I was sad to note today that Harriet McBryde Johnson has died. She was a lawyer, writer, and disability activist who wrote a great essay and book about her encounters with Peter Singer, who argues that euthanasia for disabled infants is morally acceptable in certain specific situations.
Singer is public enemy #1 for many people with disabilities, but Johnson found herself oddly comfortable debating him, first in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, and then at Princeton, where he invited her to speak. Here she was, face to face with a man who believes her parents wouldn’t have been wrong to have her killed, yet she couldn’t help but like and respect him. A woman with a big heart and an open mind!
Can serious disabilities keep you from living a perfectly good life? Of course, says Singer, while Johnson says No. The problem with having a disability, she says, is entirely socially manufactured. Society does much too little to accommodate differences, and it’s this that makes the lives of the disabled difficult. What is the nature of this “good life” that’s equally attainable by anyone, no matter how severe their disability? Well, she doesn’t quite say, but I surmise it’s “different strokes for different folks.” What’s good for me is one thing, what’s good for a person with a severe disability is (often) another.
The idea that there is a single way for all humans to flourish gets you into some silly ideas about people with disabilities. In Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice, the general picture is this: justice should be defined by results. In a just society, every human fulfills a set of human capacities (and each kind of animal fulfills the capacities typical of the species— the book also has a chapter about animals). The goal must be for every human, regardless of disability, to have human dignity, not just their own form of dignity.
To see how peculiar this view is, you have to think about what it would mean in practice. One of the distinctively human capacities is the capacity to participate in political activity. If disabilities stand in the way for “Sesha”—a person Nussbaum uses as an example–some facsimile of political participation should be arranged anyway. But wait, what if Sesha has no grasp of politics? What if she couldn’t care less? It’s still important for her to flourish by our species standard.
On such a notion of what the good life amounts to, a disability is entirely something to be overcome. Each person must in one way or another, symbolic or real, attain the goods that are definitive of being human. I’m with Johnson here. She attained the goods that are definitive of being Harriet McBryde Johnson, and to hell (I can hear her say) with any peculiarly human goods that were beyond her.
But then, there’s also a problem with Johnson’s view. Some disabilities are so severe as to put all goods off limits, or even to make life a constant misery. Why is even a life like that worth preserving? I like the fact that Johnson does not resort to vapid phrases like “the sanctity of human life”—she was an atheist–but the fact is that she doesn’t have an answer.
Johnson is featured in a chapter of my book about the good life, where I explain more about the Singer-Johnson debate and try to steer a course between them. Her book is called Too Late to Die Young, and though she didn’t really die young (she was 50), she died too soon.