion debate. I will, however, leave my observations on that discussion for another time. Here is a short interview Dr. Dr. Zernicka-Goetz gave to a group of students after a conference at the University of Cambridge on “Why Reproduction Matters”


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