Episode 9: Disability and Enhancement / October 23, 2020

With Lysette Chaproniere

Hosted by Jasmine Hunt Keir Aitken

Edited by Constantinos Stylianou

Posted in Political Philosophy Main feed Disability Enhancement Social Philosophy

What is disability? How does it relate to enhancement? Do enhancements promote equality, or inequality? In this episode, Jasmine Hunt and Keir Aitken discuss the relationship between disability and enhancement – and the social and philosophical relevance of each – with PhD student Lysette Chaproniere.

Lysette discusses the social implications of the relationship between disability and enhancement. We discuss Treatment vs. Enhancement and whether our understanding of disability is dependent on social context. Lysette talks us through if we should use enhancement to cure disabilities in order to increase equality, or change society.

02:05 - Primary focus of Lysette’s work

02:40 - What is enhancement?

04:00 - How do you define disability in a philosophical context?

07:20 - Is there a point in the future where dyslexia may no longer be a disability

08:00 - What is the relationship between disability and enhancement

09:20 - Why should we take interest in the Philosophy of disability and enhancement

11:00 - What area in this topic are you most passionate about?

14:00 - Why are some people against enhancement?

16:00 - Does enhancement promote equality?

Further Reading:

Disability: Definitions, models, experience by David Wasserman, Adrienne Asch, Jeffrey Blustein, and Daniel Putnam

Human Enhancement by Eric Juengst and Daniel Moseley

Disability, Minority, and Difference by Elizabeth Barnes

Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective by Nick Bostrom


Lysette Chaproniere: Sorry, I’ve just comp— totally ruined your time —

Keir Aitken: No, no, no, don’t worry —

Jasmine Hunt: Don’t worry, he’s an actor; he can redo it.

KA: Yeah, I can totally, and then we can go “hahaha”

[They “hahaha” as the credit music swells]


JH: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. My name is Jasmine.

KA: And my name is Keir.

JH: And today on the show we have Lysette Chaproniere, who is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow and who works primarily on the philosophy of disability and enhancement.

KA: So now, here are some thoughts on the social and moral implications of disability and enhancement.


KA: Hello, Lysette, thank you very much for coming on today’s show. Now at first, we’d like to get to know a little bit about you. So how did you first get into philosophy.

LC: Well, I got into philosophy a little bit later on. I didn’t do an undergraduate degree in philosophy; I actually started out wanting to do music production and music tech so I applied to university to do that. I then decided I wanted to do creative writing alongside that so I started off doing a combined honours degree in those two fields. I then dropped the music and, as I was doing my creative writing, sometimes some philosophical discussions came up as we were talking about people’s work and that really interested me. And I would never have guessed ten years ago that I’d be doing a PhD in philosophy but, I always have been interested in debating issues with people. So when I started to realise I was getting more seriously interested in it, I did some googling about philosophy degrees. I found that Glasgow has a masters degree specially for people who don’t have a degree in philosophy so I applied to that; did it, loved it, and now I’m back doing PhD.

KA: Fantastic! It shows you, no matter how hard you try, all roads lead to philosophy.

LC: [laughs] Absolutely.

JH: So what’s the primary focus of your work?

LC: So I’m doing a PhD on the connections between disability and human enhancement and there are lots of issues that come up around that. There are ethical issues, there’s political issues, and questions about society. There’s also some interesting work in epistemology related to it, and for any listeners who don’t know, epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge.

KA: Oh we love a guest that does their own clarification for us! Makes our lives so much easier, um, but continuing on that clarificatory path: I was wondering, what do you mean by enhancement?

LC: Well, to give you an example of what we mean by enhancement, imagine you’ve got two students who are both taking a drug such as Ritalin, which is typically taken by people with ADHD. The first student is taking it because they have ADHD; the second student doesn’t have ADHD, but is taking it because they want something that will help them concentrate better, or stay focused for longer as they do their work or as they revise for their exams. So the first student is using it to treat a disorder; the second student is using it to enhance something that we might consider normal or healthy, and so the idea behind most definitions of enhancement is that enhancements go beyond treating disorders in some way. And that concept is quite blurry: you might worry about whether that distinction between treating and enhancing is even meaningful — so there’s a lot to explore there — but that’s the basic idea, at least, of the kind of thing we’re talking about when we talk about enhancement.

JH: Um, so you’ve defined enhancement for us, but I’d quite like to know how you define disability, because it’s a word which is quite a commonplace word and it’s often thrown around all over the place. So how would you define disability in a philosophical context?

LC: There are lots of different definitions of disability, and philosophers in this area have lots of different theories about it and we’re not going to have time to go through them all, so I’ll just tell you about the theory that I’ve been working on.

So I think, first of all, a disability is a limitation. So it might be something like not being to see, not being able to walk, not being able to hear — those are all limitations. Not all limitations are disabilities, however, so I think a disability — it’s a limitation that most people don’t have. Um, again, not all limitations that most people don’t have are disabilities. So for instance, there a condition some people have where they can’t extend their tongue beyond the bottom of their teeth, that’s a limitation most people don’t have, but it seems like we shouldn’t want to call that a disability.

So, I say, what I say is that disabilities are limitations that have been made salient within particular social context. So to give you some examples of what that means, it would include the ways in which we discriminate against people with certain limitations and set up our society in ways that don’t work for them. So for instance, that we have steps rather than ramps; that doesn’t work for wheelchair users, and it’s a way in which we’ve kind set up our society in a way that kind of assumes that you don’t have the limitation of being unable to walk.

But is also includes other kinds of social practices that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as discrimination. So we might think that dyslexia is a disability, but if you think back to a preliterate society, some people might have the traits that we now call dyslexia but it would’t be a disability; in a world where nobody needs to read or write, dyslexia just wouldn’t be salient in the right way. It wouldn’t really matter very much, so there wouldn’t really be any reason to call it a disability.

KA: Wait, so both Jasmine and I are dyslexic, so we’re both quite invested in this. Does this mean that there was a day when dyslexia wasn’t a disability and then the next day it it was.

LC: I think there was a time when dyslexia wasn’t a disability but it’s not quite as clear cut as ‘one day dyslexia wasn’t a disability and the next day it was.’ As literacy became more important and more widespread, arguably dyslexia became more of a disability, but there isn’t an exact threshold when it becomes a disability; it’s a bit more blurry round the edges.

So to give you another example, you might ask a question: how severe does a visual impairment need to be to count as a disability? And that question just does’t have an exact answer.

KA: Hmm yeah that makes sense that, yeah, that was maybe too specific on my part, but on the other side, does that mean that maybe there’ll be a point in the future when dyslexia will just no longer be a disability?

LC: I suppose, in theory, there might be maybe if we get really good at helping people with dyslexia, providing accommodations, and integrating those people into society, then I suppose the trait of dyslexia might cease to be salient in the right way. So at least in theory I think any trait could cease to be a disability, but again we wouldn’t necessarily be able to point to a day when it stops being a disability.

JH: So, earlier you defined disability and enhancement individually for us — can you tell us what the relationship between them is?

LC: Yeah! They’re related in lots of ways and one way is that they might seem to be opposites to each other, at opposites ends of a continuum. You might think that disability involves having less of an ability, enhancements give you more of it. Or to put it in the sorts of language that I was just using earlier, disability is a limitation, whereas enhancements tend to be about overcoming limitation.

Another way in which they’re conceptually related is that, if we accept this idea that enhancements go beyond treating disorders, and if we include disability in the category of disorders, then we can’t understand what enhancements are until we understand what disabilities are. So we don’t know which particular uses of drugs or genetic editing count as enhancements until we know whether the thing we’re trying to improve upon is a disability or something that we might think of as just a normal human limitation.

KA: Okay, so that connection makes sense, but I’m just wondering why we should take interest in the relationship and philosophy of enhancement?

LC: There are lots of reasons why it’s important and people might be a bit skeptical about the value of thinking about enhancement; maybe some people find it a little bit too futuristic or science fictiony, but I think it is very important to be thinking about our future. We need to be thinking about the ethical implications of technology long before that technology becomes a reality. We don’t want to start talking about it when it’s just around the corner; we need to give ourselves time. And, the value of thinking about disability might seem a little bit more obvious, but it helps disabled people, but I think it’s actually a lot more universal than that. Anybody could become disabled at any time, due to certain changes in our bodies of course, but also on my theory of disability, we become disabled because of changes in our social context. So I actually think that as enhancements become more widespread then some people who have just what we would now think of as normal human limitations, who don’t have access to those enhancements, will then count as disabled.

KA: I totally agree with what you’re saying. And I actually really respect that you’re looking into it, because I think it’s so important that we are forward-looking. And I was wondering about, what you’re presenting is actually such a wide, ehm, philosophy and discussion, is there a particular area within the philosophy of enhancement and disability that you’re passionate about?

LC: One thing in particular that really fascinates me is the ways that our preferences can change. One example of that is something that we call adaptive preferences. So there’s a famous fable that illustrates that and the story goes that a fox was trying to get a bunch of grapes from a tree, but he couldn’t reach them because the grapes were too high. So he decided he didn’t really want them anyway, because grapes are too sour for foxes. Some disabled people say that they’re quite happy being disabled; it’s not something that’s made their life go worse and sometimes people suggest that these people have adaptive preferences, that they are a bit like that fox trying to get the grapes; these people couldn’t get a cure for their disability, so they decided they didn’t really want it anyway. And that’s something that also might apply to enhancement, but maybe if some people don’t like the idea of enhancement, you might think that those people have just adapted to a world where enhancements haven’t been available so far, so again they just decided they didn’t really want it anyway.

Another example of preference change is something called transformative experience. And the idea behind that is that sometimes when we’re having a new experience, not only do we not know what that experience is going to be like, but we don’t know how it’s going to change us. So an example of that that’s not directly relevant to what I’m doing would be becoming a parent. So when you’re thinking about whether to become a parent or not, not only do you not know what it’s like, you don’t know how becoming a parent is going to change your preferences. So perhaps you’ll just fall in love with your child and even though before you didn’t really like the idea of taking care of a child, you certainly love that idea, or maybe it goes in the opposite direction that you love the idea of being a parent, and then when the reality hits that you’ve got to get up at three o’clock in the morning, it doesn’t seem so appealing so your preferences change. And that’s something that could be very relevant to my areas of interest because becoming disabled or becoming non-disabled or enhancing one of your abilities seems like the kind of thing where it’s really hard to know how it might change your preferences and how you might be a different person after that.

JH: So you’ve indicated that some people are against enhancements, but I’m wondering why people would be, because it seems to me that some enhancements can be quite positive; for example wearing glasses to improve your eyesight or having a vaccine against a virus. So why are some people against enhancement?

LC: Well, firstly that is a very good point about things like vaccines, in that we wouldn’t normally think of that as an enhancement and yet it seems to improve our immune system beyond what’s normal and that’s a strategy that’s often used to argue in favour of enhancement. But a lot of these things, like glasses or vaccines, that most people think of as not problematic are actually not all that different from enhancements which a lot of people do have a problem with.

So to answer the other part of your question — ‘why are some people against enhancements’ — sometimes it’s because they think that enhancing would make you inauthentic in some way. Or because they think that it would devalue your achievements, enhancement might give you easy shortcuts, and anything that you achieve while using enhancements might therefore be less valuable. People sometimes worry that using enhancements is cheating and that might be the case in sport, for instance, where using performance-enhancing drugs is against the rules of sport. And also sometimes people worry about enhancing our children. So you might think, for instance, we should be open to whatever traits our children have, rather than trying to enhance them in a particular way.

KA: So I can understand why people would be against enhancement theoretically, but to me when it comes to enhancing a disability, it’s actually about equality, making sure that everyone has an equal platform, but enhancement sounds like making individuals better than the norm, so that’s where I struggle to see the parallels. So what do you have to say about that?

LC: It might seem like quite a sensible view that, if you’re treating a disability, you’re promoting equality, but if you are enhancing someone beyond that, you’re exacerbating inequality. And that is definitely something that some philosophers have argued for. But I think it’s not at all as simple as that. One reason for that is that some enhancements might promote equality. So one type of enhancement that I haven’t talked about so far is radically extending people’s lifespans. Now you might think that in order to achieve equality, everybody needs to have a normal lifespan, but that’s not always true. So one thing that has been argued is that a lot of people in disadvantaged social positions, such as poor people or people of colour or indeed disabled people, don’t necessarily have a normal range of opportunities within a normal lifespan. So it’s extending their lives beyond that might help to give them opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise get.

Or if you think about how some people don’t necessarily have access to education — maybe enhancing their cognitive abilities would make it a little bit easier for them to make the best of what they do have. So look at it from the other end of the scale, curing disability isn’t always the best way to promote equality for disabled people. Sometimes making changes to the social environment is more effective, so for instance, if somebody is deaf, allowing them to use sign language and giving them an environment where they can use that might be a better way to give them opportunities than giving them a cochlear implant, for instance.

So this question of how to promote equality in a world where there are enhancements is quite a difficult problem, but I think that illustrates another way in which thinking about disability and enhancement together is quite helpful because people who are thinking about disability are already thinking about ways to promote equality between people with different types of bodies or minds or with different abilities, and some of that might transfer over to enhancements. So within disability, people often talk about how we might change the social environment to allow for more equality — that might be something we can do with respect to enhancement and an example of that might be that if we have a drug that can allow people to stay alert and awake for longer, people who have access to that will have a competitive advantage, but if we regulate that so that employers can’t discriminate against people who can’t use that for whatever reason then that might be one way of making things more equal.

So we might be able to make some environmental changes, but I don’t necessarily think that we can get all the benefits of enhancement just by changing society, so we would need to find some way of distributing enhancements in a fair way, and that’s something I’m still thinking about how to do.

KA: What an intriguing angle, looking at disability through the lens of enhancement, and vice versa, I guess. Thank you for sharing all that. We’re now at our final questions of the interview which is as always Jasmine’s favourite so go ahead.

JH: So, my favourite question! What grinds your gears in philosophy? In your whole experience of studying philosophy, what is the thing which annoys you the most?

LC: The thing that immediately comes to mind is people relying on their intuitions. So sometimes people come to an answer to a question and maybe it sounds a bit odd; we just instinctively think it’s not right. And philosophers will say ‘but that answer can’t be right because it doesn’t accord with our intuitions.’ And one thing I’m trying to do in my work is just rely on intuitions a little bit less, because intuitions can be biased, they can be a source of prejudice, so I think we shouldn’t be too quick to trust them.

KA: And is it your intuitions that tell you that?

[general laughter]

LC: Well! You certainly could ask me that! And some people might say, for instance in ethics, ‘if we don’t use our intuitions, what are we going to use, intuitions are all that we have!” And I suppose there is some truth to that, but maybe we can’t stop using our intuitions entirely, but I think we should be at least a little bit less confident in them and a little bit more careful about trusting them.

KA: I respect that.

JH: That’s a really really interesting point, and so thank you so much for ending on that — I think ‘poignant’ is the correct word; it’s a poignant note. Thank you so much for coming on today; it’s been a real pleasure.

LC: Thank you for having me

KA: Thank you, thank you very much.

[music swells]


JH: On today’s episode of Thoughts, we asked Lysette Chaproniere to talk about the philosophy of disability and enhancement. We discuss what they are, how they relate to each other, and the social implications of the philosophy of disability.

KA: We hope you enjoyed listening to this episode of Thoughts, and don’t forget to follow us on all of our social medias. Till next time, thanks for joining.

Transcript written by Adam Nicholson