Why Disability Isn’t—Or Shouldn’t Be—An Obstacle to Happiness
Kieran Setiya Invites Us to Change Our Preconceptions About Illness and Disease
One of the most basic lessons of recent work in the philosophy of medicine is the need to take care with words. Beginning with the idea of health as the proper functioning of the body and its parts, an emerging consensus contrasts disease—a category of malfunction—with illness, which is the negative impact of disease on lived experience. Disease is biological; illness is, at least in part, “phenomenological,” a matter of how life feels. It is, as philosophers say, “contingent” whether or not disease makes life go worse.
In general, how well you are able to live when your body malfunctions depends on the effects, which are mediated everywhere by luck and social circumstance. If you have free access to medication, a serious disease like type 1 diabetes may not involve much illness; if you have no health care, a minor infection or dysentery may kill you. The result is that illness is distributed even more inequitably than disease, following lines of wealth, race, and nationality.
Matters are more subtle still with disability, both long-term and the incremental disabilities of aging. In the last few decades, disability theorists have argued for a social understanding of what it means to be physically disabled. Thus, in Extraordinary Bodies, the critic Rosemarie Garland-Thomson aimed “to move disability away from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities.” It was the work of these minorities that led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. and the Disability Discrimination Act in the U.K. Disability is the focus of a struggle for civil rights.
It has taken time for these ideas to migrate into my corner of philosophy, but a recent book by the philosopher Elizabeth Barnes agrees: “To be physically disabled is not to have a defective body, but simply to have a minority body.” Garland-Thomson and Barnes do not line up on everything: they differ on the nature or “metaphysics” of disability.
But it is common ground between them—as among many disability theorists and activists—that when you abstract from prejudice and poor accommodations, physical disability does not generally make life worse. Like being gay in a homophobic culture, being disabled may be to one’s detriment, but that’s a social failing, not a natural inevitability. Physical disability is not, in itself, an obstacle to living well.
It’s a claim that provokes both puzzlement and resistance. Philosophers often treat the imposition of disability as a paradigm of injury or harm. And able-bodied people may view the prospect of being deaf or blind or unable to walk with dread. But while it’s easy to misinterpret, there is truth in the activists’ claim: given adequate accommodations, physical disability need not prevent us from living lives that are, in general, no worse than the lives most people lead.
If physical disability is a category of overt bodily malfunction, it’s not akin to illness but disease. Bodily malfunction is biological; its effects on lived experience are contingent, subject to circumstance. That means there is a sense in which physical disability cannot be bad for you in itself. If it makes life worse, that’s because it affects how you actually live.
A wider moral is drawn in the Daoist parable of the farmer’s luck, which I learned from Jon J Muth’s radiant picture book Zen Shorts. When the farmer’s horse runs away, his neighbors sympathize: “Such bad luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. His horse returns with two more: “Such good luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. The farmer’s son tries to ride one of the untamed horses and breaks his leg: “Such bad luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. With his broken leg, the son cannot be drafted to fight in a war: “Such good luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies…
So, it all depends. Specifically: whether a physical disability makes your life go better or worse, all told, depends on what effects it has. What is more, a wealth of data attests to the fact that, even in the world as it is, the effects are not so bad: people with physical disabilities do not rate their own well-being significantly lower than other people rate theirs. “A massive body of research has demonstrated that people who acquire a range of disabilities typically do not experience much or any permanent reduction in the enjoyment of life,” a recent survey of the literature concludes.
For all that, puzzlement persists. There’s no denying that needing a wheelchair, or being blind or being deaf, estranges you from things of value: the pleasure of a solitary mountain hike; the look of the scenery; the strains of birdsong in the air. It is in that sense harmful. As the farmer’s luck reminds us, there may be collateral benefits. But other things being equal, how can disabilities like these fail to make your life go worse? Isn’t that what happens when you take away something good?
The puzzle turns on mistakes about the nature of the good life that go back to Aristotle. It isn’t just that Aristotle is preoccupied with the ideal life, the one you ought to choose if everything were up to you, nor that he would regard disability of any kind as incompatible with living well. It is that he thinks the best life is “lacking in nothing.” It is the “most desirable of things,” to which nothing can be added. If anything good was missing from eudaimonia, he argues, adding it would count as an improvement; but it’s already the best. This goes along with Aristotle’s vision of a single, ideal life, organized around a single activity—contemplation, as it turns out, though the first nine books of the Nicomachean Ethics lead us to expect, instead, the life of the accomplished statesman.
Aristotle’s monomania is repressed by contemporary authors who recruit him to the project of self-help. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is typical: “In saying that well being or happiness (eudaimonia) is ‘an activity of soul in accordance with excellence or virtue,’” he writes, “Aristotle wasn’t saying that happiness comes from giving to the poor and suppressing your sexuality. He was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become.”
But apart from being more sex-positive, Aristotle was saying exactly what Haidt says he wasn’t. Eudaimonia, for Aristotle, is a life of intellectual excellence, meditating on the cosmos and its laws, or it’s a life of practical virtue—of courage, temperance, generosity, justice, friendship, pride—supplied with every gift of fortune. There is no room in Aristotle’s thinking for a plurality of good-enough lives, in which individual human beings develop their particular talents, interests, and tastes.
The mirage of a life so perfect it is lacking in nothing; the conviction that there is just one path to flourishing: these are ideas we should resist. When I think of my heroes, people who lived good lives if anyone does— none of them perfect—what stands out is how different they are: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Iris Murdoch; Bill Veeck; a political visionary and activist; a novelist and philosopher; a baseball executive. The list goes on, increasingly scattered: my teacher D. H. Mellor; Talmudic icon Rabbi Hillel; the scientist Marie Curie….Feel free to supply a list of your own. I’ll bet its members won’t have much in common.No one has access to, or space for, everything of value, anyway; and there’s no harm in being estranged from much that’s good.
What this diversity reflects is a liberalization of what goes into living well in the long aftermath of Aristotle’s ethics. There is not just one activity to love—contemplation or statesmanship—but a vast array of things worth doing, ranging from music, literature, TV, and film to sports, games, and conversation with friends and family, from the essential labor of doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, and sanitary workers to commercial innovation, science pure and applied…even philosophy.
It’s not that anything goes. Aristotle may have been wrong to focus on a single ideal life, but he was right to affirm that some things are worth wanting, while others are not. Take Bartleby in Herman Melville’s incomparable short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Narrated by a complacent but well-meaning lawyer who hires the mysterious Bartleby as a copyist, the story pivots on Bartleby’s sudden refusal to proofread. Requested to do so, “Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.’”
Things spiral from there. Never giving any reason, Bartleby repeats his mantra. He prefers not to eat anything but ginger nuts; not to talk to colleagues or to check for mail at the post office; not to help the lawyer hold down a piece of tape; not to leave work at all— Bartleby begins to live there; not to answer questions about his life, preferring to be left alone; not to quit the office even when he’s fired; not to copy anymore, but also not to move in with the lawyer or to take another job; and when forcibly removed to prison, not to eat—until he dies. We may sympathize with Bartleby, but his desires do not make sense.
Not all preferences are equal, then: there are limits to what is worth wanting. But within those limits, we can flourish in many ways, doing countless different things. Once we absorb this pluralism, the idea that a good life is “lacking in nothing” begins to seem absurd. It is manifestly false of the lives I gestured at above, all of which have both faults and gaping omissions. It’s not as though one should strive to partake in everything good, loving every kind of music, literature, art; every sport; every hobby; working as a janitor-nurse-professor-poet-priest.
Karl Marx wrote that in “communist society…it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” But even he did not suggest that it was obligatory. When something has value, that doesn’t mean we should or must engage with it. At most, it means we should respect it as something worth protecting and preserving. It’s fine to be indifferent to free jazz, or classical piano, or death metal: each to their own. But we should want them to survive for others to enjoy.
In practice, a good life is selective, limited, fractional. It has good things in it, but the many it must omit don’t necessarily make it worse. It’s not a blight on my life that I don’t enjoy pre-Raphaelite art or know how to build a fence. I have plenty going on.
At the risk of sounding frivolous: this is why physical disabilities don’t, as a rule, prevent us from living well. Disabilities prevent us from engaging with valuable things. They are harmful in a way. But no one has access to, or space for, everything of value, anyway; and there’s no harm in being estranged from much that’s good.
If disability limits your activities too much, it may be devastating. But most physical disabilities are not like that, or needn’t be. It’s in our collective power to determine how far access to employment, education, and social opportunity is affected by disability: how far lacking the ability to flourish in one way means lacking the ability to flourish in others. Most disabilities leave enough of value in place for lives that are no worse than the majority—and sometimes better.
Excerpted from Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way by Kieran Setiya. Copyright © 2022. Available from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.