The thought of Plato and Aristotle in relation to the construction of intellectual disability is considered. Key elements in their thought are reviewed, which may have relevance for the construction of, and social response to, intellectual disability in Western societies. Specifically, I consider the “scale of beings”; the requirements of virtue and what constitutes a “good person”; and the relationship among reason, responsibility, and moral and legal status. My purpose was to demonstrate that the exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities is inherent in Western epistemology and that it is only change at this level that will ensure true equality for those labeled as having intellectual disabilities.
Editor in charge: John O'Brien
A core paradigm in the negative construction of intellectual disability in Western society is that human value is directly associated with human reason. This plays out in many forms: from the basic ontological premise that one must have a certain degree or type of reason to even be considered human in any morally significant sense to the more political incarnation that an insufficient degree or type of reason excludes one from being a citizen or having significant legal status. The same association of reason and value can be seen in various forms of scaling, where access to certain resources and rights, such as the right to have and raise children, are ordered in line with perceived degrees of intelligence. All of these ideas can be found at the very core of the Western intellectual tradition—in the work of Plato and Aristotle. In this paper I seek to explore the nature of this association between reason and value in their work that might have relevance for the current and historical construction of intellectual disability. Although some reference is made to the specific influence that these ideas have had, the main purpose here is the more modest one of simply laying out some of the key ideas with potential relevance to the construction of, and social response to, intellectual disability in Western societies.
Practitioners or applied academics may wonder what relevance this has to the contemporary scene. As I seek to demonstrate, current debates in the field, such as those on consent and capacity, prenatal testing, the abortion of disabled fetuses, access to treatment, euthanasia, citizenship, and self-determination, all have at their heart this association between reason and value, and this association in turn has its intellectual roots in classical thought. Although Plato and Aristotle would be reinterpreted and often misinterpreted in the ensuing centuries, they remain the key progenitors of this basic paradigm. It follows, then, that if we are to challenge some of these ideas, it is important that we understand their nature and their centrality to Western epistemology.
I look initially at Plato and Aristotle's natural philosophy and the “scale of beings” based on rational capacity. From here their social, political, and ethical writings with regards to virtue, goodness, and responsibility can be considered as can how these ideas have influenced the concept and social response to people with an intellectual disability and their influence on current debates. Finally, I offer some brief suggestions as to the nature of the debate, which must be pursued if we are to move beyond this fundamental association between reason and value.
Reason and the Scale of Beings
One of the most prevalent themes in the social history of people with intellectual impairments has been the questioning of their very humanness and their association with animals (Ryan, 1987). Maudsley (1873), one of the fathers of British psychiatry, wrote of various examples of ape, sheep, and goose-like idiots, noting that “No doubt such animal traits are marks of extreme human degeneracy… degeneration comes by law, and are as natural as natural law can make them” (pp. 48–53). What is implied here is that there is a hierarchy of beings, with humans at the apex, a position held due to their ability to reason. Hence, those suspected of lacking reason are degenerate forms of being. Although the most extreme expression of this idea was during the late 19th and early 20th century, it has been a consistent theme in Western thought and is firmly rooted in the early biological and psychological writings of Plato and Aristotle.
Both Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the nature of being, or the soul, and the attributes that define and differentiate living entities. (The usage of soul is somewhat different than our contemporary usage; it refers to “that in virtue of which something is alive” or the principle of life [Lawson-Tancred, 1986, p. 12].) Although Plato was much less categorical than was Aristotle regarding the differentiation and hierarchy of beings, there is strong evidence to suggest a scale based on reason was implied by Plato (Solmsen, 1955). At the end of the Timaeus (Hamilton, 1961, version), Plato presented a kind of reverse Darwinism, wherein he noted that men who were cowards or led unrighteous lives were changed into women, birds were created
out of innocent light-minded men … wild pedestrian . . . [animals come from those] who had no philosophy [and] who ceased to use the courses of the head [site of the rational part of the soul], but followed the guidance of the spirited aspects of the soul [courage, passion, loves contention].
In the case of these latter animals, the distance from the ground was determined by the “degree of foolishness.” Finally, there are the “inhabitants of the water” who are made out of the “most entirely senseless and ignorant of all” (90–92). Earlier in the Timaeus, he stated much the same thing in less detail but added how one can reverse the process and “by this victory of reason over the irrational [be] returned to the form of his first and better state” (42b-c).
Plato's concluding statement leaves little doubt as to the role of reason in determining where we are to fit in the scale of beings: “These are the laws by which all animals pass into one another, now, as in the beginning, changing as they lose or gain wisdom or folly.” In the final line of the dialogue we also have some indication of what lies above man: “The sensible God who is the image of the intellectual, the greatest, best, fairest, most perfect' (92c). This echoes an earlier passage where God is said to reflect that “no unintelligent creature taken as a whole could ever be fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole” (30b).
Aristotle wrote a number of texts concerned with natural philosophy, exploring the biological nature of plants, animals, and humans. In De Anima (On The Soul) (he set out his definition of the soul, which entailed four basic functions: the nutritive soul, common to all living organisms and concerned with basic self-nurturing; the sensitive soul, common to human and animals and characterized by the capacity to perceive through sight and sound and to experience pleasure and pain; the locomotive, which is found in humans and some animals, which is concerned with movement; and the rational soul, which is characterized by the capacity for cognition and is found only “in man and any other creature there may be like him or superior to him”(414b).
The idea that reason is a characteristic shared with higher beings is significant in Aristotle's arguments on what constitutes a good life, and he suggested that the rational part of the soul is not part of the actuality of the body but constitutes, not just a part of the soul, but a separate soul entity. It is this distinct soul, or soul part, that makes a human being what he or she is (Cooper, 1986). As Sorabji (1993) noted, on numerous occasions Aristotle denied that other animals have reason, reasoning, thought, intellect, or belief.
This idea that humans are differentiated from other mortal beings by virtue of their rationality raises what is perhaps the crucial question for our purposes: Are those who are lacking, or are in some way deficient in rational capacity, less human or not human at all? It is essentially this question that underlies the debate about the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities. The neo-Platonist Porphyry's introduction to Aristotle's Categories is the most influential source here and was directly adopted by Augustine and, subsequently, the mediaeval Scholastics and neo-Aristotelian interpretation was that “man is a rational animal,” implying an essential species-specific characteristic. Aristotle's own interpretation was far less categorical, stating only that man “is an animal capable of reason” (Goodey, 1996, p. 400).
There are basically two ways that people who are lacking or deficient in rational capacity can be accommodated within the human species according to Aristotle. The first, and most problematic, is through the logic of Aristotle's biological schema. Goodey (1996) argued that Aristotle did not align his logic with his psychology or biology, hence one can be human in logic without being such in nature, for example, in cases of disability. Conversely, someone with an intellectual disability can be human in nature without being so according to the animal/reason logic.
The second mode of accommodation is through a concept of pathological cases. In discussing locomotion, Aristotle stated: “Nature neither does anything in vain nor leaves out any of the things that are necessary, except in deformities and incomplete cases” (italics added) (De Anima, 1986 II.10.432b). These “pathological cases” are not to be included in the general assessment of species membership and the consequent scale of beings and, hence, leave the basic schema of rationality as the key definitive feature undisturbed. They are, however, pathological, emphasizing the negative deviation from the norm.
Although the preceding discussion suggests that people with a perceived deficit in reason are not to be excluded from species membership, there remains the issue of whether, on purely natural grounds (as opposed to ethical), there is a hierarchy within the species based on the degree to which one possesses species-specific characteristics (i.e., a certain type or degree of rationality). Aristotle's (1981) argument on “natural slaves” does suggest some intra-species ranking based on reason. In a highly controversial section of the Politics (1981), Aristotle argued that slaves are such by their nature rather than by coercion or convention and that slaves do not possess the capacity for reason but are capable of understanding. But why, then, are they not classed as animals? To answer this he made a fine distinction: “For the ‘slave by nature'… is he that participates in reason so far as to recognize it but not so as to possess it (whereas the other animals obey not reasons but emotions” (1254b).
So, although slaves are naturally thus by their deficit in reason, they do possess the cognitive capacity to make judgments based on their emotional responses and to recognize reason. It is these cognitive capacities that separate them from other animals. However, their inability to deliberate due to their deficit in rational capacity gives them a natural inferiority within the human realm (Fortenbaugh, 1977). A similar argument is made in relation to children and women, where the presence or quality of the rational or deliberative part of soul dictates a natural inferiority. In discussing the rule of freemen over slaves, males over females, and men over children, Aristotle noted:
While parts of the soul are present in each, the distribution is different. Thus the deliberative part of the soul is not present at all in the slave; in a female it is present but ineffective, in a child present but undeveloped. (Ixiii 1260a)
Although it is tempting to suggest that Aristotle's natural slaves represented people with intellectual impairments, there is no evidence to suggest this was the case. The important implication here is, however, that a natural inferiority in reason translates into a naturally inferior place in society.
Reason, Virtue, and Responsibility
In the previous section, I considered the role of reason in determining a natural hierarchy of beings and how Aristotle justified inferior social positions on the grounds that this was a natural outcome of an inferior reason. What, however, is the role of intellect in determining the scope or possibility of a good life or for being a virtuous person (two central concerns in Plato and Aristotle's ethical philosophy)? A further issue concerns the effect that an intellectual impairment might have on legal and moral status with regards to responsibility and citizenship, issues that remain highly relevant today. In the following section the discussion is focused on how intelligence is related to conceptions of the good life, the good person, and the idea of moral and legal agency.
Plato referred to ignorance as a deformity of the soul (Sophist 228, 1961 version); an emptiness of the soul, which is filled by wisdom (Plato, 1974); and as “most shameful,” as opposed to wisdom, which is most beautiful (Greater Hippas 296, 1961). On the other hand, reason is king of heaven and earth (Philebus 28c, 1961 version) and intelligence is the paramount virtue for a statesman like legislator (Laws III 688). As the parent rules the child and the slave submits to the master, “the supreme claim of all which prescribes that it is for the ignorant to follow and for the wise man to take the lead and rule.… I should call it nature's own ordinance' (Laws III 690b-c).
It is not hard to infer from this that Plato was not particularly sympathetic to those with lesser degrees of intelligence or that he believed that they should occupy a subservient role in society. We need, however, to understand exactly what Plato meant by ignorance because he had several usages in his work. In the first quotation, regarding ignorance as a deformity of the soul, he is clarifying a distinction between kinds of “evil” in the soul. Because the soul according to Plato cannot be naturally ignorant of anything, then an unintelligent soul must be regarded as deformed. He defined deformity as a “want of measure” and added, “which is always unsightly” (Sophist, 228a-d, 1961). This is contrasted to vice, which he defined as a disease of the soul, drawing an analogy with a disease of the body. So it would seem possible that this deformity of the soul corresponds to the “pathological cases” as discussed earlier.
In another section of the Laws, Plato discussed two types of ignorance: pure and simple and ignorance coupled with “conceit of his own wisdom,” the latter being the more culpable (IV 863c, 1981), suggesting that ignorance pure and simple or that of the deformed soul is not the most venal state.
Goodey's (1992) analysis supports this interpretation. He identified three types of “intellectual invalids” in Plato: the simple-minded, which in Plato's usage equates with taking things at face value, which Plato called sincere ignorance (Sophist 268a, 1961) and is the least of the three “evils of ignorance.” The second type Goodey labeled citizen's ignorance, which is concerned with the kinds of intelligence required to function as a citizen, to set limits, and to understand what good conduct requires of one towards the state, the family, or oneself. It represents a lack of the necessary intellectual virtue required to develop temperance, courage, or justice. Finally, the worst kind of ignorance is reserved for the type noted earlier (i.e., the conceit of one's own wisdom). This latter form of ignorance, when coupled with power, represents for Plato the worst kind of ignorance (Goodey, 1992). So, although the first two types of ignorance most directly linked to a deficit in rational capacity may not be the worst kind of evil, they are still an evil of the soul. Therefore, if ignorance is evil, what is the possibility of virtue in those who lack a certain type or degree of reason?
Plato thought that true beliefs, those that correspond to virtue, could be recalled from previous lives and that we could come to distinguish true beliefs from false. Further, with proper moral education, which includes noncognitive education, these true beliefs would become stable and, thus, lead to a habit of virtue (Laws II653b, 1961). This would seem to suggest that one could develop virtue through habituation, regardless of cognitive ability.
There are, however, a few problems with this account. First, habit virtues are an inferior type of virtue, appropriate to the citizen subjects of the Republic, but they are not equivalent to complete virtue, which requires wisdom or knowledge (Irwin, 1995; Plato, Republic 619c, 1961; Sorabji, 1977). A truly virtuous person must be able to give an account of why he is choosing to act virtuously and, further, must be able to choose virtue for its own sake rather than for instrumental reasons (Irwin, 1995). As noted earlier, wisdom is seen as the preeminent virtue for the rulers of the Republic, so wisdom would seem to be not only necessary for virtue, but also the highest form of virtue. This is not as clearcut as it might seem, however, for knowledge and wisdom are virtues associated with the rational part of the soul, the function of which is to regulate the other noncognitive aspects. To be truly virtuous there must be a “concord” in the soul, a balance of the noncognitive and the rational aspects. In this sense, it is less a question of inherent superiority of the rational part than an instrumental necessity if one is to achieve a concord of the soul. Hence, greater intelligence and a disordered soul is not to be preferred to a person with a well-ordered soul (Plato, Laws 689c6-e2,1961), but this does not imply that reason and knowledge are not necessary for true virtue.
Plato's account of who can attain wisdom and thereby become virtuous differs in the Republic and the Laws. In the former he attributed wisdom, and, therefore, complete virtue, only to a few philosopher/rulers. In the Laws, which is the later and generally thought to be the more practical work, he suggested that even citizens of the lower classes be educated so that they are guided by their rational soul and, thus, achieve wisdom and virtue (Irwin, 1995).
The preceding would seem to suggest that Plato cannot be interpreted as saying that those without sufficient intelligence can achieve wisdom or virtue. They may develop certain habit virtues, but true virtue requires all the cardinal virtues in a harmonious soul. On the other hand, equality is not really of concern to Plato and, as such, one might suggest that nothing in Plato places those who lack certain rational capacities in an any worse position than the majority of people in his ideal society of the Republic or that of the Laws.
On the question of responsibility, Plato does take a somewhat sympathetic view towards the mad (Phaedrus 244, 1961). Although responsibility remains for wrongs committed due to “insanity, or when so disordered by disease, so extremely aged, or of such tender years, as to be virtually insane” (Laws IX864d), they attract a lighter punishment than wrongs committed without such mitigating circumstances (this author discussed Aristotle [Sorabji, 1980].). Although the degree to which this would apply to those with intellectual disabilities is debatable, it does suggest an association between rational capacity and responsibility and, by extension, a diminished moral and legal agency.
Plato further noted in the Laws that “no lunatic shall be allowed at large in the community” (Laws 934c-d, 1961) and that relatives are required to care for them at home or face a fine. This passage is specifically concerned with harm to others and the community and implies that on this basis people's liberty can justifiably be constrained. In this sense it is closely related to early 20th century eugenic arguments for the control of people with intellectual disabilities.
The preceding section would seem to place Plato firmly in the strict paternalist camp. Clearly, those lacking a certain degree or type of intelligence cannot be said to be fully virtuous, but on the other hand, they are not ‘the worst’ threat to society. Legally and morally they are to be treated with a certain degree of leniency, but at the cost of their agency. This position is almost identical to that followed in the West from this time forward, now more commonly referred to as “mental capacity determination,” which dictates the scope of one's moral and legal agency.
In the Nichomachean Ethics (Aristotle, 1976), Aristotle is concerned with human flourishing, happiness, the good, and virtue. He defined two categories of virtues: moral virtues, such as temperance, courage, liberality, and magnificence, and intellectual virtues, which include art or technical skill (tekne), practical reason (phronesis), intelligence or intuition (nous), and wisdom (sophia). The latter three are distinguished primarily by their objects. Phronesis is concerned with the capacity to deliberate about what is good or bad for oneself and humans in general. Nous has to do with the ability to grasp first principles, to form judgments about universals, whereas phronesis is concerned with those things that are variable. Finally, sophia, or wisdom, is both the knowledge of first principles and all that flows from them, hence both phronesis and nous are required for wisdom (Nichomachean Ethics1140a–1141b, 1976).
Like Plato, Aristotle conceived of human beings as having both a desiring and a reasoning aspect, with the former being governed by the latter. It follows, then, that human flourishing requires both the moral and the intellectual virtues, and this is the conception that Aristotle followed in the earlier Eudemian Ethics (Aristotle, 1982) and for the most part in the Nichomachean Ethics (Cooper, 1986). However, two issues arise from this; first, given this bipartite conception of humans and their good, to what extent are they divisible? For example, can one have the moral virtues without the intellectual virtues and still flourish? Second, is there a priority of one type of virtue over another?
On the first question, Aristotle in the Politics (1981) attributed certain moral virtues to slaves, women, and children (Ixii), all of whom, according to Aristotle, lack a fully developed rational capacity. This would seem to suggest that virtue does not require a fully developed rational capacity. However, he is quite clear that the virtue attainable by these groups is not the same as that of the rulers. As noted earlier in the discussion on natural slaves, although acknowledging the humanity of slaves and women and their capacity to participate in reason, Aristotle saw these people as having naturally inferior forms of reason, and it is this division that distinguishes the inferior virtues attainable by slaves, women, and children from those of freemen, for:
all must participate in them (moral virtues) but not in the same way, but only as may be required by each for his proper function. The ruler then must have moral virtue in its entirety. … And the others must have an amount appropriate to each. So it is evident that each of the classes spoken of must have moral virtue, and that restraint [one of the moral virtues] is not the same in a man as in a woman, not justice or courage either, as Socrates thought; the one is the courage of the ruler, the other the courage of the servant, and likewise with the other virtues. (Politics I1260a, 19)
In this passage Aristotle made two key points. First, although it is possible to have certain moral virtues without fully developed reason, those virtues will be of an inferior type. The second point is that although the concern here is with the moral virtues, it is clear that some form of reason is required to attain them.
In his analysis of the role of intellect in virtue, Sorabji (1977) argued that virtue requires choice and that choice requires deliberation and rationality. He further argued that phronesis is concerned with deliberation, not just about what is required by particular goals but also about the good life in general—with a view towards what is best and towards happiness. Although virtues of character are not located in the rational part of the soul, they are subject to control by the rational part; hence, virtues of character require phronesis in order to determine where the mean lies, the essential determination in Aristotle's definition of moral virtue. Finally, although Aristotle acknowledged such things as natural virtue and argued that character virtues can be acquired through habituation and education, these are inferior forms of virtue. He made this point clear in Nichomachean Ethics VI xii, 1976), where he acknowledged that natural dispositions towards the virtues may exist but:
what is good in the strict sense is something different, and that moral qualities are acquired in another way; because natural dispositions are found in children and brutes, but without intelligence they are apt to be harmful. This much seems to be an observed fact: that just as the powerfully built man, deprived of sight, is apt to fall heavily when he moves about, because he cannot see, so too in the moral sphere; but if the subject acquires intelligence he becomes outstanding in conduct, and his disposition instead of resembling virtue, will now be virtue in the full sense. … So … in moral character there are two qualities, natural virtue and virtue in the full sense; and of these the latter implies prudence (phronesis).
Aristotle went on to state that although one may possess some natural virtues in different measures, phronesis is required to “entitle a person to be called good without qualification” and the further point that when one possess phronesis, they will have all the other virtues (Nichomachean Ethics IV, 1144b–1145a, 1976). So the implication here is that the person without sufficient intellectual capacity cannot become truly good and that even those virtues that they do have are of an inferior type and may, in fact, be dangerous. Finally, Aristotle made it clear that in order to become a good man an enormous amount of intellectual effort is required (Sorabji, 1980).
With regards to the priority of the virtues, in Nichomachean Ethics X, Aristotle made it clear that the good is dependent on finding that which is uniquely human (Sorabji, 1993), maximizing our divine or God-like quality—our reason (Nichomachean Ethics, 1177b–1178a). In Nichomachean Ethics X (1178a), he pronounced the intellectual life as “the best and most pleasant life for man” and the moral life as “happy in a secondary degree.” Although this does not mean that the moral life excludes the intellectual virtues, it clearly gives the moral virtues a priority and further indicates that the “best life” for man is a contemplative life of the intellect even to the exclusion of his emotional life (Cooper, 1986).
With regard to responsibility, Aristotle's views regarding diminished rational capacity are somewhat puzzling. He argued that for an act to be culpable, it must be voluntary. He further recognized two excusing factors that render an act as involuntary: force from the outside and ignorance (Nichomachean Ethics II, 1109b–1110a, 1976). The difficulty comes in identifying what counts as ignorance or compulsion. He is clear that if ignorance is caused by the person themselves, as in the case of drunkenness, this does not act as an mitigating circumstance. He further clarified in Book III that it must be ignorance of the particular circumstances, not of right and wrong in general (e.g., someone who unwittingly gives poison to another in the mistaken belief that it would save his life). Finally, he argued that the agent must express remorse once the consequences of the act are recognized (Nichomachean Ethics 1111a, 1976). These seem to be very restrictive criteria, with little room for consideration of issues related to reduced rational capacity. Indeed, he noted in a later passage that “those acts committed in ignorance but are not due to ignorance but to an unnatural and sub-human reaction are unpardonable” (Nichomachean Ethics 1136a, 1976). This, as has been noted, would likely include those who lacked a sufficient degree or type of rational capacity. Aristotle does, however, excuse physical and sensory disabilities if they are not incurred through a person's own ignorance; these, he suggested, would more likely be objects of pity rather than blame (Nichomachean Ethics 1114a, 1976).
In relation to compulsion, although Aristotle clearly noted that this must be from the outside, it also seems to be dependent on a certain degree of reason. In the Eudemian Ethics discussion of involuntariness, he wrote that “we do not say that a child acts, or a brute either; only someone who is already doing things from reasoning” (1224a, 1982). Here, then, he seems to deny that those without a certain type or degree of reason can be anything but compelled, and, hence, their action cannot be anything but involuntary. In this sense they cannot then be said to be responsible for their wrong doings but, again, this would be at the cost of their moral agency and would seem to fit with his discussion of incontinence at Nichomachean Ethics VII, where he stated that brutishness “falls in every case outside the boundaries of vice” (Nichomachean Ethics 1148b–1149a, 1976), and later in the section he made it clear that “those who are congenitally incapable of reasoning … are brutish” (1149a, 1976). This corresponds to his opening remarks in Book VII, where he contrasted brutes with the gods, noting that “a god has neither virtue or vice, anymore than a brute has; the goodness of a god is more to be esteemed than virtue, and the badness of a brute is different in species from vice.” He further noted that “a brutish person is rare among human beings. The type is commonest among the non-Greek races, but some cases also occur that are due to disease or defect” (Nichomachean Ethics 1145a, 1976). Finally, he stated that “we do not speak of brutes as either temperate or licentious… because they possess neither choice nor calculation, but are aberrations from the natural, like the insane among us” (Nichomachean Ethics VII 1149b–1150a, 1976).
If, as argued earlier, reason is a prerequisite for responsibility, we might conclude that there would be some notion of degrees of responsibility related to the degree of ignorance vis-à-vis the specific act. Aristotle did suggest degrees of responsibility in relation to incontinence of temper and desire. He further argued that “Brutishness is not as bad as vice, although it is more alarming, because it consists not in a corruption of the highest part, as it does in man, but in the absence of it” (Nichomachean Ethics VII vi, I, 1976).
We can see, then, how Aristotle made a certain degree and type of intelligence a prerequisite for goodness and true virtue in a human being. His further point is to some degree even more critical, that is, even if one has certain natural dispositions towards virtue, these are not truly ‘good’ and may in fact be dangerous. His position on responsibility and moral agency is very close to the dominant Western approach of the past four centuries, placing brutes outside the normal boundaries of justice and taking into account the degree of ignorance when assessing responsibility and due punishment. The other side of this is, however, that they also possess no positive agency to consent, contract, or be accorded the usual rights or legal status of other men.
In this paper I have sought to articulate some of the key ideas in the thought of Plato and Aristotle relevant to the construction of intellectual disability. In both cases there is a clear association between reason and human value, moral agency, and, indeed, humanness itself. Many of these ideas were not, of course, limited to Plato and Aristotle, even among the Greeks. In the late 6th century BC, Alcmaeon differentiated man from animals on the basis that “he alone has understanding” (Sorabji, 1993, p. 9). The Stoics associated moral responsibility with the giving of a rational account, and the Epicureans believed that justice only extends to those capable of making a contract (Sorabji, 1993, pp. 7–8).
We have not as yet considered the influence, directly or otherwise, that these ideas have had on epistemological structures of Western modernity and through them on the construction and social response to intellectual disability. Although any detailed analysis along these lines is beyond the scope of the current work, a few examples may help to establish the relevance of the preceding analysis to both historical and contemporary debates.
Theological traditions have often been cited as an alternative that is more egalitarian: not associating reason and value to the same extent (Veatch, 1986). To some degree this is true; however, the dominant history of Church doctrine suggests a much stronger association than may be immediately evident. Saint Augustine was himself a neo-Platonist, which, as noted earlier, took a more rigid approach in associating rationality with humanness (see, for example, Augustine, 16.8, 1956). It was also clear that in this world it is for the ‘fool’ to follow the wise (Augustine, Profit, 33, 1956).
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century scholastic, was profoundly influenced by Aristotle and clearly accepted the Aristotelian natural order among men based on reason:
There is an order to be found among men themselves; for men of outstanding intelligence naturally take command, while those of who are less intelligent but of more robust physique, seem intended by nature to act as servants; as Aristotle points out in the Politics. (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Chp. 81, 1959)
In both Augustine and Aquinas, we do see a somewhat more positive means of accommodation through the doctrine of grace and charity, but this does not imply equality in this world. Luther followed a similar line of thought through his differentiation of types of reason. Reason is, however, clearly “the greatest of God's gifts to men” (Althaus, 1966, p. 65). It is this space opened up by the division of the “city of god” and the “city of men,” for example, that allowed some rulers with intellectual impairments to be crowned because they were chosen by divine right rather than by their earthly merits. In Aquinas' terms, this is an issue of the supernatural rather than the natural world.
On a more political side, John Locke, one of the fathers of modern liberal political theory, is clear that reason is a precondition for legal and political equality:
But if through defects that may happen out of the ordinary course of Nature, any one comes not to such a degree of reason wherein he might be supposed capable of knowing the law … he is never capable of being a free man … So lunatics and idiots are never set free from the government of their parents. (Locke, 1690/1924, p. 145)
The whole of the eugenics era was, of course, clearly predicated on the view that those deemed to be mentally deficient were not only inferior but a clear and present danger to the community. Although a link directly to Plato and Aristotle is stretching the point, the idea of eugenics is presaged in the works of both (Republic. 460c-d; Politics VIIxvi 1335b, 19). More fundamental is the clear association between rationality—or its more functional Kantian form, autonomy—and moral personhood, which is axiomatic in much of Western moral and political philosophy. Ryle noted that “specifically human behavior” is that “which is unachieved by animals, idiots and infants” and Quinton, discussing the centrality of rationality in humanness, noted that “defective human beings who look and are physically constructed like men … are only marginally or by a sort of prudent and humane courtesy fully human beings” (cited in Goodey, 1992, p. 28fn). Peter Singer's controversial arguments on the relative rights of animals and people with intellectual disabilities is, of course, a topical example of much the same basic issue.
There are, of course, alternative traditions (e.g., many Christian doctrines and contemporary postmodernist views) that do not make this association between reason and value; however, any serious consideration of these is beyond the scope of this work. I would, however, suggest that these alternatives have been, and largely remain, outside the dominant epistemological discourse in Western societies. Or, as in the case of the dominant Christian tradition, rely on a notion of charity rather than one of equality, at least in this world. This, however, is obviously a discussion that requires more detailed attention than the current paper allows.
To return to where I began, it is these ideas about the value and humanity of persons considered to lack a certain type or degree of reason that underlie the current debates about prenatal testing, euthanasia, genetic modification, the right to treatment, and rights to full and equal citizenship. What this suggests is that for these debates to be resolved in such a way as to recognize the full equality and value of all humanity, including those with intellectual disability, a fundamental reorientation of dominant Western knowledge constructs is required. Certain progress can be made with changes to the normative discourse around rights and citizenship (see Stainton, 1994), but, ultimately, a more fundamental debate on the basis of moral status that does not associate reason and goodness is required (cf. Edwards, 1997).
NOTE: The author thanks Chris Goodey, Duncan Ivison, and the reviewers of the manuscript for their constructive and challenging comments. I also thank John O'Brien, who as associate editor provided detailed and thoughtful comments that improved the final version immeasurably.
Author:Tim Stainton, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Wales Swansea, and Visiting Associate Professor, School of Social Work and Family Studies, 2080 West Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V5T 1Z2.