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Liberalism v. the Disabled

Thursday, February 1, 2001

Hans S. Reinders.
The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society.
University of Notre Dame Press.
280 pages. $35.00

Stunning developments in the field of biotech have lately filled the news, from the cloning of Dolly the sheep to the mapping of the human genome. And if the scientists are to be believed, it seems that soon the once fantastic and unimaginable will become feasible: human clones, custom-designed children, lifespans doubled, man-animal chimeras, even the replacement of Homo sapiens with what the New Republic has dubbed Homo geneticus. Should but half of these predicted breakthroughs occur, the moral and political repercussions would be significant. But even if only the seemingly most mundane among them — the doubling of the human life span — occurs, the political consequences would be large indeed, and not necessarily what we expect. As the philosopher Hans Jonas once pointed out, a revolutionary extension of the life span would usher in, paradoxically, the most reactionary of societies. Dominated by the old and security-conscious, lacking the inventiveness and wonder of the young, such a society would hardly be the dynamo that cheerleaders of progress and technology like Virginia Postrel want — it would be a society of unending boredom and stasis.

Technology’s unintended impact is the general subject of a new book by Hans S. Reinders. In The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society, he subtly explores how genetic-testing technologies — ones that are already widely used and others that are just around the corner — adversely affect the standing of the disabled in liberal states. A professor of ethics, Reinders has written an intellectually challenging work of philosophy and social policy. He draws broadly from the social sciences, political theory, psychology, and literature in order to grapple with a question few of us are willing to face: Does liberalism, in fulfilling its principles of equality and autonomy, also succeed in undermining and destroying these very same principles, at least for a segment of the population — the disabled?

Here’s how Reinders describes the process by which liberalism feeds upon its own most cherished ideals. Modern liberalism, as authoritatively formulated by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, is devoted to the supposedly value-free norms of equal respect and autonomy. These principles, taken a certain distance, have served the disabled well, creating a society that is more inclusive, that treats the disabled as fellow citizens, that goes the extra mile to provide equal access, that does not allow discrimination based on handicap. Whatever its shortcomings, and certainly there are many, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990 by President Bush and supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, was a well-intentioned piece of legislation that has helped many.

But what happens when the principles of equality and autonomy are extended further, as they have been, into the far-flung reaches of genetic testing? Increasingly, it is possible to test for physical or mental defects in embryo, not to mention eventually for eye color, height, sexual orientation, IQ, etc. What kind of moral guidance does liberalism have to offer us in deciding who should and who should not be born? None and worse than none, says Reinders.

The principle of autonomy, as developed by Dworkin and others, guarantees parents the absolute right to prevent the birth of less-than-perfect children, a choice many parents make. But the problem is not simply that liberal morality offers no guidelines in the difficult area of genetic testing, leaving these decisions to personal deliberation and pronouncing them strictly private choices. In the view of Reinders, the autonomy principle carries within itself an implicit value judgment about the lives of the disabled — namely, that such lives are not worth living. Considered on the simplest level, an individual’s decision to abort a disabled child, when aggregated with many other such individual choices, casts a thick cloud of doubt on the value of the lives led by the disabled. It is, Reinders states, "utterly naïve" to suppose otherwise. And more fundamentally, because liberalism takes autonomy to be the essential quality of our humanity, it inevitably devalues the disabled who live with some measure of dependency.

Thus, concludes Reinders, liberal society today sends the following contradictory message to the disabled: As long as you’re here, we’ll take care of you as best we can — but better had you never been born.

Moreover, as increasing numbers of individuals opt to prevent the birth of disabled children, a certain informal but powerful social consensus will emerge. Reinders believes that people will begin to ask: Why should we bear the cost of supporting the disabled through special education programs and the like when the parents should have done the "responsible" thing by preventing the child’s birth? And public support for the ADA and other such programs and initiatives will dwindle.

Defenders of genetic testing, Reinders notes, claim that no such critical public judgment is being made, only a private, medical decision to reduce individual suffering. But Reinders responds that the antisuffering principle is itself a value judgment, which imposes a specific meaning on disabled lives. Seen only darkly and incompletely through the distorting lens of suffering and privation, the lives of the disabled will no longer appear as genuinely human or worthy of full respect.

Liberal ideology’s contradictions — how its principles of equal respect and absolute autonomy, once unloosed, lead to a lack of respect and loss of autonomy for some — is in certain respects an old story. Since the beginning of political science it has been noted that every regime is most likely to decay not from values foreign or hostile to its existence but as the direct result of the perversion of its own principles. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates described how, for example, the democrat’s devotion to absolute freedom leads ineluctably to absolute slavery. And Daniel Bell has described how capitalism creates a social ethos that is ultimately inhospitable to the virtues that make capitalism possible in the first place.

The question is: How can liberalism’s autonomy principle be kept within decent and reasonable bounds in the high-tech age? And how can its commendable solicitude for the disabled be kept from sliding into lack of empathy for the lives they lead? In Reinders’ opinion, the liberalism dominant in the universities and law schools — the liberalism espoused by Dworkin, Rawls, and their acolytes — inevitably degenerates in this way.

Reinders notes that this is not to say that liberalism as such is irredeemable. He admits parenthetically that the communitarian-liberalism defended by William Galston and others might not suffer from these defects, that it might be able to contain autonomy’s destructive inclinations. But he leaves this avenue largely unexplored. Instead, he turns to a number of prominent critics of liberalism, including Alasdair MacIntyre, for answers.

Reinders does not recommend disallowing genetic testing or interfering with the liberal right of reproduction. He believes that such moves would be as wrong as they would be likely to bring about a fearful backlash against the disabled. And he acknowledges, drawing upon the experience of parents who have raised disabled children, just how difficult such a journey can be. What Reinders suggests instead is that to understand disability, we draw on moral resources that transcend liberalism’s narrow view of people as autonomous choosers, as "rational agents" who exist independently of social roles. To Reinders, this is simply false to human experience. We should view ourselves as beings who are defined by the social relations we are born into. In the parlance of the philosophers, we are "embedded selves" defined by our social ties. And so, if one is to lead a truly human life, the truly good life, one cannot really "choose" to have or not have a disabled child, for social ties define who we are a priori. In some sense, we are claimed by that disabled child before he is ever born, whether we fully acknowledge this existential fact or not. In Reinders’ succinct formulation: "Sociability constitutes morality, not the other way around."

While Reinders’ philosophic exploration of disability is profound, its policy implications are not entirely clear. Also, Reinders’ book might have benefited from some history and comparative analysis. For example, how does the liberal-scientific approach to disability stack up against the treatment of the disabled in nonliberal societies? Such a broader context would further our understanding of liberal societies’ successes and shortcomings in this area of social policy. However, if Reinders’ is not the last word on the subject, he has done a great service by demonstrating how even a seemingly benign aspect of the high-tech revolution, genetic testing, will have unintended consequences none of us can greet with equanimity.