Nature, Ability, and Value

Perhaps nowhere do the great philosophical issues of civilization become more evident than in how society treats the disabled.

Take the current obsession with the notion of the “natural”, for instance. Human civilization is repeatedly criticized for being unnatural; the natural world is taken to be morally superior. But what would be the fate of a disabled individual in this supposedly desirable state of nature? The answer is simple: death. A disability such as blindness or abasia (the inability to walk) is, in evolutionary terms, a distinct disadvantage. The disabled individual performs its tasks less well, and will therefore be eliminated from the gene pool via natural selection. Life is perpetual competition, and value is derived solely from the ability to outcompete others.

Many who promote “natural” values would be horrified by the prospect of letting the disabled die; this points to the philosophical errors that are at the very core of a great deal of Green ideology. Nature is neither kind nor balanced; to the degree that capital-N Nature is even a useful concept at all, it is a process characterized by violence and randomness.

A common attempt at asserting the value of disabled people is to emphasize alternate forms of ability through euphemisms such as “differently abled”. Apart from the political consequences of this approach, which I’ve written about before, we must also consider its philosophical foundations. To put the emphasis on ability – even if it takes an alternate form – is to maintain the very “natural” logic so many would otherwise reject. After all, it is to argue that value is still derived from ability, which in turn implies that those without ability are without value. It is a more inclusive definition, but it changes nothing about the logic of brutal competition at the heart of this philosophy. As such, it is not surprising that it has been taken up widely by those representing the socially liberal part of capitalism, which seeks wider inclusion of a diverse workforce without altering the material relations at the system’s core.

(This is particularly important when we consider those who, for a variety of reasons, are genuinely and fully disabled, unable to produce value. Their stories are ignored in favour of more convenient stories of exceptional individuals.)

What is the proper origin of value, then? I would argue that the most foundational characteristic of human society’s understanding of value is that it is not based on ability, but is considered to be intrinsic. We do not choose to help disabled individuals because they are somehow useful, but because we assert that all human beings are inherently valuable. We take care of the old, the disabled, the sick, because we assert that it is the right thing to do, because it is the kind of world we want to live in, not because we hope to get something out of it. In other words, the basis of civilization is a rejection of Nature’s endless and meaningless optimization of the gene pool to fit constantly shifting parameters.

Capitalism, of course, takes society back towards the very logic we had rejected. In this lies both its tremendous creative and disruptive power, which undid the staid hierarchies of feudalism and drove forward human thought and productivity, and its terrible danger, which we see now as the competing factions threaten to eradicate civilization and perhaps even the species itself. Like Nature, capitalism is perpetual competition, characterized by violence and randomness, and measures value in terms that contradict the essence of civilization. This is why it is impossible to fight for the rights of disabled individuals in cultural terms; to do so will only improve the chances of those with exceptional abilities (as measured in the ability to generate a profit) to rise to the top of a system that rejects the very notion of intrinsic value.

If, philosophically speaking, we do not wish to return to a state of nature, but to continue the great human project that is civilization, the struggle for the rights of the disabled is an essential part of that project; but it is a struggle that can only be won by seizing conscious control of the system, as we once seized control of the natural environment in a way no other species had before, and asserting the inherent value of all human beings not only in cultural, but material terms. Socialism, then, is not only a political necessity, but also a philosophical one.