On "The Minority Body"
Some thoughts on (a chapter of) Elizabeth Barnes' book
I’m currently working on putting together a syllabus for bioethics that is going to have a big section on disability ethics and am reading Elizabeth Barnes’ book The Minority Body as part of the prep. So far I’m finding it very informative, and very clear in terms of style and argumentation. I especially like that Barnes aims to give a theory of disability that doesn’t begin with the view that being disabled is necessarily a bad thing, which, in turn, allows her to accommodate and explain the disability pride movement(s). I think that, at the very least, the first chapter of the book will fit in very well with the vision I have for the class and am looking forward to seeing what my students thing.
That being said, I find two aspects of Barnes’ account of disability really, really strange and I wanted to write down a few comments while the text is still fresh on my mind. Briefly put, for those who have read it (or who generally have a better memory than me and might remember the details for longer than a couple of days after reading it), the first aspect has to do with the indeterminacy of who counts as being in the disability movement which creates and generates the rules for what counts as a disability. Although I agree with Barnes that the topic at hand is going to necessarily be shot through with indeterminacy, I think the specific proposal has some internal structural tensions and some strange vanguardist upshots which may or may not be intended. The second aspect has to do with Barnes’ claim that social kinds “travel” such that what counts as disability in, say, the 16th century is determined by whether it would be recognized as such in the present by the disability rights movement. I think this kind of reading of the past exclusively through the concepts available to us at the moment is …uh…not good. But I’ll get to that why that’s the case in a bit.
Before I turn to my objections in detail I want to give a brief recap of Barnes’ theory for those who haven’t read the chapter or who don’t quite remember it. I’ll do this in section I. Luckily, given Barnes’ clear signposting and useful summaries, this recap will be brief and will allow us to get directly to the heart of what concerns me in section II.
Finally, a personal word: I’m very new to disability ethics as a discipline, do not count myself as an expert, and am, in fact, coming to the subject as a neophyte. The fact that I’m not an expert might make some people concerned that I’m even placing myself in a position to criticize. Some people might even think that it’s irresponsible to comment on a subject until one is substantially informed and educated about it lest some embarrassing or offensive claims be made. There might be something to that line of reasoning, but I’ve found it to be grounded in a misunderstanding of what it means to become educated and informed about a subject. For me, at the very least, doing so requires that one comment and flesh out one’s thoughts at different points in time, with “the beginning of when one starts to think about the subject” as being one of those times. In other words, for me to learn about a subject requires more than just reading and thinking, but writing and talking about them. Surely in the process mistakes will be made, but I’m okay with that and I hope my readers are too.
I. Barnes’ Account: Disability as Solidarity
After working through several critiques of eliminativist and social constructivist views, Barnes presents her account of ‘disability as solidarity’ on which “disability just is whatever the disability rights movement is promoting justice for.”1 She makes this idea explicit by offering two conditions such that
A person, S, is physically disabled in a context, C, iff:
S is in some bodily state x
The rules for making judgments about solidarity employed by the disability rights movement classify x in context C as among the physical conditions that they are seeking to promote justice for.
And she continues by giving a nice summary of the view:
Here’s the idea in a nutshell. A collection of people got together and identified a form of group solidarity. Although they had a strikingly heterogenous range of physical conditions, they perceived a commonality in how those physical conditions were stigmatized, how people treated them because of those physical conditions, how those physical conditions made it difficult to access public spaces, to complete everyday tasks, to get adequate healthcare, get full-time employment and benefits, etc. And so despite having very different bodies, it made sense to think of their experience of their bodies as having something in common, and it made sense to think of themselves as working towards a common goal. This all involved judgments of solidarity (shared experience, shaped struggle, shared goals). Those judgments of commonality are (implicitly) rule-based. The application of those rules determines what counts as a disability. Disability is all and only those things that the disability rights movement ought to consider as things they are promoting justice for—it is rule-based solidarity among people with certain kinds of bodies.2
This view has some distinct virtues. In the first place, it provides a criterion that unites the broad category of ‘disability’—something that has proven to be incredibly challenging for other accounts that appeal to deviations from some ‘normal’ functioning. What unites all disabilities is their place of being included in that for which the disability rights movement is struggling to redress or rectify.
Second, it allows for disability to be something that still is, as it were, about the body and that rests on specific physiological features. In order to be disabled in context C one must have a certain kind of body in that context and not merely be taken to have such a body or treated as having one.
Together, these features allow for there to be a standard for whom counts as physically disabled and who doesn’t such that one can be mistaken about whether a certain condition is a disability or not. Namely, if the disability rights movement has included a certain bodily condition as a disability as a result of improper application of its own rules, then it is wrong about that condition constituting a disability (see my footnote 2). Likewise, it can be mistaken in the other direction since it may also ignore conditions that would and do fit in with the correct application of its rules. This fallibility is a third virtue of the account.
And finally, (though I don’t think it’s brought up explicitly in this chapter) I see another virtue of the account as giving epistemic authority to the disabled community in setting the standard for how it defines itself and disability. Disability is not defined by appeals to medicine, biology, or external expertise, but is done explicitly by the collective efforts of the people who have the most at stake in the debate, and who best understand their condition, how it limits them, and how it empowers them.
These are all good things and I quite like the virtues of this account. However…
II. Who’s In the Movement?
The first problem that arises is that there is no such thing as a single, monolithic entity known as The Disability Rights Movement. Barnes herself acknowledges this:
[M]y account appeals to the disability rights movement as though it was a single thing. That’s a convenient simplification—but it is also an oversimplification…it’s plausible that there might be lots of distinct (or partially distinct) social groups that fall under the broad heading of disability rights movements.
Before I explain the two ways that Barnes addresses this problem, it’s worth stopping to see why it’s a problem for her view. The simplest way to put it is, I believe, to note that her view has some striking similarities to other views about epistemic and linguistic divisions of labor. On views like this what certain terms mean and refer to is just what a set body of (official or unofficial) experts say that it refers to. Thus, the term ‘birch tree’ refers to whatever set of trees that botanists (arborists?) say that it refers to using whatever criteria they have determined makes birches different from, say, elms. When we point to some tree and say “that’s a birch” we are right or wrong in virtue of whether that tree is of the type that those experts would classify as such and not on whether we believe it to be such or are identifying some natural kind as being present in it. In short, we’ve divided our linguistic and epistemic labor by deferring to experts whose job it is to determine what different kinds of trees there are.
The same move can be made with social terms as well. The one theory that comes immediately to mind is Quayshawn Spencer’s view on race. Briefly put, what US race terms refer to is just whatever the categories or people in the US Census pick out, and those are just what the Office of Management and Budget says they are. In the same way ‘birch’ refers to whatever groups of trees that tree-experts pick out under that label, so, the race term ‘white’ refers to whatever group of people the OMB picks out with that label in the Census.3
It’s easy to see how Barnes’ view fits in here: we have a term (‘disability’) whose reference is fixed by a body of (official or unofficial) experts—namely, the disability rights movement. To whom the term refers, then, is a matter of who has such-and-such body (or body state) in such-and-such context so that the disability rights movement actually seeks justice for them (or would seek justice for if it applied its own rules consistently and rationally; see my footnote 2).
The problem then becomes easy to see once we note that while there is an explicitly and well-defined body of experts in Spencer’s account (regardless of how skeptical we might be that the OMB constitutes such a body, it is a well-defined body), and a similarly well-defined body of experts when it comes to trees, there doesn’t seem to be such a body when it comes to disability. There simply is no single Disability Rights Movement. If there’s no such body, then it’s not clear who sets the referent that we then defer to when using the term ‘disabled’.
[Aside: Clearly, to say that who sets the referent is simply those who are disabled isn’t going to be helpful here since that would just be circular—we have to know who that term picks out in order to get started at all!
That being said, I’m not sure that such a move would be viciously circular. It seem to me that we can probably get the ball started with some paradigmatic cases of disability about which there is little initial disagreement who can serve as a kernel for the initial reference set. Initially, it would be with deference to these people that our term ‘disabled’ would get its reference, but as their practices expand to include others, the pool of experts to whom we defer would become larger and encompass people whom our initial deferral wouldn’t have captured.]
In response, Barnes offers two possibilities. The first she attributes to David Lewis’ suggestion to resolve a different problem:
On this way of thinking about things, there would then be many different (similar, overlapping) social categories created by these different (similar, overlapping) social groups. We could then adopt David Lewis’s famous solution to the problem of the many—there are many social categories here, but there is almost one. Which of the various social categories in the vicinity deserve the name ‘disability’, on this view, is underdetermined—but it also doesn’t matter very much. To rephrase Lewis, ‘which one deserves the name [“disability”] is up to us. If we decline to settle the question, nothing else will settle it for us. We cannot deny the arbitrariness. What we can deny, though, is that it is trouble.’4
The suggestion here seems to be a kind of rejection of a deferral to a single body of experts but to an overlapping group of them. This doesn’t quite solve the problem though since the different groups of experts might appeal to different sets of people on different and perhaps contradictory grounds—one group might hold condition x in context y to be a disability while another doesn’t. In that case, the question remains as to what our term refers to. Now, I take the suggestion that this has to be settled by us and nobody else as essentially correct, but I think it isn’t helping the overall view be more plausible.
Rather than going this route, however, Barnes opts out for a different option:
Alternatively—and my own preferred option—we could instead say that this entire domain (like most any aspect of social ontology) is riddled with indeterminacy. It’s indeterminate which social group should count as the disability rights movement (it’s indeterminate what the group’s members are, what its membership conditions are, what its temporal and cross-cultural extension is, etc.). Similarly, it’s plausibly indeterminate which rules for solidarity-based judgement are the rules employed by whatever social group counts as the disability rights movement. That will mean that it’s indeterminate which physical conditions count as disabilities. (That is, it’s indeterminate what the extent of the relevant social category is.)5
In essence, this amount to biting the bullet, but Barnes doesn’t think of it as a bullet at all. Rather, she says: “I don’t want to take a view here on what the best thing to say about such indeterminacy is. I just want to register that I don’t see it as a drawback of the view. Indeed, it would strike me as deeply implausible that any aspect of our complex, multifaceted social reality had fully determinate boundaries.” (pg. 50)
In a way, I’m sympathetic to the appeal to the indeterminacy of such concepts in social reality—it really would be weird if we had such fully determinate boundaries (indeed, this is what strikes me as odd about Spencer’s account of race!). However, it seems to me that the indeterminate option is not available to someone who gives this kind of epistemic/linguistic division of labor approach. There has to be some kind of defined authority group to whom we defer if we’re going to be deferring at all. Or, to put it a different way, it seems implausible to say that I defer to an indeterminate number of groups with indeterminate memberships who may employ the same term in conflicting ways to pick out the same set of people.
I suspect the easiest way to get out of this predicament is just to pick out, say, some particular politically active organization with defined membership who is actively fighting for justice in the way that Barnes intends, and anoint them with the expert role here. However, it should be clear almost immediately from the get-go how unsatisfying that would be since it would require affording some group a privileged spot with relation to others. On what grounds could such a move be made? As anyone who’s familiar with leftist politics (or its history), it’s pretty damn hard to establish that you are speaking for the working-class (and not those confused Mensheviks or Anarchists!) and I suspect the same would apply for people who are claiming to be speaking for disabled people everywhere. The analogy to the Bolsheviks here isn’t incidental since there’s something in the background of this suggestion that smacks of a kind of ‘vanguard of the disabled’ that is needed to do the job.
To be clear, I certainly don’t claim that Barnes is recommending anything like this in the least, and, in fact, I myself am not sure that vanguardism here would necessarily be a bad thing. Rather, I think the dialectical strategy of the linguistic division of labor employed here either a) forces us towards a position of profound indeterminacy with respect to whom we defer the referent of our terms; or b) an attempt to remove that indeterminacy by b1) an arbitrary anointment of one group as THE disability rights movement or by b2) some kind of principled anointment of one group. My claim is that a) doesn’t work with the linguistic division of labor strategy, that b1) is unsatisfying to everyone, and that b2) smacks of vanguardism which may or may not be a bad thing.
In essence, Barnes says that she doesn’t yet see a problem with a) and I’ve tried to explain why there might be one here. I suppose the final move to make would be to deny that she is, in fact, using a kind of linguistic division of labor strategy here. That might be right, but I feel like I’m not far off the mark here.
III. Traveling Concepts
One of the upshots of Barnes’ view is that, as she puts it, “disability travels.” (pg. 50) Simply put, the problem is this: the disability rights movement—regardless of who makes it up—has not always existed and is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. But it seems strange to say that because of this, there were no disabled people prior to it. As Barnes puts it, Richard III was disabled and we need to be able to account for that fact even though there was no disability rights movement that fought for justice for him.6
Barnes address this by saying that “Richard III had a physical condition such that the (actual, present) rules for making judgements about solidarity employed by the disability rights movement classify that condition as something the disability rights movement is promoting justice for.” (pg. 50)
In short, the argument seems to go like this: because Richard III had a condition that is currently of for which solidarity would be extended in the present, then he was therefore, disabled (in the past). This is so even though there was no group in Richard’s time advocating for him. The concept of disability, then, ‘travels’ in the sense that it starts from the privileged starting point of the present and travels through time to be imposed upon the past.
I find this notion of traveling concepts quite odd for several reasons. The first is that it’s not quite clear how to work out the details. How exactly are we to work out the claim that “Richard III had a physical condition such that the (actual, present) rules for making judgements about solidarity employed by the disability rights movement classify that condition as something the disability rights movement is promoting justice for”?
I see a couple of options. It is clearly not the claim that if there were a disability rights movement in 15th century England, then the rules for making judgments about solidarity it uses would have extended to him. Apart from the fact that Barnes explicitly says that it’s the actual, present rules that we’re concerned with, it seems we simply have no grounds to say anything about what a non-existent 15th century disability rights movement would have to say about the monarch.
The best reading that I can make out is that it’s the claim that because we would now consider Richard disabled from our perspective, so we should (retroactively) consider him to have been disabled.
Let’s take that seriously for a second and consider whether he would have been disabled in, say, 1905 on the assumption that the disability rights movement was not around or that it had different rules for making judgments about solidarity (like “solidarity extended to everyone in such-and-such a context, but not to royalty”).7 How are we to decide this? The most obvious suggestion seems to be that he wouldn’t be disabled from the perspective of that time because there was no disability rights movement that would have included him. In a way, that’s very strange—the same person both is and isn’t disabled depending on when we ask the question. Now, maybe this wouldn’t be strange if disability was a purely socially constructed category, but Barnes insists that it’s not (this is why she rejects the pure Haslanger-style approach).
Another suggestion that seems to be more in line with Barnes’ own thinking is that Richard would have been disabled even in 1905 because of what’s happening in 2021. If disability travels from now to the 15th century because of our current rules, then it stands to reason that it would also travel to 1905 for the same reason. But this strikes me as even more bizarre than the first reading. It seems not only that concepts travel, but that they rigidly designate, and, for some reason, they rigidly designate not from the point in time in which something like the disability rights movement forms (an analog for an initial dubbing of sorts), but from this very specific point in the 21st century. I have no idea why we should think that this should be the case.
This is related to another potential problem. Suppose that thirty years into the future the disability rights movement’s rules are changed such that some bodily state (in some particular context) is no longer considered a disability. This might be either because such bodily states have become virtually nonexistent, or, more likely, because the contexts in which those bodily states would have been expressed are no longer relevant (we can imagine that this is the case at least for some disabilities). Does this mean that from that vantage point what now counts as a disability would not be a disability (and for whom?)? Or are we supposed to still privilege the current, present standpoint? If it’s the former, then given enough time it might turn out that nobody has ever been disabled; if it’s the latter, then the question arises as to why the current state of affairs should be so privileged as to rigidly designate disability for all time.
I don’t currently see a way out of this predicament. Apart from this way of looking at disability, I’m also just very resistant to any claim that tries to read our current concepts as necessarily applying to the past. Part of this is undoubtedly due to some political and meta-philosophical views that I hold. Namely, both analytic philosophers and the bourgeoisie tend to look at all of history as necessarily making sense only from the present moment—the history of all of political economy in is just a failure to get to the capitalist mode of production, all of morality is just the failure to get to the sovereign authority of the individual. Every concept is seen as appearing at the end of history. This way of thinking just makes me so frustrated (and expressing that frustration requires its own separate blog post).
I don’t want to accuse Barnes of endorsing or advocating for this kind of ahistorical approach, but it’s hard to see how to make sense of the view without doing so. I also know that what’s frustrating me here isn’t necessarily something that would frustrate any other reader, but them’s the breaks.
In any case, so far I’m really enjoying the book and I’ll likely use it in class because I think it’s both really accessible and makes a lot of points really well that students should be aware of. And I would like to be talked out of the few reservations I do hold. I suspect that there’s something I’m missing or not quite getting right, so all comments are welcome!
Both quotes are from page 46. It’s important to note that, as Barnes clears up in a footnote, the ‘ought’ in the last sentence is a procedural ‘ought’ about the proper application of the group’s judgments and rules about solidarity and not a moral ought. It’s clear to see why since going the latter route would render the appeal to what the group is actually fighting for irrelevant and the theory advanced superfluous.
Spencer, Q. (2014). A Radical Solution to the Race Problem. Philosophy of Science 81(5): 1025-1038. I think what I’ve given is a fair description of the outlines of Spencer’s view, but I have to shamefully admit that despite multiple readings of the paper for a seminar, an email exchange with Spencer, and hearing him give a talk on the subject, I’m still at a loss as to why anyone should ever treat the OMB as the experts in this case.
Richard III was believed to have had a hunchback, however, it turns out he had what is known as “adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.” I did not know this.
I don’t actually know the history of disability rights advocates so maybe at the time there would have been a movement that would have claimed Richard III as one of its own. If that’s the case, pick a point further back in time. If it turns out that there has always been some form of such a movement—a possibility as far as I’m aware given my lack of knowledge—then the question becomes why we would privilege our current actual views on disability as fixed by the present movement rather than the existing ones at their appropriate time.