Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 200-203
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Norms and Values:
Essays on the Work of Virginia Held
Norms and Values: Essays on the Work of Virginia Held. Edited by JORAM G. HABER and MARK S. HALFON. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
I first came across Virginia Held's work when I read "Non-contractual Society," an essay that one finds footnoted in most works on care ethics. Later incorporated into her Feminist Morality (1993), this essay--which imagines a society modeled on the mother-child relationship--was among the first substantial attempts to articulate a "woman's moral voice." One gladly finds a certain [End Page 200] carefulness and unpretentiousness in her attempt to identify the morally salient features of motherhood.
Held's qualities as philosopher and teacher make her the recipient of Norms and Values, a tribute volume boasting an impressive lineup of philosophers interested in care ethics. The style and topics of the sixteen essays vary greatly, in a way the book's title does not signal. Essays for Virginia Held might be a more appropriate title, since most of the essays do not inquire into norms and values as such, and few discuss Held's work in detail. Held's short Afterword thanks, rather than engages with, the contributors. I note these details not as flaws, but to make clear that the collection (mainly) does not offer new discussion of Held's own work, but considers instead the topics on which she has written (feminism; care ethics; moral theory). The book closes with an exhaustive bibliography of her writings.
Two especially interesting essays take their cue from Held's attention to mother-child relationships. Eva Feder Kittay discusses, through an exchange of letters with her son (an undergraduate philosophy student), "whether selective abortion for disability 'sends a message' that devalues the life of the disabled" (174). Kittay and son raise a variety of considerations (lack of social support for care of the disabled; unequal distribution of this labor; the value of the disabled) and discuss Kittay's decision to raise her other child, Sesha, a young woman "profoundly mentally retarded with cerebral palsy," at home (173).
Kittay's most substantial claim is that two prominent accounts of the nature of meaning (H. P. Grice's and Roman Jakobson's) imply that acts of selective abortion do not (usually) send the relevant message. Regarding Grice's account, for example, Kittay observes that acts of selective abortion usually reflect the pregnant woman's belief that she cannot raise the child, rather than a belief that life with a disability is not worth living.
Kittay's subject is important, and I worry about the broader implications of her view. Feminists are rightly concerned about the significance of certain acts in certain contexts (door-holding, for example--see Marilyn Frye's "Oppression," and on a different topic, Tom Hill's "The Message of Affirmative Action"). This significance could be disturbing even if the acts in question do not "send a message." For example, the acts could be disturbing due to their effects on the attitudes of others. Take the case of acts of selective abortion. Given Grice's account of meaning, which claims that "'U meant something by uttering x' is true only if U intended, by uttering x, to induce a certain response in A" (192), and given the plausible empirical claim that women who choose selective abortions rarely "intend to induce in another the belief that the life of the disabled is not worth living" (193), acts of selective abortion rarely send a message of devaluing the life of the disabled. Nonetheless, such acts could be disturbing in that they affect society's attitudes towards the disabled in unhelpful ways. [End Page 201]
Larry May writes on another aspect of procreation, paternity. Discussing recent legal cases in which fathers sought custodial rights, May argues that the law should require that such fathers demonstrate a high level of commitment, and that biological parenthood alone should be considered to give only weak rights. Mothers demonstrate commitment through pregnancy; fathers...