Disability Rights

The last weekend school of the academic year was entitled Disability and the Right to Life: Would the Disabled be better off Dead? This got us off to a rather bad start – lots of people objected to the words after the colon. I used those words because this is what people often say when justifying the abortion of a disabled foetus, or the discarding of a disabled embryo produced through IVF. I apologise to anyone who is/was offended.


Dr. Ben Wood

The speakers, both of whom were excellent, were Dr. Ben Wood from the University of Chester, and Jeff McMahan, the (relatively) new White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Jeff stepped in at the last minute to stand in for a speaker who had to pull out. Not bad eh? Getting the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy as a last-minute stand-in!? I was so relieved and very pleased.


Professor Jeff McMahan

Ben, who is himself disabled, argued that the way we treat the ‘costly’ among us is best considered through the lens of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, rather than by means of the language of rights, or Utilitarianism cost-benefit analyses. The language of rights, he said, has a tendency to focus on concepts like autonomy and freedom – on individualistic language often not well applied to the disabled, who by reason of their disability, are often less free or autonomous than the able-bodied. Evaluating the utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, on the other hand, depends hugely on the values that are used to determine costs and benefits. If our values accord with the myth of the atomistic individual so prevalent in contemporary thinking, we are likely to think that costly people are just a waste of resources.

But he pointed out, in thinking about the ‘costly’, we usually neglect the fact we were all once babies whose needs had to be satisfied by others, and we will all (with luck) become elderly, again relying on others to satisfy our needs. Each of us is, at some point in our lives, a costly individual. We also neglect to consider the benefits that many who have become carers have perceived only as a result of having become carers.

Keeping Mum: Caring for Someone with Dementia

Keeping Mum: Caring for Someone with Dementia

I can testify to the latter. Until I cared for my parents (both of whom had dementia), I had never given much thought to caring, or to those who do the caring. Having become a carer myself I realised that there was a whole wealth of experience to which I had previously been oblivious. I admit to being glad my caring days are over. But I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. (see my book: Keeping Mum: Caring for Someone with Dementia:  On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to produce people with disabilities in order to provide the rest of us with someone to care for would we? That really would be using others as nothing more than means to our own ends.

Jeff considered whether it would be desirable completely to eliminate physical disability should this be possible. He first considered types of screening from pre-conception genetic testing to amniocentesis, with the thought of aborting any child found to be physically disabled  . In doing so he distinguished between substituting one person for another (which doesn’t involve killing anything), and replacing one person with another (which does). We substitute one person for another when we hold off conception until we have screened ourselves genetically. Whether replacing one embryo for another involves killing a person depends, of course, on when you believe personhood starts.

Jeff next considered the arguments against the various types of screening for physical disability. There is, of course, the argument that abortion is wrong. This rules out any form of screening that might lead to abortion. Next comes the argument that screening for disability leads to fewer disabled people isolating those who are left and reducing their political clout. Then there is the idea that screening for disability expresses the view that the disabled are of lesser value than the able-bodied, that they are somehow not worth the resources that will be spent on them. Finally there is the idea that screening for disability is likely to reduce diversity which is, in itself, a bad thing.


Map of Deaf Experience

Jeff suggested that it is a problem for all these objections that if they are correct they seem equally to be arguments for intentionally creating physically disabled people. He mentioned in this regard the Deaf Community, who have explicitly argued that they should be allowed to have IVF in order to discard embryos that can hear in favour of embryos that are, like their parents, deaf.

The following day Jeff discussed screening for cognitive as opposed to physical disability. He emphasised that he would be talking only about severe cognitive disabilities such as anencephaly, not disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, which are consistent with a high quality of life. Jeff argued that screening for severe cognitive impairment is less controversial than screening for physical disability. This is because those who are severely cognitively impaired have a greatly diminished capacity for well-being. Jeff asked us to reflect on the extent to which our own well-being depends on the fact that we matter to ourselves, something that depends entirely on our cognitive abilities. He noted that whilst objections to screening for physical disabilities have force (though not, as he argued earlier, conclusive force), arguments against screening for severe cognitive impairment seem to lack a corresponding force.

The weekend was hugely stimulating. I suspect that many of us went away to reflect on prejudices that we hadn’t even realised we had.

If you would like to access the recordings of this weekend (for which you would need to be a member of the OUDCE Philosophical Society) click here.


About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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17 Responses to Disability Rights

  1. smcneil2013 says:

    Thank you, this is a very informative read. The right to live for persons with disabilities is a highly controversial one, in Zimbabwe in particular, there is a more religious take on this.There is no option really, one born with a disability is regarded a curse or punishment from God, that society has to bear. Prior to colonization, however, persons born with disabilities were viewed as supernatural beings and their value based on physical and social interaction.

    • Marianne says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the book. You make interesting points. But I do not understand your last sentence. Were disabled people valued more before colonisation?

  2. David Lilley says:

    “Evaluating the utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, on the other hand, depends hugely on the VALUES that are used to determine costs and benefits.” I have highlighted the word VALUES. We either have the GHP or we have VALUES. We can’t have both at the same time.
    We have these two great moral codes, the GHP and Kant’s categorical imperative. The first is rubbish whilst the second has Kant’s six proofs and as Kant said “we all know it anyway”. Since Kant’s was earlier you have to wonder if Bentham was aware of it when giving us Utilitarianism.

    Michael Sanders makes a great show comparing the two as if there was nothing else to compare. But J S Mill went one better with “On Liberty”. You are free to do whatever you wish to do, you are sovereign, provided you don’t break the law. What is wrong with Mill’s step forward that Sanders chooses to ignore?

    • Marianne says:

      Hi David,

      I don’t see why you say it is impossible to adopt Utilitarianism and have values. The Utilitarian values human happiness doesn’t he? He also values anything that conduces to human happiness, and arguably, therefore, all the other things we might value either intrinsically or instrumentally. You underestimate Utilitarianism if you fail to see this (and of course it is possible to acknowledge this and still to reject Utilitarianism). In On Liberty Mill argued you should be free to do whatever you want so long as you don’t harm anyone else (nothing about the law). Sanders probably acknowledged there were other things to compare – but how long did he have – an hour?


  3. David Lilley says:

    You are correct of course. We all have values. We all know right and wrong. Kant proved this and gave us all a conscience. But Bentham, who won a prize for writing the Russian jurisprudence system when he was about 18, was into law rather than ethics. I can’t think of an example where the GHP is just but I can think of 100s of examples where it would be unjust. You have ridiculed the GHP. But the biggest ridicule would be to choose VALUES over calculus. The GHP only does calculus. Kant wins but J S Mill goes further and yes we should replace “do no harm to others” with “don’t break the law”. The latter beats the former because it was arrived at via freedom of speech, freedom of the press and debate and scrutiny.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi David,

      I wish Kant HAD given us all a conscience. It is only NORMAL (and relatively mature) human beings who know right from wrong. Psychopaths and sociopaths merely act as if they know right from wrong. Bentham was into law AND ethics, not the former excelling the other (he was one of the fathers of utilitarianism). I hope i haven’t ‘ridiculed’ the GHP – I try not to ridicule anything, and especially not such an important moral theory. But again I take you up on the claim that utilitarianism ‘only’ does calculus. It does do calculus, but in pursuit of a very attractive human value – happiness.

      So it doesn’t matter what harm I do so long as I don’t break the law?! That is like allowing men to beat their wives so long as the stick is no thinker than their thumb! The law of the land can’t replace, but only supplement, the moral law.


      • David Lilley says:

        It is great talking to you and very kind of you to respond to my blunt way of putting things. It was blunt of me to say that you ridiculed the GHP but we Popper people do problem, tentative solution, error elimination, second go at a solution after learning the weakness of our first tentative solution. We attach super value to being critical of our tentative solutions because we want to get the correct solution as quickly as possible. We apply the falsification test to every idea and that means being blunt. If the idea is untestable its pseudo-science and goes in the bin. If its testable but fails testing it goes in the bin. But with the latter our knowledge has grow because we now know what doesn’t work. We never ask “where did you get your idea?”. We only ask “how can we test your idea?”. Its the universal scientific method. Its the answer to the biggest problem in philosophy, the epistemological problem.

        You and I would never ridicule the work of Bentham and James Mill. It is just the Popperian way to dismiss ideas that fail and grow our knowledge of the world. If the GHP fails as you pointed out in your “Utilitarianism-the final word on morality” then I’m afraid the boss, epistemology, takes no prisoners and the GHP goes in the bin.

        Popper also points out that we shouldn’t talk about happiness as no two people can agree of what makes them happy. But we can all agree on what would be misery. Political platforms should therefore be about reducing misery.

        Kant’s moral code is only applicable to rational beings which could be Martians or robots. It doesn’t apply to psychopaths, animals or children. Even J S Mill’s total freedom of the individual has the exception that you must interfere with the freedom of a child, indeed it is your duty, if the child is in the path of a bus.

        But we can go one better than the GHP, categorical imperative and J S Mill’s On Liberty and just recognise the obvious. We make all of our moral laws via parliamentary democracy (not to be confused with what J S Mill called “vulgar democracy” which Plato called rule by the masses when making his case for totalitarianism or guardian rule). And the biggest guarantor of our correct choice of moral laws is freedom of speech. It only takes one of us citizens to come up with the best answer for it to be heard and acted upon.

  4. David Lilley says:

    This is great. If someone writes a book entitled “The Critic of Pure Reason” it has to be the top of everyone’s reading list. But sadly not. Hume’s “Treatise on Human Nature” that awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber fell dead-born from the press when published in 1739. I’m not sure but I thought Bentham’s GHP, Utilitarianism, came after Kant and not before. And therefore is was for Bentham and James Mill to comment on the categorical imperative and not for Kant to comment on the GHP. But we are not here to comment on the categorical imperative or the GHP. We only do “standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing further”. So where is the post Kant and post GHP moral theory? Did it all stop dead some 200 years ago even though the GHP is rubbish and the categorical imperative is ultra cool thinking that could only have come from Kant. The answer is that we did take a step forward with J S Mill’s “On Liberty” and then we gave the whole of ethics up to testing via freedom of speech, freedom of the press and debate and scrutiny followed by debate and scrutiny. We make every single moral decision without recourse to ancient bibles, the GHP, On Liberty or the categorical imperative. We simply let the best argument win just as we do in science. We have not, and we cannot, move on from Hume’s bombshell “you cannot derive ought statements from is statements”. Laws of nature are fixed but we decide our social laws and there is no better way of deciding our social laws than that the best argument should win. To put it another way “western parliamentary democracies can do no wrong in the longer term”. Comments welcome.

    The above is the comment I made tonight on Michael Sander’s brilliant presentation on Kant’s moral theory. You are not biting.

  5. David Lilley says:

    I’m surprised that you haven’t come back on my two comments above. Nor indeed any of your readers.


    • Marianne says:

      Dear David,

      I do have a job you know! I must admit I read tehm and then forgot them. I will get back when I can.


      • David Lilley says:


        You have provided excellent replies to me but you don’t have to. I did mean prof. Sandell and not Sanders. You should meet up with Lulie Tanentt as she has provided the best YouTube on epistemology.

        On Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 4:48 PM, Marianne Talbot Philosophy wrote:

        > Marianne commented: “Dear David, I do have a job you know! I must admit I > read tehm and then forgot them. I will get back when I can. Mariane” >

      • Marianne says:

        Hi David where is Lulie Tanentt (spelling??) based – there are philosophers all over the world of course. Thank you for the tip.

      • David Lilley says:

        She teaches philosophy in Oxford and is co-editor of No Offense. Google her.


        On Sat, Jul 23, 2016 at 8:16 AM, Marianne Talbot Philosophy wrote:

        > Marianne commented: “Hi David where is Lulie Tanentt (spelling??) based – > there are philosophers all over the world of course. Thank you for the tip.” > Respond to this comment by replying above this line > > New comment on *Marianne Talbot Philosophy * > > > > *Marianne* commented > > on Disability Rights > . > > in response to *David Lilley*: > > Marianne, You have provided excellent replies to me but you don’t have to. > I did mean prof. Sandell and not Sanders. You should meet up with Lulie > Tanentt as she has provided the best YouTube on epistemology. On Fri, Jul > 22, 2016

      • Marianne says:

        Hi there, I did google her (though didn’t find out she was in Oxford, and have posted one of her lectures on my FB page. Thank you again.

  6. Karel says:

    Disability and the right to life. I believe that if there are opportunities to choose what is beneficial for the mother before the birth of the child, then it is a pity not to use the option. I agree with Kant on the question of the moral law, the categorical imperative. At the same time, I am aware of Aristotle’s emphasis on the virtuous person. If I have understood this well, Kant considers an act that is influenced by some inclination of the person concerned to act, such as religion, to be immoral. Utilitarianism calculates with advantage, and with happiness, but it is apparently different for different people.
    Moral law will not help without people at a higher level, I mean at a higher level that those people see the other person in the first place, and are not turned to their ego.
    We cannot think that we will remove people’s disabilities, that is an illusion, but we can perhaps influence it to a certain extent. A lot of people have experience with caring for people with disabilities, and I think some people like to remember that.

    • Marianne says:

      f you agree with Kant, of course, (and you consider the embryo a rational (or at least potentially rational) person then the embryo counts a en end in itself as well as the mother. Kant think acts motivated by inclination are not moral, but they are not necessarily immoral, an act isn’t moral unless motivated by reverence for the moral law.

      • Karel says:

        Thank you for the addition. For Kant, I thought about doing something for another person, so I don’t think I could do anything for him, but I’ll just do it. I think you learn it. I think the moral law is sometimes quite different, especially people who believe in a religion. This comparison of the embryo and the mother seems to me quite naive, as well as the opinions of believing people.
        I will return to people with disabilities, to people with dementia, because I also helped take care of one lady, 93 years old. I have experienced that with the lady, who spoke very little, it is possible to achieve a guided speech with her, that she then speaks more with her doughter. Her daughter often told me this, after I was alone with her mother for several hours. The brain is an amazing thing.

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