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Review by Anna Daily, Mount Holyoke College, Email: adaily@mtholyoke.edu

Keywords: social contract theory, neuro atypicalities, communicative limitations, morality, philosophy

In The Disabled Contract: Severe Intellectual Disability, Justice, and Morality, Jonas-Sébastian Beaudry investigates the challenges that severe intellectual disabilities (in the author’s language) pose to social contract theory in modern, analytic philosophy. Social contract theory posits an account of state legitimacy through individual consent. In this model citizens participate in designing core elements of political society and submit to political authority willingly, preserving one’s freedom as well as one’s moral agency. Historically, the social contract affirms the values of individual liberty, autonomy, and reason, which certain mental disabilities and neuro atypicalities (such as those resulting in communicative limitations) may complicate or call into question. It is these relationships between state and society, and between disabled and abled subjects that Beaudry is interested in. He carefully considers and tests the extent to which philosophers can successfully reconcile two competing ethical claims: that we can sufficiently ground the “robust moral status” of people with severe intellectual disabilities (or PSIDs) and our obligations to them within a legitimate state authority derived through consent (19). Rather than develop a new theory of the social contract, Beaudry engages existing attempts that have attempted to integrate these ethical claims into a single account. He details the benefits and limitations of the social contract in successfully affirming the moral status of PSIDs, ultimately concluding that the social contract cannot serve the PSIDs the way integrationists may desire or intend. Nevertheless, he concludes that the social contract remains a useful philosophical device. 

There are many impressive aspects of this text. First, Beaudry attends to a vast social contract theory literature that has developed since John Rawls’ first published A Theory of Justice in 1971. Second, he successfully rebukes some of the most cynical and dismissive arguments made against people with disabilities to emerge in legal and political philosophy. For instance, Beaudry handily rejects the argument that there are so few PSIDs that the total negative impact of the social contract is “minimal” and thus may be negligible in the broader scheme of social goods (20). Third, he contends that it is indeed the responsibility of philosophers to attend to those people with severe intellectual disabilities. To that end, he skillfully argues that within modern contractarianism, PSIDs are often not “just mistreated,” but their “very subjecthood is threatened” (5). Thus, he contributes to a growing body of literature in philosophy that takes seriously the needs of people with disabilities in a way that is sure to reach new audiences.

Despite these successes, there are dimensions of Beaudry’s text that may frustrate readers in disability studies more broadly. Beaudry attempts to walk a fine line as he engages with persistent questions about our obligations to PSIDs without questioning their moral status or personhood (3). As a result, the core question of his project, “whether normative contractual philosophy can justify the position that we do owe robust obligations to the severely disabled individual and, if so, to what extent it succeeds or fails in meeting these obligations” may appear to lend legitimacy to eugenicist arguments (3). However, I caution audiences to read carefully. Beaudry strongly rejects arguments that question the moral status of people with severe intellectual disabilities (or PSIDs). His project concerns whether the social contract specifically is sufficient to ground societal obligations to PSIDs, not whether we have moral or ethical commitments to them in general. He is quite clear that we do and reaffirms this notion throughout the text. His critique of Peter Singer in section 1. 2. 4 is particularly strong in this regard and warrants close investigation.

Additionally, readers invested in critiques of the social contract as such may find this text wanting. Although Beaudry aligns his text with eminent critiques of the social contract, such as Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997) and Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988), he does not reject social contract theory as a whole nor does he engage arguments that do in any detail. He sets aside a large body of literature on the social contract in political theory to emerge from that tradition. Most notably, Beaudry fails to cite Stacey Simplican’s The Capacity Contract (2015). Given that Simplican presents exactly what readers may initially mistake Beaudry’s text to do—adopt a critical perspective of the social contract and its associative ideals of civic membership as pertains to intellectual disabilities–he misses an obvious point of engagement. Nevertheless, this body of literature has a fundamentally different aim than Beaudry’s. Where many critiques of the social contract seek to jettison it entirely, he argues for limiting its application. In this way, Beaudry offers a response to many critics of the social contract by arguing that despite its limitations for integrating PSIDs, the social contract remains a valuable mode of philosophical engagement because of its ability to exemplify “core liberal values,” such as ‘autonomy, the good, flourishing, accountability, reward, reciprocity, and impartiality,’ (31).

While readers outside of or unfamiliar with the language and analytic approaches of philosophy may find this book challenging, it makes an important contribution to disability studies. Beaudry’s theorization of people with severe intellectual disabilities in legal and political philosophy has considerable depth. He sympathetically and systematically investigates numerous integrationist approaches to social contract theory. In this text, he considers approaches as diverse as Rawlsian accounts that ask, what principles all would agree to in a yet-to-be-realized society, to empirical accounts that seek to affirm the contracting abilities of PSIDs, to relational accounts of moral obligation that foreground the values and ethics of care. He explores the moral, ethical, and political dimensions that emerge in contract-based frameworks from the experiential and interpersonal to the metaphysical levels, such as capacity, communication, trust, obligation, care, and justice. Throughout he elucidates the challenges of philosophically grounding what we owe to people with impairments that inhibit self-advocacy and whose needs are systematically neglected, ignored, abused and exploited in modern, liberal, and “progressive” societies. For these reasons, I recommend that we take seriously what he has to say.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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