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Disability, Personhood, and Vulnerability

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This paper aims to discuss how science and technology studies (STS) can inform disability studies and challenge dominant approaches, such as the medical and the social models, in the ordering and representation of disability. Disability studies and STS have followed somewhat parallel paths in the history of ideas. From a positivist approach to their research objects to a strong social constructivism, both disciplines have moved to postmodern conceptualisations of science, technology and disability. In the same manner, this paper brings the conceptual vocabulary of actor-network theory (ANT) to the field of disability studies. ANT enables the ordering of disability as a simultaneous biological, material and semiotic phenomenon. The focus of the analysis shifts from merely defining disability as an impairment, handicap, or social construction (epistemology) to how disability is experienced and enacted in everyday practices, in policy-making, in the body, and in the built environment (ontology). This adoption of an ontological approach to disability allows the analysis to not only discuss how disability is done, but also to follow how disability groups and carriers of disability expertise and experience intervene in policy-making by developing ‘research in the wild’ and confronting scientific experts in different fora (ontological politics).
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This essay develops the concept of vulnerability in order to argue for a more responsive state and a more egalitarian society. Vulnerability is and should be understood to be universal and constant, inherent in the human condition. The vulnerability approach is an alternative to traditional equal protection analysis; it represents a post-identity inquiry in that it is not focused only on discrimination against defined groups, but concerned with privilege and favor conferred on limited segments of the population by the state and broader society through their institutions. As such, vulnerability analysis concentrates on the institutions and structures our society has and will establish to manage our common vulnerabilities. This approach has the potential to move us beyond the stifling confines of current discrimination-based models toward a more substantive vision of equality.
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In this article I examine the proposition that severe cognitive disability is an impediment to moral personhood. Moral personhood, as I understand it here, is articulated in the work of Jeff McMahan as that which confers a special moral status on a person. I rehearse the metaphysical arguments about the nature of personhood that ground McMahan’s claims regarding the moral status of the “congenitally severely mentally retarded” (CSMR for short). These claims, I argue, rest on the view that only intrinsic psychological capacities are relevant to moral personhood: that is, that relational properties are generally not relevant. In addition, McMahan depends on an argument that species membership is irrelevant for moral consideration and a contention that privileging species membership is equivalent to a virulent nationalism (these will be discussed below). In consequence, the CSMR are excluded from moral personhood and their deaths are less significant as their killing is less wrong than that of persons. To throw doubt on McMahan’s conclusions about the moral status and wrongness of killing the CSMR I question the exclusive use of intrinsic properties in the metaphysics of personhood, the dismissal of the moral importance of species membership, and the example of virulent nationalism as an apt analogy. I also have a lot to say about McMahan’s empirical assumptions about the CSMR.
This essay elaborates how an imbalanced reciprocity between inhabitants of places of relative safety and places of greater precarity results from pursuing security on the basis of a reactive fear of vulnerability. It analyzes a range of features that shape the complex forms that vulnerability takes with a particular focus on how the constitution of places as rhetorically and corporeally secure or not renders different groups of people secure and/or subject to heightened exposure to harm. This analysis suggests that vulnerability is better conceived as a process than a quality, mediating between conceptions of vulnerability as a universal condition and as a highly specific empirical condition. Finally, by departing from the negative, reactive view of vulnerability that animates the supposition of the boundedness of selves and places, an alternative conception of security that neither equates it with invulnerability nor opposes it to vulnerability can be developed.
The mass violence of the twentieth century's two world wars-followed more recently by decentralized and privatized warfare, manifested in terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and other localized forms of killing-has led to a heightened awareness of human beings' vulnerability and the precarious nature of the institutions they create to protect themselves from violence and exploitation. This vulnerability, something humans share amid the diversity of cultural beliefs and values that mark their differences, provides solid ground on which to construct a framework of human rights. Bryan Turner undertakes this task here, developing a sociology of rights from a sociology of the human body. His blending of empirical research with normative analysis constitutes an important step forward for the discipline of sociology. Like anthropology, sociology has traditionally eschewed the study of justice as beyond the limits of a discipline that pays homage to cultural relativism and the "value neutrality" of positivistic science. Turner's expanded approach accordingly involves a truly interdisciplinary dialogue with the literature of economics, law, medicine, philosophy, political science, and religion. Copyright
Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics presents a decade of thought about the origins and possibilities of political theory from one of contemporary Italy's most prolific and engaging political theorists, Roberto Esposito. He has coined a number of critical concepts in current debates about the past, present, and future of biopolitics-from his work on the implications of the etymological and philosophical kinship of community (communitas) and immunity (immunitas) to his theorizations of the impolitical and the impersonal. Taking on interlocutors from throughout the Western philosophical tradition, from Aristotle and Augustine to Weil, Arendt, Nancy, Foucault, and Agamben, Esposito announces the eclipse of a modern political lexicon-"freedom," "democracy," "sovereignty," and "law"-that, in its attempt to protect human life, has so often produced its opposite (violence, melancholy, and death). Terms of the Political calls for the opening of political thought toward a resignification of these and other operative terms-such as "community," "immunity," "biopolitics," and "the impersonal"-in ways that affirm rather than negate life. An invaluable introduction to the breadth and rigor of Esposito's thought, the book will also welcome readers already familiar with Esposito's characteristic skill in overturning and breaking open the language of politics.
Consider: Case 1: You can save a normal adult human from a burning building. Should you do so? Case 2: You can save a normal adult dog from a burning building. Should you do so? The ethical literature shows general agreement about the answers to the questions posed in cases 1 and 2, and general agreement about the reason for giving those answers. In case 1 you should save the human, and in case 2 you should save the dog. Why? Because both are morally valuable beings. Now consider: Case 3: You can save either a normal adult human or a normal adult dog from a burning building, but not both. Given that both are morally valuable, which should you save? Again the ethical literature evinces a general consensus, both about the answer to the question posed and about the reason for giving that answer. You should save the human and not the dog. Why? Because although both are morally valuable, normal adult humans are more valuable than normal adult dogs. Now consider: Case 4: Again, you can save either a normal adult human or a normal adult dog from a burning building, but not both. This time, however, the human is a stranger to you and the dog is your beloved dog. Which should you save?
As concerns about violence, war, terrorism, sexuality, and embodiment have garnered attention in philosophy, the concept of vulnerability has become a shared reference point in these discussions. As a fundamental part of the human condition, vulnerability has significant ethical import: how one responds to vulnerability matters, whom one conceives as vulnerable and which criteria are used to make such demarcations matters, how one deals with one's own vulnerability matters, and how one understands the meaning of vulnerability matters. Yet, the meaning of vulnerability is commonly taken for granted and it is assumed that vulnerability is almost exclusively negative, equated with weakness, dependency, powerlessness, deficiency, and passivity. This reductively negative view leads to problematic implications, imperiling ethical responsiveness to vulnerability, and so prevents the concept from possessing the normative value many theorists wish it to have. When vulnerability is regarded as weakness and, concomitantly, invulnerability is prized, attentiveness to one's own vulnerability and ethical response to vulnerable others remain out of reach goals. Thus, this book critiques the ideal of invulnerability, analyzes the problems that arise from a negative view of vulnerability, and articulates in its stead a non-dualistic concept of vulnerability that can remedy these problems.
This chapter deals with the issues of moral status, inviolability, and distributive justice concerning the radically cognitively impaired. It notes these people should not be called disabled because they - the radically cognitively limited human beings - differ only slightly from most other humans. This is with respect to their psychological capacities and potential to realize the higher goods of wellbeing. In fact, any of their claims to equality of welfare is questionable. The inability of a radically cognitively limited human being to achieve higher levels of wellbeing is a feature of his or her individual nature, unlike the case of physically impaired persons whose conditions are more factual. Instead, the radically cognitively impaired should form the standard by which to assess how well their lives are going because they are relatively highly well off on the scale that has been assigned to measure them. In their case the equality principle should be applied. According to this principle, the cognitively limited human does well in his or her fortune from moment to moment, thus the priority of equalizing wellbeing should be afforded tothe worst off.
Les etres humains different cruellement dans les dons que la nature leur fait et ces inegalites peuvent affecter leur mode de vie. Fort de cette constatation, l'A. propose une reflexion sur le lien qui unit incapacite cognitive, malchance et justice sur un plan philosophique. Il insiste sur la methodologie suivie : il distingue en effet argument comparatif et argument non comparatif. Il explique pourquoi il prefere le second au premier. Il conclut sa reflexion sur le statut moral du caractere congenital des inegalites cognitives
This paper defends “moral individualism” against various arguments that have been intended to show that membership in the human species or participation in our distinctively human form of life is a sufficient basis for a moral status higher than that of any animal. Among the arguments criticized are the “nature-of-the-kind argument,” which claims that it is the nature of all human beings to have certain higher psychological capacities, even if, contingently, some human beings lack them, and various versions of the idea that there is a special form of life that all human beings share but of which no animal can be a full participant. The paper concludes that none of these arguments succeeds in demonstrating that there are moral reasons to permit animals to be treated less well than members of our own species whose psychological capacities and potential are no higher than those of the animals.
Our narrower obligations often blind us to larger social responsibilities. The moral claims arising out of special relationships—family, friends, colleagues, and so on—always seem to take priority. Strangers ordinarily get, and ordinarily are thought to deserve, only what is left over. Robert E. Goodin argues that this is morally mistaken. In Protecting the Vulnerable, he presents a comprehensive theory of responsibility based on the concept of vulnerability. Since the range of people vulnerable to our actions or choices extends beyond those to whom we have made specific commitments (promises, vows, contracts), we must recognize a much more extensive network of obligations and moral claims. State welfare services, for example, are morally on a par with the services we render to family and friends. The same principle widens our international, intergenerational, and interpersonal responsibilities as well as our duties toward animals and natural environments. This book, written with keen intelligence and unfailing common sense, opens up new perspectives on issues central to public policy and of critical concern to philosophers and social scientists as well as to politicians, lawyers and social workers.
Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal
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Esposito, Roberto. Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.
What is Vulnerability and Why Does it Matter for Moral Theory?
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Mackenzie, Catriona, Wendy A. Rogers, and Susan Dodds. "What is Vulnerability and Why Does it Matter for Moral Theory?," In Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy, edited by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds, 1-29. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life
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McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Disability and Vulnerability: On Bodies, Dependence, and Power
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Scully, Jackie Leach. "Disability and Vulnerability: On Bodies, Dependence, and Power," In Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy, edited by Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds, 204-21. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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Shildrick, Margrit. "Visceral Phenomenology: Organ Transplantation, Identity, and Bioethics," In Feminist Phenomenology and Medicine, edited by Kristin Zeiler, and Lisa Folkmarson Käll, 47-68. New York: SUNY Press, 2015.
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Intertwined Identities
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