Disability and The Death Penalty

For those of you familiar with some of my recent teaching and writing, I am something of a dilettante in the virtue ethics of Aristotle. He has much to say that is of interest and use today and I have used his work in a recent article to explore the concept of happiness as it relates to my experience of spinal-cord injury. My enthusiasm, however, only goes so far, especially given that the prejudice that is so much a part of the outlook of his day impacts his thinking at key points. He argues, for example, that women and slaves are unable to be happy, in the fullest sense of the term, because they lack the freedom to make their own decisions, which restricts their exercise of virtue; “For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority” (Politics 1060a). More than just the cultural blindness of this position, what is noteworthy is that this restriction on the possibility of complete happiness extends to people who are chronically ill, mentally deficient and even ‘ugly’.

For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, [1099b] as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. (Nicomachean ethics 1099b).

For Aristotle this conclusion was obvious. Ill-health, mental deficiency and ugliness – characteristic ways of describing disability – are not only undesirable for their own sake (how could anyone consider the disabled life to be a good life), but they necessarily restrict the full exercise of intellectual and moral virtue, at least as he understands these concepts.

Now, before we ‘stand up’ in righteous indignation it is worth noting that this perspective is all too common. It finds its way, for example, into the scriptures, in texts such as
Leviticus 21:16 – 23 (“no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed … is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD” – see my earlier blog here). I hope to discuss a biblical theology of disability at a later point (if the gaps in my blogging improve, I intend to take us through some of the writing of Amos Yong in The Bible Disability in Church) but before any of us in the 21st century get too self-righteous, it is worth noting that such perspectives are too common today.

There is the simple inability that most people have to look a disabled person in the eye, to talk to them naturally and treat them as we would any other person. Behind these actions may well lie pity and compassion, but this can be similar to the perspective of Aristotle, since it arises because we presume that the disabled are unlucky and necessarily unhappy – and very few of us are capable of looking directly at suffering. Of course these attitudes are understandable. I have been there myself and I’m sure compassion is often warranted; but it should not be assumed, since assumption is the ground of prejudice. Much more importantly, however, is the fact that prejudice against disability stands behind some of our arguments for both abortion and euthanasia. It is now the almost universal practice to screen the fetus for any signs of disability. If such is found (or even suspected) abortion is presented as a possible course of action, leaving parents in the invidious position of having to decide whether or not to terminate their pregnancy. At the other end of life, it is generally believed that people with severe acquired disability would want to commit suicide and, if they are unable to do so because of the limits of their function, should be helped to die by an indemnified doctor.

I should note, at this point, that I am not making an argument in this post for or against the legalisation of abortion or euthanasia. These are far more complex issues than many on the right or the left allow and morality is generally best kept out of the hands of politicians and law courts. I am speaking simply about prejudice. So to end where I started. Aristotle may be a misogynist racist but at least he wasn’t suggesting termination as a solution to the problem of disability.