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.