Disability, Well-Being, and False Consciousness: Conflicting Approaches to Rationality and Reasonableness in Moral Discourse and Promoting the Social Model of Disability

Summary of argument

Broadly speaking, two approaches to rationality and reasonableness in moral discourse, can be found in recommendations for radical political change. These approaches reflect conflicts between analytical and continental philosophy and their different interpretations of ‘false consciousness’ (i.e. what are viewed as mistaken beliefs concerning the ‘true interests’ of oppressed or marginalised groups).1 However, the recommendation here is to hold this conflict in tension, recognising that this pulls radical politics in opposite directions, particularly when applied to disability issues and how the social model of disability is understood and promoted.


The analytical approach

Risking oversimplification, analytical philosophers tend to reflect the political, economic, and social goals of modernity and the European Enlightenment derived from certain assumptions about the role of rationality and reasonableness in moral discourse. Their main claim is that using rationality in logical argument and scientific enquiry, combined with an appeal to reasonableness when defining the parameters of moral engagement with other human beings, provides a secure foundation for understanding human progress and human relations in various social, economic and political spheres. Radical politics, born from this approach, emphasises the importance of using standards of rationality and reasonableness as a universal moral yardstick for critiquing oppressive and exploitative regimes. For example, this might include measuring the extent to which oppressed and disadvantaged groups are exploited under certain social and economic conditions through examining and scientifically measuring their diminished access to opportunities or ‘life chances’.


The continental approach

Continental philosophers, on the other hand, are generally more sceptical about the possibility of making these kinds of objective claims for rationality and reasonableness in moral discourse. The use of rationality and reasonableness, despite its apparent benign character in underpinning a moral critique of existing regimes, is regarded as potentially oppressive and exploitative. This oppression and exploitation occurs because the very categories of rationality and reasonableness are defined and imposed through dominant institutional norms and practices. The imposition results in many groups being social excluded and marginalised if they do not conform to the so-called universal criteria of rationality and reasonableness which falsely underpin a set of ‘ideals’ about what is a ‘best’ or ‘better’ life to maintain and pursue. Consequently, the radical politics, born from this approach, promotes these marginalised identities as a challenge to these dominant norms and practices, not by appealing to rationality and reasonableness, but rather through promoting methods of social and political assertion and engagement which variously challenge these ‘ideals’.


Contrasting attitudes to false consciousness and well-being

From the above we can see that many analytical philosophers promote a version of ‘false consciousness’ based on an objective description of what is viewed as ‘true’, with this truth being considered universally comprehensible, given it can, in principle, be understood by every rational person. This claim for objectivity provides a universal moral yardstick to measure and critically evaluate the normative deficiencies of the world we presently live in, which leads to an objective description of a ‘better world’ and what can best enhance an individual’s and/or group’s well-being. Moreover, any objective description of this ‘better world’ will tend be future-orientated insofar as it not only allows for the depiction and objective description of a future ‘better world’, but also recommends moral and political strategies to bring this ‘better world’ about.


In contrast, continental philosophers tend to promote ‘false consciousness’ as a denial of the positive and life-enhancing aspects of marginalised ‘subjective identities’ as these occur presently and so underpinning their well-being as it is presently experienced. This contemporising of subjectivity and well-being, which include many of the beliefs persons who are marginalised have about themselves, are positively asserted now as a radical alternative to presently occurring dominant norms and practices. Therefore, positively promoting these marginalised identities, reflects a force for change that is often beyond what can be rationally or reasonably comprehended by dominant groups. This is because the latter groups are committed to exclusionary paradigms which maintain particular logical structures for interpreting the world that are opposed to these radical critiques, and, in the process, falsely ‘legitimate’ the exclusion of minority groups based on the view that the present experience of members of these groups are necessarily diminished or ‘less than ideal’.


Two interpretations of the social model of disability2, well-being and false consciousness

The first interpretation of the social model of disability can be called the Politics of Disablement (POD) interpretation. Its central claim is that the opportunities of disabled people are reduced, not by their medical condition, but as a result of social causation processes which unjustly exclude disabled people from valued community activities, routinely enjoyed by non-disabled people. The POD interpretation will therefore compare the ways in which disabled people are unable to access social, political and economic resources on the same basis as non-disabled people. This state of affairs is understood by the POD to be unreasonable and unfair based on identifying what are seen as ‘objective measures’ of discrimination which are said to unjustly reduce the opportunities of disabled people.


Consistent with the arguments so far, it can be seen how the POD broadly reflects the analytical approach, for it uses objective and universal understandings of rationality and reasonableness as a template for increasing the future expectations and opportunities for disabled people, anticipating, by implication, that disabled people’s ‘objective’ well-being will be enhanced as a result.


However, there is a second interpretation of the social model which highlights, not so much the social causation of ‘objective conditions’ which unjustly undermine the capabilities and expectations of disabled people, but instead focuses on the ‘social construction of disablement’ (SCOD) as a particular kind of mis-description of presently occurring ‘subjective states’ or conditions. The central claim for the SCOD interpretation is that in a disablist society dominated by the medical model, disabled people’s subjective experiences and identities as disabled people now (which include the beliefs disabled people have about themselves), are defined or socially constructed as ‘less than ideal’ or ‘dysfunctional’ compared with the prevailing ‘universal norm’ of non-disablement. This social construction of disablement is, in turn, seen as oppressive and discriminatory.


Concluding thoughts

Following the other arguments presented here, it can be seen how the POD and SCOD interpretations broadly reflect the analytical and continental approaches to philosophy outlined above. The former interpretation stresses the ‘objective conditions’ of disabled people which diminish the well-being of disabled people now, and so looks forward to a future where the objectively measurable capabilities of disabled people are enhanced by a more inclusive and participatory society free from unfair discrimination against disabled people. The latter interpretation, on the other hand, stresses how the ‘subjective conditions’ of disabled people as these occur now challenge dominant medical norms and practices which define disability and necessarily ‘deficient’ and ‘dysfunctional’.


It is clear that these two different interpretations of the social model and, more broadly, the two different approaches to reasonableness and rationality in moral discourse, are conflicting. The argument here though is that we should not respond to this conflict by recommending an either/or choice between these two approaches. Instead, we should combine them, but recognising that these pull radical politics in opposite directions. However, this strategy will help us make better sense of the Disability Movement’s political demands and what it regards as ‘false consciousness’ of the medical model – that is, a consciousness which diminishes both the present experiences and future opportunities of disabled people.


This is a summary of working paper given at Treforest Campus, University of South Wales – November 23rd 2016 – Steve Smith – Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Policy


  1. Also see David West (2010) Continental Philosophy – An Introduction – 2nd edition (New Jersey: Wiley), for an excellent introduction to this distinction between analytical and continental approaches in philosophy.
  2. Also see my exploration of these two different interpretations of the social model in S.R. Smith (2009) ‘Social justice and disability: competing interpretations of the medical and social models’ in Kristjana Kristiansen, Simo Vehmas, and Tom Shakespeare (eds) Arguing about Disability: Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge). And see my arguments in S.R. Smith (2011) Equality and Diversity: Value Incommensurability and the Politics of Recognition. (Bristol: Policy Press).


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