Monday, February 21, 2011

The social self and the severely mentally disabled

In a comment on my post 'The social self and human rights', it was suggested that seeing selfhood and rights as deriving from social interactions left certain kinds of severely disabled people potentially vulnerable. Commenting on the comment, I agreed that some severely disabled people would on my account not have rights, but nonetheless they should be treated humanely and with due respect.

The reference to 'due respect' was a classic instance of begging the question, I must admit. If they are owed respect then they have a right to that respect - but my account of the social self seems to fail to explain that right.

Could one find within my framework a basis for respecting a child who was incapable of all higher cognitive functions and incapable also of learning even basic skills like self-feeding? I think one needs to take account of the social and emotional context - i.e. the mother, father, other carers, etc. Perhaps one could assign respect to the child on the basis of respect for these people.

What of the advanced Alzheimer's sufferer? His or her social connections with the world have been effectively erased. However, such people can be respected for what they were and for the traces which remain.

In general I think it would be appropriate if procedures for terminating such hopeless lives were available for those families who felt that the dignity of the sufferer would be better enhanced by death than by a continuation of life.

The topic of euthanasia is one which cannot be avoided in any proper discussion of the social self. I have given a preliminary view, and I would welcome comments.


  1. Since even disabled people fall within the natural range of human variation, there is no reason to treat them as anything less than human. So I don't think your position necessarily precludes respect for their dignity or rights. That depends on whether one's "subjective status" (the ability to be aware of one's rights, for instance) is crucial to having those rights. Sam Harris' position on abortion, by the way, relies on this same "subjective status" as the dividing line between human and (in his example) rabbit. So the fetus, as incapable of knowing anything, is not human until it has developed this capability -- and thus we can kill it without remorse. I don't think that flies. If we think there must be a "self"-consciousness to deserve rights-protection legally or dignity-respect morally, then some people might be more equal than others and (philosophically speaking) all hell breaks loose. It reduces the universalizability of whatever rights we want to recognize, by picking and choosing to whom they can apply.

  2. You raise too many issues for me to deal with right away, GC.

    Just one point for now. You talk about the natural range of human variation but I don't think you can equate those whose brains have catastrophically failed (or just not developed) with functioning people - except on the basis of an 'essence' or soul.

  3. My point is that if we ask "is this (less than fully functional) being human?" much depends on where we draw the line. And, second part of the point: I think when that question is asked, it's inappropriate to say "no" if the target being falls within the range of human variation (we need not be perfect humans to be human; some are more functional than others).

    Now that touches upon your euthanasia question in the borderline case, where practically no function exists. I'll muddy the water here (LOL) by saying euthanasia is usually considered as a "merciful act," (to reduce suffering is the classic formula) and the target individual must have some moral status to qualify for the mercy. The question becomes easier if everyone who has human DNA qualifies for the moral game, including any rights, protections, or mercies assumed for fully functional human beings. If we don't do that, it seems to me, the halt and blind and deaf and even merely dull whom we usually protect as human, could fall outside the moral game. I think it's better to err on the side of inclusion (which I express as "within the range of human variation") to make sure we 1) consider the consensus rights of any living thing in specific cases and 2) do not limit our extension of protections (ie, our theories) in ways that could be abused ("our enemies are not human," for instance).

    To consider whether an entity should be euthanized ("humanely,") in particular, it's more useful to give it a status which qualifies for humane treatment. Otherwise we might just as well shoot the borderline cases and be done with it. By the way, I killed a rabbit once for sport (not for dinner) and afterwards considered that "inhumane."

  4. I appreciate your cautions, GC. I am very aware of the dangers associated with legal changes in these areas, but I am really just thinking out loud about what I see as the fundamental, underlying issues. Your views are more developed than mine, I'd say. I see some merit in your "human DNA" criterion, but I don't know that I would go down that path myself. I don't think there is anything sacred or special in that way about human DNA and I think there still arises the need to make the sorts of distinctions you are rightly very cautious about. Take abortion. It may be an unpleasant business but it's not equivalent to killing a man, woman or child (unless you believe what certain religious activists believe). Likewise there are always going to be difficult decisions relating to whether or not to keep afflicted individuals alive. I don't think I would want to live on into advanced dementia...