May 30, 2024

Is disability a disadvantage or a mere difference?

Renewed interest in disability and philosophy has culminated in some spirited academic debate


Philosophical reflection on disability has a history, yet it is only in the past fifteen years that the contemporary Anglophone philosophical world has given it much attention. 

The renewed interest in the topic has culminated in a number of significant papers and books, among which is the 2015 book The Minority Body, by University of Virginia philosopher Elizabeth Barnes. Barnes argues for a social constructivist conception of disability. This means that the disadvantages that accompany disability are the result of social injustice, rather than physiological or psychological disadavantages.

Barnes suggests that, were the social injustices of the modern world to be remedied, the perceived disadavantages of disability would disappear. As she wrote in a 2014 essay, the overall disadvantage associated with disability would be removed if society were “fully accommodating of disabled people.”

Yet Barnes’s view is highly controversial, and has garnered widespread criticism. In an article published in the latest edition of the Journal Ethics, Guy Kahane and Julian Savulescu argue against Barnes’s “mere difference view”. According to Kahane and Savulescu, disabilities are objectively disadvantageous to an individual (they label their position the “detrimental difference view”). Kahane and Savulescu present a series of cases that seem to show that it would be impermissible to cause disability in an individual. And yet, it would seem that the mere difference view would permit  causing disability. Kahane and Savulescu argue that Barnes fails to adequately respond to this objection. For the two authors, this is sufficient reason to reject Barnes “mere difference” position.

Elsewhere, in a paper that appeared earlier this year as part of a Journal of Medical Ethics symposium on philosophy and disability, Stockholm University ethicist Greg Bognar provides an alternative critique of Barnes’s thesis.

Like Kahane and Savulescu, Bognar believes that disability is “no mere difference”. Bognar considers a series of arguments made by disability advocates in favor of the mere difference view. Some of the views he critiques include claim that disability is sufficiently similar to other mere differences that aren’t disadvantages, like race or gender; the claim that disability helps other people to cultivate other talents and aptitudes; and the view that disability is valuable because it is valued by those who are disabled.

Bognar suggests that none of these arguments sufficiently demonstrate that disability is not physiologically or psychologically disadvantageous for people. If he is right, then disability as such is detrimental and not just a trivial “difference”. Despite their arguments, Kahane, Savuesculu and Bognar go to some length to distinguish their criticisms from prejudice against disabled individuals. It is not a question of discrimination against a person, but rather a consideration of the moral/medical status of a condition. 

Is disability a disadvantage or a mere difference?
Xavier Symons
Creative commons