Here’s a must-read interview with Chris Sciabarra at Folks magazine, on Sciabarra’s lifelong struggle with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, along with his lifelong attachment to the work of Ayn Rand (and Nathaniel Branden).
One doesn’t usually think of Rand or Objectivism as offering much insight into the nature of disability, but Chris clearly does:
But she also helped you deal with your health issues?
Not only her work, but the work of her protégé, the late psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who became a personal friend of mine. He was known by many as the “father of the self-esteem movement.”
What did you take away from them?
Growing up, I had learned various “survival techniques” to deal with severe health problems; writing in a daily diary from age 11 was one way of articulating my thoughts and feelings. Therapeutically, it helped me not to wallow in self-pity. I learned the importance of seeing myself as a bundle of abilities and possibilities, in spite of a disability. In later years, their work helped me to understand the genuine importance that self-esteem plays in valuing our self-worth and our ability to rise above obstacles. It certainly gave intellectual weight to the old adage that with every closed door, a window opens—even if you have to kick it out to breathe freely.
That seems plausible enough to me. And valuable, as well.
That said, Objectivism does present a few odd and interesting puzzles about disability. On the one hand, one can, from the first-person perspective, learn the valuable lessons from Objectivism that Sciabarra teaches here: the lessons of graceful self-acceptance, as well as acceptance of one’s situation. Sciabarra is himself a breathtaking exemplar in this respect. I often find when I talk to him–almost always after his latest medical procedure, and after my latest romantic fiasco–that I’m the one with the whining complaints, and he’s the one with the cheerful sense of equanimity. A useful division of labor in any true friendship.
On the other hand, however, Rand and Objectivists have little time or energy to spare on disability from a third-person perspective, whether as a topic or as a phenomenon: given the way the so-called “benevolent universe premise” is often interpreted,* Objectivists regard disability as a “marginal” issue; because they do, they don’t think it requires much thought or attention. Given that, disability plays no important role in Objectivist ethical or social theory. If you ask how the disabled would fare in the ideal Objectivist society, the answer turns out to be that it doesn’t much matter, for they don’t much matter; but fear not, because in the end, things turn out all right for them.
How’s that? Well, for one thing, given the “benevolent universe premise” there aren’t enough disabled people out there to worry about. Yes, there are some, but given the benevolence of the universe, there can’t be all that many: human life is not (as Rand once put it) “one huge hospital.” Indeed, fixation on what we’re to do about the suffering of the poor or unfortunate is a sure sign of a malevolent sense of life–of a perverse desire to wallow in the messed-up and macabre.
Further, to the extent that there are disabled people out there, their needs are, as a matter of principle, an afterthought to the needs of the able: because the disabled depend for their very existence on the able, the needs of the able have to be our primary concern, whether theoretically or practically. The reverse procedure–of making the disabled our primary concern–would presumably lead to catastrophe for all concerned.
One implication of this view is that it’s a mistake to do normative theory behind a veil of ignorance, a la Rawls in A Theory of Justice, worrying about one’s place in the social lottery, worrying about how that place might adversely be affected by misfortune, or worrying about special principles to deal with it. Contra Rawls (and in an interestingly different way, contra Alasdair MacIntyre), Objectivists theorize in perfectionist vein, as though fashioning a society of supermen without disabilities of any kind; the best sort of society is one geared to the needs of–that facilitates, enables, privileges–the highest peaks of human achievement. In other words, the best society is one in which the most able are the least constrained. Given the dependence of the disabled on the able (and ultimately, on the super-able), the rising tide of ability will lift all boats. That makes the disabled better off than they would otherwise have been, and they can expect no more than that.
Put another way: since the able are normatively primary, production is normatively primary. Since production is primary, property rights are paramount. Since property rights are a species of rights, and rights are “contextually absolute” restrictions on the encroachments of others, property rights demand respect of a sort incompatible with, say, positive rights to health care or redistribution.
Though this arrangement might seem to disadvantage the disabled–it doesn’t obviously seem to be in their egoistic interests to refuse a right to medical assistance–given the “non-conflicts-of-interest” principle, that can’t be: the arrangement that best benefits the able (qua human) has to be identical to the one that best benefits the disabled (qua human).** Ultimately, then, things are better off for everyone in a world designed along Objectivist lines; indeed, things have to be better off for everyone of conceptual necessity, as the “non-conflicts-of-interests” principle implies. The principle asserts that the rational interests of rational beings acting rationally can’t conflict. Assume ex hypothesi that it’s true. Well, the able are capable of rationality, and so are the disabled; if they exercise their rationality, they have to see that their interests coincide. Granted, this coincidence of interests happens to put the needs of the able before those of the disabled, but doing so (according to Objectivism) is precisely what the interests of the disabled require.
I suspect that those hostile to Objectivism will be inclined to ignore Sciabarra, dismissing him as some sort of eccentric–a benevolent eccentric, to be sure, but still, an eccentric. Meanwhile, those sympathetic to Objectivism will be inclined to use Sciabarra’s testimony as a vindication of Objectivist doctrine, Sciabarra’s very real virtues functioning as evidence for the truth of the doctrine.
It seems to me that there’s another approach to take: take Sciabarra seriously as drawing attention to one very real aspect of Objectivism, an aspect that explains why people have been attracted to it despite what non-Objectivists have regarded as its fundamental absurdity or eccentricity. But take the underlying issues he raises seriously enough to acknowledge the tensions that, on reflection, arise within Objectivism when it comes to disability. I don’t mean to suggest that the tensions are irresolvable, or that the Objectivist Ethics is straightforwardly false. I just mean to suggest that the tensions are there, require resolution, and can’t be wished away.
It almost sounds like fodder for a dialectical inquiry. Oh the irony.
*A standard formulation of the benevolent universe premise holds that “human success and happiness are the metaphysical norm,” both teleologically and statistically; failure and misery are the deviation from that norm, whether arising from vice, error, incapacity, or misfortune. A much weaker formulation of the principle might hold that there are conditions such that human success and happiness are both conceptually and nomologically possible under them–a claim one might endorse without committing to further claims about the instantiation of the relevant conditions, or committing to claims about the likelihood or frequency of human flourishing under them.
**The underlying assumption is that there is one ideal social system for all human beings qua human, regardless of their abilities or states of disability.