Disability, Well-Being, and Intuition

By Daniel Tippens

In 2014, Elizabeth Barnes published a paper in Ethics with the title “Valuing Disability, Causing Disability.” Barnes is disabled herself and observes that there seems to be a striking difference between philosophers and disabled individuals, when it comes to their intuitions about the well-being of disabled people. Philosophers tend to hold what she calls the “bad-difference” view: that being disabled is bad for you per se; that being disabled automatically makes you worse off or more likely to be worse off.

Conversely, according to Barnes, disabled people (as well as disability-advocates and academics in other fields in the humanities) tend towards the “mere-difference” view: that to be disabled is merely to be different rather than worse off. On this view, disability is similar to homosexuality — it is a difference that doesn’t intrinsically make you worse off, but diminishes your well-being contingently, given the way our society is set up and treats the disabled population.

Barnes wants to show that two popular arguments against the mere difference view fail to provide good reasons for believing that being disabled, in itself, makes one’s life worse. The arguments involve two ideas: (1) if disability is a mere difference, then causing disability is morally permissible, and (2) if disability is a mere difference, then causing a non-disabled person to exist instead of a disabled person is morally impermissible. Barnes argues that the mere difference view is either compatible with these arguments or bad difference defenders end up begging the question (in a sense, as we will see later); relying on the intuition that being disabled, in itself, makes one’s life worse.

Barnes’ paper is thorough and well-argued. She does a great job at mapping the conceptual space of disability ethics and well-being discussions, and I came away feeling well-equipped to read further papers on these matters. I also found many of her points to be thoughtful and compelling. While most of the paper was devoted to addressing the aforementioned arguments, what interested me most about Barnes’ paper, and what I’d like to discuss, was a point she made about non-disabled people’s intuitions. To me, it was a case of metaphilosophy meeting politics (and I say that with intrigue, not derision). Let me return to this point after showing how she arrives at it.

The bad difference defenders cite that if something is a mere difference, then it entails a particular kind of symmetry in the moral permissibility of certain actions. Take having blonde hair vs. having black hair. Most would agree that your hair color being blonde and not black doesn’t make you intrinsically worse off. In a society accepting of all hair colors, then, it seems that if it is permissible to use gene editing to bring a blonde haired child into existence instead of a black haired child, then it is also permissible to select against a blonde haired child and for a black haired child.

However, the opponent of mere difference says, while it is intuitively true that a parent, Cara, has done something wrong if she intentionally takes a drug that causes her child, who would have been born non-disabled, to come out of the womb disabled, it also seems that it is at least permissible, if not obligatory, for Cara to intentionally take a drug to bring a non-disabled child into existence when it would have been disabled — to “cure” the child (Barnes would use scare quotes around this term, since it is quite value-laden).

Given that there is this asymmetry in moral permissibility, it would seem that disability cannot be a mere difference. However, Barnes points out that the mere difference defender could argue that this asymmetry can be explained by the fact that unlike having blonde or black hair, being disabled as opposed to non-disabled risks greater harm to the child, given the way that society is set up. So the mere difference view could also give a plausible explanation for this asymmetry, without conceding that disability per se makes one worse off.

However, Barnes thinks the better strategy is simply to deny the intuition that there is any relevant difference here. In other words, if society were fully accommodating of disabled individuals, then if it is permissible for Cara to cause a disabled person to be non-disabled, it is equally permissible to cause a non-disabled person to be disabled (like how in a fully accepting society, if it is permissible to bring into existence a heterosexual instead of a homosexual, it is permissible to do the converse as well).

Here is where things start to get really interesting. For Barnes, the mere difference defender seems to be in a position to reasonably hold the intuition that it is equally permissible to select for a non-disabled or a disabled person, because he thinks that being disabled, by itself, doesn’t make one worse off. The bad difference defender thinks that these two things are not equally permissible, because he has the intuition that being disabled, by itself, makes one worse off. In other words, the conclusion about whether or not there is symmetry in Cara’s actions seems to be determined by which starting intuition one holds. It would appear that the bad difference defender is begging the question.

But not quite. Barnes goes further and maintains that there are special epistemic reasons to be suspicious of the intuitions of abled (she at times uses the word “privileged”) people in these matters, and I take it that she thinks this implies some sort of epistemic privileging of disabled’ people’s intuitions about the moral permissibility of certain actions, when those intuitions hinge upon questions of the relative well-being of the disabled.

Her argument is based on induction, and this is where metaphilosophy meets politics. Consider that for millennia, most heterosexuals have believed that homosexuality is intrinsically wrong; men believed that women are less intelligent; and whites believed that black people are less than entirely human.  For Barnes, given that our society has deep-seated ableist prejudices against the disabled (things like feeling of disgust or discomfort around disabled people and the (by now largely abandoned) idea that disability indicates some kind of wrong-doing), we should be concerned about the privileged majority’s intuitions about disabled people’s well-being and should epistemically downgrade them, to the point that they cannot override the views of the disabled, on the subject of disability. The upshot of her discussion is that employing arguments that depend on intuitions about disability and well-being will not provide any independent traction on this debate.

First, I agree that when we have good reason to believe an individual or group has relevant biases, we should be suspicious of their intuitions. When a known racist tells me that he thinks black people are less intelligent, I have good grounds to be suspicious. I am troubled, however, by Barnes’ conclusion that we should not rely on arguments that depend on intuitions regarding well-being in this debate (if indeed I am reading her correctly), because I’m not sure how else a debate about the mere difference vs. bad difference view could proceed. It’s a conceptual matter, not an empirical one, and as such, arguments will ultimately bottom out in intuitions about whether being disabled makes one worse off.  Beyond this, I wonder about her suggestion that we should epistemically downgrade non-disabled people’s intuitions on the subject of disability. Do we trust disabled people’s intuitions on this matter, then, by default? There are strong reasons for caution on this front.

Barnes claims that we should be suspicious about abled people’s intuitions, regarding disability, but a similar point can be made about the disabled. Human beings are remarkably adaptable. Under the most unfavorable conditions, people are capable of finding happiness. In a 2011 study, researchers found that locked-in syndrome patients — people who have full sensory and cognitive functioning, but cannot move a muscle — reported high levels of happiness and contentment (I realize these might not be equivalent with well-being). This is surprising and a testament to the remarkable ability of humans to adapt to difficult circumstances. Frequently, this is the result of subtle psychological mechanisms, and it wouldn’t be surprising to me if these, like implicit biases, were capable of influencing a disabled person’s intuitions about well-being. This argument, then, could be made in a similar inductive form to Barnes’: presently and historically, people’s intuitions about well-being have been influenced by coping mechanisms, and it is plausible that they are at work here, too.

Second, one can imagine cases where we would not accept a person’s intuitions, simply by virtue of their belonging to a relevant minority group. Consider the case of slavery.  It is well-documented that a number of former slaves, after transitioning to a free life, reported that they preferred being a slave or at least thought that being a slave was just as good as being free. One said, “For myself and them, I will say again, slavery was a mighty good thing.” [1]

Barnes notes that while disabled people may automatically lose some intrinsic goods (like hearing in the case of deafness), they also may acquire unique goods that aren’t available to abled people (such as feeling music through tactile vibrations — something becoming increasingly popular with the deaf community). In a similar fashion, some slaves noted the unique advantages that came from being a slave, “Things sure better long time ago then they be now. I know it. Colored people never had no debt to pay in slavery time. Never hear tell about no colored people been put in jail before freedom.”  [1]

Imagine, now, that we are in pre-Civil War times, and slavery is common in the South. You are a time traveler who has just read Barnes’ arguments, and you are trying to decide whether it is permissible to make someone a slave or to free someone from slavery. Slaves tell you that being a slave is a “mere difference,” pointing out the unique benefits of being a slave, how their society (plantation owners) treats them well, and they maintain that they are no worse off than a free person. Should you, as someone who lives in freedom (and lives in a society that contains racial prejudices), allow their intuitions to match or override yours? (Note that this isn’t to say you don’t consider their views seriously and with respect.) The answer to me is certainly not clear.

The point is that I suspect we will have to engage in arguments that deploy intuitions about the well-being of disabled individuals, in order to advance the debate. If this is the case, then while Barnes might think that we should epistemically downgrade privileged people’s intuitions, because they are likely influenced by ableism and other biases, the same argument might be applicable to the disabled. Additionally, it is at best unclear that a majority – even if considered privileged and subject to majority-based biases — should have their views epistemically downgraded, to the point that the minority’s position should simply be accepted by default.


  1. George P. Rawick, ed.,The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79.


82 thoughts on “Disability, Well-Being, and Intuition

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  1. dbholmes: I don’t know that I could tell you much more about this or point to a source. It’s just generally known in the academy as being the main reason for the two disciplines’ troubles, both in terms of enrollments and in terms of public perception, the two of which, of course, are related.

  2. Hi David, while I agree with your dismissing the author’s connection between sexual (or gender or racial) minorities and the disabled, I think you go a bit too far to say “we don’t revile the disabled”. I mean yeah maybe “we” as in people at this site don’t, but if you think there isn’t any bigotry against the disabled then you are not paying attention.

    They get laughed at, put down, shunned, and scorned. In some societies they are treated as signs of having done wrong or the presence of demonic action. They have been abandoned, tortured, and killed. Some active eugenics programs in western nations promoted the latter (even if the methods were supposed to be “humane”).

    As I argued earlier, while bigotry does exist for the disabled, it just isn’t relevant to the question of whether disabilities count as impairments versus variations. It is not the defining feature of the problems they face, in contrast to other minorities where it is not only the defining feature it is the only problem they face.

    So (on top of treating “disabled” as a monolithic class) the author erred in confusing issues that people with impairments face. I think this confusion was aided by her choice in language (as EJ argued). By talking about “bad differences” versus “mere differences” she was able to walk in social issues/perceptions that are not pertinent to the supposed question she was addressing. If she had chosen more neutral terms… like impairment versus variation… she might have caught her mistakes more easily.

  3. The sad thing is that Barnes is more than capable of being highly rigorous in her work. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Arche Project at the University of St. Andrews. It’s clear, however, that for Barnes, her political and personal commitments in this area are overriding.

  4. ejwinner,

    “That narrative is clearly marked off with paraphrasing single quotation marks. Your reading is not only uncharitable, it is careless.”

    I didn’t know what you did could be called paraphrasing (and you used both a single and a double quotation mark) and I’m sorry for the tone of my last comment but I still have the impression you’re condemning Barnes with the same kind of rhetorical techniques you’re accusing her of using.

  5. Two recent papers (Kahane and Savulescu, Bognar) also criticize Barnes’ line of argument. I think some comments mix up problems with this particular paper as opposed to the other interesting concepts from the disability literature. If difference between me and Usain Bolt over 100 metres is “mere”, in the same way as that between me and a paraplegic getting up a flight of stairs, how does this fit in with fairness, justice, equity etc regarding allocation of resources? The Nussbaum paper is one attempt at a “principled” answer. For development of social policy, there are always opportunity costs to consider – what else could we be doing instead. It is straightforward for some disabilities eg myopia, because it is pretty cheap to reverse the differences between me and other members of my society. Others cost more: making buildings wheelchair accessible.

  6. To be precise, I don’t think Barnes paper is very useful in itself but I also don’t think it’s useless or condemnable, and I don’t think the suspicions and the fact that she uses certain terminology are enough to condemn her work. Still, I’m not at all sure that the individuals who’s position she’s countering will be swayed in any way by her arguments.

    I don’t know if Barnes coined the terms bad-difference or mere-difference but the ideas seem pretty close to positions held by some philosophers and by some disabiity advocacy groups. Though caricatural in my opinion those terms still reflect the kind of polarization that often occurs within ongoing discussions of controversial subjects. I’ve read a bit more of her work and she’s mentioned a preference for the term ‘impairment’ and noted it also comes with its load of problems and I got the impression she prefers to stay with disability for now considering it’s the term in common use (and changing it is not the topic of her paper).

    Of course I find the the idea that all disabilities as experienced are bad or that all disabilities are ‘mere-differences’ or ‘mere-variations’ ludicrous, and though the paper is about the problems with arguments brought forth by people arguing the bad-difference position it would have been good had she at least alluded to the fact that the other ‘side’ wasn’t on solid ground either. For what it’s worth I have the impression she doesn’t agree with characterizing disabilities as simply mere-differences but that if she had to choose sides she’d go with mere-difference over bad-difference.

    I also don’t think it’s easy (or maybe even possible) to separate the negative social effects of disabilities, like marginalization, from the negative physical effects of disability. But whether they are or are not separable doesn’t change the fact that they are part of the relevant background to the issues discussed in Barnes paper, and are possibly (probably in my opinion) one of the main reasons behind current polarizations.

    Personally I find many of the common negative reactions to disability (including cognitive disabilities) like bigotry, marginalization, or exclusion a public health issue and worthy of serious consideration (along with similar kinds of pressure that other ‘groups’ are exposed to but who aren’t usually understood as having disabilities). That said, I feel a lot of the reactions in the comments confirm the need for a more careful choice and framing of terminology.

    1. I think you would find that most everyone here — certainly me — would be for maximal social accommodation of those with disabilities. What drives me nuts is the *obviously* absurd notion that someone who can never hear a symphony or opera or a song by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, what have you isn’t worse off than someone who can. It’s the insistence on this point and the Orwellian use of language to make it, rather than rigorous argumentation that I find offensive and off putting.

  7. Overall I would have to say the paper is insightful if not brilliant because it does not just teach us about able vs disable, but has more ramifications concerning subjects like environment and intuitions.

  8. This essay is inextricably bound up in our understanding of two key concepts, intuition and well being. What kind of intuition are we talking about? Humean intuition, rational intuition or the common understanding of intuition as a form of pre-rational grasp of truth? Since Dan-T did not clarify this term we can assume the latter meaning. We are comparing the intuitions of the disabled with those of philosophers. Whose intuitions are more accurate? The intuitions of the disabled target themselves. The intuitions of the philosophers do not target themselves but rather the disabled. Do philosophers speak for the disabled? That is a laughable conceit. We should rather let the disabled speak for themselves and accept that their intuitions are true for themselves.

    That poses a dilemma for we who are not disabled. How is it possible that those who lack our faculties see the difference as mere-difference and not bad-difference? How is it possible that they can experience the same well being that we experience? The rather abusive criticisms of Barnes’ paper reflect the incredulity of the philosopher audience. I in turn am left quite dumbfounded, no, aghast, by the abusive nature of the criticism and the complete inability to see or consider another point of view.

    I have to admit that I have difficulty understanding and accepting Barnes’ reasoning. I am left with the impression that she is struggling to find a rational justification for an intuition when there is none. She should not be looking for a rational justification because there is no need for one. In the same way our moral understanding is founded in moral intuitions and we cannot seek a deeper rational foundation.

    To address this problem we must look more closely at the concept of well being. West European culture has a goods, and agency oriented view of well being. According to that view of well being a disabled person must be the victim of bad-difference since they lack our goods and agency. It is incomprehensible that they could experience the same well being that we do and Dan-K strongly expressed this incredulity.

    Other cultures however have a very different view of well being, one that is more communal, more interdependent and therefore supportive. For example, here in Southern Africa, we have the concept of ubuntu.

    I am what I am because of who we all are.

    According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarised as follows:
    ‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.

    People who experience ubuntu have a higher sense of well being because it taps into a very deep need in society, a need for togetherness, interdependence, belonging and trust. In such a community we compensate for each other’s shortcomings.

    I suggest that this explains the counter-intuitive sense of well being that the disabled can experience. That is because in a well functioning society we go to considerable lengths to help the disabled, accommodating their needs and assisting them wherever possible. In this way we extend ubuntu to them and the experience of ubuntu promotes their well being, providing compensation for the lack of certain faculties. The disabled can then experience ubuntu in a warmer, deeper way that we normally do not. And this difference in the experience of ubuntu explains the differing intuitions.

    On the other hand, if we do not extend ubuntu to them we make them doubly wretched. First, because they lack certain faculties and second, because they are cruelly marginalised, made to feel outside the caring circle of ubuntu.

    I further suggest that the real path to well being in our society is through ubuntu, but that could be the subject for another essay.

  9. “someone who can never hear a symphony [is] worse off”: I think I am stating the obvious, but part of the point of “mere difference” is that there is always someone better off than you are in terms of cognitive or physical ability. It is a matter of social norms what relative differences are worthy of attention, modification, resentment, or stigmatization. Further, many worsenings of state are morally unacceptable if deliberately caused by the actions of another, but are not considered sufficiently severe that reversal of them is “a human right”.

  10. Dan-K,
    “There’s nothing social about the inability to experience an entire modality’s worth of beauty.”

    You and I cannot see ultraviolet colours because the wavelength of ultraviolet light lies outside the perceptual capabilities of our eyes. Many insects do and it is important to their foraging ability. But we do not share the same society so ordinarily we are not aware of the differences. Even when we are told about the differences we cannot imagine them(What’s it like to be a bat?).

    It is only because we are social that we are made aware of differences of experience within our group.

    But there is an air-gap between us that cannot be crossed by experiences. Only words can cross that air-gap. We only have knowledge of other people’s experiences because we have similar experiences and their words invoke our memories of these experiences. Therefore you may tell someone that they cannot ‘experience an entire modality’s worth of beauty‘ but that conveys no meaning since it is outside the range of their experience, just as the bee’s perception of ultraviolet is outside our experience.

    If the absence of ‘…an entire modality’s worth of beauty‘ cannot be perceived by them and the only knowledge they have is contained in your words, this becomes a mere-difference. There must be a shared experience before it can qualify as a bad-difference.

  11. Dan K,

    “What drives me nuts is the *obviously* absurd notion that someone who can never hear a symphony or opera or a song by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, what have you isn’t worse off than someone who can”

    I think I could argue convincingly that that isn’t necessarily the case.

    1. Great. Explain to me how a person is not worse off for an entire modality’s worth of goods — many of them among the greatest goods human beings have produced — being categorically unavailable to him/her?

  12. marc levesque,

    “and you used both a single and a double quotation mark” – Looking back I see that I did close with a double quotation mark, my bad. However I thought my intro to that narrative made the intent clear.

    “I think I could argue convincingly that that isn’t necessarily the case” (that one who can’t hear the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, etc., isn’t worse off than one who can). – Maybe about the Beatles, but not the Rolling Stones.

  13. Dan K,

    I didn’t like your comment on purpose, I was dwelling over it and I have a really sensitive touch pad.

    “It’s the insistence on this point and the Orwellian use of language to make it, rather than rigorous argumentation that I find offensive and off putting.”

    I guess I can see that, I know a lot of people have taken some of these issues beyond reason and in debate used them as weapons, but on my reading Barnes isn’t anywhere near that.

    “Great. Explain to me how…”

    I think that a person who say loses their sight or hearing say at 18 will feel worse off, for others I don’t see it as so obvious. You didn’t argue your statement and I’d thought I’d do the same feeling the subject can’t be done justice in a comment.

    But that said, and off the top of my head, I’d suggest for a start that 1) the brain isn’t so mechanical that having or not having a modality, or part of a modality, implies a significantly lower complexity of processing or experience, 2) the idea of quantifying beauty or a level of experience, and comparing those from one individual to the next is at best unreliable (I’d guess hopeless), and even if we could, 3) the level of a personal experience of beauty or a feeling of awe, their maximum levels, are I think more about things like biological homeostasis and relative peak processing than a reflection of the particular content or the level of input of a particular modality (among many other interacting modalities, including internal sensations and an extended view of proprioception).

    I also think socio-cultural factors are intertwined and an important part of the picture, and I don’t mean external events (Beatle’s song, a painting) are irrelevant or necessarily secondary.

  14. Marc: Visual arts and music are among the most cherished, valued human creations, on a planet-wide scale. I just don’t see how being deprived of any of them entirely isn’t anything but a terrible loss. Survivable? Of course. Possible to have a happy life without? Of course. But nonetheless a terrible loss.

  15. “most cherished, valued human creations”: I don’t think these aesthetic examples are completely useful. Because I don’t read Chinese, I have missed an entire universe of thought, some of which is possibly untranslatable into English. Ditto loss of spoken languages around the world, with all their associated cultural creations. Ditto the idea that I might never appreciate certain styles of music, no matter how often I expose myself to them. Either these are all terrible losses to me, or there are equivalent goods that replace them.

  16. Hi Dan-K
    Completely disagree, I’m afraid. I don’t believe one good replaces another. Certainly not goods like these.

    One should bear in mind that the final arbiter of this is well-being. Well-being is not equal to the sum of goods. Some people experience great well-being in a limited and very frugal life. I have seen this in small villages of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho where they have never heard Western classical music.

    Well-being is a slippery concept but I think Marc Levesque has hit the nail on the head when he mentions homeostasis. Our emotions tend towards homeostasis. To experience joy you must have experienced its converse, sadness, etc. Emotions are recognised by their contrast with their opposites and so we tend towards an equilibrium with meaningful variations around a midpoint. Your midpoint and the midpoints of the Lesotho villager are set at entirely different levels. The Lesotho villager may experience joy when a bumper harvest allows him to buy an extra sack of sugar, a greatly valued commodity. That extra packet of sugar in your home will not register in your emotions because you have different midpoints set at different levels.

  17. labnut: This is what I wrote:

    “Survivable? Of course. Possible to have a happy life without? Of course. But nonetheless a terrible loss.”

    Nothing I have heard gives me one iota of a reason to revise this. And nothing will. To do so, one would have to convince me that these are not extremely valuable goods, and everything about human society says otherwise. We wouldn’t fill museums with billions of dollars worth of visual arts if they were “replaceable goods.” People wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on music, if it was a replaceable good.

    Frankly, this dimension of the conversation is quite ridiculous. Special pleading gone totally wild.

  18. Dan-K,
    Frankly, this dimension of the conversation is quite ridiculous

    If you listened carefully you would have heard my amused chuckles echo across the Atlantic ocean 🙂

    Nothing I have heard gives me one iota of a reason to revise this. And nothing will.

    Yes, I know and I respect your stubbornness, but nevertheless insist on disagreeing.

    To do so, one would have to convince me that these are not extremely valuable goods

    I don’t have to convince you. All I have to do is point out that these goods are not valuable to all and are not necessary for the well-being of a great many people. That is a point you could hardly deny and is enough to support my contention.

    The second phrase in the title of this essay is, after all, ‘Well-Being’.

  19. labnut: Of course I denied it. Hence my point regarding global valuations of music and visual art, resulting in billions and billions of dollars worth of institutions devoted to them worldwide.

    Not getting any better, I’m afraid. We should just drop it.

  20. Dan-K,
    But nonetheless a terrible loss.


    You seem to be measuring the value of society by its accumulation of certain goods. Does that really define the value of a society?

    What if I said instead that it is the sum of love in a society that is the truly valuable thing? What we here in Southern Africa call ‘ubuntu‘ and what you might call ‘social capital‘(as popularised by Robert Putnam).

  21. Dan-K,
    the core of our difference is that you are talking about value and I am talking about well-being, which really is the heart of the essay. Of course they are related in that things of value can contribute to well-being. But well-being can be, and indeed is, achieved in many instances without the things you consider of high value. I furthermore argue that the chief contributor to well-being is an environment of supportive love. Moreover, ubuntu, or social capital enables a productive society that uses its surpluses to produce cultural goods. It supports the less fortunate in society and enables their well-being. Love really is the foundation of society, however imperfectly practiced.

    Of course I do not deny the value of your examples and you should not attribute things to me I did not say. Indeed I love Mozart’s horn concertos(among others).

  22. labnut: I have only made one argument throughout. Barnes’ point that one is not worse off for being disabled is obviously, demonstrably false. I did not say one could not survive. I did not say one could not be happy. I did not say one could not flourish. I said that one would be worse off for it. And nothing anyone has said here has even come close to touching that single point. As for the rest, it might very well be correct, but it’s not what I have been talking about.

  23. Dan,

    “Visual arts and music are among the most cherished, valued human creations, on a planet-wide scale. I just don’t see how being deprived of any of them entirely isn’t anything but a terrible loss. Survivable? Of course. Possible to have a happy life without? Of course. But nonetheless a terrible loss.”

    I don’t believe that someone who has a happy life and was born deaf or blind is necessarily more deprived or worse off than someone who isn’t deaf or blind.

  24. Dan-K,
    Barnes’ point that one is not worse off for being disabled is obviously, demonstrably false

    That depends on whose perspective you take. From your perspective they are worse off because you know what would be absent from their lives and if that faculty were now lost to to you, the loss would be keenly felt. That is your perspective but what is the perspective of the disabled?

    This is the whole point of the essay, that the disabled have a wholly different perspective, conditioned by entirely different experiences, hence they have have different intuitions about their well being. This is why I made the point about the air-gap between us, preventing us from truly knowing each other’s experiences.

    In this discussion you have failed to move from your perspective and consider the possibility that the disabled have a radically different perspective. Implicit in your arguments is an objective concept of cultural goods and human faculties contributing, in sum, to objective well-being. I agree that is true for our society as a whole but deny that it is necessarily true for the individual disabled. This, in a nutshell, sums up our disagreement.

  25. To digress slightly.
    My concept of the air-gap, preventing us from ‘knowing’ each other’s experiences, is also the solution to the problem of Mary’s Room. To recap, Mary is a genius raised in a monochrome room and has access to all the world’s knowledge. One day she escapes from the monochrome room into the outside world of full colour. When she sees the red rose does she now know more? The answer is no, because experience is not knowledge. Knowledge is an objective thing that can be accumulated and transmitted. Experience can never be accumulated and transmitted beyond the individual. Mary has added to her store of experiences but she has not added to her store of knowledge. She does not know something new.

    My experiences are not available to anyone else because of the air-gap. I cannot transmit them. I can only transmit words that label them. If you have had similar experiences my words may evoke your memories of similar experiences. But even your memories of similar experiences are distorted by the mind’s compensatory mechanisms and are moreover strongly attenuated. This is necessary for our psychological well-being. If memories of past suffering could be recalled with perfect intensity our present would be overwhelmed by the past. When I recall the pain of being attacked by a swarm of bees, I don’t recall the actual pain itself. I only recall the memory ‘that’ it ‘was’ painful.Those memories do not, thankfully, reproduce the pain itself but they do induce emotions of fear, avoidance and aversion. The emotions are attenuated by time and I no longer feel fear at the approach of a bee though I still feel mild aversion!

    This all helps to explain why the disabled have different intuitions about well-being and why our perspective should not be used when judging their well-being. Experiences are not knowledge and so we cannot ‘know’ their experience of life and therefore cannot ‘know’ their state of well-being. They must tell us and we must listen.

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