The Mentally Disabled
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.