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 presuppositionThat 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.