Ableism, Ageism, and Autonomy

How our guiding "virtue" dehumanizes those around us

I have discussed the failures of "autonomy" as an ethical metric many times before, and I plan on engaging more deeply with its issues in the future. But today I want to discuss a pernicious side effect of centering autonomy as our chief virtue: the emergence of a semi-hidden nexus of able-ism/ageism in our society.

Put very simply, those individuals who lack the capacity to autonomously perform as many actions as others are looked down upon.

When we consider autonomy to be the highest virtue, any barriers to autonomy must be eliminated. If autonomy is good, then a barrier to autonomy must be evil. The problem is that there are individuals who, due to their age or disability, are incapable of expressing the same degree of autonomy as others. The defender of autonomy encounters an obstacle to their desires and demands its removal. "I want to do X but Y is stopping me. Y must be eliminated!" So what happens when Y is one's own body?

Low Men and Liberalism

A number of years ago, the blogger ZippyCatholic described the Low Man:

The encounter of liberalism with reality necessarily produces the Low Man. Simultaneously an oppressive tyrant and less than human, the Low Man provides liberalism with a consistent self-understanding of its failures. If it were not for the Low Man, the free and equal New Man would be living in peace and harmony with himself as a self-made creation of reason and will, emancipated from the political chains of history, tradition, nature, and nature’s God, each doing his own thing and leaving his neighbors in peace. The New Man might be personally religious, ethnic, or what have you; but he would never impose his religion on others, and the failure of all to live in free and equal peace and harmony constrained only by what is known to dispassionate scientific expertise has no explanation without the Low Man.

There is a difference between the biological category of Human and the moral category of Person. (Certainly science and ethics do not exist unconnected from one another). The ability to manipulate the category of personhood, of who deserves rights and protections, has been used to justify atrocities. I believe that dehumanization, the process of considering those who are biologically human to be less than persons, must be avoided at all costs. In other words, our definition of personhood must be broad enough that all humans are considered persons.

And here, I fear that our obsession with autonomy has put us in a bind. First, to embrace the full personhood of a disabled individual is to acknowledge and endorse something beyond pure autonomy as being meaningful (and perhaps more meaningful than autonomy). The disabled individual wishes to do X but cannot, not because of an "external" obstacle, but because they lack the physical or mental capability to perform X. If we say that human is still a full person, we are claiming that the individual's capacity to perform autonomous action is either totally irrelevant or at least less relevant than some other factor to determine personhood. Second, from the above, we now have a situation in which rival values may displace autonomy as the highest virtue in society. Do you want to know why people hold so tightly to the value of autonomy? It is because they fear that the things they enjoy doing would be revealed to be unjustified if they were forced to come to terms with the fact Autonomy mediated by Harm/Coercion justifies nothing and that there is no substantive justification for pursuing their desires. In fact, their desires are Wrong. This, of course, is unacceptable to the modern individual who demands the ability to define and redefine themselves at will.

In that sense, the elderly and the disabled can be understood as some of the Low Men of Liberalism. They are the reminders, the obstacles, to a new world order of self-responsible individuals living freely without hurting each other.

The Low Man, in contrast, is a person or group of people who in fact do interfere with a particular faction of liberalism’s understanding of how things ought to be, and thus must be absorbed or destroyed. Unborn children in fact do interfere with the emancipated enfranchised feminist life plan, etc.

Living a Good Life

And so we come to statements like Richard Dawkins arguing that fetuses with Down's Syndrome should be aborted in order to "minimize suffering":

Putting aside the absurdities of utilitarianism, we see a very interesting heuristic that Dawkins has deployed without admitting it: "When one wishes to do X, one is frustrated by one's inability to do X and therefore this leads to suffering." Of course, Dawkins is also advocating for a kind of hypercapitalistic ethos in which one has no obligations to care for another unless one wants to, where one has no duties that are not consented to, but I wish to discuss this utilitarian nonsense here.

What we see here is an attempt to answer the question "what does it mean to live a good life?" Charles Taylor describes three axes of morality:

  1. Our sense of respect for and obligations to others

  2. Our understanding of what makes a full (rich, meaningful) life

  3. Our range of notions concerned with dignity (aka "the characteristics by which we think of ourselves as commanding (or failing to command) the respect of those around us")

Most of modern ethics only concerns itself with the first question, questions of duty and obligation and what is right/wrong to do in any given situation. Little attention is paid to asking questions regarding the fullness of life or where dignity emerges from. In fact, I would argue that our notion of Autonomy leads to deep psychological distress because it attempts to answer those latter two questions with "living a full or dignified life occurs when one exercises their self-responsible reason and acts in an autonomous fashion." Of course, one is never actually autonomous. From the moment we are born to the time we die, we are embedded in a variety of networks and contexts, most of which we did not consent to. Our answer to "what it means to live a full/dignified life" is entirely incompatible with reality. Is it any surprise so many of us are depressed?

Rather than using autonomy or capacity as measures of the good life, we require a far more substantive notion of this. And, I believe this notion must be expansive enough that all human beings can participate in it. A "Good Life" that only some human beings can participate in is not "good" in any sense of the word. In that sense, capacity to act autonomously is not relevant to personhood: the capacity to live a good life is. If we wish to begin healing our broken society, we have to admit to ourselves that Autonomy is a fundamentally broken concept. That we have to find a more substantive moral framework. And that it may be the case that we must come to terms with the fact some of our favorite actions are unjustified and that we aren't as good of a person as we thought we were. It is painful, but this is a chance for growth. We must embrace it with open arms.