A growing body of work in feminist philosophy of disability, in particular, and philosophy of cognitive disability, more generally, demonstrates the discursive constitution of norms of intelligence and cognitive ability in order to undermine both the false assumptions about human ability and the gendered and racialized norms of rationality, independence, and competence that inform philosophical and bioethical theories about moral status. Many of these philosophical accounts of disability seem designed to—implicitly or explicitly—prove that, given some newly-valued norms, certain persons do indeed have these capabilities, rather than to transform the social conditions that create such demarcations in the first place. In this paper, I argue that feminist philosophy of disability and moral philosophy more broadly would benefit if they were to consider the social conditions of possibility in which these qualifications for moral status arise, rather than continue to focus on the qualifications themselves. In order to argue in this way, I consider how assessments of moral status and human life simultaneously foreclose possible expressions of "lives worth living." I suggest, furthermore, that feminist philosophers of disability in particular and feminist philosophers in general would benefit if they were to consider the risks that this normative theorizing involves. In turn, I propose a way in which feminist philosophers ought to orient themselves in order to create the conditions of possibility for the emergence of divergent expressions of human well-being and moral potential.

"The relationship between intelligibility and the human is an urgent one."
—Judith Butler, "Doing Justice to Someone"


Despite the increasing social visibility of people labelled with intellectual disabilities 1 and the gains made to include them in all of the major institutions of society, popular rhetoric and political discourses continue to call into question the worth of a life lived with intellectual disability. Over the last decade, policy-makers, popular media, and diverse advocacy groups have publicly debated about the rights to bodily integrity, the reproductive capacities and self-determination of people with intellectual disabilities, their access to adequate education, and their right to community-based living (rather than confinement in institutions). In contemporary moral, political, and bioethical philosophy, there has been growing discussion of the relationship between individual humans and their moral status, raising questions that bear significantly on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities: To whom shall the rights and duties of political or civic membership be accorded? Who qualifies as a person in considerations of ethical treatment and care? Who, or what, is a subject of justice and to whom is justice owed? At the center of these inquiries is the question of the social, moral, and political place of individuals with intellectual disabilities and, in particular, the extent to which individuals so labelled or defined can be said to have moral personhood. Such efforts to clarify the moral status of individuals with intellectual disabilities have, for the most part, been intended to produce more just and equitable social arrangements and ensure individual welfare, though, at times, they respond to concerns over scarce resources.

As public debates continue over what counts as a life worth living, a life of human dignity, and even what constitutes life itself, disability studies scholars—especially those working at the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and disability—have linked this preoccupation with definitions of human life and lives worth living to the prevailing social regard of the disabled body as questionably human, as aberrant, abhorrent, as an unfortunate existence (for instance, Garland Thomson 1997; Garland-Thomson 2006; Johnson 2003; Linton 1998; Schweik 2009; Siebers 2009). In her description of the disabled body as the representation of "contradiction, ambiguity, and partiality incarnate," Garland-Thomson considers what she calls "the will to normalize" as the prevailing will to expunge human differences, to ignore the messiness and non-uniformity of nature, and to control, shape, and regulate bodies (Garland-Thomson 2006, 262). This well-documented new eugenics of the contemporary world consists in what disability scholars have called the "ideology of ability" (Siebers, 2009), "compulsory able-bodiedness" (McRuer, 2006), or simply "ableism:" the persistent perception—both conscious and unconscious—that disability precludes human well-being and agency and is the quintessential representation of the precariousness of the human condition (Siebers 2009, 5; see also Bogdan and Biklen 1977). Feminist disability theorists and feminist philosophers of disability argue that prevailing ideas about which lives are worth living have real and sometimes deadly material consequences, insofar as they inform policies on genetic testing, euthanasia, selective abortion, and rights to bodily integrity, as well as political attitudes towards war and its material repercussions, including loss of life, physical, mental, and emotional disablement, extreme poverty, and more (See Asch 1999; Erevelles 2011; Tremain 2006; Garland-Thomson 2006; Johnson 2003; Lamp and Cleigh 2011; Shapiro 1993). The theoretical basis of these arguments is especially apparent in the wealth of literature that analyzes disability from a Foucauldian perspective, showing that the social and political forces that individualize and categorize people according to particular social norms effectively produce subjects as particular kinds of people, kinds which are taken to be natural and have pre-discursive existence (see Allen 2005; Tremain, 2002, 2005; Carlson, 2010). Furthermore, feminist philosophers of disability and other philosophers of disability have waded into these debates in order to comment on the gendered and racialized assumptions of rationality, independence, and normalcy that uphold dominant philosophical views of personhood (see Carlson 2010; Kittay 2002, 2010; Wong 2010; Stubblefield 2007, 2010). For example, Kittay (2002) describes how liberal definitions of personhood rely on beliefs about normal human ability that are grounded in masculinist ideas about the capacities—including the capacities for rationality and self-sufficiency—and behavior of the white independent adult male (see also Lanoix 2007). To take another example, Stubblefield (2007, 2010) traces the construction of the contemporary Western understanding of "intellect" to historical intersections between gender and race ideology and the label of mental retardation, arguing that the concept of cognitive disability cannot be abstracted from the social and political forces that shape the meaning of intellect. In addition to exposing the ways that deep-seated cultural biases and prejudices against disability steer these public and academic debates, many of the aforementioned authors issue a call to philosophers, bioethicists, and feminist philosophers and theorists to recognize how their own approaches to these fundamental ethical questions can themselves reproduce wrongful and harmful views of disability and the humanity of disabled lives.

I propose that in order to attend to these important insights and philosophical claims about disability and human life and the dehumanizing discourse that surrounds people with intellectual disabilities in particular, we should consider a prior question in regard to normative theories about the moral status and humanity of people with intellectual disabilities, noting the question's significant import and impact on policy and law: Do these philosophical questions about human life and moral status, politically and practically necessary though they may be, also function to obscure or distort emerging and alternative conceptions of competency, intellect, human behavior, ability, and well-being? Indeed, I maintain that philosophy in general and feminist philosophy in particular would benefit from asking this question in advance of other questions about human life and moral status. To understand the deep discomfort that people with disabilities, 2 parents of children with disabilities, 3 as well as advocates and theorists of disability have about normative theories of moral status, we should reframe the question of moral personhood to address the social conditions under which the qualifying conditions for moral status and human belonging arise, in addition to asking what the qualifying conditions for moral status or human belonging are.

Kim Q. Hall (2011) has suggested that the question of a life worth living is not foremost "a question about whether disability impoverishes or enhances quality of life. Rather the question is, following [Judith] Butler, what makes possible a life that can be lived" (6). In her recent work, Butler has explored what she calls "normative violence" and its relationship to social recognition and physical violence (Butler 2004, 2005, 2009). As Butler explains it, normative violence makes one intelligible through cultural and social norms of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and so on in ways that render one vulnerable to erasure and exclusion from social, political, and cultural recognition and potentially exposed to physical harm. I aim to consider how the above philosophical debates about human life and moral personhood perform a normative violence of their own. Where these approaches measure political recognition and moral status in terms of individuals' intelligibility through norms, they involve a potentially violent exclusion of possible alternative ways of expressing human life, capability, and well-being. For Butler, social justice requires not the delineation of what counts as human in the service of politics, but rather the creation of the conditions under which moral and political recognition is always fluid and what counts as human is always subject to social contestation. I will argue that Butler's view of normative violence offers us a way to consider how the identification of moral status, though possibly unavoidable within the scope of political theorizing, is ultimately a precarious method for creating the conditions of social justice.

Caveats and Clarifications

First, let me offer a clarification about my goals in this paper. Although I intend to scrutinize philosophical theorizing about moral personhood and human well-being, my primary focus in the paper is the discursive and material effects (and risks) of such theorizing. I do not wish to dismiss that philosophical work. On the contrary, I recognize that debates about the moral status of individuals with intellectual disabilities are indeed necessary in order to defend vital social entitlements and legal protections for the individuals so-labelled, especially within a political climate in which their social welfare is often, and dangerously, undervalued. Indeed, where the worth of a life lived with intellectual disability is held suspect, a universal concept of the human is, perhaps, as Siebers argues, "urgently required, if people with disabilities are to attain the respect due to them and if we are to make progress as a democratic society" (2009, 93). I shall advance the argument that although it may be pragmatically necessary to appeal to a pre-discursive or naturalized notion of the human, to do so enacts particular normative effects. I recognize the urgency of these practicalities, even as I proceed with my caution about the effects of such theorizing about human life and moral status.

Second, in this paper I consider Butler's notion of "normative violence" as it applies to intellectual disability and philosophical debates about lives worth living. Some disability studies scholars have questioned the application of other aspects of Butler's work to disability and disability theory (see Wendell 1996; Siebers 2009; Samuels 2011). For example, Siebers (2009) claims that Butler's constructivism potentially ignores the physical realities of the lived experience of disability. Others, like Ellen Samuels, caution against the facile replacement of "gender" with "disability" in appropriations of Butler's work for feminist philosophy of disability and disability studies more generally. The potential of Butler's theories to contribute to transformative theorizing about disability has led to a tendency for critics to at once question and embrace her thinking: "Her insights have the potential to be so far-reaching and liberatory that even as we formulate critiques of her theories, we are also drawn in to the possibilities those theories offer" (Samuels 2011, 63). I embrace Butler's analysis of norms and normative violence as a framework within which to consider how people with intellectual disabilities are excluded from the concept of the human.

Debating the Moral Personhood of Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Debates about the moral status of people with "profound" cognitive disabilities have been the focus of recent work in philosophy of cognitive disability. 4 In their introduction to Cognitive Disability and Its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, Carlson and Kittay (2010) succinctly summarize the questions posed in these debates, which include the following:

Are those with cognitive disabilities due the same respect and justice due to those who have no significant cognitive impairments? Are the grounds of our moral obligation different when a human being may lack certain cognitive faculties that are often understood as the basis for moral personhood? Are those with significant cognitive impairment moral persons? … Are the people with cognitive disabilities, especially those labelled as "mentally retarded," distinct, morally speaking, from nonhuman animals? (1-2; emphasis added)

How we respond to these questions will have significant consequences for how we will propose that social resources, such as education, health care, and dependency care, should be distributed. Moreover, our responses will determine whether this particular group of people will enjoy the same rights and protections (as well as the same duties) as all other people. I emphasize the latter question in Carlson and Kittay's passage above because it involves a comparison between a group of (biologically) human beings and a group of (biologically) non-human beings. Some philosophers debate the relevant differences between, on the one hand, individuals with "severe or profound" cognitive disabilities and, on the other, non-human animals, suggesting that we need to defend the position that there are relevant differences between the two if we want to uphold a view according to which the former have rights that should not be accorded to latter (see Singer 2010; McMahan 2010). 5 Peter Singer (2010) has famously argued that philosophers (and others) who privilege the moral status of individuals with profound cognitive disabilities over the moral status of nonhuman animals with purportedly comparable or more advanced cognitive abilities are guilty of "speciesism," which he regards as unjustified normative privileging of humans over nonhumans that is akin to racism or sexism (336). In response to Singer's arguments in this regard, Kittay (2010) charges him with epistemic immodesty insofar as he presumes to know and, in turn, generalizes about the cognitive capacities of individuals with profound intellectual disabilities (405). Says Kittay, the people who live and work closely with individuals with these intellectual disabilities acquire intimate knowledge about their capacities, knowledge that directly challenges these presumptions about abilities and capacities. What is salient for my argument in this paper is that when this question about moral status is posed, the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities is held suspect. As Carlson and Kittay make clear, the view of intellectual disability as "other" denies any recognition that cognitive disability is a feature of the human condition (Carlson and Kittay 2010, 3) and often depends on assumptions about individuals with intellectual disabilities that are wrongful and uninformed (see Carlson 2010; Kittay 2010; Wong 2007; Stubblefield 2010).

Much of the emerging philosophical work on cognitive disability, which spans bioethics, ethics, legal theory, and moral and political philosophy, originates in critiques of the centralized place that individual capacities for practical reasoning hold in evaluations of moral status. John Rawls famously outlines a view of the just society in which an individual's status as a "fully-cooperating member of society" depends on the individual's ability to exercise certain rights and duties of citizenship, including the capacities to form a sense of justice and a conception of the good over the course of a complete life (Rawls 2001, 18-19; 1993, 18). These capacities—what he calls the two moral powers—can be understood as qualifying concepts insofar as they delineate features that individuals must possess to be regarded as equal in moral status and as full social and political participants. Importantly, in Rawls's view, individuals with "permanent disabilities or mental disorders" are not considered to fall within the "range of normal human functioning" when and because they do not possess or are not capable of the two moral powers (Rawls 1993, 20). In short, rationality is, in Rawls, as elsewhere in political philosophy, presented as a "chief marker" of moral personhood, a marker of that attribute that seems likely to exclude many individuals labelled with intellectual disabilities (Wong 2007, 583). 6

Within contemporary debates about the political inclusion of and equality for individuals with cognitive disabilities, the Rawlsian view has become an important site of challenge, in particular because of its heavy reliance on rationality as the basis for moral personhood. Martha Nussbaum (2006) has argued, for example, that a different approach is required in order to understand how individuals with cognitive disabilities ought to be included in society. Thus, she defends a framework of justice that considers the conditions under which individuals can exercise capabilities that enable human flourishing. Because in Nussbaum's view human life is characterized by both rationality and need, moral status is not negated by limitations in rationality (132). 7 Humans are both political and social beings who have material needs, desire to live together with others, and have a deep interest in the ability to make choices about their lives (85-86, 88). We desire a variety of life activities and are born, grow, live, and die in varying degrees of dependency on others, with various impairments and medical needs. Importantly, this approach acknowledges that there are some people among us who live in constant or almost constant states of dependency (167, 87-8). Although Nussbaum contends that Rawls's framework of justice is inadequate to attend fairly and justly to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, others have defended his view as ultimately more inclusive (see Cureton 2008; Wong 2007, 2010). For example, Sophia Wong (2010) argues that Rawls should be read as claiming that individuals must have the potential to possess the two moral powers, rather than as claiming that these powers must be actualized. She says that there is too much risk of error in determining who is capable of rational deliberation and able to communicate their will and who is incapable of rational deliberation and unable to communicate their will; thus, we should err on the side of inclusion in such cases where we question persons' ability to be full participants in democracy. Given adequate "enabling conditions"—that is, conditions that foster individuals' development of capacities and abilities—individuals with intellectual disabilities can become fully cooperating members of society (143). The promotion of an "idealizing conception of personhood" suggests a view in which all individuals are regarded as potential moral persons (Wong 2007, 594). Wong (2010, 142) writes that

The boundary between moral persons and nonpersons is indistinct and difficult to judge; we should therefore include all human beings without trying to determine exactly where they are on the spectrum of cognitive functioning. The possibility of mistakenly denying someone's personhood is a moral error far more troubling than the difficulty of establishing a society that includes all citizens.

Wong's argument is extremely important because it underscores the fact that our determinations of who possesses qualifying capacities—or even how those capacities will be defined—are currently unreliable and, therefore, we must attempt to be as broadly inclusive as possible in order to avoid potential wrongful exclusions. Anna Stubblefield (2010) suggests a similar caution insofar as she argues that "intellect" is a social construction and that "cognitive skills are as elusive as skin color and evade measurement as such" (295). Indeed, measurement of intellect is fraught with the entanglement of racialized and gendered norms and we do not know intellect apart from these discursively constructed qualifications and measurements. Both Wong and Stubblefield point to the elusiveness of accurate determinations of individuals' cognitive abilities, citing as evidence a troubled and damaging history of underestimation, stereotyping, and even outright denial of some individuals' intellectual capacities and communicative abilities (see Wong 2010; Stubblefield 2007, 2010).

Surely it is vitally important to continue the debates surrounding the role and place of individuals with intellectual disabilities in society—as members of society. Certainly these discussions are meant to consider who would be discounted in accounts of moral personhood that make reference to certain capacities and abilities, as well as to ensure that arbitrary and oppressive exclusions are not perpetuated. Perhaps if these discussions were reframed as reconsiderations of fundamental philosophical ideas, new and important insights into justice, equality, and fairness will be produced (Carlson and Kittay 2010, 3; see also Carlson, 2010).

Nevertheless, I suggest that we must also attend to a deeper question about how these inquiries themselves function to maintain certain ideas about ability and disability. For one thing, these arguments, even the arguments that advocate a reconsideration of philosophical presumptions, uphold, rather than dismiss, a sense of stable qualifying conditions of personhood and humanity. Arguing about the lines of demarcation seems akin to arguing over "liveable lives:" lives that will be recognized, included, defended. In many accounts that attempt to show the discursive formation of norms of intelligence and cognitive ability, we see gestures toward proving persons' capabilities within some newly valued norms, rather than a focus on the conditions that create such demarcations in the first place. So although we may determine more and more inclusive criteria for personhood and citizenship, we do so at the risk of, and with the knowledge that this involves, enacting determinations of whom to exclude. Where a traditional view of justice usually involves qualifying conditions as the requirement for social and political recognition, an alternative view of justice suggests that it involves looking at the conditions of inclusion and exclusion in a given context and how these always accompany certain formulations of social justice.

Constituting "the Human"

The relationship between what it means to be human, what it means to be granted moral status as a person, and what that moral status confers upon someone is an important one. Yet these two concepts—human and person—operate very differently within philosophical theorizing. Charles W. Mills (2011) points out that although the term human is commonly used or understood as a straightforward descriptive term (i.e., membership in the species human), the term person is a technical philosophical and normative term that refers to moral status and is not limited in its ascription to only human, or even organic, life. It is a serious error, says Mills, to assume that one's factual humanness will entail that one is recognized as normatively human—that is, as a person, with the entitlements and protections that the status of "person" confers. Yet, he says, liberalist theorizing makes this error regularly, conflating fact with normative status and ignoring how "socially recognized personhood" is ascribed independently of biological humanity. Consequently, social convention regulates moral status, rather than some fact about moral personhood, even if some such fact exists. 8 Accordingly, we (currently and historically) know or understand moral status only through discursive norms, norms that govern who is to be regarded as human, whose life is to be valued. How, then, are we to understand this "socially recognized personhood" that is conflated with being human? How, indeed, does such a conflation come about and what possibilities does it obscure?

In "Doing Justice to Someone," Judith Butler (2001, 621) asks: "Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me?" This question suggests a subject that is intelligible always from within a system of cultural norms, norms that prescribe and frame the subject's existence and that constrain its expression of the markers of personhood, that is, the capacities that individuals are required to possess in order to reach the moral status of person. Central to an understanding of Butler's notions of agency, responsibility, and ethical relation is an understanding of the subject as emerging from, and constituted within, norms. To be received as a subject is to have one's humanity recognized, acknowledged (Chambers 2007, 46). In Gender Trouble, Butler (1999) argues that norms of gender produce the body, which is made intelligible only through the prevailing discursive divide between sex and gender. The limits of the subject's expression, she says, "are always set within the terms of a hegemonic cultural discourse predicated on binary structures that appear as the language of universal rationality" (13). What is understood about the subject—as the subject—is set out within the cultural frames of intelligibility. Butler's aims in Gender Trouble were to show the ways in which our discursive understanding of gender is always inadequate and always incomplete, rendered through norms of intelligibility, as well as show that "representation is extended only to what can be acknowledged as a subject" (4). That is, there is always a constitutive outside to these demarcations of the subject, exclusions that are at once erased and necessary to uphold what is intelligible. For whenever we demarcate the "normal," we simultaneously demarcate the "abnormal" (Allen 2005, 94; Tremain 2010). As we shall see, furthermore, this constitutive outside supports the polity and sociality—the inclusive structure—as a spectre of what has been normatively rendered unintelligible, unrecognizable, un-accounted-for.

Butler's most recent works offer a broader discussion of intelligibility in terms of what counts as human. Moya Lloyd (2007, 137) suggests that Butler's later work shifts the emphasis from discreet categories of gender marginalization to the broader notion of the human because Butler recognizes that focusing only on already-existing categories actually performs its own erasure of others. 9 The shift in emphasis is interesting, I think, as it performs a shift in recognition. To focus on the unintelligible intersexed body, for example, as Butler (2001, 634) does in "Doing Justice to Someone," is to focus on what is included and excluded from humanity, what is inaugurated into "humanness," and what is left outside. In Giving An Account of Oneself, Butler (2005) extends the discussion of the inaugurated subject into the realm of the ethical and of ethical responsibility. The "scene of address," that space in which one is recognized and called forth into intelligible existence through norms, is fundamentally an exclusionary moment or moment of erasure that marks both survival and (partial) death of the subject. The scene of address, argues Butler, is characterized by judgment, that stance which both presupposes and "establishes a clear moral distance between the one who judges and the one who is judged" (45). This judgment tends toward violence, toward the violent erasure of that which is not normatively intelligible, not known within the cultural frames of personhood or "the human." Where judgment is taken as social recognition, then, there is a closure of difference, an erasure of possibility of alternative lives and alternative modes of being human. Thus, Butler calls for an "ethical posture" towards the other, a posture that "suspends judgment in order to apprehend the other" (44).

The connection between intelligibility and the notion of "liveable lives"—lives that succeed as/are counted as human lives within a discursive system—becomes very clear in Butler's Precarious Life (2004). In this text, Butler looks at how some lives come to count as grievable in ways that others do not. Once again, Butler shows us how our cultural frames orient us toward particular ideas about "the human" (33). What is knowable to us is that which can be understood within such normative frames of the human. Norms of intelligence, competency, independence, and appearance govern how individuals with intellectual disabilities are recognized, not simply as disabled, but as human or non-human. "Livable lives" are lives that are included (recognized within) these norms. Non-livable lives are those that are excluded, foreclosed, rendered invisible. Although these exclusions do not themselves enact physical harm, they create the conditions under which such physical harm can occur: they often enable it, excuse it, and even permit it. Butler calls this form of violence "normative violence," identifying it as a form of violence that "both enables the typical physical violence that we routinely recognize while it simultaneously erases such violence from our ordinary view" (Chambers 2007, 44; emphasis in Chambers). Where lives are unrecognized, individuals become exposed to physical violence precisely because that physical violence is not at present recognized as harm. Their pain, their loss, is un-grievable.

Lest the reader be concerned that Butler's theorizing about grievable lives is disconnected from the lived realities of people with disabilities in our contemporary world, consider how the un-mourned life is starkly represented in the tragic murders of two young males with autism, one twenty-two years old, the other only four years old, both killed by their mothers in early 2012. 10 The media response to both George's and Daniel's deaths focused overwhelmingly on their respective mothers' distress about parenting a disabled child. In George's case, his mother was portrayed as "a devoted and loving mother," while George himself was described as "low-functioning and high maintenance" (see Gross 2012). Both George and Daniel were objectified in the public eye as tragic problems, while their mothers were represented as victims of their children's disabilities. What faded to the background in these media accounts was the tragic loss of the lives of these two young people. Their lives were un-mourned and un-recognized precisely because these lives were framed as less worthy. As one writer for the Autism Self-Advocacy Network put it, succinctly: "Because he was autistic, George is being erased from the story of his own murder" (see "Remarks on the Murder of George Hodgins," 2012).

Anne McGuire offers another important recent example of this relationship between normative violence and corporeal violence in her critical discussion of writer Ian Brown's narrative about fathering his intellectually disabled son. Brown, she writes, invites a questioning of his son's very existence insofar as he simultaneously grants value to "disabled life" while enacting cognitive disability as a preclusion of full human life (McGuire 2010, 14). Where we ask what it means to be human, says McGuire,

[t]he non-disabled life is confirmed as the only possible life—a life so full of possibility it can choose how human it wants to be. And, this choice, this act of confirmation is only made possible if the humanness of the "severely" disabled life is understood as uncertain. Conceiving of the "severely disabled" life as "perhaps not human" makes it possible and, seemingly, reasonable for a well-respected national newspaper to publish a close-up photograph of the face of a cognitively disabled child, next to the large bold print question: "Am I human?" (Brown 2007c, A1, in McGuire 2010, 14)

Through such narratives, wherein readers are invited to assess what it means to be human in light of cognitive disability, normative judgments become the arbiters of another's intelligibility and possibility for a livable—human—life. The jump to judgment means that "we lose the chance to be ethically educated or 'addressed' by a consideration of who they are or what their personhood says about the range of human possibility that exists, even to prepare ourselves for or against such possibilities" (Butler 2005, 45). For Butler, acting ethically cannot be reduced to making moral judgments; to do so is to close off possibilities for experiencing others differently. The moral judgment, like its legal counterpart, establishes this moral distance between judger and judged, something that directly counters the sort of ethical relation that enables existence or different possibilities for personhood and social intelligibility. The ethical posture therefore demands, as I said above, "suspending judgment," "not pursuing satisfaction and by letting the question remain open, even enduring, we let the other live, since life might be understood as precisely that which exceeds any account we may try to give it" (43).

Before I proceed to discuss the ways in which the contemporary debates about moral personhood can be re-thought in light of Butler's notion of the ethical posture, we must come to understand exactly what grounds our ethical relation to others, what propels such a response of "letting be" or "letting live." What, indeed, accounts for this suspension of judgment when cultural and discursive forces would seem to propel us towards judgment? For Butler, the ethical posture arises out of recognition of our mutual—that is, our collective—vulnerability to norms: we are all intelligible, coherent subjects in virtue of the norms that we perpetuate. And, insofar as we are subjected to norms, we are always on the brink of unintelligibility, of being rendered non-subjects in the shifting discourse of what counts as the normative human. We are, says Butler, physically dependent and physically vulnerable to one another (Butler 2004, 27). To understand this relation of vulnerability, though, is not simply to understand relationality and interdependence as it has been discussed in much feminist literature. Rather, this relationality expresses a much more vital concern, one which governs the very possibility of our existence in relation to other subjects who act through and perpetuate normative systems (ibid.). Vulnerability is not (only) a lived condition, but a condition of living. The ethical posture consists, then, in the recognition of our vulnerability to norms and to the normative system.

The Risk of Normative Theories of Justice

I have explicated Butler's ideas about how to re-think the human as constituted through and by norms, rather than as a being with a prediscursive existence, ideas earlier expressed in Foucault's philosophy that have been taken up within philosophy of disability and disability studies (for example, Allen 2005; Tremain 2001, 2002; 2010). These ideas are not uncontroversial. To suggest that determinations of who, or what, counts as human are in fact discursively produced is to dispute that there exists a sense of human that can be found out or qualified definitively. 11 According to this view, our notions of what counts as human are, therefore, not closer and closer approximations of the truth of what it is to be human and what features humans as political creatures (or otherwise) possess, but rather are normative expressions of liveable or intelligible lives. To focus, therefore, on the creation of a concrete normative theory to address injustice and inequality is to risk performing the sorts of exclusions that social justice aims to eliminate. The notion of equality itself seems to involve an "ideal of impossible inclusiveness: who is included among those who might make the claim to equality? What kinds of issues undermine the very possibility of certain groups making such a claim?" (Butler, in Ladagga 1997, 5). What possibilities for life have we closed off when we imagine inclusion? Butler writes that "there is no polity, no sociality, no field of the political without certain kinds of exclusions having already been made—constitutive exclusions that produce a constitutive outside to any idea of inclusiveness" (ibid.). Democracy's task, it would seem, is not to abide a normative theory of justice, but rather "to keep open any given universalization of content" (10). This openness acknowledges the risk of normative erasure and potentially enables the recognition of new forms of human expression.

I have argued that philosophers should confront the "risk" involved in normative theorizing about justice and moral status, even as they acknowledge the simultaneous necessity of doing such theorizing. Yet, it seems an impossible task: How can one simultaneously confront the realities and practicalities of moral questions and legal policies and suspend moral judgments, that is, and avoid drawing conclusions? Indeed, Nussbaum (1999) finds this latter suggestion infuriating. She argues that Butler is "adamantly opposed" to normative notions of human dignity, something that Nussbaum attributes to Butler's argument according to which we should take up what emerges in the political struggle, rather than form a normative theory in advance. Nussbaum claims that addressing social injustice involves "discussing which liberties and opportunities human beings ought to have, and what it is for social institutions to treat human beings as ends rather than as means—in short, a normative theory of social justice and human dignity" (42). Thus, Nussbaum regards Butler's resistance to "a normative theory of social justice" as evidence of her "moral passivity" (ibid.): her failure to distinguish between resistance that is conservative and resistance that is subversive. I take the disagreement between Nussbaum and Butler to concern what modes of social justice work look like. For Nussbaum, the movement toward justice consists in a prescribed normative theory, one which articulates clearly which norms should count as good and which norms should count as bad (43). However, Butler's view of social justice work is quite different than Nussbaum's view. For one thing, Butler (like Foucault) regards norms as neither bad nor good, but rather as always both potentially liberating and potentially oppressive. Furthermore, although Butler sees concrete coalition work, political struggle, and legal judgment as necessary (see Butler 2005, 45), she situates her understanding and view of social justice elsewhere: not in a normative theory, but rather in normative contestation. To hold fast to a normative theory of justice is to ignore, neglect, or overlook a whole range of alternative norms that enable and constrain who will count within that theory: "justice [is] not only or exclusively a matter of how persons are treated, how societies are constituted, but also emerges in the quite consequential decision about what a person is, what social norms must be honored and expressed for personhood to become allocated" (Butler 2001, 622). For Butler, social justice demands ongoing critique that extends even to such important normative theories as Nussbaum's.

I think it easy to see why a scholar—such as Nussbaum—who is so concerned with social justice (as formulated within normative theories of inclusion and equality) would find Butler's contentions frustrating. Butler seems to be, as Jodi Dean (2005) worries, avoiding politics, avoiding condemnation of the bad and praise of the good. Where Nussbaum accuses Butler of a "naively empty politics," though, Dean regards Butler's position as "a politics of avoidance." The trouble, for Dean, is that Butler does not give us the tools that we need to deal with people who would reject her ethics, who would reject her interpretation of social justice (64). Dean's critique of Butler is certainly more friendly than is Nussbaum's, but it nevertheless points to a challenge in our reception of Butler's politics. The challenge consists in our desire for a politics that expresses or points to clear action, action that can be called transformative and ameliorative. I am not sure we can find such direction for action so clearly in Butler. Rather, Butler's sense of politics reminds us that our actions are, to recall Foucault, always dangerous, always both potentially liberating and potentially oppressive (Foucault 1997, 256). This position should not, however, lead to apathy, but to what Foucault calls a "hyper- and pessimistic activism" (ibid.). What Butler's politics does for us, then, is suggest a way in which to challenge normative theories, acknowledging that regardless of how practically necessary they may be to us, they always involve conditions that exclude. We can recognize that the human "comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know" (Butler 2004, 49).

Humanity, Vulnerability, and the Contestation of Moral Personhood

How, then, might we helpfully and productively perform this sort of challenge against normative theories that describe what justice looks like for people with intellectual disabilities? Are philosophers wrong to seek to establish clear normative grounds for inclusion and equality on the basis of moral status? To help us answer this question, let us consider the following story of social exclusion from Wong (2007): A professor and his class gather for a field trip that involves taking a bus, which is supposed to come equipped with a wheelchair lift so that the one student who uses a wheelchair will be able to take the same bus as his classmates. But the driver of the bus says that the lift is broken and that the student who uses a wheelchair must wait for the next bus to come. The rest of the students leave on the first bus for the trip, leaving behind the one student, who misses most of the trip because the second bus is late. For Wong, this illustrates a certain insensitivity on the part of the students, an insensitivity that betrays a lack of the civic virtue of solidarity that would require them to remain with their peer and wait for the second bus. We might say, in fact, that these students call into question the moral status or equality of their peer insofar as they leave him behind. Wong argues that it is not enough to look to the law to create just institutions and just social arrangements; rather, we need to cultivate the civic virtue of solidarity with people with disabilities (583). In short, Wong prescribes a mode of social engagement and possibly protest that would change individuals' orientation toward disability and inclusion.

It seems like this is an important moment of political contestation, and I am certain that Butler would applaud such moments of solidarity. Nevertheless, there are two important ways in which this sort of political resistance is precarious as means of achieving social justice. First and briefly, Butler cautions that the same norms that find meaning in the law also take shape in our individual beliefs and individual modes of relating to one another (see Butler 1999, 20). That is, such civic virtues of solidarity could also lead to a normalizing and excluding politics, when, for example, particular cultural values find residence in socially promoted virtues, values such as unity and sameness that can undermine expressions of difference. Second, the resistance to a political structure upholds, rather than troubles, the normative conditions under which determinations of exclusion—of who counts as incapable of voting, for instance—are made; it challenges the manifestation of the exclusion, not the exclusionary process itself. Thus, in addition to contesting qualifying conditions—the conditions that suggest inclusion or exclusion—we need to contest the normative or discursive conditions of those decisions, decisions that delineate belonging and recognition. This demands not (only) civic virtues, but rather the recognition of our mutual vulnerability as subjects in norms. To contest the very normative or discursive conditions of qualifying conditions is, therefore, to contest the conditions of our own potential erasure. In a discussion of this ethical posture, Joris Vlieghe (2010) writes:

[W]hereas traditional philosophy is obsessed with the problem of legitimating our moral obligations towards others and the community by grounding them in a kind of positive essence of what it means to be human or belong to a community, Butler argues that it is precisely the negative experience of the radical lack of any such ground that guarantees moral and communal bindings. (158)

This juxtaposition of the traditionalist philosophical approach to debates about moral status with the Butlerian view of our moral and political connections as grounded in radical vulnerability and normative dependence expresses exactly the way in which our view of moral personhood ought to shift to reflect new grounds of moral obligation and responsibility. It is important, though, to be reminded that this dependence on others, that is, this vulnerability to others, does not have to be understood as subordination (Oliver 2000, 40). Rather, Vlieghe (2010) suggests that it is precisely in our communal sense of being "beside ourselves," of seeing the vulnerable other in us, of witnessing our own potential normative erasure, that we can know ourselves to be equal to others (161). This, then, is the "equalizing experience" of vulnerability. To grant someone the status of human being "is not so much a matter of giving them permission as just letting them be as human" (Siebers 2009, 93).

I would argue that grounding a view of moral personhood in this equalizing experience of vulnerability moves us to an entirely new and important understanding of "the human," one which rests not on qualifying conditions or thresholds of ability, but rather on the responsibility that we have to each other as normatively vulnerable beings. I contend that feminist philosophers and philosophers of disability could stand to learn from this ethical posture in their efforts to imagine a more just view of social obligations to people with intellectual disabilities. I am not, however, arguing that we must abandon debates surrounding moral status and moral personhood, but rather that we approach them with an eye to understanding how our theorizing performs a normative violence of its own precisely through the closure and finitude involved in the delineation of qualifying conditions of "the human" or "person." Certainly we must acknowledge the practical necessity of making ethical decisions, defending moral attitudes, or indeed acting in the service of politics. If we view these as tentative, even precarious, social justice efforts, however, we may come to acknowledge that the concept of the human is "a work in progress" (Siebers 2009, 92).

I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and guest editor Shelley Tremain for her careful attention in preparing this paper for publication.


  • "Remarks on the Murder of George Hodgins." Autism Self Advocacy Network (March 16, 2012). Available at autisticadvocacy.org/2012/03/remarks-on-the-murder-of-george-hodgins/. Accessed on August 18, 2012.
  • Allen, Barry. 2005. "Foucault's Nominalism." In Foucault and the Government of Disability, edited by Shelley Tremain, 93-107. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Asch, Adrienne. 1999. "Prenatal Diagnosis and Selective Abortion: A Challenge to Practice and Policy," American Journal of Public Health 89 (11):1649-1657.
  • Benhabib, Seyla, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell and Nancy Fraser. 1995. Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. New York: Routledge.
  • Bérubé, Michael. 2010. "Equality, Freedom, and/or Justice for All: A Response to Martha Nussbaum." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 97-110. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Bogdan, Robert, and Douglas Biklen. 1977. "Handicapism." Social Policy 7 (5):14-19.
  • Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
  • ———. 2001. "Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7 (4):621-636.
  • ———. 2004. Precarious Life. London: Verso Books.
  • ———. 2005. Giving An Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.
  • Carlson, Licia. 2010. The Faces of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Carlson, Licia, and Eva Feder Kittay. 2010. "Introduction: Rethinking Philosophical Presumptions in Light of Cognitive Disability." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 1-26. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Chambers, Samuel A. 2007. "Normative Violence after 9/11: Rereading the Politics of Gender Trouble." New Political Science 29 (1):43-60.
  • Cureton, Adam. 2008. "A Rawlsian Perspective on Justice for the Disabled." In Essays in Philosophy 9 (1). Available at: http://commons.pacificu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1291&context=eip. Accessed on: August 5, 2013.
  • Dean, Jodi. 2005. "The Politics of Avoidance: The Limits of Weak Ontology." The Hedgehog Review 7 (2):55-65.
  • Docherty, Daniel, Richard Hughes, Patricia Phillips, David Corbett, Brendan Regan, Andrew Barber, Michael Adams, Kathy Boxall, Ian Kaplan, Shayma Izzidien. 2010. "This is What We Think." In The Disability Studies Reader, Third edition, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 432-440. New York: Routledge.
  • Erevelles, Nirmala. 2011. "The Color of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race, and Disability in Wartime." In Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, 117-135. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1997. "On the Genealogy of Ethic" In Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, 253-280. New York: The New Press.
  • Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • ———. 2006. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." In The Disability Studies Reader, Second Edition, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 257-274. New York: Taylor & Francis.
  • Gross, Zoe. April 10, 2012. "Killing Words." Autism Self Advocacy Network. Available at autisticadvocacy.org/2012/04/killing-words/. Accessed on August 18, 2012.
  • Hall, Kim Q. 2011. "An Introduction." In Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, 1-10. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Johnson, Mary. 2003. Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the Case Against Disability Rights. Louisville, KY: The Avocado Press.
  • Kennedy, Michael J. 994. "The Disability Blanket." Mental Retardation 32 (1):74-76.
  • Kittay, Eva Feder. 2002. "When Caring Is Just and Justice Is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation." In The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder, 256-276. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • ———. 2010. "The Personal Is Philosophical Is Political: A Philosopher and Mother of a Cognitively Disabled Person Sends Notes from the Battlefield." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 393-413. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Kittay, Eva Feder, Bruce Jennings, and Angela A. Wasunna. 2005. "Dependency, Difference and the Global Ethic of Longterm Care." Journal of Political Philosophy 13 (4):443-469.
  • Laddaga, Reinaldo, ed. 1997. "The Uses of Equality." An Exchange between Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau. Diacritics 27 (1):2-12.
  • Lamp, Sharon, and W. Carol Cleigh. 2011. "A Heritage of Ableist Rhetoric in American Feminism from the Eugenics Period." In Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, 175-190. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Lanoix, Monique. 2007. "The Citizen in Question." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 22 (4):113-129.
  • Linton, Simi. 1998. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Lloyd, Moya. 2007. "What Makes for A Liveable Life?" In Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • McGuire, Anne. 2010. "Disability, Non-Disability and The Politics of Mourning: ReConceiving the 'We'." Disability Studies Quarterly 30 (3/4):14-14.
  • McMahan, Jeff. 2010. "Cognitive Disability and Cognitive Enhancement." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 345-368. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence." In The Disability Studies Reader 2nd Edition, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 301-308. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
  • Mills, Charles W. April, 2011. "The Political Economy of Personhood." On the Human blog. http://onthehuman.org/2011/04/political-economy-of-personhood/#n2 Accessed on August 19, 2012.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 1999. "The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler." The New Republic 220 (8):37-45.
  • ———. 2006. Frontiers of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
  • ———. 2010. "The Capabilities of People with Cognitive Disabilities." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 75-95. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Oliver, Kelly. 2000. "Beyond Recognition: Witnessing Ethics." Philosophy Today 44 (1):31-43.
  • Rapley, Mark. 2004. The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rawls, John. 1971/1999. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
  • ———. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • ———. 2001. Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
  • Samuels, Ellen. 2011. "Critical Divides: Judith Butler's Body Theory and the Question of Disability." In Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, 48-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Schweik, Susan M. 2009. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York University.
  • Shapiro, Joseph P. 1993. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Siebers, Tobin. 2009. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Singer, Peter. 2010. "Speciesism and Moral Status." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 331-344. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Stubblefield, Anna. 2007. "'Beyond the Pale:' Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 22 (2): 162-181.
  • ———. 2010. "The Entanglement of Race and Cognitive Dis/ability." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 293-314. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Tremain, Shelley. 2001. "On the Government of Disability." Social Theory and Practice 27 (4):617-636.
  • ———. 2002. "On the Subject of Impairment." In Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory, edited by Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare, 32-47. London: Continuum Press.
  • ———. 2005. "Foucault, Governmentality, and Critical Disability Theory: An Introduction." In Foucault and the Government of Disability, edited by Shelley Tremain. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • ———. 2006. "Reproductive Freedom, Self-Regulation, and the Government of Impairment in Utero." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 21 (1):35-53.
  • ———. 2010. "Biopower, Styles of Reasoning, and What's Still Missing From the Stem Cell Debates." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 25 (3):577-609.
  • Vlieghe, Joris. 2010. "Judith Butler and the Public Dimension of the Body: Education, Critique and Corporeal Vulnerability." Journal of Philosophy of Education 44 (1):153-170.
  • Webster, Fiona. 2000. "The Politics of Sex and Gender: Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 15 (1):1-22.
  • Wendell, Susan. 1996. The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge.
  • Wong, Sophia. 2007. "The Moral Personhood of Individuals Labelled 'Mentally Retarded': A Rawlsian Response to Nussbaum." Social Theory and Practice 33 (4):579-594.
  • ———. 2010. "Duties of Justice to Citizens with Cognitive Disabilities." In Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Licia Carlson, 127-146. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ashley Taylor is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University. Her work intersects disability studies, feminist philosophy and theory, political philosophy and philosophy of education, and critical whiteness studies. Her dissertation research looks at how people with intellectual disabilities are constructed through and marginalized by existing philosophical frameworks of democratic education and proposes an alternative model grounded in the critical insights of disability studies and feminist epistemology. Ashley teaches educational foundations and gender and women's studies and enjoys being part of a campus community that celebrates disability and inclusion.


  1. I refer to people "labelled with intellectual disabilities" in order to call attention to this category or classification "intellectual disability" as a disputed construction (see Carlson, 2010; Linton, 1998; Rapley, 2004). I will henceforth refer to "people with intellectual disabilities" but encourage readers to keep this theoretical orientation in mind.
    Return to Text
  2. See, for example, Gross 2012; Docherty et al., 2010; Kennedy, 1994.
    Return to Text
  3. See Bérubé, 2010; Kittay, 2002, 2010.
    Return to Text
  4. "Cognitive disability" is a term used by many philosophers. For the purposes of this paper, I use intellectual disability and cognitive disability interchangeably.
    Return to Text
  5. Kittay and Carlson's (2010) edited volume Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy contains a number of chapters that describe and continue this debate.
    Return to Text
  6. There is some disagreement about whether this consequence of Rawls' theory is necessarily harmful to or problematic for people with cognitive disabilities. See Wong (2007, 2010; Cureton 2008.
    Return to Text
  7. However, Nussbaum (2006, 181) does suggest that some individuals may be said to lack "a characteristic human form of life."
    Return to Text
  8. It is important to note that for Mills whether one has the moral status of a person is ultimately an objective or, in poststructuralist terms, a pre-discursive fact; that is, it is not a product of social convention (see Mills, 2011, fn. ii). This, as we will see, differs considerably from Butler's view. The question of whether moral status is an objective fact or discursive formation (or something else) is the subject of much philosophical debate that I cannot explore here. See also endnote 11 below.
    Return to Text
  9. See Samuels (2011) for further discussion of Butler's work as applied to disability.
    Return to Text
  10. It is also, I would argue, clearly represented in the much-discussed case of the so-called "Ashley Treatment." See Hall 2011; Lamp and Cleigh 2011.
    Return to Text
  11. This position differs significantly from those who contend that moral status is ultimately objective and not a product of social convention or discourse. For more on this debate regarding the subject in feminism, see the debate between Butler and Seyla Benhabib in Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, and Fraser (1995). See also Webster 2000.
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page