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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.
Ethics 116 (October 2005): 100–131
! 2005 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/2005/11601-
At the Margins of Moral Personhood*
Eva Feder Kittay
Sesha would never live a normal life. . . . The worst fear was that
her handicap involved her intellectual faculties. . . . Yet . . . it
never even occurred to me to . . . think of her in any other terms
than my own beloved child. She was my daughter. I was her mother.
That was fundamental. . . . We didn’t yet realize how much she
would teach us, but we already knew that we had learned some-
thing. That which we believed we valued, what we—I—thought
was at the center of humanity, the capacity for thought, for reason,
was not it, not it at all. (Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor, 150)
I cannot aspire, in one article, to convey the full force of the insight
that came to me as I wrote the final sentences of the epigraph above.
Instead I hope to clear away some of the arguments that block the
possibility of grasping it. I shall argue against the view that such intrinsic
psychological capacities as rationality and autonomy are requisites for
claims of justice, a good quality of life, and the moral consideration of
personhood—that is, that these capacities are the principal qualifica-
tions for membership in a moral community of individuals deserving
equal respect and dignity. In arguing thus, I recognize that I swim against
the philosophical tide. But to argue otherwise is to exclude those with
severe cognitive disabilities from the moral consideration of persons,
and I believe this exclusion to be as morally repugnant as earlier ex-
clusions based on sex, race, and physical ability have been.
* I want to thank the directors of the conference on disability at the Jean Beer
Blumenfeld Center for Ethics, Georgia State University, in May 2004 for providing me
with the occasion to write this article. I must express a special gratitude to Kit Wellman
for the time and very kind suppport he provided. I also want to thank Jeff McMahan and
Sara Ruddick for their comments on an earlier draft, and John Deigh for his incisive
editorial suggestions.
1. Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency (New York:
Routledge, 1999).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 101
People who wish to stake their claim in the moral universe appeal to a
common humanity. But philosophers prefer to identify the concept of
the “person” as the normative category, while designating “human be-
ing” as a merely empirical, descriptive one. Personhood holds open the
possibility of moral parity to nonhuman beings: heavenly beings, extra-
terrestrial rational creatures, our moral sisters and brothers in yet un-
discovered universes. More recently, some writers have kept personhood
as a possibility for nonhuman animals who possess very developed cog-
nitive capacities.
Personhood in the past has also been used less capaciously to ex-
clude specific humans: women, slaves, Jews, certain racial groups, the
disabled—those who, for one reason or another, were believed unworthy
or incapable of rationality and self-governance. As current disputes over
the moral personhood of fetuses and very premature neonates attest,
personhood has been, and continues to be, a contested category.
What endows these controversies with urgency are the real-life
stakes, for personhood marks the moral threshold above which equal
respect for the intrinsic value of an individual’s life is required and the
requirements of justice are operative and below which only relative
interest has moral weight. Jeff McMahan argues in “Cognitive Disability,
Misfortune, and Justice” (henceforth CDMJ) that those with congenital
severe cognitive impairments fall below that threshold and are not sub-
ject to the claims of justice.
In The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins
of Life (henceforth EOK),
McMahan argues further that neither the
death nor the killing of those falling below the threshold carries the
same moral significance as the death or killing of “us,” who are above
the threshold. These strong conclusions, argued with an elegance and
comprehensiveness that are dazzling, may have potentially serious con-
sequences for those who are thought to be “congenitally severely cog-
nitively impaired,” a term McMahan uses in CDMJ, or “congenitally
severely mentally retarded” (henceforth CSMR), the term he prefers in
EOK. While challenging such a well-argued and well-defended work is
daunting, an anxiety about the danger posed by this position motivates
me to open a dialogue with him and others who hold similar views.
2. Jeff McMahan, “Cognitive Disability, Misfortune, and Justice,” Philosophy & Public
Affairs 25 (1996): 3–35.
3. Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002).
4. To McMahan’s credit and to my gratification, I can report that dialogue has begun.
102 Ethics October 2005
In EOK, McMahan sets out to determine when and why killing is wrong.
He is especially interested in cases where those concerned are ones
“whose metaphysical or moral status . . . is uncertain or controversial.”
Among these, he includes “animals, human embryos and fetuses, new-
born infants, anencephalic infants, congenitally severely retarded hu-
man beings, human beings who have suffered severe brain damage or
dementia, and human beings who have become irreversibly comatose,”
all beings who, he says, are in some way “at the margins.”
In contrast
to “them,” there is “us.” But who are “we”? McMahan answers by de-
termining what “we” are, when we come into existence, and when we
cease to exist. That is, McMahan assumes paradigmatic instances of “us,”
as yet undefined, and sets out to discover what properties are important
to identifying individuals “like you and me.” The question first arises
with respect to the morality of abortion. Do “we” begin at conception,
sometime during pregnancy, at birth, or sometime thereafter? Are “we”
the same as those beings that emerged at conception, evolved during
pregnancy, and were born, or do we come into being only at some later
point? Comparable questions can be asked of those in late stages of
dementia or irreversible comatose states. There are also questions about
how “we” differ from animals and how those differences have moral
consequences concerning the permissibility of killing them.
The inclusion of the CSMR and the severely brain injured in the
list above may be puzzling. For they are clearly human beings, not
animals, and they are instances neither of life at its beginnings nor life
at its end. Unlike most others on this list, they are not at the margins
of human life. Later we will ask what role they occupy in McMahan’s
For now we will consider with McMahan the question of who or
what “we” are. We can say that “we” are persons. Personhood, as
McMahan will use the term, is the philosophical one found in Locke,
a set of higher psychological capacities that include self-consciousness
and rationality. As the traditional requirements for personhood which
McMahan adopts are not properties that humans maintain throughout
life, questions of personal identity, or who “we” are, may not be identical
to questions of personhood. McMahan, in turn, eloquently disposes of
alternative positions: that we are souls, that we are reducible to our
bodies, that we are human organisms (i.e., animated material substances
coded genetically to render human forms), and that we are bare psy-
chological capacities.
When we think about what we are, about when we came into ex-
5. McMahan, EOK, vii.
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 103
istence and when we exit, we consider what it is that grounds our rational
egoistic concerns for our future. Following Derek Parfit, McMahan says
that what matters to us as we form desires and plans into the future
(i.e., rational egoistic concerns) is not that we are identical to some
individual who existed in the past or to the individual in the future who
will benefit from our present actions and planning. What matters, rather,
is that we have relations of psychological connectedness and continuity
with such individuals, what McMahan speaks of as “prudential unity
relations.” These prudential unity relations, then, ground our rational
egoistic concerns, and, while even weak prudential unity relations may
do so, the stronger these are, the more closely do they resemble relations
of identity. As the prudential unity relations must be causally, or in some
other fashion, related to that which has physical, functional, and or-
ganizational continuity over time, the most promising account of what
we are identifies us as “embodied minds.”
The degree of rational ego-
istic concern about the future will vary with the physical, functional,
and organizational continuity in those areas of the brain where con-
sciousness is realized.
These points will become important as we look at McMahan’s treat-
ment of the CSMR. Recall that these individuals have brains that are
injured or anomalous and that they have had the impairment since
birth. At infancy, before the brain is well developed, the prudential unity
relations will be weak. Only as the brain becomes more highly developed
does the rational basis for egoistic concern increase. Furthermore, an
anomaly in, or injury to, the portions of the brain that result in certain
functional or organizational impairment will also weaken prudential
unity relations. A clear implication is that when the cognitive impair-
ment is both congenital and very significant, an affected individual will
never develop strong prudential unity relations and is, for these met-
aphysical reasons alone, very different from the rest of us. Such a being
cannot, on this account, be the subject of strong rational egoistic con-
cern for its future.
But personhood is not the only basis for moral consideration. In-
terests are as well, and there is no reason to suppose that only persons
have interests. Interests are among those things that we must satisfy if
a life is to go well, and they are tied to our capacity to experience goods
and harms.
6. Ibid., 68.
7. McMahan writes, “I suggest that the basis for an individual’s egoistic concern about
the future—that which is both necessary and sufficient for rational concern—is the physical
and functional continuity of enough of those areas of the individual’s brain in which
consciousness is realized to preserve the capacity to support consciousness or mental
activity” (ibid., 79).
104 Ethics October 2005
McMahan distinguishes between “interests” simpliciter and “time-
relative interests.” While “interests” concern a temporally extended be-
ing “given one’s life as a whole,”
time-relative interests are “what one
has egoistic reason to care about now (author’s emphasis).
The dif-
ference between “time-relative interests” and “interests” is that the for-
mer takes into account the strength of the prudential unity relations of
the individual.
We discount time-relative interests if the prudential
unity relations are weak. Therefore, argues McMahan, how others ought
to treat us, or whether we are fortunate or not, can be addressed only
in terms of time-relative interests, not interests as such, for while we can
have egoistic concerns for a future self, these may in fact not be the
time-relative interests of that future self. (For example, although I have
an interest in completing a book, my future demented self is likely to
have no interest in completing a book, much less the book my present
self wishes to complete.)
Fortunately, however, “we” generally have very strong prudential
relations to our future, and so it is rational to act as if our time-relative
interests will also be the interests of our future selves. The relations to
our immediate past get weaker as we go all the way back to conception,
so that we are prudentially only weakly connected to the infant that we
were. Our prudential connections to our infantile past are very weak
because the organism that was that infant did not yet have the psycho-
logical capacities needed for a rational egoistic concern about its future.
Accordingly, the time-relative interests of those weakly connected to
their future are weaker, and, for reasons related to their lack of those
capacities needed to reflect on their future, they have less good in their
That incapacity in the infant and the young child means that the
infant, at least, and perhaps the very young child as well, is not a person,
nor does it have a strong prudential continuity with the person it is to
become, nor does it have strong time-relative interests.
That those with weak prudential unity relations have only weak time-
relative interests may be a welcome outcome in the case of human
embryos and fetuses if one favors the right to abortion. The outcome,
however, is considerably less welcome for the case of infants or very
young children, those with severe brain injuries or dementia, and the
As is clear, a CSMR individual who never goes on to develop the
8. Ibid., 80.
9. Ibid.
10. Prudential unity relations at their maximum are equivalent to personal identity.
11. McMahan writes, “Overall, one might say that the degree of psychological unity
within a life is a function of the richness, complexity, and coherence of the psychological
architecture that is carried forward through time” (McMahan, EOK, 75).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 105
requisite psychological capacities of a normal human infant and child
will continue to have weak time-relative interests throughout its life. The
time-relative interests of the CSMR (who, given these metaphysical con-
siderations, have prudential unity relations significantly less strong than
“our” own) must therefore be significantly discounted. That is, the value
that their time-relative interests have for them is far less strong than it
is for us since the individual whose interest is satisfied is not identical
to, but only weakly connected and continuous with, the individual who
has this time-relative interest now. The consequence of all this meta-
physics is that it is much less problematic to frustrate the time-relative
interests of the CSMR than those of any of “us,” as their time-relative
interests are weaker.
These conclusions, furthermore, have implications for the status of
personhood. Strong prudential unity relations and the psychological
capacities that enable them also coincide with the definition of person-
hood, that is, the complex, sophisticated psychological capacities that
include self-consciousness, rationality, and autonomy. “We,” then, are
persons. Conversely, weak prudential unity relations arising from psy-
chological functioning that falls short of these complex and sophisti-
cated psychological capacities belong to those who are not persons. It
would seem, then, that the CSMR are not persons on at least two counts.
First, they fall outside the descriptive bounds of personhood as tradi-
tionally philosophically defined. Second, they fail to be persons on met-
aphysical grounds, which similarly require psychological capacities that
they appear to lack.
The concept of the person plays a crucial role in the account of
the wrongness of killing, and this role is what I have singled out with
the term “moral personhood.” When McMahan applies the Time-Rel-
ative Interest Account to assess the wrongness of killing, it yields serious
counterintuitive conclusions. That it may be less wrong to kill an animal
than one of us is generally consonant with our intuitions and is well
accounted for by the Time-Relative Interest Account. But, if it is the
case, as McMahan asserts, that the CSMR have psychological capacities
that are comparable to those of an animal, then the Time-Relative In-
terest Account not only justifies treating the CSMR less well than “us.”
It also leads to the conclusion that we treat the CSMR as we treat animals,
and this does not comport with common beliefs.
Even if we have to bite this bullet (and, with certain qualifications,
McMahan thinks we do), the Time-Relative Interest Account would also
have us evaluate the killing of some persons as more wrong or less wrong
than the killing of other persons, for some persons will have stronger
prudential unity relations and stronger time-relative interests than oth-
ers. McMahan, for example, would need to worry that the Time-Relative
Interest Account makes it less wrong to kill a ten-year-old child whose
106 Ethics October 2005
prudential unity relations are not yet as strong as those of an eighty-
year-old (assuming her mental capacities are still intact). After consid-
ering and rejecting a number of options, McMahan concludes that only
a two-tiered moral theory will do. The Time-Relative Interest Account
is adequate for nonpersons, but a morality of equal respect must prevail
for all persons, making the killing of persons equally wrong and not
dependent on gradations in prudential unity relations or time-relative
Just how bad are the implications of this theor y for the CSMR? Pretty
bad. First, because those with weak prudential unity relations have time-
relative interests that are significantly discounted. Second, because the
weak prudential unity relations also mean that the CSMR have a lower
level of good. McMahan argues that if we cannot carry forward our
experiences from one time in our life to another, we have less capacity
for rich life experiences—we are reduced to mere momentary pleasures.
One might think that having less good in one’s life means one is more
unfortunate than others and thus, at least on some theories of justice,
one is owed some compensation for one’s unfortunate state. But, in his
article “Cognitive Disability, Misfortune, and Justice,” McMahan disa-
buses us of the idea that the CSMR are owed anything at all according
to any account of justice, because, he argues, they are not unfortunate.
As counterintuitive as that claim may seem to many, McMahan argues
in both the article and the book that there is no standard by which to
assess the CSMR as unfortunate. (See below for the argument.)
Again, while the conclusions about the CSMR do not conform to
common intuitions, McMahan believes that we are compelled to accept
the following conclusions and revise our commonsense beliefs.
1. Based on morally relevant intrinsic properties, namely, certain
psychological capacities that define who “we” are, the CSMR have
no greater claims to having their time-relative interests satisfied
and not frustrated than do animals—and this includes the interest
not to be killed. This is so on two counts: first, because McMahan
presumes that their lives contain and are capable of containing
less good than those with strong prudential unity relations, and,
second, because they fall below the threshold of respect that gov-
erns relations to persons.
2. Claims of justice based on the idea that the CSMR are unfortunate
and should be compensated for their misfortune are mistaken,
since the CSMR are not unfortunate.
12. Unfortunately, I cannot take the space here to rehearse the argument in CDMJ.
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 107
McMahan is anxious to make it clear that this does not mean that
we must treat the CSMR as poorly as we treat animals today. First, he
wants us to treat animals better. Second, because CSMR are children
and siblings of “persons,” the special relations that persons bear to the
CSMR entitle the persons to exercise a degree of solicitude toward their
relatives that might not be directed toward animals. We can, within
certain constraints, treat the CSMR better than animals, but presumably
these constraints would hold us back from treating them as well as we
would want to treat persons. Furthermore, he insists, in CDMJ, that
benevolence, of course, is not ruled out. Nothing in his arguments is
intended to deny or render irrational the love we may feel for the CSMR.
Still the consequences of this metaphysics are pretty bad and make the
prospect of being, or being connected to, one of the CSMR rather dim.
We have thus far rehearsed the metaphysical arguments about the
nature of personhood that ground McMahan’s claims of the moral status
of the CSMR. These include the view that only intrinsic psychological
capacities are relevant to moral personhood, that is, that relational prop-
erties 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 those of persons.
To throw doubt on McMahan’s conclusions about the moral status
and wrongness of killing the CSMR, I will question the exclusive use of
13. It is the last two claims, along with the a set of arguments and claims summarized
below, that are used to support this conclusion: (1) The argument that “we” are psycho-
logical capacities tethered to a bodily form, and thus it is our possession of these psycho-
logical properties that is important to what we are. (2) The claim that all sentient beings
have time-relative interests and stronger or weaker prudential unity relations, which make
their deaths more or less significant and make the killing of those beings more or less
wrong. (3) The claim that the capacities which provide “us” with very strong prudential
unity relations and very strong time-relative interests are intrinsic, nonrelational, and
psychological in nature. (4) The claim that these psychological capacities are the same
ones that have traditionally defined personhood, and these allow us a greater degree of
good than that of animals and humans with psychological capacities comparable toanimals.
(5) A number of claims about the intrinsic properties of the CSMR leading to the con-
clusion that the CSMR have significantly lower levels of psychological capacities and rel-
atively weak prudential unity relations, capacities that are comparable to animals and that
place them beneath the threshold of personhood. (6) The position that moral status is
directly related to the possession of two properties with moral significance, that these
properties are psychological capacities, and that the presence or absence of these prop-
erties justifies the moral designation of an individual as a person or nonperson. (7) The
argument that only intrinsic properties of beings, not relational properties, are appropriate
to the moral status of personhood. (8) The claim that a two-tiered morality is justified
and necessar y to retain our moral intuitions about the wrongness of killing.
108 Ethics October 2005
intrinsic properties in the metaphysics of personhood, the dismissal of
the moral importance of species membership, and the example of vir-
ulent nationalism as an apt analogy. I will have a lot to say about
McMahan’s empirical assumptions about the CSMR.
McMahan devotes around eighty pages in a five-hundred-page book to
a discussion of CSMR, so we might wonder how important this group
is to his arguments about the morality of killing at the two genuine
margins of life—the period from conception to birth and those states
leading immanently to death. And yet these pages are located in the
central chapter and occupy the center of the book. We could say that,
to the extent that the placement of text mirrors the development of
the argument, the discussion of the CSMR is located at the very core
of McMahan’s concerns. They are not a mere afterthought.
McMahan, I believe, considers the CSMR for at least two reasons,
one methodological and the other substantive. The methodological mo-
tivation, I venture, arises because of the metaphysical and ethical problems
in using hypothetical examples to test our intuitions about identity, con-
tinuity, and personhood: the replication of an individual, teletranspor-
tation, brain transplantation, the fusion of cerebral hemispheres, rational
Martians, and Superchimps, among others. Hypothetical cases have ac-
knowledged limitations since our intuitions are unreliable when we con-
sider cases we have never encountered or which our imaginations grasp
only haltingly. Like the hypothetical cases McMahan and philosophers
often employ, the CSMR are intended to test our intuitions about per-
sonhood, but unlike these, they are real—not hypothetical—cases of hu-
man beings about whom we presumably have more reliable intuitions.
The CSMR are the perfect example of human beings who appear to lack
some of the features philosophers deem crucial to personhood and to a
life worth living, and so they are useful, first, to test intuitions concerning
when a human life is the life of a person and, second, to offer a challenge
for a moral theory to meet.
As McMahan wants his account of the wrong of killing to apply to
life across species, the substantive gain of examples using the CSMR is
ultimately to loosen the grip a preference for our own species has on
our moral intuitions and so turn our attention to and recalibrate our
sense of the wrongness of killing animals. McMahan hopes to adjust our
moral intuitions even as we allow for special moral protections for “us”
(i.e., those who have the relevant psychological capacities). Assessing
the moral status of CSMR is critical to this enterprise. The example of
the CSMR is used to pry the category of the human loose from that of
moral personhood and, in so doing, to undermine the importance of
species membership for moral considerations. There are two crucial
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 109
passages that we will examine. The first involves the case of the Super-
chimp, and the second analogizes privileging species membership to a
pernicious form of nationalism.
In EOK, McMahan explores the relevant standard by which to compare
the well-being of individuals. McMahan asks us to consider “a congen-
itally severely retarded human being having cognitive capacities com-
parable to those of a dog.” He contests the commonsense view that “this
human being has a terribly unfortunate life—even, perhaps, if the life
is characterized by a steady dull contentment, without significant suf-
fering or unhappiness.”
(Note the characterization of the CSMR here.
This is a characterization I will challenge below.) The severely retarded
human being’s life is not an unfortunate life any more than is that of
the dog, McMahan contends, because what he calls the Species Norm
Account of what constitutes a standard for an individual’s well-being
(and so for whether or not an individual is fortunate) is wrong. Mc-
Mahan offers two counterexamples, the anencephalic infant and the
Superchimp, to defeat the idea that an individual’s species norm is the
correct standard by which to judge its good or ill fortune. I explore
each proposed counterexample in turn.
In the case of the anencephalic infant, McMahan avers, it makes
little sense to say that this life is bad for a human being. As a being with
no capacity for consciousness, it has essentially no capacity for well-
being: “It makes no more sense to claim that an anencephalic is un-
fortunate, or badly off, than it does to make this claim about a plant.”
Although beings who lack self-consciousness will not be able to
assess their conscious experiences as contributing to their well-being,
McMahan allows that such beings may still have interests. If we follow
Stephen Darwall’s account of care, which is that care involves concern
for the well-being of the cared for—for his or her own sake—then when
we care for someone for the individual’s own sake we do so because we
presume that the individual has a sake for which to care. That is, we
attribute to that individual an egoistic concern, even if the individual
herself or himself fails to be conscious of, or is unable to articulate,
such a concern.
Why then can a third party not have the requisite concern for an
anencephalic infant for its own sake, which would serve as a surrogate
14. McMahan, EOK, 146.
15. Ibid., 147.
16. Stephen Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2002).
110 Ethics October 2005
for the infant’s egoistic concern?
McMahan would respond that a being
who cannot have any experiences (in any way that resembles our own)
really lacks any sake which is its own. And yet, this assessment is strangely
out of tune with reports from people who have had an anencephalic
child born into their families, for a sense of tragedy surrounds the birth
of such a child.
McMahan would certainly allow that the parents may
feel a terrible sense of loss, but he would deny that one could feel badly
for this child. But McMahan is wrong. When an anencephalic child is
born, that child is identified as the one who was growing within the
mother’s womb, the one for whom she made the sacrifices an expectant
mother makes and for whose well-being she labored, for that individual’s
own sake.
One may reply that the phenomenology of the parents is not re-
liable epistemically, that the mother may have the same thoughts even
where a purported pregnancy turned out to be a giant tumor. But such
a reply is equally wrong. The response of grief and the sense of loss in
the two cases are very different. In the case of the tumor, the response
would be a sense of loss for only oneself. The grief is the outcome of
the mother’s frustrated desire to have a child. But such is only part of
the response to the birth of an anencephalic. That sorrow is also for
an infant who was born only to die, to be incapable of living the life
characteristic of other human infants. In the case of a tumor, the tumor
in itself is nothing to mourn. A tumor never might have been anything
but a tumor. The anencephalic infant, by contrast, might have been
that very same individual but with an intact brain.
While the anen-
cephalic is itself incapable of consciousness, that infant, in a possible
world very close to our own, would have been born with all the capacities
for consciousness. It is the loss of this rigidly designated individual that
is mourned.
Moreover, what makes such mourning rational, even in the case of
an anencephalic infant, I want to argue now, is the role of social relations
in the constitution of identity. By ‘social relations’ I do not mean the
sort of ad hoc interpersonal relationships which are often voluntarily
17. McMahan entertains such a notion in his discussion of prenatal injury to a fetus
that has an impact on the later time-relative interests of the individual that the fetus will
become. See EOK, 280 –88.
18. A close example is found in Hilde Nelson’s moving account of her family’s ex-
perience with the birth of a hydrocephalic infant. The hydrocephalic infant, however,
unlike a truly anencephalic child, can look at you and be aware of you. See Hilde Lin-
demann Nelson, “What Child Is This?” Hastings Center Report 32 (2002): 29–39.
19. Note that I am not asserting the hypothetical that this would be the identical
person. To do so would be to beg the question, ignoring MacMahan’s definition of per-
sonhood as a body tethered to certain psychological capacities. I am only asserting here
that this infant may have been the same individual.
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 111
entered into and easily exited, those the character of which is deter-
mined only by the individuals in question. Clearly these sorts of inter-
personal relationships require two fully conscious individuals, each of
whom plays a part in forming the relationship.
By a ‘social relation I mean a place in a matrix of relationships
embedded in social practices through which the relations acquire mean-
ings. It is by virtue of the meanings that the relationships acquire in social
practices that duties are delineated, ways we enter and exit relationships
are determined, emotional responses are deemed appropriate, and so
forth. A social relation in this sense need not be dependent on ongoing
interpersonal relationships between conscious individuals. A parent who
has died and with whom one can no longer have any interchange still
stands in the social relation of parent to us, calling forth emotions and
moral attitudes that are appropriate or inappropriate.
Identities that we acquire are ones in which social relations play a
constitutive role, conferring moral status and moral duties. These iden-
tities are part and parcel of a social matrix of practices, roles, and
understandings, which are themselves enmeshed in a moral world.
Doubtless the social relationships of parenthood supervene on natural
relationships, but biological relationships are neither necessary nor suf-
ficient to define a social role. For that we need social practices. In the
case of parenthood, the biological relation is a default assumption, not
the final arbiter of parenthood. There exist socially recognized practices
by which the mother, for example, can delegate to another the duties
that fall to her by virtue of her social (and not merely natural) rela-
tionship to the child. Such moral duties and moral status are not ar-
bitrary and, while they are alterable, they are intertwined in the fabric
of our lives and our broader moral understandings.
Returning to McMahan’s invocation of the anencephalic infant, I
would say that this infant is someone’s child, and with that social re-
lationship comes a series of appropriate emotional and moral re-
sponses—ones that differentiate this birth from either a tumor or a
plant. It is morally (and emotionally) appropriate to care for one’s child
for the child’s own sake. It is the practices that define parenthood, and
not simply the intrinsic properties of the product of the pregnancy, that
account for the epistemic reliability of a parent’s grief at the birth of
20. Such a position has emerged in some sectors of feminist ethics (e.g., Sara Ruddick,
Margaret Walker, and Hilde Nelson). Similar positions have roots in Hegel, Wittgenstein,
and communitarianism and have been propounded by Peter Winch, Alasdair MacIntyre,
Cora Diamond, among others. This is not the place to elaborate a complex view such as
this one. Although I cannot elaborate here on this complex view (if it is simply one), I
invoke it to give content to the notion of “social relationship,” because it is crucial in
articulating the difference between our obligations to a child or adult, no matter how
cognitively impaired, and nonhuman animals, no matter how cognitively able.
112 Ethics October 2005
an anencephalic infant and deny it in case such grief were to be displayed
for a tumor masquerading as a “pregnancy.”
But if intrinsic properties alone do not determine the moral status
of a being and if social relations have a constitutive role in its identity,
then we do, in fact, appropriately compare the fate of this infant with
other human infants. In other words, the Species Norm Account cor-
rectly allows us to conclude that this individual is indeed most unfor-
We still have to address McMahan’s argument against the Species Norm
Account using the hypothetical case of Superchimp. Superchimp is a
chimp who has been genetically enhanced at birth to enable it to develop
in adulthood the cognitive capacities of an eleven-year-old human child
and who then loses these enhanced capacities and reverts to an ordinary
chimp. McMahan claims that Superchimp would be most unfortunate
to lose the good these enhanced capacities provide. But if the Species
Norm Account were correct, we could not speak of Superchimp as
unfortunate, for this chimp simply reverts to its species norm. Nor can
we assimilate the chimp’s loss to cases such as the instant millionaire
who loses the million he had unexpectedly acquired and is returned to
his previous state. The chimp was never an ordinary chimp with ordinary
capacities. Instead, his is a genuine loss. Indeed, it is one equivalent to
the loss of the same degree of cognitive capacity a human might suffer,
which humans would count as a real misfortune.
Why, he asks, “suppose
that the mere difference in species” could make the fate of one indi-
vidual a misfortune, yet count as no misfortune for the other?
he contends, the misfortune of Superchimp provides a counterexample
to the Species Norm Account.
The problem with this argument is that McMahan begs the ques-
tion. The Species Norm Account maintains that species membership
provides the norm for whether a condition or loss is a misfortune. The
Superchimp account provides a cross-species comparison based on the
supposition that species membership makes no difference. Yet this is
precisely what is in contention. The implicit stipulation in the Super-
chimp case is that what was lost in each case was the same thing—
supposing that one can speak of capacities across species as the same
thing—and that the meaning of that loss is invariant across species. But
the Species Norm Account denies at least one if not both of these
21. It is a loss of cognitive capacities that McMahan supposes would bring the human
to the condition of a moderately severely mentally retarded person—although we are not
informed whence comes this assessment.
22. McMahan, EOK, 148.
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 113
suppositions. So what we have is an assertion (the Species Norm Ac-
count—that species matters to the evaluation of the loss because the
species provides the norm for good or ill fortune) and a counterassertion
under the guise of an implicit stipulation (that a given property is and
means the same across species; thus that norms are not species specific).
Neither position is proved or disproved. The Superchimp is not a coun-
terexample; it just embodies an assertion that is the contrary claim.
Consider instead that we imagine a human who at birth was given
a drug whose effect was to allow her to run as fast as a cougar by
adulthood. This might be thought to be a great boon to her, except
that, while she most loves to run and wants to be a racer, she is prohibited
from competitive racing because she is so far beyond anyone’s capacity.
Imagine that, a few years into her adulthood, the drug loses most of its
efficacy so that she can achieve only the high end of normal human
running speeds. This loss would, in fact, be a great good, because now
she could join races. Imagine also that a cougar were given a drug that
would reduce his running speed to that of a swift human. The magnitude
of the loss of speed would be the same as that of the human. To the
cougar, however, this would be a tragic loss, for the cougar could no
longer hunt and would starve if left out in the wild. In this example,
the same loss of speed, which is measurable across species, has a vastly
different impact by virtue of the importance of that capacity in the life
of each species. In this case it is apparent that species membership and
species norms are not arbitrar y in assessing well-being. Why should we
assume that species membership is arbitrary in the area of cognitive
capacities and not in the area of mobility? That does surely seem ar-
McMahan later assumes the viability of cross-species compar-
isons in assessing the wrongness of killing. But such cross-species com-
parisons are based on the defeat of the Species Norm Account, a result
the Superchimp case has failed to secure.
The arguments above also do not necessarily secure the Species
Norm Account as the right account of well-being.
They do lend weight
to the claim that species membership is not arbitrary in considering an
individual’s well-being, though not necessarily because it provides a
norm against which to measure well-being. There are many ways species
membership can be important assessing conditions conducive to well-
23. One could retort that cognitive capacities are what make us who we are. Yet,
given the crucial role of running speed in the survival of cougars, we imagine a cougar
philosopher who would consider it absurd not to take speed and mobility as capacities
constitutive of what we are.
24. Nor do I want to argue for it as an account of well-being, for taking the species
norm as a measure of well-being may lead us astray in assessing the well-being of people
with disabilities.
114 Ethics October 2005
In this context we might speculate a bit about poor Superchimp.
I should think Superchimp quite unfortunate prior to his reversion back
to ordinary chimphood unless, that is, he is provided with other su-
perchimps. For no matter how super the chimp is, he has little place
in the community of humans, which is the only community in which
he could function. Chimps, as we know, are social, and the loss of all
possibility of socializing with other chimp adults, of all sexual relation-
ships and rearing of young and so forth, could scarcely make for a very
satisfied chimp, even if it could master human language. Well-being is
a multifaceted concept for human and other animals—as Martha Nuss-
baum’s rich list of capabilities, by which she means to embrace animals,
reminds us.
Let us return now to the question of how McMahan utilizes the
CSMR in his example. We see that they compare favorably to the an-
encephalic child (whom he characterizes as “an utterly failed human”)
and unfavorably to the genetically enhanced Superchimp, even after
Superchimp reverts back to ordinary chimp capacities. While McMahan
sets the capacities of the moderately retarded as being on par with
ordinary chimps, the CSMR are comparable not even to a primate, but
to a dog. We will need to ask where such an assessment comes from
and what it is doing in this moral theory. An exploration of a second
passage using the case of the CSMR may help us to find the answer.
In evaluating the Time-Relative Interest Account of the wrongness of
killing, McMahan worries that however we draw the line in determining
personhood, there will be some humans who fall as far below that line
as animals. This creates a problem for the notion of moral equality
among humans. The most problematic case is the case of the CSMR,
as they never have possessed and never will possess these capacities,
unlike fetuses and infants, who can be expected to possess them in the
future and brain-injured and demented individuals, who have had them
in the past. McMahan maintains that this is a problem not only for the
Time-Relative Interest Account but for any moral theory of killing. He
lays out four options to deal with such a thorny problem. For brevity,
25. Social relationships invoked here need be confined only to humans. Consider
the relationship of pet owner and pet. But we don’t thereby transform pet ownership to
parenthood. The T-shirt that says “You mean my grandchild is a dog?” invokes a sweet
sort of humor, not the tragedy of the birth of an anencephalic infant.
26. See Martha Nussbaum, Beyond the Social Contract: Toward Global Justice (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 115
here I will discuss the only two he thinks are serious contenders: An-
thropomorphism and Convergent Assimilation.
Anthropomorphism, which McMahan takes to follow common
sense, asserts that “neither animals nor cognitively impaired human
beings can be morally assimilated to the other because there are factors,
in addition to an individual’s psychological capacities and potential, that
are major determinants of that individual’s moral status. Animals and
the CSMR differ with respect to some of these factors.”
He characterizes
this position as permitting us “to treat animals less well than a proper
concern for their time-relative interests requires” at the same time that
it requires better treatment, “greater solicitude,” of the CSMR than that
required by the Time-Relative Interest Account.
Convergent Assimilation, in contrast, holds that “we might accept
that animals and the severely retarded share roughly the same moral
status, though the moral status of neither is quite what it has traditionally
and popularly been supposed to be.”
McMahan dismisses attempts to
grant the CSMR moral parity by positing intrinsic properties such as
the possession of a soul or the sacredness of human life (as the proposal
is formulated by Ronald Dworkin).
He finds it more promising to give
up searching for intrinsic properties shared by the CSMR and ourselves
and to limit the defense of Anthromorphism to the shared relational
property of belonging to the human species, a view shared by Robert
Nozick and Thomas Scanlon.
McMahan’s proposal has recourse to an
analogy with nationalism.
As McMahan denies intrinsic value to the relation of species mem-
bership, such membership can have for him only instrumental value.
But if it has instrumental value, then we can compare the utility of
giving all humans moral parity with the utility of assimilating the moral
status of CSMR to animals. It is in this context that he puts forward the
analogy between the pernicious nationalism of former Yugoslavians and
a sense of kinship to all humans. The analogy is played out in the
following passage, which I quote nearly in full (I abbreviate for brevity’s
sake but quote extensively certain portions of the text to retain the sense
and flavor of the remarks):
It is arguable, however, that a further effect of our partiality for
27. McMahan, EOK, 206.
28. Ibid., 209.
29. Ibid., 206.
30. Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and In-
dividual Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1993).
31. Robert Nozick, “About Mammals and People,” New York Times Book Review, No-
vember 27, 1983; Thomas Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, Belknap, 1998).
116 Ethics October 2005
members of our own species is a tendency to decreased sensitivity
to lives and well-being of those sentient beings that are not mem-
bers of our species.
One can discern an analogous phenomenon in the case of
nationalism . . . [where] the sense of solidarity among members
. . . motivates them. . . . But the powerful sense of collective
identity within a nation is often achieved by contrasting an ide-
alized conception of the national character with caricatures of
other nations, whose members are regarded as less important or
worthy or, in many cases, are dehumanized and despised as inferior
or even odious. . . . In places such as Yugoslavia and its former
provinces—the result is often brutality and atrocity on an enor-
mous scale. . . .
I believe our treatment of the severely retarded and our treat-
ment of animals follows a similar pattern. While our sense of kin-
ship with the severely retarded moves us to treat them with great
solicitude, our perception of animals as radically “other” numbs
our sensitivity to them. . . . We are not . . . aggressively hostile,
. . . we are simply indifferent. But indifference . . . when con-
joined with motives of self-interest . . . involve[s] both killing and
the infliction of suffering on a truly massive scale. . . . When one
compares the relatively small number of severely retarded human
beings who benefit from our solicitude with the vast number of
animals who suffer at our hands, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion
that the good effects of our species-based partiality are greatly
outweighed by the bad.
I must confess that this passage takes my breath away. Granted that
McMahan is not saying that the great care that I have been putting into
raising my severely cognitively impaired daughter has contributed to
such great misery, for when we place this passage in the context of the
text, it is clear that I as a parent am exempt from these charges, since
my personal relations of love, not beliefs about preferential treatment
to humans, are sufficient to justify my actions. But others are not so
excused, those who are “solicitous” of her well-being (and on whom we
parents have to rely to meet her needs and allow her to thrive). That
is, if they are solicitous of her because she is human despite her subpar
cognitive capacities, then they are complicitous in a great instrumental
harm. Simply by virtue of this solicitude toward a human with such low
cognitive functioning (a solicitude which presumably moves us all to be
indifferent to the fate of nonhumans with comparative cognitive ca-
pacities), the caretakers and therapists, no less than taxpayers and those
sharing our medical insurance, find themselves complicit in the misery
of millions and millions of animals. Now I, for one, was inclined to think
32. McMahan, EOK, 221–22 (emphasis is mine).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 117
that it was general greed and insensitivity that was responsible for the
massive abuse of animals, the same greed and insensitivity that refused
funds to educate and treat with decency the mentally retarded individ-
uals who wind up in the Willowbrooks of the world; the same insensitivity
and greed in profit-run group homes where incompetent and uncaring
personnel allow mentally retarded adults to languish and die from ne-
glect in the heart of our nation’s capital!
How could I miss a conclusion
“so impossible to avoid”?
But while McMahan’s passage is infused with a great deal of heat
and indignation for the suffering of vast numbers of animals and for
the pampering of subpar humans merely because they are human and
bear the relation of same-species membership to “us,” his analogies are
inapt and his own portrayals of the severely congenitally mentally re-
tarded are mere “caricatures” of the “other,” viewed “as less important
or worthy,” “dehumanized,” and—if not despised as inferior”—regarded
as inferior. That is, I believe that McMahan’s argument fails on two
grounds: first, because the analogy is inapt, and, second, because the
characterization of the CSMR is seriously mistaken.
It is a mark of the shallowness of these discussions . . . that the
only tool used in them to explain what differences in treatment
are justified is the appeal to the capacities of the beings in question.
(Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” 322)
I start with the claim that McMahan’s analogy is inapt. Unlike the
national ists responsible for ethnic cleansing,” the CSMR (like the
fetuses whose interests Mc Mahan i s caref ul not to dismiss too easily)
“are not parti es to the debate”;
nor, eff ectively, are the fam ilies of
the CSMR. Furthermore, the “solicitude” to the CSM R resulting from
a misguided preference to humans is not, in my experience , very so-
licitous . Our family has had to bea r the lion’s share of the care, ed-
ucation, and med ical costs of my daughter. We have h ad to look far
and wide for a situation that we deemed suitable as a pla ce for her to
live out the rest of her days. The days of Willowbrooks ar e not i n the
33. Katherine Boo, “Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.’s Retarded,” Wash-
ington Post, December 5, 1999.
34. Cora Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” in her The Realistic Spirit: Witt-
genstein, Philosophy and the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 319–34.
35. McMahan, EOK, viii.
118 Ethics October 2005
distant past.
Such political, educational, and s ocial advances as have
been enacted have be en hard fought, mostl y by the dis abled com-
munity and relatives. St ill today, both physically and mentally disabled
people are apt to be far poorer and have wors e life pros pects, less
because of their inherent l imitations than because of widespread prej-
udice, constraints, and lack of resources. When “solicitude is in fact
not much extended to anyone with even moderate or mild disab ilities,
we can b e certain it fails to extend to th ose with severe cognitive
disabili ties.
I do not wish to belabor the question of whether great solicitude
is extended to the CSMR, because I would argue that, even if it were,
McMahan’s position would be unwarranted. McMahan’s analogy is
based, on the one hand, on the internal beneficial effects of nationalistic
solidarity and its destructive consequences for other nations and, on
the other hand, on the benefits to the CSMR of human solidarity and
its putative destructive consequences for animals. Weighing the instru-
mental value of each does appear to result in the conclusion that such
solidarity is, on balance, not a good thing. But the analogy is faulty
because McMahan misidentifies the source of the perniciousness in
nationalism and racism.
In one’s preference for one’s race and nation, what is it that turns
destructive? It seems evident that when a black person and a white
person each apply for a job, the relevant and appropriate criteria lie
not in their racial characteristics but in the properties each, as an in-
dividual, possesses to do the job well. Similarly, when McMahan is con-
sidering either the assessment of well-being or the wrongness of killing
an individual, he asks for the relevant properties for moral significance.
It is the relevant property possessed by the individual, not by the group
to which the individual belongs, that ought to determine the appropriate
treatment. Here is what appears so definitive about McMahan’s com-
parison of the Superchimp as he reverts back to a normal chimp to the
36. Willowbrook was a New York State institution for the mentally retarded and was
the notorious site in which horrific and extensive abuse of residents of such institutions
was uncovered in the 1970s. McMahan provides no empirical evidence that better treat-
ment of the mentally retarded today has corresponded to an increase in the abuse and
mistreatment of animals. Instead, some, swayed by moral arguments, have significantly
improved farming practices, even as conditions for the cognitively disabled have improved.
37. Even in the philosophical community the solicitude is in little evidence. Reviews
of EOK in the whole fail to object to McMahan’s views on the CSMR (one exception is
found in a review by Nicholas Agar in Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81 [2003]: 445–47).
Philosophy & Public Affairs, a premier philosophical journal, gave pride of place to an article
arguing that nothing in the way of justice is due to the CSMR (see Jeff McMahan, “Cognitive
Disability, Misfortune, and Justice,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 25 [1996]: 335). Only Robert
Nozick focuses his review of Tom Regan on the problematic of assimilating the mentally
retarded to animals (see Nozick, “About Mammals and People,” 8).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 119
child of ten who becomes a moderately mentally retarded person. The
cognitive property appears to be the same, and the loss of this property
the same; hence, the assessment should be the same—or so impartialist
moral principles would demand. The appeal to the transgenic spectrum,
which asks us to imagine a member of one species implanted with the
gene of another, is a contribution that McMahan makes to the discussion
on speciesism. Another way to put this is to say that group membership
(a relational concept) is the wrong sortal for moral consideration,
whereas the intrinsic properties of an individual, such as certain psy-
chological capacities, are the right sortals. I will refer to the first type
of sortal as “group membership” and to the second as simply
Many philosophers have subscribed to this argument. But I wish to
suggest a radical departure from this position. The idea that giving moral
properties to humans is analogous to pernicious nationalism or to racism
is erroneous in that it assumes that the evils of nationalism (or racism)
are based solely on the principle of giving priority to one’s own group—
or that their signature is the sortal “group membership,” and it is this
that has the undesirable moral consequences, in the absence of any
compelling moral reasons to give priority to “one’s own.” I want to
suggest instead that what makes racism and pernicious nationalism
moral evils is the special way they depend on “property” sortals.
Note that McMahan points out that pernicious nationalism makes
“the other” into a caricature. What is usually missed is that embedded
in such caricatures is the assumption that the undesirable properties
are absent in the privileged group, while the desirable properties are
exclusive to the privileged group.
Whites in slave-owning states, in-
cluding such enlightened figures as Thomas Jefferson, speak of the
inferior mental capabilities of blacks, of the superior sensibility of whites,
of the unattractiveness of the African physique, and of the artistic merits
present in whites but absent in blacks.
This racism is based not merely
on group membership but also on the possession of certain properties
by one group, whites, and their absence or their antithesis in the other
group, blacks. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the most wrenching
38. McMahan makes an exception of the case of special relations. I will address these
39. McMahan makes scant reference to racism in his work. In “The Limits of National
Partiality” (in The Morality of Nationalism, ed. Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan [New York:
Oxford University Press, 1997], 107–38), McMahan’s vision, ironically, of the evil in na-
tionalism gone wrong is very close to my own. Yet what he fails to see is how his use of
properties in the case against the moral personhood of the CSMR replicates the pernicious
use of groupings in evil forms of nationalism and all forms of racism.
40. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Literary Classics of the United
States (1782; repr., New York: Library of America, 1984).
120 Ethics October 2005
scenes occurs when Sethe’s schoolteacher measures her skull in an effort
to validate the correlation between race, skull size, and cognitive ca-
Her status as slave, she learns, is not to be justified merely by
the fact that she belongs to a different race. Sethe sees herself reduced
to measurable intrinsic properties, sorted by these properties the way
animals are, and she feels shamed and humiliated in a special way. If
sortal group membership were sufficient to account for the evil of rac-
ism, why would this specification and (pseudo-) verification of undesir-
able properties always accompany racism? Why would science be called
upon to substantiate the absence of desirable features or properties in
the despised other?
In racism and pernicious nationalism, the exclusive appropriation
of desirable properties is usually tied to restrictions on reproduction.
Racism in this country had a legal holdout into the late 1960s in the
form of miscegenation laws—laws that remained in place after Brown
vs. the Board of Education, after the Civil Rights Act, after all other legal
forms of racism were abolished. Why miscegenation? Miscegenation is
the way prized and devalued properties can migrate across groups,
thereby loosening the identification of group membership with distinc-
tive properties. Obsessions of racial purity go hand in hand with racism
because as long as we can guarantee racial purity we can be sure that
group membership is coincident with the property sortals that have been
deemed definitive.
Nowhere was this made more evident than in Nazism, where per-
nicious nationalism mingled with racism in the most deadly fashion.
Germans were deemed to be Aryans by an elaborate enumeration of
the special properties possessed by Aryans. The elimination of those
Germans who lacked those properties, and the assurance through ster-
ilization that Germans would in the future not have the unwanted prop-
erties, were paramount to the Nazis. On January 30, 1933, the very first
day that Hitler was appointed the Reich Chancellor of Germany, the
Sterilization (of Inferiors) Laws were enacted, and they were imple-
mented a short three weeks later, followed by the Law for the Prevention
of Progeny of Hereditary Disease, mandating the sterilization of patients
with presumably hereditary diseases such as “feeble-mindedness,” epi-
lepsy, and schizophrenia. Subsequent laws and decrees mandated the
neglect of institutionalized and disabled Germans and the “mercy” kill-
ing of German “mental incompetents” (the mentally retarded and men-
tally ill) in the T4 project, as well as additional sterilizations.
41. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987).
42. See Telford Taylor, Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals
under Control Council Law No. 10, October 1946–April 1949. The entire text is available at
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 121
Cleansing Germany and the German bloodline of the “undesira-
bles” thus was not limited to those in other identifiable racial and ethnic
groups. It included those children of Germans who failed to manifest
the Aryan properties and who threatened to weaken the present and
future tie between being German and the possession of those desirable
properties. Exclusive ownership of those properties requires ruthlessness
and constant vigilance. Mere group membership is not what racism or
pernicious nationalism is about.
But one may object that there are no simple relations of group
membership that cannot be characterized by some intrinsic properties—
it is always possible to find similarities between entities that are grouped
together. Are not these properties, which I claim act as sortals, in fact
an afterthought? If, as some have argued, the category of “the other”
is ineliminable in human life,
would not group membership precede
the valorization of properties prevalent in a group, offering a way to
bolster pride and enhance solidarity?
In response, I will agree that most likely, first, the “us,” the group,
is identified without resort to properties. But the identification of the
group with the exclusive possession of desirable properties results in a
rationale by which possession of these properties becomes the justification
for its privileged standing. What is pernicious, and what has the most
destructive consequences, occurs when a group defines itself as the sole
possessor of a set of properties, properties which, in turn, define it and
which give members of the group, as the possessors of those properties,
the authority to appropriate goods, power, and other privileges.
If this is correct, it has several important consequences for a moral
theory such as McMahan’s (and not only McMahan’s). He starts with
an “us,” a “you and me,” so that he does not beg the question of sup-
posing what you and I are by beginning with a defining property which
will ser ve as the requisite sortal. But then he commences the search for
the intrinsic properties which sort individuals into those who belong
among the “us” and those who do not. And to make the category of
person break sharply from that of nonperson, he designates some prop-
erties which are “ours” exclusively and on the basis of which we claim
the privileges of personhood, the moral status that brings about duties
on the part of others not to kill “us.” Yet separating “them” from “us”
based on these desirable characteristics (characteristics that make “our”
lives more worthwhile, indeed more worthy) sounds closer to racism
and pernicious nationalism than does the privileging of bare species
membership, the view that McMahan analogizes to virulent nationalism.
43. Simone de Beauvoir, following Hegel and utilizing Levinas’s concept of the
“Other,” asserts that we form a sense of self in opposition to an “other” (Simone de
Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley [New York: Knopf, 1952]).
122 Ethics October 2005
Two obvious objections to this attack on McMahan’s position pre-
sent themselves. The view of McMahan, Peter Singer, and others is not
the imposition of exclusionary properties on a preexisting group as
racism or nationalism may be. Rather McMahan and such others use
properties as sortals for the definition of the moral status of “persons.”
Any individual who possesses these properties can join the class of per-
sons. In contrast, blacks cannot join a group that defines itself as white,
and non-Aryans cannot join the Germans as the privileged class even if
they show that they have some of the properties attributed to Aryans.
“Persons” in this sense form an open group, somewhat like a meritocracy.
It is open to all with the relevant qualifications. Those groups defined
by race or nationality are not open—perhaps one can be kicked out,
but no one not connected to the group by special ties can enter. This
objection is granted and saves the view of McMahan (and others holding
similar positions) from being identified with racism and pernicious na-
tionalism. However membership into the group of persons is not open
the way a meritocracy is, where the requisite properties for membership
can be earned or achieved. It is only partially open in that it will admit
any individuals who turn out to have the requisite properties even if
they are not otherwise like the humans we ordinarily take to be persons.
Still, and this is the second objection, while the intrinsic properties
for personhood cannot be acquired by an individual’s own efforts, the
properties invoked by McMahan, unlike those of racists, are not arbi-
trarily, but rather directly, related to the moral status they confer. For
the intrinsic properties that McMahan and others require for person-
hood (rationality and the capacity to determine one’s own good) are
directly relevant to the capacity to act morally. Possessing Caucasian
features is not directly or indirectly relevant to the powers and privileges
whites have appropriated to themselves.
I grant that rationality and the capacity to determine one’s own
good are, at the very least, useful to being a part of a moral community.
But I am not sure if either is necessary, and I am still less certain why
lacking them disqualifies one from moral parity. Philosophers have
made much of the importance of rational capacities for the exercise of
moral judgments and moral actions but (except for some agent-based
virtue theorists) have understated the critical role other capacities play
in our moral life, capacities that we would want to encourage in the
members of a moral community, such as giving care and responding
appropriately to care, empathy, and fellow feeling; a sense of what is
harmonious and loving; and a capacity for kindness and an appreciation
for those who are kind.
If we need members of a moral community to keep from harming
us, we also want members of our moral community to increase the good
in our world. The Nazi doctor murderers of whom we spoke earlier
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 123
employed rationality of a highly developed sort and appeared to dem-
onstrate a capacity to determine their own good (their actions were
freely undertaken and advanced their careers), yet the contributions of
these capacities to sound moral agency were nil, since the acts they
enabled caused harm and surely did nothing to increase the good in
the world.
Contrast these with an individual whose rational capacities are dif-
ficult to determine because she lacks speech but who has the capacity
to enjoy life, to share her joy through her smiles and laughter, to em-
brace those who show her love and care, and to bring joy to all whose
lives she touches—an individual who, through her warmth, her serene
and harmonious spirit, and her infectious love of life enriches the lives
of others and who has never acted maliciously or tried to harm anyone.
Whether or not she would know what it means to determine her own
good may be in doubt, but the good she brings into the world is not.
Such a person, congenitally severely mentally retarded as she is, fails to
demonstrate the psychological capacities deemed requisite for philo-
sophical conceptions of personhood. If we can imagine such an indi-
vidual, can we not doubt the significance of the capacities of rationality
and autonomy for the moral status of personhood, with all the protec-
tions such a status confers? At the very least, I would maintain, between
our Nazi doctors whose crimes are unspeakable and our cognitively
impaired person who brings joy into the world, we can see that having
the capacities of rationality and autonomy are neither necessary nor
sufficient for avoiding harms or for bringing good into the world.
So while the psychological capacities deemed relevant for person-
hood are not as arbitrary as is white skin for effectively doing a higher
status job, there is an element of the arbitrary in the choice of those
properties thought most important for moral personhood. Further-
more, we should note that white skin is itself never cited as the property
to be invoked. Choosing the white over the black for a job is instead
justified in terms of the superior properties that the white person is
presumed to have.
That I have lauded qualities that contrast with rationality as qualities
important to morality should not be understood to mean that I advocate
dispensing altogether with rationality and autonomy. My intent instead
has been to show that whether or not an individual possesses any one
set of intrinsic properties is not sufficient to determine whether or not
this individual can have a moral life and be part of a moral community
and it is not the basis on which to assign him or her a moral status.
I can well imagine a reader growing impatient and asking, “Have
44. See Diamond, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” for an argument showing the
moral shallowness of the properties-based view.
124 Ethics October 2005
you not just undermined the possibility of arriving at any principled way
of sorting among beings, so that some are deserving of a special place
without analogizing that position to racism?” Not having such a prin-
cipled way of sorting does not cohere with our intuitions. If the invo-
cation of properties gets us in trouble, it is also not evident that there
are any simple relations of group membership that could have the moral
significance that would justify belonging to the group as reason for
privileged moral status.
I believe that there is such a simple relation (and it is a group that
McMahan discusses all too briefly and uses as a disanalogy), namely, the
family. Family membership is conditional on birth lines, marriage, and
(under particular conditions) adoption, not on having certain intrinsic
properties. But except where it is misused, as in nepotism in employment
where intrinsic properties do matter, family membership is not a per-
nicious relationship. Families (or adequate substitutes) are critical when
we are dependent, as in early childhood, during acute or chronic illness,
with serious chronic conditions including disability, and in frail old age.
At these times, we are generally best served by close personal ties. Fam-
ilies are called on in times of moral crisis for the support of family love
and loyalty. Similarly, I propose that membership in a group of moral
peers based solely on species membership has as its appropriate moral
analogue family membership, not racism and not pernicious national-
ism. As humans we are indeed a family.
McMahan considers and mostly rejects this very analogy.
He dis-
counts the importance of species membership for both identity and
moral considerations. I have tried to suggest the ways in which he is
wrong, or at least the ways in which some of my own intuitions conflict
with his on this score. If we are simply setting one set of intuitions
against another, we lack an argument not only for but also against the
idea that species membership has no moral significance. I cannot here
make a case for the moral significance of species membership that is
45. For an argument that families are precisely not groupings identified by a set of
intrinsic properties and how pernicious intermingling such a property-based view is when
applied to families, see Eva Kittay, with Leo Kittay, ”On the Expressivity and Ethics of
Selective Abortion for Disability: Conversations with my Son,” in The Ethics of Prenatal Testing
and Selective Abortion: A Report from the Hastings Center, ed. Adrienne Asch and Eric Parens
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 196 –214. Leo Kittay argues that what is
problematic about selective abortion for disability is that it makes inclusion in the family
contingent on having certain desirable, and not certain undesirable, traits. He argues that
this transforms family membership into something akin to club membership and so un-
dermines the child’s ability to feel the unconditional love she needs to thrive.
46. Although it is this very analogy that McMahan utilizes in a vision of what a
nonpernicious nationalism can look like in “The Limits of National Partiality.”
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 125
more systematic than I have so far, but I hope that I have at least
reopened the door that McMahan assumed he closed.
There are still two arguments, however, that need to be addressed,
if briefly. First, McMahan says that, even if we grant that species mem-
bership is a special relation for us humans and that it demands that we
need to give moral priority to the CSMR over animals, this would not
commit others who qualify as moral persons (say, moral and sensitive
Martians) to give CSMR such consideration—and these Martians could
then presumably provide us with an impartial view of our duties. I find
this unconvincing because I do not know what moral and sensitive Mar-
tians might think. They may be much more likely to admit the moral
parity of the cognitively impaired human being I described earlier than
those who, while cognitively intact, act in reprehensible ways. Their
moral priorities may be quite different, yet recognizable to us as moral.
Second, McMahan claims that if what we owe the CSMR is the
consequence of special relations we bear to humans, these sorts of re-
lations normally do not permit us to treat those with whom we do not
have such relations less badly than an impartial account would permit.
So the special relations view would not justify how much worse we treat
animals than the CSMR. I grant this. But there is a view that McMahan
does not consider, which is that we should treat the CSMR as we treat
other persons, and also that we should treat animals better—most likely
much better—than we do now. This seems to me to be the right position
to take, and it is compatible with the arguments I have put forward.
The moral dangers of drawing lines among human beings, even in
the worthy cause of advancing the well-being of animals, are not hy-
pothetical. As Nozick warned in his review of Reagan’s Animal Rights, it
is less likely to bring about better treatment of animals than much worse
treatment of humans. Furthermore, cultivating moral sensitivity to the
suffering of animals is no guarantee that the same sensitivity will extend
to the nonperson humans.
Telford Taylor, the prosecuting attorney at the “Doctors Trial” at
Nuremberg, pointed to the law for the protection of animals passed by
the Nazis on November 24, 1933. It was a law “designed to prevent
cruelty and indifference of man towards animals and to awaken and
develop sympathy and understanding for animals as one of the highest
moral values of a people.” Appealing to the moral aspects of the “soul
of the German people,” the law called on Germans to not regard animals
in terms of mere utility. Instead any experimentation involving animals
was to avoid causing them pain, injury, or infection, except in very special
circumstances, and special authorization was required for the use of
animals for experimental or medical purposes.
Having rendered cer-
47. Telford Taylor, “Opening Statement of the ‘Doctor’s Trials’ (December 9, 1946
126 Ethics October 2005
tain humans as beyond moral protection, these same doctors, with their
noble moral sentiments toward animals, could experiment without re-
strictions on humans and neglect these precautions in the human case.
Sensitivity to the suffering of nonhuman animals did nothing to en-
courage sensitivity to the suffering of human nonpersons. In the hands
of people less moral than McMahan, Reagan, and other ethicists who
hold similar views, the recalibration of the moral worth of some humans
and the moral worth of animals could turn out to be at least as pernicious
as the nationalism with which McMahan compares the solicitude toward
the CSMR.
This discussion has so far not challenged the characterization of the
CSMR. Even were McMahan’s assessment of the cognitive capacity of
the CSMR correct, his conclusions would be unacceptable. But is it
correct? And is it important that it be correct?
In CDMJ McMahan defines the severely mentally retarded (in a
note he excludes the mildly and moderately retarded and those with
subsequent brain injury) as human beings “who not only lack self-con-
sciousness but are almost entirely unresponsive to their environment
and to other people.”
He also says, “The profoundly cognitively im-
paired are incapable . . . of deep personal and social relations, creativity
and achievement, the attainment of the highest forms of knowledge,
aesthetic pleasures, and so on.”
This is seriously misinformed. Most
severely retarded people can speak at least a few words and can be and
are involved in activities and relationships. Even profoundly mentally
retarded individuals are far from being unresponsive to their environ-
ment and to other people. My daughter was diagnosed as severely to
profoundly retarded. She is enormously responsive, forming deep per-
sonal relationships with her family and her long-standing caregivers and
friendly relations with her therapists and teachers, more distant relatives,
and our friends. Athough she will tend to be shy with strangers, certain
strangers are quite able to engage her. (She has a special fondness for
good-looking men!)
Sesha now lives in a group home with five other severely to pro-
foundly mentally and multiply disabled individuals. Not one can even
remotely be described as “entirely unresponsive to their environment
or other people.” I am greeted by smiles and acknowledgments of some
sort when I arrive, and my daughter’s passionate kisses exhaust both
to August 20, 1947).” The full text is available at http://www.humanitas-international
48. McMahan, CDMJ, 5.
49. Ibid., 9.
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 127
me and my spouse. All her roommates share her real appreciation of
music: one, Billie, will “dance” in his wheelchair to rock music. Two
others, Matt and Heather, love to sing along, and although they are
incapable of speaking, they vocalize in just the right pitch. Tony will
thrill to some music, while other music makes him weep, and he asks
for his own mother when I come to visit. Nora is entranced by watching
ballet and is a serious participant in the music therapy program.
When treated to a concert of classical music, an audience of severely
multiply disabled adults and children, many with severe to profound
retardation, was more respectful and appreciative than many I have
encountered in concert halls. Although not one will read Spinoza, the
claim that these folks are incapable of deep personal relationships or
deep aesthetic pleasures could not be further from the truth. For my
own Sesha, “severely-profoundly” mentally retarded though she is, music
is her life and Beethoven her best friend. At our home, listening to the
Emperor’s Concerto, she gazes out the window enthralled, occasionally
turning to us with a twinkle in her eye when she anticipates some really
good parts.
McMahan has other characterizations of the CSMR. As we saw in
a previous excerpt, he maintains that they have psychological capacities
equivalent to that of a dog. Note that this fails to comport with Mc-
Mahan’s description of the CSMR as unresponsive—dogs are, of course,
quite responsive. So perhaps the depiction in CDMJ was not well con-
sidered, and the equivalency with the dog’s psychological capacities is
what McMahan really means. Sesha has no measurable IQ, and a dog,
I presume, has no measurable IQ. Perhaps this is what justifies Mc-
Mahan’s assessment. Sesha has no measurable IQ because IQ tests de-
pend on capabilities to express cognitive capacities and Sesha lacks these
expressive capabilities.
Does she necessarily lack the cognitive capacities? I simply do not
know, nor do others. Every so often, I am shocked to find out that Sesha
has understood something or is capable of something I did not expect.
She is now a young woman. She has not been locked up in a cellar but
instead has been exposed to teachers and therapists of various sorts,
and still the surprises keep coming. And they can only keep coming
when her treatment is based not on the limitations we know she has
but on the fact that our knowledge of her capabilities is limited.
Given that trainers have worked with dog breeds for many gener-
ations, I suppose that the limits and extent of canine cognitive skills are
better understood. So a comparison of the two populations seems ep-
istemically presumptuous.
I am not going to rehearse the things that Sesha can or cannot do
and what a dog can or cannot do. Such comparisons are otiose and
odious as well as senseless. What Sesha can do she does as a human
128 Ethics October 2005
would do them, though frequently imperfectly, but it is humanly im-
perfect, not canine perfect. However, even with all that Sesha cannot
do and seems not to be able to comprehend, her response to music
and her sensitivity to people is remarkably intact. Perhaps her respon-
siveness to music is more than remarkably intact; it is quite simply re-
markable. What a discordant set of abilities and disabilities she exhibits!
This unevenness is a feature of many severely and profoundly retarded
persons. (I will now stop calling them “individuals” and begin to speak
of those with severe cognitive impairments as the persons I believe they
are.) Such unevenness is not a feature of the animals with whom
McMahan equates them.
Yet what can we say of time-relative interests and prudential unity
relations? How do people such as my daughter fare in comparison to
animals such as dogs? McMahan repeatedly makes the claim that ani-
mals, by virtue of their more limited psychological capacities and es-
pecially their lower cognitive capacities, have a lesser capacity to ex-
perience good. And because they lack self-consciousness, and thus have
a weak connection to their future selves, whatever good they do expe-
rience in the moment cannot be brought forward into the future and
thus cannot be employed in anticipation, in recollection, and in the
narrative structure self-conscious persons provide for their lives. He
claims, therefore, that an animal’s life contains less good.
Once again, I don’t know if Sesha has formed a narrative of her
life. That she has memories I doubt not at all. That she remembers
people, places, music—even music she has not heard for years—and
that she anticipates experiences that she loves, I also cannot doubt. But
I do not know if this takes on a narrative structure, and I do agree that
these narrative structures give our life a richness. I think it is possible
that Sesha’s life lacks this richness. Sesha’s life lacks many things that
make my life rich—including reading and writing philosophy. But does
this mean that her time-relative interests are less strong than my own?
Or that she lacks strong prudential unity relations? Or that she lacks a
strong egoistic concern for her future?
I don’t know how to answer these questions, not only because my
daughter does not speak but also because I am not sure I truly under-
stand what these concepts mean or what their significance ultimately
is. I do know that I myself have a strong concern for her future that
can serve as a surrogate for her own egoistic concern—that is, I serve
as a third party who can think about her future and discern her time-
relative interests and their connection to her future. Today, it is I, and
when I am no longer alive, the role will pass to those many who have
helped care for her over the years and who share in her joys and work
for her well-being. Insofar as McMahan allows third parties to act as
surrogates for the individual in question when that individual cannot
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 129
form egoistic concerns about their own future, Sesha has strong time-
relative interests grounded in a third-party concern for her future. Sim-
ilarly, to the extent that I can stand in for Sesha’s egoistic concerns
about her future, she has strong prudential unity relations. But does
she have these relations to her past and future selves from the “inside,”
from within her own experiences? They may well be weaker than my
own, but Sesha has a strong and clear sense of herself. I cannot see that
she experiences herself in any more of a discontinuous fashion than I
experience myself.
But this is not a conversation I can have with her. Does this mean
that her life contains less good in it than yours or mine? Again, it is not
a question I can answer. I feel quite certain that it is a life that contains
a great deal of good in it—possibly more good than other individuals
who qualify as persons worthy of a high degree of moral respect, persons
such as cognitively normal ahedonic individuals, individuals who are
incapable of joy; than people who live in misery, in abject poverty, and
in war-torn lands; than people whose lives are devastated by addiction
or emotionally painful afflictions. Sesha is capable of great joy and great
love. Her life contains an immeasurable amount of good. And she fur-
ther contributes to the creation of good in this world by her interactions
with others. To walk into her home is to get an infusion of joy and
energy, a possibility that is too rare in our sad world.
The reader may object that I have responded to McMahan’s de-
scriptions of the CSMR as if they were meant as empirically accurate
descriptions of all people with certain mental impairments, and I have
pointed out that on many counts he is wrong and on others there is
little epistemic evidence to support or to deny his claims. But what
McMahan may in fact be doing is setting out the conceptual parameters
for certain cognitive impairments that disqualify one from personhood.
If he has used the label “severe mental retardation” inaccurately, then
it is only a matter of mislabeling. The misuse of the label does not vitiate
the conceptual points. Surely, I cannot gainsay him this.
Surely I can. For the case of the CSMR is not a hypothetical, purely
conceptual case. If the methodological reason for utilizing this group
is to have a real-life example against which to test and recalibrate our
intuitions, then we must use a group who we know exists to serve the
methodological purpose. The label “congenitally severely mentally re-
tarded” does pick out such a group, but seemingly not the one he
intended. The difficulty is that term is a diagnostic one, routinely used
to pick out certain people. One cannot use such a term in a stipulative
fashion without danger of being misunderstood and without the danger
of real peril, especially if one advocates a view that says that killing such
individuals is morally less serious than killing one of “us.”
Yet even if we set aside the problematic use of the label, and even
130 Ethics October 2005
if there really are people out there who fit the characteristics he incor-
rectly ascribes to the congenitally severely mentally retarded, we cannot
necessarily know if these individuals are the way they are because of the
limited extent of their capacities. The history of mental retardation is
the history of ever-opening horizons. People who were locked up and
taken to be “vegetables” have, under more enlightened programs,
learned to read and are today viewed as moderately or mildly retarded,
well within the parameters of personhood that McMahan sets.
I do not believe that the history of mental retardation supports any
reason to presume that there are people about whom we can unequiv-
ocally say that they meet the criteria McMahan gives for the congenitally
severely mentally retarded. Perhaps it is implausible to think that there
are no humans who fall into a category between someone without men-
tation (such as the anencephalic) and the folks in my daughter’s home.
But the parameters are so unclear. Are there humans with the cognition
of a nonhuman animal? Again, I do not know what that means.
The nonhuman-animal/human-animal comparison is easiest to
comprehend in the case of primates, for they are so like us. Surely
gorillas and some smart chimpanzees can do many things that my daugh-
ter cannot. Perhaps some can appreciate Beethoven the way she can. I
do not know if I could determine this. When we speak of comparing
the CSMR to dogs, I am truly lost. I simply cannot know enough about
what it is like to be a dog, to think like a dog, to sense the world like
a dog, to know how to compare my own, my daughter’s, or any human
being’s intelligence to that of a dog. I know, however, that no gorilla
and no dog, however attached I may become to it, can be my daughter—
with all the emotional, social, and moral resonance that has.
If there are no individuals about whom one can say with any cer-
tainty that they are both human and have the cognitive capacities of an
animal, then there is no basis for the conclusion McMahan wants us to
reach, namely, that Convergent Assimilation, in which we raise the moral
status of animals while we lower that of certain humans (in particular
the CSMR), is the correct view. Given that it is incoherent to jointly
maintain his criterion of personhood, accept the analogy of speciesism
and pernicious nationalism, and privilege human species membership
to include those he designates as congenitally severely mentally retarded,
he urges that we drop the last of the three beliefs, even as it appears
counterintuitive. He urges this step to avoid the massive suffering and
50. Contrasting his experience in the early 1970s as a teacher in a progressive program
mainstreaming children with retardation in a Massachusetts high school, Tom Hehir re-
counts teaching Downs Syndrome kids, some of whom were reading, with Downs Syndrome
kids in a state institution ten miles away, many of whom could not even talk (“Legacy of
Brown v. Board: Disabled Children,” NPR’s Weekend Edition, April 25, 2004).
Kittay At the Margins of Moral Personhood 131
abuse of animals. Instead I have urged that his depiction of the severely
mentally retarded is far from what the facts support, that the analogy
between speciesism and pernicious nationalism is faulty, and that cre-
ating a category of moral status extended to certain human beings
(along with unspecified, hypothetical others) based on intrinsic valued
properties but denied to other human beings is dangerously close to
the harmful exclusions of racism and pernicious nationalism. To the
extent that EOK depends on the arguments favoring this diminished
status for people who are born with or develop severe cognitive im-
pairments at birth, it is deeply flawed.
Had I time enough and space, there are many other passages in
EOK that I would want to challenge. But I have taxed my readers enough,
and I hope that I have provided enough of a counterargument and
counternarrative so that the reader can extrapolate onto other passages
the sort of response I might give.
... As Ylva Gustafson has pointed out to me, while Kittay is sympathetic to the kind of Wittgensteinian argument concerning our fellowship with human beings and animals, her own arguments in defense of the moral status of the severely mentally disabled are not in fact Wittgensteinian. SeeKittay (2005).Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved. ...
Full-text available
The idea that human beings have a distinct moral worth—a moral significance over and above any moral worth, such as that may be, possessed by other animals—has a long history and has traditionally been taken for granted by philosophers and theologians. However, in a variety of quarters in recent philosophy, this idea has come into disrepute, seeming to indicate a mere prejudice in favour of our own species. For example, Peter Singer has argued that such a position is mere speciesism, a prejudice of a kind with racism and sexism in that it involves making moral distinctions between our own and other species that cannot be morally justified. What on such views is needed to justify any such distinction is a difference in terms of the morally relevant properties possessed by our own species as compared with other species. I will call this view the moral property view. Insofar as other species share with us morally relevant properties, for example the capacity to suffer cognitive ability and so on, it is mere prejudice not to accept moral requirements with respect to them as we do with respect to our own species. While on the surface such a view may seem morally enlightened, it indicates what will seem to many problematic moral judgments with respect to severely disabled human beings. In this paper, I will respond to these concerns by suggesting a different basis for the idea of human moral distinctiveness, one that draws on recent work by Wittgensteinian moral philosophers and which denies what I called above the property view. According to this view, while our shared life with other animals involves the recognition of their moral significance, our shared life with other human beings involves recognising that human beings as human beings have a distinctive moral value.
... Estas aproximaciones presentan problemas, pues si estos conceptos no terminan de ser claros dentro de la especie humana, ni en la perspectiva filosófica ni en la jurídica, por ejemplo debido a la presencia de casos marginales 68 o por la inclusión de entidades no vivas (como empresas) o hasta de seres sobrenaturales, tampoco es clara su aplicación a los animales no humanos. Éstos últimos son tan diversos no sólo en sus características, sino también en la forma en que son percibidos por los seres humanos, que a veces se terminan presentando juicios que discriminan a unas especies sobre otras, por ejemplo, está bien instrumentalizar roedores, pero no grandes simios, a pesar de que ambos grupos animales han demostrado no sólo sintiencia, sino capacidades cognitivas considerables(Beauchamp, 1999;DeGrazia, 2007;Herzing & White, 1998;Kittay, 2005;Nava Escudero, 2019;Wallach et al., 2020). Este pensamiento occidental que parte de la jerarquía natural platónica-aristotélica basada en una idea de racionalidad humana superior(Bruce, 2018) y que posteriormente fuera reforzada por el dualismo cartesiano(Simondon, 2008), ha marcado fuertemente la estructura de nuestro pensamiento, dificultando y hasta imposibilitando la incorporación ética de numerosos seres, no sólo animales no humanos, también mujeres, personas de color y todos aquellos considerados inferiores moral o intelectualmente. ...
... More recently, some philosophers have also argued, in the context of disability and personhood, that an individual's moral worth can also be based on his/her relation to others (e.g. Curtis & Vehmas 2016, Kittay 2005, Vehmas & Curtis 2017. They maintain that the 'human community relation' is a signi cant, special relation that bestows moral value on those individuals who are part of that relation. ...
A demencia népegészségügyi prioritás: világszerte a gondozási függőség egyik legfőbb oka. Hazánkban negyedmillió demenciával élő ember rejtőzködik – hiszen a diagnózis stigmatizál. Kiszolgáltatottságukat megtapasztalhattuk a pandémia idején. Az egészségügyi és a szociális rendszer saját szabályai szerint igyekszik megfelelni feladatának, így az egyéni élethelyzetek kezelésekor gyakran falakba ütközünk. Az életvégi tervezés, a viselkedési tünetek kezelésének paradigmaváltása nem része a napi rutinnak. A demenciával élők és a gondozó családok életminőségének javításához palliatív szemléletű gondoskodásra van szükség, ehhez pedig elengedhetetlen az ismeretbővítés és a szemléletformálás. Az INDA© interprofesszionális megközelítésen alapuló komplex program. Egyik kulcseleme a kapcsolat az egészségügyi és szociális szakemberek, a gondozó családok, a szakpolitikusok, a társadalom széles rétegei között. Jó példák a szakmaközi együttműködések helyi formái (LIP), a hozzátartozói tudásbővítés (DIÓ), a filmek és kiadványok.
... Sobre esta concepción de ser humano se puede generar la problemática de un razonamiento bioético que tenga su base en una idealización, aún sin comprender que se trata precisamente más de un supuesto hipotético que de expresiones concretas, considerando que el cómo se concibe a la persona es central en varios modelos bioéticos. La dificultad aquí se vincula con la necesidad de adecuación al modelo teórico, es decir, que la realidad se debe ajustar a los criterios del razonamiento construidos a partir de ciertas idealizaciones, según Kittay (2005). En modo más concreto, este autor señala el riesgo de que en bioética se llegue a considerar como desajustados a los sujetos que no calzan con los supuestos del ideal, en su papel de modelo prototípico o a modo de único parámetro. ...
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Propósito/Contexto. La discapacidad mental altera el curso natural de la existencia humana porque impacta la construcción de la propia identidad y la interacción con el contexto en el que se habita. Pese a su relevancia, la discapacidad mental no ha estado en el centro del debate bioético. En el presente artículo se exponen algunas de las razones de esa postergación en el debate bioético, revisando desde los modelos comprensivos anteriormente imperantes hasta los modelos nuevos que incorporan principios éticos entre sus ejes. Metodología/Enfoque. Se revisaron los distintos modelos desde donde se comprende la discapacidad mental, comenzando por los de enfoque médico y social hasta los recientes modelos biopsicosociales y de la diversidad. Se identifica que los primeros modelos tenían el concepto de capacidad como eje teórico y que los actuales se proponen develar y erradicar la lógica de la exclusión aún no superada. Resultados/Hallazgos. La bioética tendría el doble rol de servir como modelo comprensivo y de instrumento que posibilite el debate ético en sociedades pluralistas, al propiciar abordajes ético-ontológicos útiles para el desarrollo de políticas sociosanitarias que permitan alcanzar la plena dignidad de las personas. Discusión/Conclusiones/Contribuciones. Se concluye que, si bien la bioética no ha sido indiferente al debate sobre discapacidad mental, esta tampoco ha estado en el centro de su interés ni ha logrado constituir un aporte para superar la postergación. A los profesionales expertos les cabe guiar a otros escenarios de impacto social, más allá de la investigación y de lo académico, de manera que los entornos educativos, culturales y comunitarios se conecten mejor alrededor de esa problemática.
... Some theorists who seek to preserve a special status for non-paradigm humans argue that the kind of moral status that merits respect can be acquired through relationships with other persons or the capacity to form such relationships. For example, Eva Kittay (2005) argues that a severely cognitively disabled human can acquire full moral status by way of being a moral agent's child. Others point to relational capacities such as the ca pacity to value, 8 the capacity to actively participate as a rearee in person-rearing relation ships (Jaworska and Tannenbaum 2014), the capacity to form relationships marked by PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( ...
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... Finally, appealing to normal functioning or individual abilities can come with the deeply problematic assumption that bodies that function normally or have all the significant abilities are necessarily worth more and that not functioning normally or not having all the significant abilities is bad or harmful for the disabled person (cf. Reynolds 2019; Campbell and Stramondo 2017;Kittay 2005, and many more). 6 It is for these reasons that philosophers of disability have vehemently critiqued naturalistic accounts and instead have brought forward a range of views best described as social constructionist accounts. ...
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Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare illness called Myasthenia Gravis. Myasthenia Gravis is a long-term neuromuscular autoimmune disease where antibodies block or destroy specific receptors at the junction between nerve and muscle; hence, nerve impulses fail to trigger muscle contractions. The disease leads to varying degrees of muscle weakness. Currently, I have only minor symptoms, I am not seriously impaired, and I do not suffer from any social disadvantage because of my illness. Yet, my life and my body since my diagnosis feel different than before. In this paper I aim to make this feeling intelligible and propose that it is a state of what I call ‘latent impairment’. Latent impairment is a state of being ‘in between’, different from being actually impaired and also different from being abled-bodied. The theory takes its cues both from social constructionist theories of disability as well as theories of (chronic) illness and their focus on the importance of subjectivity. Furthermore, I suggest that a phenomenological understanding of latent impairment can show possible ways of becoming an ally to the DRM.
This chapter is devoted to reflecting on the role of empathy in interactions with people with profound intellectual disabilities. We have a duty to respect people with intellectual disabilities. Respect involves identification with a point of view. We owe them an effort at identification with their perspective. However, if intellectually disabled people’s communicative abilities are impaired, our apprehension of their point of view might be limited, reducing our ability to identify with them and respect them. To answer this challenge, I appeal to empathy. Through imaginative empathy, we can learn to identify with their perspectives. I argue that empathy is a good moral guide and can be helpful in developing respectful attitudes toward people with profound intellectual disabilities.
The concept of personhood has been central to bioethics debates about abortion, the treatment of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious states, as well as patients with advanced dementia. More recently, the concept has been employed to think about new questions related to human-brain organoids, artificial intelligence, uploaded minds, human-animal chimeras, and human embryos, to name a few. A common move has been to ask what these entities have in common with persons (in the normative sense), and then draw conclusions about what we do (or do not) owe them. This paper argues that at best the concept of "personhood" is unhelpful to much of bioethics today and at worst it is harmful and pernicious. I suggest that we (bioethicists) stop using the concept of personhood and instead ask normative questions more directly (e.g., how ought we to treat this being and why?) and use other philosophical concepts (e.g., interests, sentience, recognition respect) to help us answer them. It is time for bioethics to end talk about personhood.
Book Information The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. By Jeff McMahan. Oxford University Press. New York. 2002. Pp. xiii + 540. Aus$110.
Welfare and Rational Care, by Stephen Darwall. Princeton University Press, 2002, xi + 135 pages - - Volume 22 Issue 1 - Jonas Olson
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
If personhood involves the construction of a narrative identity, then what are we to say of someone who is seriously ill or disabled? How can her life have any narrative when she is unable to write one?
Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.’s Retarded
  • K Boo