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?