Egalitarian Pursuit: how we’re dependent and why it matters
“Moreover, since we have assumed […] that persons are normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life, and so have the requisite capacities for assuming that role, there is the question of what is owed to those who fail to meet this condition, either temporarily (from illness and accident) or permanently, all of which covers a variety of cases”- John Rawls
John Rawls was, arguably, one of the greatest and most influential political philosopher of the last century. For all that his theory of justice has a clear procedure for demonstrating the equality of citizens and their interests (as opposed to Utilitarian aggregation), he didn’t think he could accommodate the disabled.
The statement quoted above create problems, then, for those who “fail to meet this condition”: it means that the disabled (at least) are not considered as appropriately citizens in Rawls’ theory of justice. Disabled persons are, in fact, those who can be “dominated” since we either have physical issues which may make us weaker and/or mental issues which may result in being pushed around in a different fashion. Thus, it must be admitted that accepting the idea that there are qualities people possess in order to determine citizenship or not is problematic if one is truly after a kind of egalitarianism.
Egalitarian pursuit, then, if one tries to include the disabled, can tend to be frustrated right from the get-go. In the face of a long-standing tradition of exclusion, we need some serious impetus to make the needs and lives of a whole category of people important and on the table.
What might such an impetus look like? What can we do to change the rhetoric that would create a “normal range” and thus exclude a portion of the population from being recipients of justice?
I should note, before I get much farther, that there are ways in which Western societies (at least) have begun to treat their disabled citizens as on equal ground with others; but there are still the arguments left for why this should continue, and why we need to avoid exclusion in the theoretical realm.
I believe that the way to continue theorizing equality should possess a kind of Hegelian logic. Hegel writes, for instance,
“Existence is the immediate unity of inward reflection and reflection-into-another. Therefore it is the indeterminate multitude of existents as inwardly reflected, which are at the same time, and just as much, shining-into-another, or relational; and they form a world of interdependence and of an infinite connectedness of grounds with what is grounded.”
What I am suggesting we do is begin an understanding of a political foundation that rests on a notion of equality. That is, the stated project is to aim for a metaphysic of dis/ability (more on this way of writing “disability” to follow) that finds society composed of equal and entirely relational persons.
We cannot continue, therefore, to theorize the political person as merely rational and independent. (As an aside, I’m not certain that there is a conscious human being who is entirely irrational, no matter what personal/conscious/psychological issues they may present; the disabled, as a general category, certainly isn’t the place to lay a general “irrationality”.)
I believe, then, that the logical, the true foundation of the political personhood is not to construct a fictional condition that no human being actually occupies (that is independence without qualification); but neither is the human, the personal constructed in a polemic, but rather through the recognition of an underlying bond that plays itself out as a dialectic.
So, for instance, I claim that no one is independent without qualification; the proposition I want to defend then is that dependent individuals are somehow independent; personhood, therefore, is defined as being an individual in a society as equal beings sometimes engaged in unequal relationships.
How we are dependent
Philosopher Eva Kittay writes,
“We human beings are the sorts of beings we are because we are cared for by other human beings, and the human being’s ontological status and corresponding moral status need to be acknowledged by the larger society that makes possible the work of those who do the caring required to sustain us. That is what we each require if we are some mother’s child, and we are all some mother’s child.”
For Kittay, life is so inextricably connected to the care that each of us needs that she argues it binds us together and demonstrates a basic fact about humanity: we are dependent beings. We rely heavily on others to get by in society.
And care is, in a sense, the best way to demonstrate that our connectedness, or dependence is the condition that binds us equally; we are all equal in virtue of our need for it, even beyond the necessity of merely medical care. It takes many people, many relationships to create the space for the choices that we deem valuable.
From an economic standpoint, for instance, it is easier to show dependence. No one is wealthy in isolation. Even, let’s say, someone who inherits some significant wealth is not really “independently wealthy”; they precisely depended on someone to get them their wealth, and that person(s) depended on others to buy their products, move other people’s products, etc. There is no one, again, who is economically self-sufficient. As Kittay notes,
“Entering the workforce and being able to earn a living is not independence as such but independence from certain oppressive conditions, and a dependence on other conditions that are hopefully more respectful of our desire to be efficacious agents.”
There are other persons that people might use to challenge the argument. What about those people who go off into the wilderness to “live by their own rules”, “fend for themselves” “not working for the man” (in short, the kinds of people who are depicted in Life Below Zero). But these people required someone to bring them into the world, support them into adulthood, and so on until they decided they want to leave a given society. If they have to move back to society in their old age, they will require care and support again.
It’s important, therefore to think of “independence” as requiring a full qualification. By that I mean that if we say, “So-and-so is sure independent!”, what we mean by that is “no longer lives with his parents”, or “doesn’t require medication every morning to make the day manageable”. However it is intended, though, we need to be very careful about thinking of independence a qualification of citizenship or life without stigma.
“The refusal to be labeled ‘dependent’ is based, first, on the refusal to become an infantilized object of paternalistic concern, and second, on the supposition that the source of dependency is internal to the individual.”
The idea that the “source of dependency” is internal to the individual is a way to further exclude the disabled from being citizens that can expect to live without stigmatization and the widespread assumption that their lives are on the whole worse than the “average” life.
Why it matters
In an article on dependence, Kittay makes the following proposition:
“justice provides the fair terms of social life given our mutual and inevitable dependency and our inextricable interdependency.”
I think this proposal is a solid one, and features, in one blow, the reason for “fair terms” connected firmly to a relational sensibility and conditions for social life.
Let’s unpack this a little further, think about what the implications are. To begin with, it would appear that injustice would be anything that damages the social life of an individual. If caring and dependency are, in fact, the characteristics of human life, then anything that damages or potentially damages these relationships are unethical.
Now, this isn’t to say that in a fight with your best or oldest friend over something big or banal, a fight perhaps that permanently damages the relationship, is an instance of injustice. This is not the sort of particular relationship I am talking about. I’m talking about relations with society as a whole, as a member of said society. That means that, for instance, not to educate severely cognitively impaired children on the grounds that they won’t return on the public investment, even though we know full well that many relationships, important and maybe lasting ones, are formed in the space of education. To relegate that child to their own devices is a way to do injustice to a citizen.
Thus it matters to be thinking appropriately about our shared condition, our shared equality so that we don’t wind up theorizing endlessly exclusive characterizations of the persons that live in our society; that is, so that we won’t commit injustices that hinge on irrelevant considerations. We all want, hopefully, the best for the societies in which we live. We all want strong, productive, economic relationships only among other kinds of relating (parenthood, friendship, etc.) which are equally important to an egalitarian pursuit.