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The Mentally Disabled

March 27, 2012

For a couple of years I worked with mentally handicapped adults. It was a rewarding job, and I learned a lot about what it is to be a human being. Beforehand, I think I had assumed that retarded people are basically just dumber people—basically like animals. That’s not so at all.

Retarded people often are, in many ways, less capable than, say, a dog. For instance, they can’t take care of their own bodily functions, and they can’t learn much. But they nearly always retain many distinctive human traits. People who can’t talk or wipe themselves often still have a sense of humour (admittedly usually fairly slapstick), or a sense of independence (in respect to those few things they can be independent in). That’s why working with mentally handicapped taught me something about what it is to be human. It’s as much about possessing a certain suite of desires and affections as it is about possessing language and a large mental capacity.

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Philosophers (both professional and amateur) make frequent recurse to the notion of ‘personhood.’ This is a nonsense notion. By contrast, ‘human being’ is a real and important notion.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 1:19 pm

    How is it nonsense? It seems like a way of referring to a certain level of intelligence or self-awareness, regardless of biological species. Kind of like the Buddhist ‘sentient beings’, but more select. A self-aware alien or AI is a person, but a human vegetable is not (but is a human being). Retarded people are human beings with sometimes questionable personhood.

    • March 27, 2012 1:50 pm

      I don’t have any objection to a general scale of awareness or self-awareness. But ‘personhood’ seems to be no more than a misleading reification of a basically abstract metric. Need a human, an alien, and an AI, for example, really have anything interesting in common besides an ability to recognize themselves in a mirror (or whatever)? Do they understand their existence through time in the same way? Feel emotions? Form attachments? So basically I feel the same way about ‘personhood’ that I do about atheism and theism, which the important exception that we have only one example of ‘persons,’ namely human beings. I dislike abstract talk about ‘religion’ already—now imagine if people taled that way and the only instance of religion were Christianity.

      But the reason people talk about personhood is that it’s supposed to be a sort of moral category. And morality isn’t really about sentience. ‘Human being’ *is* a moral category because we’re human beings and morality is about how we interact with each other—morality is about affect and relationship and other messy things like that. The ‘personhood’ of a transient and emotionless AI might be clearer than that of a retarded human with a sense of humour. And that’s really totally uninteresting from the perspective of morality.

    • March 27, 2012 2:07 pm

      Or read something like the SEP artilce on personal identity (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-personal/#ProPerIde) and tell me something hasn’t gone wrong somewhere.

  2. March 27, 2012 3:56 pm

    This is what many people call speciesism.

  3. ray permalink
    March 28, 2012 3:58 am

    i’ve found the “mentally disabled” are gifted by God in ways not apparent to most “regular” folks, if one has the patience to understand their talents and attributes (that a commercial society does not consider valuable)

    learning to communicate with them, especially non-verbal autistics, requires concentration and patience but is rewarded tremendously

    the most fulfilling and joyful experiences of my life have involved such people, some of whom are genius-intelligent and astonishingly full of grace

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