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?


  • 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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