Is Every Difference a Mere Difference?
More thoughts on "The Minority Body"
I’ve just finished teaching a whirlwind summer bioethics class in which a fairly big chunk of the time was spent thinking about disability. As I mentioned in my last post, one of the texts that I was planning on using (and which I did in fact use) was Elizabeth Barnes’ book The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. In that post I discussed Barnes’ definition of disability as solidarity and raised some concerns about it, focusing particularly on the notion that disability ‘travels’. The idea that concepts can travel in the way disability is supposed to still bothers me very much, and, in fact, thinking about why that’s the case has allowed me to bring into focus some latent criticisms of the analytic philosophical tradition that I haven’t quite been able to put into words so far—that will be the task of a future post.
In this post, however, I want to focus on Barnes’ claim that having a disability is, in the first place, a matter of having a different kind of body—a minority body—and in the second place, that the difference that marks the disabled body is a mere difference and not a bad difference.
I think there’s something very attractive about this claim and I think it may very well be the correct way to think about disability, but I feel like there’s something wrong with the argument she uses to support it. To be explicit, I see the argument in defense of the mere-difference claim to rest on a suspect division of value—the good/bad/neutral simpliciter division—and, in particular, on Barnes’ claim that a feature x is neutral simpliciter in relation to its value just in case it is neither good simpliciter nor bad simpliciter. I think that although this division does support Barnes’ conclusion, one of the consequences of adopting it is that virtually nothing ends up being bad simpliciter, and hence, virtually every difference ends up being a mere difference.
This strikes me as unsatisfying for two reasons. First, if virtually every feature one might have ends up being neutral simpliciter with regard to its value, then it’s not surprising that features marked as disabilities should also be value-neutral. Indeed, what’s surprising is that we thought there were so many things that aren’t value neutral.1 And second, I think we have good grounds to think that many of the features that would be considered value neutral under this threefold division really are good/bad simpliciter (though, perhaps the features related to disability are value neutral).
In that respect, the critical stance I take here is not so much with the claim that disability amounts to having a merely-different body—that, I think sounds quite right—but with the normative structure that is brought in support of that argument.
What has been said so far is enough for the reader to get a snapshot of where I’m placing my criticism, but, clearly, it makes little sense unless I explain the terms (good/bad/neutral simpliciter) and Barnes’ argument itself. I turn to this next, but before I do, two final remarks are in order.
First, in my discussion, my aim is to take on as much of Barnes’ assumptions on board as possible and to limit my criticisms to the kind of normative structure that she uses to support her claim. Consequently, I accept Barnes’ “moderate social constructivist” view of physical disability as a kind of bodily feature that becomes a disability in particular social contexts (namely, when the disability rights community identifies it as a feature around which to foster solidarity). I think there are good reasons to reject the claim that disability is something that first appears in the body with an objective ontological status rather than something that is created through the exercise of certain kinds of power. Nevertheless, I will accept Barnes’ view since my criticism doesn’t hang on how we conceptualize disability at that level.2
And second, I wanted to state that I’m hugely indebted to my undergrad class for the great discussions we had around this topic since a lot of my thoughts here were made clearer during our conversations together. Just one of the many reasons I love teaching is that it really helps me engage with topics that I wouldn’t have had a chance to pick up otherwise. Thanks, gang!
Part I: Mere Difference, Bad Difference, and Value Neutrality
Barnes’ central claim is that (physical) disabilities are mere differences between bodies that make some bodies minority bodies and others majority bodies. In order to defend this claim she has to accomplish two tasks: first, she has to explain what a mere difference is and that it’s possible to think of disability as a mere difference; and following that, to show that disability is actually such a mere difference. She tackles both tasks in chapters 2 and 3 respectively (though some of the latter task is also done in chapter 2) so I’ll offer brief summaries of each here.
In order to explain what a mere difference is and how disability could be such a mere difference, Barnes explains what it might mean to view disability as a ‘bad-difference’ with the idea that once we have a grasp on what that might mean, the conceptual room for a mere difference is carved out by saying that a mere difference is not that (and not a good-difference either, but that’s more or less done in passing). Barnes gives us four possible, though non-exhaustive views on what it might mean to think that disability is a bad difference:
(i) Disability is something that is an automatic or intrinsic cost to your well-being.
(ii) Were society fully accepting of disabled people, it would still be the case that for any given disabled person x and any arbitrary non-disabled person y, such that x and y are in relevantly similar personal and socio-economic circumstances, it is likely that x has a lower level of well-being than y in virtue of x’s disability.
(iii) For any arbitrary disabled person x, if you could hold x’s personal and socio-economic circumstances fixed but remove their disability, you would thereby improve their well-being.
(iv) Consider two possible worlds, w and w*, which are relevantly similar to the actual world except that w contains no ableism and w* contains both no ableism and no disabled people. The overall level of well-being in w* is higher than the overall level of well-being in w, in virtue of the fact that w* contains no disabled people.3
Accepting any of these four claims about disability amounts to holding a bad-difference view about disability and in order to hold the mere-difference view, one must reject all of them (and perhaps other, unlisted ones as well).
What unites all four claims is the underlying assumption that there is something about having a disability that makes one’s wellbeing worse off than it would have been in the absence of the disability, simply by virtue of having the disability and not because of any downstream social or political effects thereof.
Crucially, to deny these claims is not to deny that, for example, there is never anything bad about having a disability or that in the current ableist world, structured and designed around the needs of able bodied people, a disability sometimes confers a significant detriment to wellbeing—a person who holds the mere-difference view can readily grant that. Rather, it is to hold that even if we corrected for all socio-economic differences between disabled and able bodied people, and even if all ableism were rooted out, one’s wellbeing would still be worse off for having a disability than not. This is the claim that those who hold the bad-difference view of disability accept and it is the claim that those who hold the mere-difference view reject.4
It is patently obvious that, generally speaking, the mere-difference view is clearly correct when it comes to certain bodily features. The color of one’s hair, for example, is a mere-difference—simply having brown or blond or red hair doesn’t by itself affect one’s wellbeing one way or another. This, however, does not mean that there may be cases in which having a certain color hair might nevertheless significantly affect one’s wellbeing. For example, in a society in which having red hair is highly socially valued and being blond is associated with being depraved, being a red-head could make a huge difference in how well one’s life goes. In those cases, however, it is not the pigment of the hair itself that causes the change in wellbeing, but rather how having that pigment is taken up and interpreted by others. In such societies there would be a correlation between hair color and wellbeing, but the hair color itself is not causally responsible for the difference in wellbeing.
The same point (but from the other direction) is frequently made about race, gender, and sexual orientation. That is, many people will recognize that, for example, there is high correlation between being a straight white cis male and having high wellbeing, and conversely, that there’s a correlation between being queer, non-white, trans, or a woman, and low wellbeing, it is not whiteness or non-whiteness itself that explains that correlation. Rather, what explains it is the way society is structured so that it confers these benefits upon white (straight, cis, male, etc.) people. In a world in which there were no racism, sexism, transphobia, and so on, the differences just mentioned would lose their correlation and would become clear that they, in fact, are simply mere differences.
In light of these comments, it’s clear that there’s conceptual room to hold the mere difference view of disability; one just has to think of disability as one of the kinds of features that one already recognizes as having this status. This is not an implausible position to hold.
Furthermore, we have prima facie reason not to accept the bad-difference view. As Barnes herself points out, the reason so many people implicitly hold the bad-difference view of disability and discount the mere-difference view is either because they mistrust the testimony of disabled folks about their own wellbeing (i.e. it’s just not possible that they could know how good it is to be able to run/see/hear, etc. but I can certainly know what it’s like to be paralyzed/blind/deaf and it looks terrible), or because so much prejudice has solidified as “common sense.” Just as racist and sexist views of the past appeared equally common-sensical but have now been shown to be patently false or groundless, so it’s possible for us to see disability in the same light. If this is true, then we should be wary of immediately assuming that disability is a bad-difference.
Note, however, that this does not yet show us that disability is a mere-difference, but only that it makes sense to think of it as such. To show that it is such a difference Barnes has to demonstrate that one’s wellbeing isn’t directly causally affected by one’s disability. This is Barnes’ second task.
In order to show that one’s wellbeing isn’t made worse off simply by virtue of being disabled, Barnes avails herself to two ways of specifying the relation of certain features to wellbeing. The first is in terms of local goods and bads and global goods and bads. A feature x is locally good for person y iff x improves y’s wellbeing with respect to some feature F or some time t, and it is globally good x improves y’s overall wellbeing (mutatis mutandis with bads).
Crucially, for any given feature or situation x, x can be locally bad while being globally good and vice versa. To use Barnes’ own example, getting the flu is a local good when one is young since getting it usually involves getting to stay home from school; but it is, on the whole, a global bad since it involves lots of discomfort and pain until the virus is defeated. Likewise, working out might be a local bad since it requires a lot of effort to maintain, but is a global good since it ultimately promotes good health.
This same distinction can be made with all bodily features, and, therefore, with disabilities as well since they, too, are kinds of bodily features. And indeed, it is easy enough to specify how certain disabilities can be locally bad for specific persons at specific times in specific contexts—deafness, for example, can be locally bad for a person at a time when crucial or important information is only available through auditory means (e.g. a warning from a bystander about an approaching vehicle). However, from the fact that in this particular context, or indeed, in any number of contexts, deafness might be a local bad, it does not strictly follow that deafness is a global bad. For any particular person, deafness may actually be a global good, if, on the whole, their overall wellbeing is improved by being deaf.
One way in which this might be possible is if deafness comes with certain intrinsic goods that are available (or that may be available) to deaf people but which are not available to hearing people. There are such intrinsic goods. For example, among other things, congenitally deaf people have the unique experience of learning a signed language as their first language, as well as the ability to experience music strictly through felt vibrations. The presence of intrinsically valuable goods like these might make it the case that for certain people, being deaf is, overall, something that has improved their wellbeing regardless of the fact that in certain contexts and situations the very same feature remains a local bad.
This point remains correct even if we point out that being deaf comes with the loss of other intrinsically valuable goods. We might think, for example, that there’s something intrinsically valuable about hearing the voice of one’s beloved, or of listening to the saxophone solo in King Crimson’s “Starless”, and that deafness prevents one from attaining these goods. Nevertheless, the loss of such intrinsic goods does not imply a loss of overall wellbeing. As Barnes points out, one difference between men and women is that it is women alone who have the ability to grow life inside them and to give birth to a child. This ability is something that many women find intrinsically valuable, yet nobody thinks that men’s inability to give birth makes their wellbeing worse off. Nor do they think that this is the case simply because there is something else that men can do and women can’t that, as it were, makes up for their inability to give birth. Rather, we simply accept that at least for some men, the fact that they cannot give birth has no impact whatsoever on their overall wellbeing and does not by itself constitute a ‘misfortune’.5
Barnes’ claim is not only that we can think of disability in the same terms, but, crucially, that (at least some) disabled people themselves view their disability in this light.
With the distinction between local/global goods/bads in place, Barnes makes a further distinction between features that are good, bad, and neutral simpliciter which she defines as follows:
Phi is good simpliciter just in case for any person x who has phi, x has a higher level of well-being in virtue of having phi than they would have had if they lacked phi.
Phi is bad simpliciter just in case for any person x who has phi, x has a lower level of well-being in virtue of having phi than they would have had if they lacked phi.
Phi is neutral simpliciter just in case phi is neither bad simpliciter nor good simpliciter.
The parallels between local/global goods/bads is strong here, but the key difference in this distinction is that something being good/bad/neutral simpliciter is a property of a specific feature as it applies to the wellbeing of any person who has it. The general idea as it pertains to the discussion of disability is as follows: if it cannot be said that having a disability is good simpliciter and if it can’t be said that having a disability is bad simpliciter, then disability must itself be neutral simpliciter. Crucially, if disability is neutral simpliciter, then the bad difference view must be wrong since at the core of all bad difference views is the implicit commitment that disability is bad simpliciter. Finally, if the bad difference view is wrong, and if disability is neutral simpliciter, then it follows that disability is a mere difference, completing Barnes’ main argument.
And here’s the proof. First, it’s true that disability is not a good simpliciter since that would entail that for any disability, every person’s wellbeing is improved by virtue of having that disability. Such a claim would be disproven by simply finding someone whose wellbeing is not improved by virtue of their disability, or, to put it in Barnes’ terms, if we can find at least one person for whom being disabled is not a global good. It seems patently clear that there is at least one such person in the world, so the first part of the argument goes through.
Second, for disability to not be a bad simpliciter it would have to be true that for any disability, every person’s wellbeing is made worse by virtue of having that disability. Or, to put it another way, just in case disability were a global bad for any and every disabled person. This claim is disproven by finding at least one person for whom being disabled is not a global bad. And what Barnes has shown us from our previous discussion is not only that there are people who don’t view their disability as a global bad at all, but for whom it is, in fact, a global good.6 Consequently, it’s not true that disability is bad simpliciter either.
And since being neutral simpliciter is simply a matter of being neither good simpliciter nor bad simpliciter, it follows that disability is neutral simpliciter, and hence, that it is a mere difference.
This concludes Barnes’ argument. At this point in the book she rightfully judges that one of the places where her opponents might attack her is with respect to the validity of the testimony of disabled folks which gets us the second premise. In other words, if it turns out that the judgments of disabled folks with respect to their wellbeing is unreliable for such-and-such reasons, then the fact that some of them hold that their disability is a global good is on shaky ground, and it might be possible for the proponent of the bad-difference view to make a comeback. I won’t address this part of Barnes’ argument since I think it makes perfect sense to defer to individuals about the quality of their wellbeing. In any case, I have no interest in arguing that disabled folks are somehow systematically unreliable in this respect.
Rather, I want to stay in the particular division of good/bad/neutral simpliciter and raise some objections to the way the argument is generally framed.
Part II: Disappearing Goods and Bads
One thing that may have become obvious to the reader in the last section is just how low the bar is to show that something is not good/bad simpliciter, and, conversely, how high it is to prove that it is. Strictly speaking, to show that feature x is not bad simpliciter for some person S is to show that there’s at least one person (who is not epistemically unreliable) who finds x to be a global good for them. Similarly, to show that it is bad simpliciter is to show that every person (who is not epistemically unreliable) who has x finds it to be a global bad.
If this is correct, then it’s easy to see how virtually everything that we may have thought was good or bad becomes neutral simpliciter.
Consider, for example, the prime candidate that comes to mind for something that is bad simpliciter: pain. At a first pass we might think that if any feature is a bad simpliciter, it would be pain. But we would be wrong since all we would need to do to show that this is the case is for there to be a single person who thinks that (their) pain is a global good. Such people exist and not only in the fringe category of masochists.
For example, someone might value their pain as an integral part of their identity without which they simply wouldn’t be the kind of person that they are. Indeed, Barnes provides an example of such a person when she talks about the disability rights activist Nadina LaSpina.
Pain is part of her disability, says LaSpina; it comes with the territory. She says she’s happy with herself ‘as a person with a disability—with whatever pain there is. That’s part of it.’
It’s like being Italian, she goes on. ‘I’m proud of being Italian. There are things I’m ashamed of, like the existence of the Mafia—but these things do not stop me from embracing my Italian-ness. I love being a woman, but I hate going through menopause. But I wouldn’t want a sex-change operation just because of menopause. Certainly the pain . . . of disability [is] not wonderful, yet that identity is who I am. And I am proud of it.’7
Now, granted, we might push back on such claims by insisting that what LaSpina values is not the pain itself, but her disability, which she values enough to tolerate the pain. We might even say that if we were to ask her “Okay, but really, just think about the pain itself—wouldn’t you get rid of that feeling? Doesn’t it make your wellbeing worse?” that she would agree. But this doesn’t matter. It seems perfectly plausible that she really may think that without the pain, she would be an entirely different person, with an entirely different outlook on herself, her body, and her presence in the world. In this respect, she might think of the very attempt to separate the pain from her identity as entirely artificial—to be her is to be in chronic pain (here, the analogy with the Mafia breaks down since, presumably, to be Italian is not to have some relation to the Mafia; though, I don’t know, I’m not Italian).
In any case, even if I’m wrong about LaSpina in particular, and if she would, upon prodding, agree that she would get rid of the pain, it’s not hard to imagine someone who would give the kind of defense that I’ve given here. And we only need one person. More importantly, we don’t need one person who thinks that pain is globally good, but only a single person who doesn’t judge it to be globally bad. As long as we have at least one person like this we can say that on the definition of bad simpliciter provided by Barnes, pain is not bad simpliciter. And given how easy it is to find someone who thinks that pain is not a global good for them, and hence, that it’s not good simpliciter either (here, I’ll do it: I think the pain from my acid reflux is a global bad), we get to the conclusion that pain is neutral simpliciter.
But what goes for pain goes for virtually everything else that we can think of that we might think falls under the category of bad simpliciter: disease, poverty, heartbreak, tragedy, hurricanes, tornadoes, genocide, and so on. All of these end up being neutral simpliciter on Barnes’ division.
Likewise, everything that we may have thought is good simpliciter—pleasure, love, friendship, virtue, etc.—all end up falling into the category of neutral simpliciter just in case there is at least one epistemically reliable person who judges them to not be global goods. (In case anyone needs such a person, I think Schopenhauer is a good candidate)
The problem, as I hope it has become clear by now, is that on this way of dividing the normative space, everything ends up being neutral simpliciter. This is a problem in the first place because it renders the concept of being neutral simpliciter entirely vacuous and the conclusion that Barnes reaches unsurprising: if everything is neutral simpliciter, then of course disability is also neutral simpliciter. To dust off the old philosophical chestnut, if you define everything as a ham sandwich, then it’s not surprising that consciousness would also be a ham sandwich.
Thus, the first problem is that the division that Barnes has made is theoretically unfruitful. The second problem is that this kind of division just seems empirically implausible—or, rather, the costs of accepting the division comes with some really high costs that must be justified. Simply put, it just seems patently obvious to me that there are such things as goods and bads simpliciter! I listed a couple above! And I think it’s of paramount importance that any ethical discussion acknowledges the existence of these things as good and bad if it’s to have any grip on the moral landscape. Either that, or, alternatively, we need some kind of explanation for why we’re committing an error when we something like “the death of one’s beloved is always a bad thing.”
Of course, this is not to say that disability is one of these things and I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that Barnes’ conclusion that disability is neutral simpliciter is an absurd one. Far from it, I think she may be right, but the particular way in which she argues for it with the appeal to goods/bads/neutral simpliciter just doesn’t seem to work. In other words, I’m perfectly fine with the conclusion that we shouldn’t think of disability as something naturally bad, but not because we tacitly accept a view that completely dispenses with the notion of there being things that are bad or good in general. I want to be able to say that pain, pestilence, disaster, and so on are simply bad for anyone involved in them even if I grant that, at the same time, disability is not one of the things that should be on that list.
Now, some readers may push back at this point and say that there’s still room in Barnes’ division for things to be good or bad simpliciter and that I’ve been too quick to dismiss these possibilities. Perhaps ‘pain’ isn’t something that’s bad simpliciter, but maybe ‘torture’ is; maybe ‘friendship’ isn’t a good simpliciter, but ‘true, honest to god, perfect friendship between men of virtue’ is. If so, then the world isn’t as value neutral on Barnes’ view as I have made it out to be. I think this would be a good start in making the general structure more plausible and it would be good to show how this is possible using the particular division Barnes’ employs. However, we should notice two things.
First—and this is just a weaker version of my previous objection—the world is nevertheless a more bleached out version of its former self than the one that we may have started with. Fewer things are simply good or simply bad than we may have thought. This might itself be a good or a bad thing (good if accurate, bad if inaccurate), and more work needs to be done in order to show which side we should fall on. In that respect, I acknowledge the possibility of rehabilitating the division Barnes uses, but would want to see some more being said before I’m on board.
Second, I think it really matters if we are only able to bring in the goods and bads of the world by adding more texture and context to the features that we’re discussing. This is what seems to happen if we think that ‘pain’ is neutral simpliciter, but ‘torture’ is bad simpliciter. In making this move—a move, I again, acknowledge nobody has yet made and which, therefore, may simply be irrelevant—we thicken up the concepts we’re working with. ‘Pain’ is thin, and the label itself encompasses all sorts of different experiences; ‘torture’ is thick and describes a certain kind of pain under certain kinds of conditions. The same can be said about the relation between ‘friendship’ and ‘friendships of virtue’. Now, this is fine for the moment and I just want to point out that the strategy under consideration is that we can get some of the goods and bads back in the world by picking out thicker or perhaps more specific kinds of goods and bads at a more granular level.
The question, however, becomes whether the very same thickening and specification cannot be applied to disability itself. That is, perhaps at the thinner, general level of disability, it is neutral simpliciter, but when discussing it at a more fine grained level of, say, specific degenerative neurological impairment, it is not. If that were the case, then we would be getting the conclusion that Barnes is right about disability broadly speaking, while being possibly wrong about any specific disability. Now maybe this is fine, but the impact of the overall argument seems blunted. Instead of being able to say “disability is a mere difference that makes some bodies minority bodies” we would have to say something like “disability in general is a mere difference that makes some bodies minority bodies, but certain disabilities are bad differences.”
And, indeed, we might think that those people who held something like the bad difference view of disability had something like the latter in mind than the kind of four ways of spelling out the bad-difference view that Barnes offers. My suspicion is that a lot of people who do hold the bad difference view really would be fine with saying that many of the disabilities we might think about really are just mere-differences between people, but that there are at least some that are not and that those are ‘the bad ones.’ If that’s true, then this kind of ‘thickening’ or particularizing of goods and bads might still give them enough space to hold that view. But I’m speculating here
I very much liked Barnes’ book and my views on disability have changed quite a lot by reading it, I have some strong reservations about the way in which the main argument proceeds. That being said, I think there are two really valuable things to pick up from the book: first, that we really should trust the testimony of disabled people with respect to their wellbeing and should heavily resist the urge to jump back to some kind of “neutral” position about wellbeing that discredits their epistemological standpoint. And second, when we keep the first point in mind, it becomes much easier to view differences between people as neutral features—like the color of one’s hair—that really don’t make a substantial difference. I think taking both of these points seriously can only help in producing more empathetic and caring people, and that, I think, is a good simpliciter.
This claim may be correct, but at the very least it requires an error theory to explain how we could be so consistently mistaken.
For a great book on this topic see Shelley Lynn Tremain’s Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability—a book I taught along with Barnes’.
Barnes, The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. pg. 60-61.
As stated earlier, they would also reject something like the analogous good-difference view of disability which sees having a disability as intrinsically good, or as improving one’s wellbeing simply by virtue of having the disability.
Of course, this is not to say that for some men such an inability isn’t a global bad.
Things here get a bit sloppy in my opinion. It seems to me that the proper way to do this kind of test is to talk about specific disabilities so that we can say, for example “deafness is neither good simpliciter nor bad simpliciter, and therefore, neutral simpliciter.” Instead, Barnes simply treats the whole category of disability as a unified whole and applies the argument to the unity. I believe there’s supposed to be an inductive step that’s doing some work in the background here such that if you can see how low the bar is to show that deafness and blindness and epilepsy are neutral simpliciter, then you’ll see how low it is for any disability that you might think of. But I think it’s still an open question if, for example, there really is at least one person who thinks that having aquagenic urticaria (water allergy) is not a global bad. Perhaps there are some disabilities for which this cannot be said and if so, that would make a very big difference to the ultimate conclusion that disability (without any qualification) is neutral simpliciter. That being said, I’m not providing any such examples, so I leave this in a footnote.
Barnes, pg 115. I should say that I’m a little suspicious of the analogy LaSpina makes here. Presumably, what she likes is being Italian despite the existence of the Mafia—i.e. the badness of the Mafia is not enough for her to not value being Italian. This is fair enough, but it’s an entirely different thing to say that she values being Italian in part because of the Mafia or that she wouldn’t value being Italian if she could somehow get rid of the Mafia and its history. But this is a minor point.