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3.6.03

Regarding the article quoted in the last post, it’s also interesting the way the presence of a solution shapes our notion of what is a problem. There’s the obvious conspiratorial sense of pharmaceutical companies encouraging people to see themselves as sick in order to sell them a drug. But there’s also the sense in which the presence of a corrective technique creates an expectation that it will be used. It shifts a problem out of the realm of unfortunate happenstance and into the realm of things we can control. Things we can control are things we are responsible for. Compare the situation of a person who is unemployed because he has Down’s syndrome to a person who is unemployed because he is too lazy to go put in applications. We feel sorry for the first person, and are willing to support him in various ways, because we know he can’t help having Down’s syndrome. But we’re less sympathetic to the lazy person, telling him to get off his butt and work, because we presume he has control over the thing that’s keeping him unemployed, and should take responsibility for it. But say scientists developed a cheap and easy technique for eliminating Down’s syndrome. It seems likely that attitudes would shift, and we would start to regard a person who has Down’s syndrome as willfully avoiding doing something that would allow him to become a productive member of society. Down’s syndrome would no longer be an unfortunate thing out of his control, and so he would become responsible for it. Similarly, cosmetic surgery and more effective diets might lead to a loss of tolerance for ugliness and fatness, since ugly and fat people would be presumed to be able to do something about their condition. I wonder what this would do to diversity, since so often the rallying cry is "I can't help that this is who I am," with the corrollary "so I might as well be proud of it instead of ashamed of it."

We can see the opposite trend happening with the medicalization of some behavioral disorders, like depression or alcoholism. Things that were once considered matters of personal responsibility became uncontrollable medical problems. Many people feared that this would lead to placing the burden of those problems on society as a whole -- even if only in the sense of claiming sympathy and an end to blaming from others. The classic example is the criminal who exonerates himself by claiming to have been abused as a child. The presumption, of course, is that the claim of uncontrollability is false.

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