Saving Face: Utilitarianism, Disability, and Chronic Illness

When I was an undergraduate thinking of graduate school over a decade ago, I was heavily immersed in ethics and political philosophy. As an undergraduate at Stetson University, I attended a talk by Peter Singer at the University of North Florida, where I would soon begin studying for my MA. I was sympathetic to virtue ethics and it would not be until recently that I moved toward utilitarianism.

When I attended Peter Singer’s lecture, there was protest by disabled people in the community and on campus due to Singer’s views on disability. In this post, I aim to defend utilitarianism and rebuke Singer.

I recently turned toward utilitarianism because I became an atheist and disavowed my metaethical presuppositions that made me a virtue ethicist. All that was left was me and fellow humans with pleasures and pains. Thus, in order to be ethical, I needed to maximize pleasures and minimize pains for myself and for others. So I found myself a utilitarian.

I am disabled and I follow various disability conversations online. Contrary to Singer, who has argued disabled lives are not worth living or are somehow less worth living that abled lives, I have found that often what makes disabled lives hard is the failure of accommodation. I have roundly decided that accommodation of disabled lives is a necessity of utilitarianism.

Most of the world is organized for able-bodied human beings. Yet, if we live long enough, all of us will get sick or become disabled. Contrary to Singer, who has argued disabled lives are not worth living, I argue that utilitarians ought to consider accommodation for various disabilities. It maximizes pleasure to do so.

Singer is wrong to think disabled lives are not worth living. I have met many disabled and chronically ill people who are only hindered by lack of accommodations. It’s winter right now, for example, and snow on the sidewalks hinders wheelchair users. I have been a caregiver for someone who was unable to walk. I wanted this person to have maximal happiness. Yet, simply getting around in stores, restaurants, and public parks was overly burdensome. This is because the design is for able-bodied people, which, again, most of us will not be if we live long enough.

Contrary to what I thought as an undergraduate, utilitarianism is not at odds with disability justice. Instead, a utilitarian should advocate for disability rights.

Leave a Reply