Code: TP-20

Consequences of Reason:  Philosophical Roots of Dehumanization and a

Pragmatic Response

Western philosophy has long been a tool of human liberation.  From the potential goodness of human nature voiced by Aristotle, to the autonomy of the rational agent of Kant, to the celebration of human dignity by the 20th century American and European philosophers, the Western tradition has embraced the human ability to thrive and progress.  However, there is another side to our philosophies--one that often rejects rather than accepts certain elements of human existence.

The claim that Western philosophy has been a source of discrimination against various groups would come as no surprise to many contemporary thinkers.  Feminists, postmodernists, pragmatists, and critical race theorists have long argued that much of our tradition excludes women and people of non-European-descended races and nationalities.  One group that falls prey to philosophically grounded discrimination, perhaps even more so than others, has received less attention.  This group is people with mental retardation.

In this essay, I will discuss philosophical moral theory from the point of view of people with developmental disabilities.  Specifically, I will explore the idea that the focus of ethics (both historical and contemporary) on rationality as the main necessary requirement of moral agency has contributed to the widespread dehumanization of people who are seen to lack this ability.  While many psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers have written about discrimination against people with mental retardation, few have critically discussed our philosophical traditions of rationality as accomplices to dehumanization.  Finally, I will offer a pragmatic alternative to historical and contemporary moral theory that relates moral engagement not to reason alone, but to relationships, growth, education, emotion, and the habituated ability to care for others.  This view of moral engagement not only redescribes morality as more inclusive (and probably accurate), but could serve to improve our understanding (as philosophers, citizens, family members, and friends) of people whose dignity our traditions have long denied.

I.  Consequences of Reason

In his book, Inventing the Feeble Mind, James Trent  presents a history of institutions for the retarded that includes horrible accounts of prison-like conditions, complete with chains, cells, and abuse. [1]   Such accounts permeate the recent history of our culture.  In their tour of American mental retardation institutions in the late sixties, Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplin reported that people, most of whom were capable of learning, growing, and having qualitative life experience and relationships, were forced to live in dire circumstances.  They write:

Several things strike the visitor to most institutions for the mentally retarded upon his arrival.  Often there are fences.  Sometimes with barbed wire.  Frequently the buildings impress him with their massiveness and impenetrability.  We have observed bars on windows and locks--many locks--on inside as well as outside doors.@ [2]

Blatt and Kaplin also reported about and photographed places where Ainmates@ were kept naked, sterilized, shackled, and in solitary confinement.  All were placed by relatives and communities who sought to protect them.  Clifford Drew, Donald Logan, and Michael Hardman report that as recently as 1983, 15 states had statutes authorizing compulsory sterilization of people with mental retardation or mental illness. [3]

Though Trent reports that conditions have improved in recent years, people with mental retardation still battle discrimination and dehumanization, especially as they move from institutions to community homes in neighborhoods.  As philosophers, we might ask how much our theories in ethics have contributed to this dehumanization.

II.  Philosophical Roots of Dehumanization

It is not difficult to find examples of discrimination based on reason in Western philosophy.  Aristotle famously proclaims in his Politics "As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live." [4]    Since this follows Aristotle's admonition against pregnant women exercising intellectually (lest they harm their unborn children), we might assume that Aristotle was particularly worried about the rational, as well as the physical, form of children.  Rationality, after all, is the facilitator of practical reason and the controller of proper emotion.  In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents a view of eudaimonia that has intelligence at its core, since this is what brings humans closer to the divine.  Though, as philosophers, we might agree on the merits of a contemplative life, Aristotle's claim that human goodness is tied to "theoretical wisdom" contributes to a chain of being that has rationality closest to the divine--a worldview that has heavily influenced Western thought. [5]   Perhaps even the word "retarded," today often replaced by the phrase "developmental disabilities," carries with it an Aristotelian teleology--rationality is the norm of completeness and to be retarded is to be held back from this norm.

The connection between goodness, godliness, and rationality made its way into historical religious beliefs, as well.  In reconstructing this historical legacy, Wolf Wolfensberger reports that Martin Luther was a prime culprit in the mistreatment of those who are less able to express traditional human reason. [6]   Luther met and Agrappled@ with a boy of twelve with mental retardation who Ahad use of all his senses,@ but who Adrooled@ and Ascreamed.@  Luther=s response was this:

So I said to the Prince of Anhalt: >if I were the Prince, I should take this child to the Moldau River which flows near Dessau and drown him.=  But the Prince of Anhalt and the Prince of Saxony, who happened to be present, refused to follow my advice.  Thereupon I said: >Well, then the Christians shall order the Lord=s Prayer to be said in church and pray that the dear Lord take the Devil away.= [7]

Wolfensberger claims that Luther=s recommendation was based on the assumption that a Achangeling,@ lacking in God-given reason, had no soul.  AFor it is the Devil=s power,@ Luther asserted, Athat he corrupts people who have reason and souls when he possesses them.  The Devil sits in such changelings where their soul should have been!@ [8]   This child, for Luther, was not even human, for humanity (ensoulment) must be expressed through rationality.  This child was, as Luther suggested, evil--a "menace."

Though Immanuel Kant attempted to move away from religion in developing his moral philosophy, he offers perhaps the quintessential example of rational agency equaling moral goodness.  Second only to a good will, and, in fact, essential to a good will, is reason.  Without reason, in Kant's view, one is incapable of acting morally--that is, to contribute to a good will as an end in itself.  In fact, the rational nature of (most) humans, for Kant, guarantees universality and thus, becomes the actual end we ought to protect.  In Kant's practical imperative (to treat all of humanity as an end in itself), one might wonder whether "humanity" actually includes all humans, or only those capable of the logic of the categorical imperative.  Furthermore, Kant is clear that the good will comes only from reason, and not from emotion:

...there are many persons who are so sympathetically constituted that, without any further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find an inner pleasure in spreading joy around them and can rejoice in the satisfaction of others as their own work.  But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth. [9]

Moral worth comes from the cultivation of a good will through universal human rationality.  While Kant most clearly presents the case for making rationality a necessary condition for morality, this view can be found in most major moral philosophies.  John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism, for example, also requires abstract reasoning for the calculation of the good when weighing alternative actions.

            As much as we might like to distance ourselves in the 21st century from the likes of Kant and Mill, this reliance on reason as the foundation of moral agency still directs much of our moral philosophy.  John Rawls co-opts a Kantian view of human rationality in describing a moral agent who must think in terms of the impartiality of his or her actions.  While the veil of ignorance might protect a person with mental retardation, the logical process involved in Rawls' system denies many people moral agency.  Likewise, Alan Donagan writes, "The theory of morality is a theory of a system of laws or precepts, binding upon rational creatures as such, the content of which is ascertainable by human reason." [10]

This is not to say that philosophers are not cognizant of the dehumanization of people with developmental disabilities (at least by the legal and social traditions of contemporary society, if not their own theories).  Bernard Gert uses his rationality-based theory of ethics to discuss the wrongness, in most cases, of aversive behavioral techniques for clinicians working with people with mental retardation.  However, Gert and his coauthors George Singer and Robert L. Koegel are clear that these people are "moral patients," who, like children, are worthy of our protection, but not themselves capable of moral deliberation.  Gert, Singer, and Koegel suggest that while people with mental retardation ought to be protected by unethical treatment, moral agency requires a higher level of understanding that might exclude children and "those adult human beings who may lack the intellectual or volitional capacity to be moral agents." [11]   At best, we must teach people to "behave consistent with the moral rules," [12] without understanding.   Because they lack a certain level of rationality (narrowly defined), people with developmental disabilities simply are not moral agents.  This is certainly not the paranoia of Luther, since people with mental retardation are worthy of moral protection, but they are still not included as full members of a moral community.

III.  A Pragmatic Response

            In criticizing the history of moral philosophy, I am not suggesting that Kant's theory or Rawls' theory are inadequate simply because people with mental retardation are not seen as capable of practicing the categorical imperative or the veil of ignorance.  On the contrary, I am asserting that these theories, which claim some kind of universality, do not adequately account for the whole of human experience.

Perhaps part of the problem here is the idea of moral agency, itself.  Static and based on a fixed set of rational principles, contemporary theories of moral reasoning cannot account for the fact that people with mental retardation can and do often lead morally rich lives in community with others (and, conversely, that many people with high IQ-tested rationality lead morally corrupt lives).  A pragmatic description of  emotional, "moral engagement" and habituated caring (with contributions from contemporary feminist moral theory, perhaps) offers an alternative view of ethical theory that embraces the diversity of human life and reminds philosophers that we Western logical thinkers are not the only folks who are capable of living well.  It also accounts for the fact that, as we shall see, people with developmental disabilities can and do seek moral engagement, self-advocacy, and rich human relationships.

There is a growing interest in psychology in "emotional intelligence" as a moral foundation.  In his 1995 book by that name, Daniel Goleman resolves what he terms "Aristotle's challenge" (how to use our emotions intelligently) by focusing not on rationality measured by an IQ test, but on emotional intelligence measured by social prowess. [13]   Ronald L. Zigler suggests that while Goleman's theory is important, it was anticipated much earlier in the century by John Dewey (and, I will add, George Herbert Mead and Jane Addams).  The pragmatists' focus on situational and relational moral deliberation, the development of character within social environments, and the importance of social caring to one's character, one's relationship with others, and one's social environment, describes a moral theory that embraces, rather than excludes, the rich emotional lives of people embedded in communities.  This pluralism leaves room for (and is contributed to by) the relationships of people with diverse kinds of intelligences.

That what many ethicists call the moral agent is not an isolated, atomic, rational individual who deemphasizes caring (as Kant suggests) to promote well-reasoned actions can be seen in the work of Mead in his conception of the social self.  In this theory, Mead accounts for both the activity and the evolution of individuals through an elaborate social environment that includes both interactive communication and reflection.  As a child grows, she takes her place within a world of interaction where she gradually begins to see herself and her behavior as separate from others.  This does not happen as a result of individuals coming together to make up a social group; rather, it happens when individuals emerge out of the social group.  Mead writes:

The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process. [14]

In this theory, moral behavior is a process of growing and learning, and is not a matter of imposed rules, lofty ideals, or the primacy of theory.  It is what is practiced from within the social situation.  The early feminist-pragmatist Jane Addams writes, ATo attain individual morality in an age demanding social morality, to pride one=s self on the results of personal effort when the time demands social adjustment, is utterly to fail to apprehend the situation.@ [15]

Likewise, Dewey's philosophy emphasizes the social nature of morality.  In Aristotelian fashion, Dewey rejects antecedentaly established universal rules and principles, favoring instead a moral philosophy that focuses on the health of habits and character developed within a social environment.  In fact, it is Dewey's concept of habit that Zigler claims is the precursor to Goleman's theory of emotional intelligence. [16]   In Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey describes habits as the means by which we act--the predisposition toward certain responses that are themselves shaped by other habits.  Dewey states:

We may think of habits as means, waiting, like tools in a box to be used by conscious resolve.  But they are something more than that.  They are active means, means that project themselves, energetic and dominating ways of acting. [17]

As active means, habits take on the most vital importance in a theory of moral conduct.   Habits in collection lead to a more general tendency to act according to experience--a continuity of response to various social stimuli that develops into character.  Our decisions, as well as our character, depend on our experience in a variety of such social situations.  Further, habits and character are shaped by both emotion and intelligence.  We deliberate about possibilities for action and possibilities for our own moral character, yet the reason for this deliberation is emotional.  Dewey writes:

There must not only be force to ensure effort in execution against obstacles, but there must also be a delicate personal responsiveness,--there must be an emotional reaction.  Indeed, unless there is a prompt and almost instinctive sensitiveness to conditions, to the ends and interest of others, the intellectual side of judgment will not have proper material to work upon.  Just as the material of knowledge is supplied through the senses, so the material of ethical knowledge is supplied by emotional responsiveness. [18]

Morality is a matter, for Dewey, of flexible habits resulting from emotional (or, as Mead would say, empathetic) engagement with others.  These habits are not innate, not native, as Aristotle would agree, but are a matter of social interaction and human relationships.  They are learned as we emerge from the social environment as individuals.  If Kant's "good will" is steeped in reason, Dewey's good will, as habit, is steeped in emotion. 

As social artifacts, we might say that moral habits--or will-- have as their ideal strengthening the moral fabric from which they emerge.  Here, it might be helpful to turn to feminist thinking in order to reconceptualize moral ideals in terms of relationships and habits of caring, rather than principles.  The pragmatist emphasis on the individual as social coheres with Nel Noddings= description of the ethics of care as it emerges out of a web of relationships.  Rather than desiring or attempting to see moral life through a lens of abstract rules, Noddings= Aone-caring@ becomes moral through her interactions with those about whom she already cares.  She then expands this feeling into an ethical commitment to others to whom she is not yet related. [19]   Put into more pragmatic terms, moral theories based on habituated caring seek to strengthen the social fabric as they improve individual living because they acknowledge that the growth and well-being of the individual ultimately rests in her relationship to others.  In her more recent work in pragmatism and feminism, Shannon Sullivan writes about the transactional nature of social experience.  She writes, "Thinking of bodies as transactional means thinking of bodies and their environments in a permeable, dynamic relationship in which culture does not just effect bodies, but bodies also effect culture." [20]

If pragmatist and feminist moral theories grounded in sociality, rather than rationality, are adequate in describing how we actually tend to become morally engaged when faced with problematic situations, then morality is a matter of our emotional responses to others, growth, learning, socialization, and care for the relationships we have (or will have).  While Kant's categorical imperative or Rawls' veil of ignorance might illuminate certain philosophical or political interests we may have, engaging with others in a generally caring and committed fashion involves less reason and more habituated moral intelligence based on the memory or presence of good relationships.  This understanding of morality recognizes the diversity of human intelligences and interactions by letting more and different voices into the conversation and allows moral theory itself to grow and evolve.  While reason is innate (and therefore fixed), emotionally engaged habituated caring is a result of social interaction.  It can therefore be educated.  If our moral theory is based on innate Kantian-style reason, however, then people with developmental disabilities may only, as Gert suggests, be entitled to learning someone else's rules.

From the perspective of people with developmental disabilities whom our societies have tended to alienate, fear, and lock up, a qualitative understanding of morality as a result of healthy and caring relationships allows us to relinquish our reliance on narrowly defined moral agency and frees us to examine more carefully the relationships we have with others.  Specifically, we must ask ourselves whether our understanding of moral agency keeps us from including people with developmental disabilities (moral patients, our philosophy might say) when we make moral decisions that are relevant to them.  A commitment to pluralism can be seen in the self-advocacy movement among people with developmental disabilities.  Groups such as "People First" and S.A.B.E. (Self Advocates Becoming Empowered) work toward goals such as equality, having the chance to speak up, having the ability to make new friendships and renew old friendships, having the ability to learn from mistakes, to work, and to make decisions for themselves. [21]   This trend targets the paternalistic idea that people with mental retardation are worthy of moral protection, but not capable of moral agency and autonomy.

Finally, thinking about morality pluralistically, rather than exclusively, not only expands our view of moral engagement, but also asks us to reconsider the way we understand ourselves and our philosophies.  As Trent says in Inventing the Feeble Mind, understanding people with developmental disabilities has relevance for what he calls the "mentally accelerated" as well.  Perhaps we ought to explore whether the theories that have historically been liberating to some are actually dehumanizing to others.  At the very least, people who we have assumed to be Amenaces@ simply because they lack what our philosophical and religious heritage claims is essential for humanity, might be seen instead as potential friends, valuable family members, and growing human beings.  In light of all the evidence that suggests the truth of this possibility, if we choose to maintain beliefs about the general moral inability of people with mental retardation, perhaps it is our philosophy that is menacing.


1.  James Trent, Jr, Inventing the Feeble Mind:  A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (University of California Press, 1995).

[2] .  Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan, Christmas in Purgatory (Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1966), p. v.

[3] .  Clifford Drew, Donald Logan, Michael Hardman, Mental Retardation: A Life Cycle Approach (Merrill Publishing Company, 1988), p. 480.

4.  Aristotle, Politics, Stephen Everson, trans. (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 182/1335b.

5.  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Martin Ostwald, trans. (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962).

[6] .  Wolf Wolfensberger, "The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models," in Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded, edited by Robert B. Kugel and Wolf Wolfensberger (President's Committee on Mental Retardation, Washington, D.C., 1969).

7.  Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 54, item 5207 (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967), p. 396, quoted in Wolfensberger, p. 71.

[8] .  Ibid., p. 71.

9.  Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) in Immanuel Kant:  Ethical Philosophy, translated by James W. Ellington (Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), p. 11.

10.  Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 7.

11.  George Singer, Bernard Gert, and Robert Koegel, "A Moral Framework for analysis of the Controversy Over Aversive Behavioral Interventions for People with Severe Mental Retardation."  Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1999, p. 92.

12.  Ibid., p. 92.

13.  Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 1995).

14.  George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society:  from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, edited by Charles W. Morris, (The University of Chicago Press, 1934), p. 135.

[15] .  Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (The Macmillan Company, 1907), p. 2-3.

16.  Ronald L. Zigler, "The Four Domains of Moral Education:  The Contributions of Dewey, Alexander and Goleman to a Comprehensive Taxomony."  Journal of Moral Education, vol. 27, no. 1, March 98.

[17] .  John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (1922), Jo Ann Boydston, ed. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 23.

18.  John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (1907), Jo Ann Boydston, ed. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), p. 52.

[19] . Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (University of California Press, 1984).

20.  Shannon Sullivan, Thinking Across and Through Skins (Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 3.

21.  The S.A.B.E. website:; the People First of New Hampshire website: