social welfare, the handicapped, and special education

Com­mon sense may sug­gest that increases in social wel­fare are more eas­ily obtained by focus­ing resources on the men­tally and/or phys­i­cally hand­i­capped, rather than using those resources instead to mar­gin­ally improve non-handicapped indi­vid­u­als’ lives. The capa­bil­i­ties approach, as devel­oped by Amartya Sen and Martha Nuss­baum, would also imply that resources are well-spent when devoted to expand­ing the sub­stan­tive free­doms and abil­i­ties of the handicapped.

You might think that improv­ing the sit­u­a­tion of the hand­i­capped is an area in which non-utilitarian social wel­fare the­ory agrees with util­i­tar­i­an­ism: if the hand­i­capped are not so happy, and we know how to make them hap­pier, and can do so effi­ciently, then we should. (Using a non-technical con­cep­tion of util­i­tar­i­an­ism here; feel free to ques­tion it).

But then Eric Barker comes along and shares, on his excel­lent Bark­ing up the wrong tree blog, that an aca­d­e­mic study’s “Results seemed to demon­strate essen­tial equiv­a­lence in life sat­is­fac­tion for hand­i­capped, retarded, and nor­mal per­sons.” Notice that the study’s sub­jects are mem­bers of the actual world, where accom­mo­da­tions for the hand­i­capped exist, but not as exten­sively as social model the­o­rists and other dis­abil­ity advo­cates request.

Assume that there is some truth to these find­ings (which I believe are con­sis­tent with a num­ber of prior stud­ies). Do they give us a rea­son to accept the capa­bil­i­ties approach, accord­ing to which the hand­i­capped may still lack impor­tant capa­bil­i­ties and/or suf­fer from a false con­scious­ness, etc. that makes their lives still less than good enough? Or should these find­ings about the life sat­is­fac­tion of the hand­i­capped assuage our for­mer guilt for not hav­ing done enough to improve their lives?

In par­tic­u­lar, I am try­ing to think about these find­ings in terms of their impli­ca­tions for expen­di­tures on spe­cial edu­ca­tion, which are large but dif­fi­cult to mea­sure and highly con­tro­ver­sial (here’s a rel­e­vant recent post from Edu­ca­tion Next). If the goal or pur­pose of edu­ca­tion is rightly hap­pi­ness, as Nel Nod­dings and oth­ers have sug­gested, then are extreme spe­cial edu­ca­tion mea­sures war­ranted if the hand­i­capped turn out rel­a­tively happy with­out them? Or is this a repug­nant con­clu­sion that sug­gests that the proper goal of edu­ca­tion is some­thing other than happiness?

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2 Comments

  • By hap­pi­ness, I’m going to assume you mean “eudai­mo­nia” which I will here take to mean “thriv­ing”. If this is not what you meant, then that will in essence nul­lify this com­men­tary, but it may prove a use­ful per­spec­tive nonetheless.

    It is pos­si­ble for some­one to be happy, but for them not to be THRIVING. For exam­ple, some­one who is poor may be happy in the sense that they have enough food, or a roof over their heads, but they cer­tainly are not THRIVING.

    A men­tally retarded or chal­lenged or what­ever the hell the PC term is nowa­days per­son might very well be HAPPY as a pros­ti­tute, but that does not at all mean that per­son is thriving.

    What we ought to be doing for every­one is ensur­ing that each per­son has ade­quate chance to thrive. That means, in essence, hav­ing a basic qual­ity of life that is not abysmal.

  • pamela j. stubbart wrote:

    Hi Joe — For­got to say thanks for your com­ment. I don’t dis­agree with any of it; in fact you’ve done a good job of elab­o­rat­ing upon the very con­cep­tion of hap­pi­ness that Nod­dings, Brig­house, and other espouse.

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