Disability or Inability?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to consider an argument briefly referenced by David Benatar in a book of his I have been reading on a different, tangentially-related subject. It is an argument made by some disability rights advocates. They maintain that efforts to eliminate genetic handicaps and birth defects are discriminatory and unethical on the grounds that disability is a social construct. I’d like to investigate this argument and see if it holds water.

First, what do disability rights activists mean by “socially constructed”? It is important not to be too quick and assume they mean that being say, blind, is only a bad thing insofar as other people treat you differently. What they instead mean is that being blind is bad in a special kind of way because being able to see is normal in human beings. Our society is not designed for blind people. We regularly share information in a way that requires that individuals have sight. If everyone were blind, we would presumably share information differently, and being blind would not be bad in this special, distinctive way.

One way of illustrating the difference is comparing being blind to say, not being able to run 1,000 miles per hour. None of us can run 1,000 miles per hour and our society is consequently designed to accommodate this inability. We have planes, trains, and automobiles for this reason. We don’t typically feel inadequate because we cannot run 1,000 miles an hour, because being much, much slower than that is comparatively normal. If there were a genetic mutation in humans such that some of us could run 1,000 miles an hour while the rest could not, being unable to run 1,000 miles an hour would take on a social penalty. If the overwhelming majority of people could run 1,000 miles an hour but a minority of us could not, much less investment would go into helping slow-speed people to travel than presently does. Fast-runners would enjoy a higher quality of life than slow-runners not merely because fast-running is an advantage, but because society would exacerbate that advantage.

Disability rights advocates claim that while all of us possess “inabilities” or “impairments” some of these inabilities are especially punitive because they are not socially normal, and are consequently treated as “disabilities”. The result is that if you possess an unusual inability, you are worse off for additional reasons aside from the consequences of the inability itself. You are labelled as disabled, perceived as less productive, and suffer because society is not built for people like you.

Disability rights advocates argue that our efforts to eliminate certain kinds of inabilities that are socially abnormal is discriminatory. For instance, many of us think that if we could ensure that no children would be born with disabilities or birth defects, that this would be a good thing and that we ought to be trying to do it. However, many of those same people do not hold simultaneously the view that we ought to be trying to eliminate socially normal inabilities–many of them consider attempts to make human beings smarter or more athletic than what is presently normal “playing god”.

The disability rights advocates rightly identify that this thinking is inconsistent. Whether or not a given inability is common ought not to have any bearing on whether or not we should attempt to ensure no future people are born with that inability. In a society in which most people are blind, our reasons to cure blindness are nearly as good (or bad) as they are in a society in which blindness is abnormal. However, disability rights advocates then go to make what I believe is a mistake.

They move from here to the conclusion that we ought not to attempt to eliminate any inabilities, that we should make no effort to ensure that people are not born with disabilities or birth defects for the same reasons we do not attempt to make people smarter or more athletic.

The reverse conclusion is in order. We should attempt to liberate human beings from all inabilities, both common and uncommon. We should do this because independent of whether or not a given inability is socially normal all inabilities are harms. A blind person is harmed by his inability to see, and society is harmed by having to accommodate blind people. A mentally handicapped person is harmed by his inability to think, and society is harmed by having to accommodate the less cognitive. At the same time, we are all harmed by our inability to run 1,000 miles an hour, or to fly, or to think at levels currently inaccessible to us, or to live for vast lengths of time, and society is harmed by having to accommodate these inabilities.

Such a conclusion does not contest the principle concern of disability rights advocates, that we do a better job of accommodating disabled citizens. It is not contradictory to argue that we should attempt to ensure all citizens we create are as able as possible while simultaneously arguing that, should we nonetheless create citizens who are unable in one or more ways, we ought to accommodate those inabilities. Indeed, as I have argued it, there is no distinction in this approach between being born with a disability and being born with a convention inability. We must endeavor to accommodate legless people in the same way that we must endeavor to accommodate slow-walkers.

Is there any justification in putting more resources toward accommodating slow-walkers than legless people? The principle justification to which we could appeal is numbers. When we invest in transportation for slow-walkers, we help a larger number of people than we help when we invest in prostheses and other transport for the legless. Against that, we have the prioritarian argument, that legless people are worse off than slow-walkers, and so should receive priority. I resolve this problem by appeal to diminishing returns.

It very quickly becomes very expensive to improve transport for legless people (or to better accommodate disabled people in general). For many people, we know of no existing way to well and truly accommodate the inability. No matter how much we invest in accommodating someone with say, Down Syndrome, we cannot create equivalent conditions for that person to someone who is merely not a genius. If we put an absolute priority on accommodating more severely unable individuals, we end up putting much greater amounts of resources into helping a much smaller number of people much smaller amounts than we could achieve with the same resources for more conventionally unable people.

Instead, I’m inclined to embrace the view that we ought to provide resources for accommodation so as to maximize the amount of benefit we provide, irrespective of whom that benefit favors. I do not believe this necessarily results in disabled people receiving minimal accommodation once again due to diminishing returns. Returning to the slow-walker/legless person example, it does not take much in the way of resources to help a slow-walker go reasonably fast. We can help slow-walkers go 80 miles an hour by providing them with rudimentary automobiles. However, it would take considerably more investment to get those cars to go 160 miles an hour safely, and the difference between slow-walking and driving 80 miles an hour in benefit is vastly greater than the difference between going 80 and 160 miles an hour. After we’ve provided rudimentary automobiles, it’s probably more cost-effective to go to the trouble of making them usable for legless people than it is to focus all of our energies on accelerating their maximum safe speed. I believe the principle works quite well in most cases of this kind–utilitarianism with a concern for diminishing returns should allow us to accommodate the disabled effectively without requiring the kind of absolute priorities that could vastly reduce the rate at which many people’s lives improve.