Rethinking “Conceptions of the Good” in Light of Intellectual Disability: What’s dependence got to do with it?

[This post is the ninth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays.]

In their talks at the disability conference, Anita Silvers and Leslie Francis look at questions about the role of the individual in the process of coming up with the things the person perceives as what is good for them, which includes reasons and motivations for accepting these goods as the person’s own. This is what is typically referred to as “a conception of the good” in the academic literature on social justice. Silvers and Francis argue that the accounts offered by Rawls and Nussbaum characterize this process in a way that is problematic for those with significant cognitive disabilities because they play up importance of the independence of the individual in coming up with their own good. If we adopt a picture of the individual as independent in this way, then it looks like those with cognitive disabilities will be excluded and left without any way to guard against being exploited by others in society. Is there a way to include individuals with severe cognitive disabilities in the process of conceiving their own good and in exercising their conception of the good to the degree required for social cooperation?

The answer, according to, Silvers and Francis in their talks, is ‘yes’. However, an account that includes those with significant cognitive abilities requires a shift in focus from independence to collaboration. The way in which Silvers and Francis suggest we make this shift is what I want to focus on. Part of their task involves expanding the picture by reframing the notion of conceiving of the good as a collaborative process, which involves “a reasonable dependence” on others in coming to one’s conception of the good. One way to illustrate the direction of the revision, which includes moving away from independence and toward reasonable dependence, is the use of trusteeship as a prosthetic process for those with cognitive disabilities. This way of thinking about collaboration and prosthetic processes in this way assists cognitively disabled individuals in coming up with their own good as well as with their interaction with others in coming up with a conception of the good for society (and thereby justifying justice). Before I get to questions about how we are meant to understand prosthetic processes, I’ll talk a bit about the role of independence and why Silvers and Francis find it problematic.

This is contrasted with Rawls’ and Nussbaum’s accounts of political liberalism, each of which relies on its own picture of persons as independent in the process of coming to their conception of the good. The emphasis on the role of independence within the individual’s process of arriving at and revising their conception of the good on their own has been the basis for the claim that his account of justifying justice excluded people with significant cognitive disabilities. And it is the independence of the individual in this way that invokes a “metaphysics of independence.”

What exactly does a metaphysics of independence refer to? Continue reading

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