Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Differently abled?

So, this post of Jon Cogburn's about ableism. (See also here.) I wanted to try to sort the wheat from the chaff in both the post and the comments without spending all day doing so, but in an hour I didn't manage to get far at all into the whole thing. Instead of a point-by-point commentary, then, here's more of a summary with comment.

I take his key claim to be this:
all else being equal, it is better to be able. Speaking in ways that presuppose this is not bad, at least not bad merely in virtue of the presupposition 
That it is better to be able than disabled is surely close to being analytic, although of course one might disagree about its always being better to be "able" than "disabled." (That is, so-called abilities might not be so great and so-called disabilities might not be so bad, but actual disabilities can hardly fail to be at least somewhat bad.) Perhaps disability has spiritual advantages over ability (I don't think it does, but someone might make that claim) but in ordinary, worldly terms disabilities are bad. Hence the prefix 'dis'.

Cogburn makes two claims here. Not only that it is better to be able but also that it is OK to speak in ways that presuppose this. The English language comes very close to presupposing this, so Cogburn is more or less defending the language that even anti-ableist-language people speak. There is language and there is language, of course, as in English, on the one hand, and the language of exclusion, say, on the other. But the idea that it is undesirable to be blind, deaf, lame, weak, sick, insane, and so on and so on runs deep in ordinary English. Could this change? Surely it could. Should it? That is the question. Or one of the questions. Another is how bad it is to argue that speaking in such ways, ways that presuppose the badness of blindness, etc., "is not bad."  

A caveat is probably necessary, or even overdue, at this point. Cogburn has been accused, among other things, of defending hate speech, so I should address this thought. He is not defending attacks on disabled people. He is not attacking disabled people. He is defending some linguistic expressions of the idea that all else being equal it is better to be able. These expressions might harm disabled people (by perpetuating harmful prejudices) or fail to benefit them as much as some alternative expressions would (by countering those prejudices), but Cogburn's claim is that no use of language should be condemned simply on the grounds that it involves the presupposition that disabilities are generally bad things to have.

Roughly his claim is that the presupposition is true, and therefore ought to be allowed, and that it is patronizing to disabled people to think that they need protection from words that are only imagined to be hurtful to their feelings. The claim against him (again roughly, and there are multiple claims against him) is that some speech directed at disabled people really is hurtful, even when it's intended to be sympathetic, and that the kind of speech in question creates an environment, a kind of society, that is detrimental to the interests of disabled people whether they feel it or not, and whether it is intended or not. It is this that is the more interesting claim, I think,because Cogburn agrees that disabled people should not be insulted or patronized.

As I see it, two questions arise here. Is it lying to say that it is not better to be able (other things being equal)? And if so, is this a noble lie?

The idea that it is a noble lie would depend on a form of utilitarianism combined with faith in the possibility of linguistic engineering. There is something obviously Orwellian about this idea, but something seemingly naive too. If we start calling blind people visually impaired instead how much will change? I have no objection at all to making such changes if the people they are intended to help like them. Presumably Cogburn doesn't object to this kind of change either. But if all we do is to change the vocabulary we use without changing the grammar then sooner or later 'visually impaired' will be used exactly the same way that 'blind' is now used, and will have exactly the same meaning, connotations, etc. These superficial linguistic changes, i.e. changes in vocabulary or diction only, will not effect deep grammatical change (by what mechanism would they do so?). Superficial changes can have deep effects, as when disfiguring someone's face leads to people treating them much worse, but it isn't obvious that changing labels will have good effects. Nor will they change anyone's ability to see.

Which brings us to the question whether that matters. Is it bad to be blind, or worse to be blind than to be sighted? In "Practical Inference" Anscombe writes:
Aristotle, we may say, assumes a preference for health and the wholesome, for life, for doing what one should do or needs to do as a certain kind of being. Very arbitrary of him.
Ignoring her irony, is it arbitrary? Is it bad or simply different to have 31 or 33 teeth rather than the standard 32? Are two legs better than one? One comment at New APPS says that it is not disability but suffering that is bad. Is that what we should say?

I don't think I would bother trying to do anything about a disability that did not lead to suffering, that much is true. But some conditions surely lead to suffering more often than not. Some of this will be fairly direct. My father's muscular dystrophy leads to his falling down from time to time. This hurts. And some of the suffering is less direct, involving other people's attitudes and reactions. Falling in public is embarrassing, but would not be if people were better. So should we fix the physical and mental problems (i.e. conditions that lead to suffering) that people have when we can or should we fix other people, the ones who regard or treat the suffering badly? Surely so far as we can, other things being equal, we should do both. And medical advances are more dependable than moral ones.

We might argue at great length about what is and is not a disability, but that some people are more prone to suffering than most because of the condition of their bodies or minds is surely beyond doubt. Pretending to deny this isn't going to help anybody.    

I feel as though I've been rushing things towards the end of this post, but I also don't want to keep writing and writing without ever posting the results. One thing that encourages me to keep writing is the desire to be careful to avoid both genuine offensiveness (bad thinking) and causing offense by writing ambiguously or misleadingly (bad writing). But then I think that what I'm saying, or at least what I mean to say, is just so obviously right that no one could possibly disagree. What happened at New APPS shows that this is false. It also shows that this is very much a live (as in 'live explosive') issue, and one that brings questions about consequentialism, relativism, Aristotelian naturalism, and ordinary language together in ways that can be very personal and political. I don't mean that it's Anscombe versus the remaining New APPS people, as if one had to pick one of those two sides, but it would be interesting to see a debate like that.      


  1. One thing that may make the issues here more complicated is that we may tend to run together two questions: (1) Is it true that, other things being equal, it is better to be able in some respect than not to be? (2) Does being able in some respect make you any more likely to flourish, to live a good kind of human life, than not being able in that respect? This latter seems much more problematic than the former. People who are deprived of some human good may respond in ways which ultimately make their lives richer. But this would not mean that what they were deprived of was not a good, and would not mean that it was not, other things being equal, a bad thing to be deprived of it. -- A further point, on the relation between disability and suffering. One point alluded to in Jon Cogburn's post was being able to enjoy the music of Mozart. The availability of things which are great joys to many people is an important kind of human good; and a disability which makes some kinds of joy unavailable is (other things being equal) bad, not because of suffering.

    1. Well, question (1) is only unproblematic if we all agree on what "able" means. One of the central difficulties of the debate revolves around how far that term is up for grabs.

    2. I took "to be able in some respect" to mean to be able to perform a certain kind of action or engage in a certain kind of behavior, which doesn't seem to need further definition. But if 'able' is understood in contrast with being disabled, then things get much more complicated. The World Health Organization defines 'disabilities' thus:

      Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

      I imagine all of these references to problems and difficulties, etc., are relative to some norm. If this norm is the human average then just about everyone will be disabled to some extent (because any deviation from the average will increase some difficulty or other--fitting in small spaces, lifting heavy weights, etc.--and no one is going to be exactly average in every single respect). And I can well imagine some people welcoming that conclusion. But if the norm is more a kind of textbook standard, with a broader range than the exact mathematical average, then fewer people will count as disabled, and questions of how the norm is decided can arise. 32 is the standard number of teeth, but the average is surely less than that. Two is the standard number of legs, but the average will be less. The traditional view, I take it, would be that these standards are natural and correct, so that if someone's body (or mind) deviates from them then something has gone wrong. An alternative view is that we can and should reject these standards in favor of others chosen on, presumably, something like utilitarian grounds.

  2. Thanks, these are good points. I'm pretty sure I had overlooked the difference between questions 1 and 2.

    I would think that the answer to question 1 is just about always going to be Yes, although some abilities will be more or less worthless. That is, it is almost never going to be bad to be able to do this or that, and usually it will be at least slightly good, but some abilities are just irrelevant and so whether we have them is neither here nor there.

    To question 2 I think the answer is more likely to be Yes than No in any given case, but I agree that "People who are deprived of some human good may respond in ways which ultimately make their lives richer." And, of course, they may respond in ways which make their lives neither richer nor poorer, just different.

    I agree with your further point too. It's not a point that I made, but I had not meant to rule it out.