The Echoes of Utility and the Rumblings of Disability

Photograph by Hervé Guibert
The Weight of a Canon:

While the likes of Mill and Bentham were erecting moral schemata, governments of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were using these same constructions of utility and value to discipline and organize populations. However, there were key operative distinctions. The maximization of utility did not come down to examining relations of “pain” to “pleasure”. Instead, the unifying concern was maximizing the extraction of raw utility from bodies within the state. Utility and productivity; these are not merely measurements of human output but are base signifiers of a material strength. For the state in the early eighteenth century, it was now an indicator of geopolitical power; the ability to quickly industrialize, to mechanize populations, and to outproduce could be determining factors in the merciless competition that defined this new burgeoning and increasingly globalized economic system. Ensuring the utility of the population is not just the vocation of the state, it now also becomes the moral obligation of the citizenry.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault observes that “[t]he Hôpital Général [had] an ethical status” (Foucault 1965, 59). It was not sufficient for the institution to return the “mad” to a state where they were useful, they had to become zealous proponents of the doctrine of utility. They had to be converted:

… it is in this context that the obligation to work assumes its meaning as both ethical exercise and moral guarantee. It will serve as askesis, as punishment, as symptom of a certain disposition of the heart. The prisoner who could and who would work would be released, not so much because he was again useful to society, but because he had again subscribed to the great ethical pact of human existence.

(Foucault 1965, 59-60)

Governing structures have the moral mission of ensuring their population’s utility. However, that righteous obligation was dispersed across the horizon, permeating and redefining the power relation between the state and citizen. Usefulness is virtue, incapacity—burden—is its corresponding vice. The relation between community and individual, between state and body, between even labor and capital, is governed by this doctrine of utility.

Rather than simply being omitted, the physiologically aberrant were now an active threat to the very functionality of society, a society now oriented around mass production. One could argue that this is just the natural development of industrialization and part of the emergence of bourgeois economics; Foucault certainly makes a similar case in his earlier work. However, it runs deep. Even some of the Marxist reformers of the 20th century maintained the political ubiquity of the axiom of utility. In The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy, Alexandra Kollontai argues that the liberation of women is inextricably tied to their ability to demonstrate their utility. Only when women are “viewed as being essentially a labor unit” they will gain their emancipation and begin to dismantle the patriarchy (Kollontai 1921). This moral and political development effected the nonnormative in an incongruent way. The disabled are often not classified as adherents to the “great ethical pact” of usefulness. They are not always observants of doctrine of utility. The fate of the disabled throughout the ages is defined by indirect, but perpetual, dehumanization.

This literary history of disability is an oeuvre of what is unwritten; it is a library of assumption. The disabled exist at the margins of the social body because the essence of their bodies is constructed and simultaneously repudiated in the margins of philosophical works that ground and maintain our social orders through time.

 Socrates and Plato established the virtue of the aesthetical unity of bodies, a unity disabled bodies despoil. The body’s “harmony” reflects the functionality of the society it exists within. The disabled, or those who are not “sound” in mind or body, disrupt the harmony of society. “Those who are diseased in their bodies they will leave to die, and the corrupt and incurable souls they will put an end to themselves” (Book III, Republic). It is worth noting that passive, almost completely fluid, shift from the pathological to the moral. Health is not merely a personal or public medical concern, but a question of piety. Socrates equates proper health of the mind and soul to true virtue. Deformity of the soul and body is a vice. Anything irrational, such as deformities, abnormalities, or physical inefficiencies, is not to exist in Plato’s ideal city. Humanity is defined by its aesthetical rationality; anyone that lacks a rational physiological habitus is not fully human.

Their desire for a world that consists of physiological unity, rather than an unending and open asymmetry, is not an uncommon construction. It is the exact desire Samuel Butler’s Erewhon unearths in its critique of Victorian conceptions of utopia. In Erewhon, one can find themselves “…convicted of aggravated bronchitis” (Butler 1937, 112). The banishment of the ill and of the abnormal is a core tenant of every unsettling, supposed utopia – from courtrooms of Erewhon to the self-ostracizing population in the world of Zarathustra’s blinking Last Man. Banishment, seclusion, and walling off – these are the methods of achieving a utopia. Underneath this achieved unity in Erewhon and Zarathustra’s future world, one finds a movement toward optimization of bodies. It is a movement in the direction of utility. Further beneath that, still, is the rumbling of the disabled body.

Philosophers and theorists following in Plato’s and Aristotle’s footsteps created a literary cascade of assertions of a flimsy humanism that disabled bodies are outside the boundaries of. Many epistemologists deserted the disabled and provided the world an intellectual technology bent on rejecting their personage, as did many contractarians and ethicists. While there has, in recent years, been an attempt to critically audit the history of philosophy to carve out the voice of disability, some still cling to an increasingly antiquated—but simultaneously contemporary—ableism. If one wants to follow a thread of humanity’s shared barbarism, the treatment of the disabled throughout the ages is quite an effective one.

Mechanized Horror:

One of the first acts of extermination in Germany’s Third Reich was directed at the disabled. Initially in 1934, the German government issued a Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. However, this proved insufficient in combatting this supposed economic burden of disability. Known among SS operatives and Nazi-aligned health practitioners as “Aktion T4,” this internal directive initiated the mass liquidation of those who were considered burdensome. This act was taken in preparation for the Reich’s attempted campaign across the globe. Those deemed to possess mental abnormalities or physical challenges were deemed “useless eaters” that were a threat to the broader German social body, the “volkscörper”. Fundamentally, this was a military operation.

Utility was one of the central considerations when a disabled individual was selected for extermination. In the case of those diagnosed with “idiocy,” it was exclusively on the basis of utility that they were exterminated. If they could display both an ability “to learn” and a physical capacity for manual labor, they could possibly be spared – though it was unlikely. If individuals were considered incurable, if they lacked utility, they would be euthanized.

This death was considered by physicians as a merciful killing, a “gnadentod” (Rotzoll et al. 2006, 18). These individuals were not worth the cost of keeping them alive, but their subjective lives were also not considered worth experiencing. It was an act of compassion to free them from their fundamentally non-human experience.

The Aktion T4 extermination campaign is a quintessential illustration of the governmental doctrine of utility in its absolute highest form. It is the logic of the utility of the human being brought to its final violent conclusion. While the invocation of Nazism and its various mass murderous activities can be an association that draws criticism, it is crucial when discussing the fate of those deemed physiologically aberrant in scheme of governing and power relations in the twentieth century.

The 300,000 victims of this liquidation did not receive a memorial site until 2014. When it was finally completed, it was reported in The New York Times that some considered it “excessive” (Eddy 2014). Following the logic that undergirds the doctrine of utility to its cruelest finality, this emotional reaction—this cry of “excess”—would make sense. The disabled themselves seem to embody an excess in the ableist milieu. Under the doctrine of utility, disabled bodies become a symbol of a tolerance taken too far.

These views have continued to prevail throughout western utilitarian thought. Peter Singer, arguably the most notable utilitarian philosopher currently alive, openly advocates for the euthanizing of children with “severe” aberrances (Singer 2005, 133). For Singer, the right of access to political life is solely that of the “self-aware”. If an individual would be incapable of displaying rationality and recognizing their own existence, they are replaceable (Singer 2011/1979, 106). Of course, this is an inadequate ontological and phenomenological framework. It will nevertheless then propel this ethics to its violent final conclusion.

Disabled children, to Singer, also provide less utility to parents and should be considered less desirable. “Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born” (Singer 2011/1979, 161). The only way the able-bodied parents can avoid such a regret is by disposing of that child and replacing it with a new, healthier body:

… we have to take into account the probability that when the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.

(Singer 2011/1979, 161)

Singer’s Practical Ethics displays that even in the current epoch, even with the scars of the fascists’ mechanized liquidation not fully healed over, this stringent form of utilitarian ethics has remained relatively stagnant at the level of the political. It is this “practical” ethics that deems aberrant bodies unworthy of life. Singer, for his part, assures his readers that this death is one that maximizes utility, that the suffering of these individuals is greater than any summation of their experiences in life. For Singer, it is a merciful killing.

Tobin Siebers described disabled bodies as legion of flesh belonging only to “the nation of the abandoned and the dead” (Siebers 1998). Their identity is constructed through being deemed collectively defective and the source of aesthetical discord. The disabled body does not bear the sign of its state’s power, it is not a symbol of economic strength or military might.

To many, it emits a very distinct signal. Disabled bodies are a social indication of a cure not yet found, of a fetal screening process not yet perfected, of an imminent antiquity, or, worse, of a problem that will eventually be solved. Just as the king was the physical embodiment of the power and laws of the Ancien Régime or the criminal’s twisted tortured body carried the truth of his delinquency, the disabled possess a signifying element of abandonment.[1] For Gilles Deleuze, disability acts as the “model” for the institutionalization of abandonment:

What we institutionalize in unemployment, in retirement, or in school, are controlled “situations of abandonment,” for which the handicapped are the model.

(Deleuze 2007, 235)
The Specter of Disability:

Always at the boundaries of the Anthropos, the disabled seem to hold the position of being constitutionally nonhuman, in both a metaphysical and an aesthetical capacity. When one focuses their attention on the political representation of disability, one will notice that discussions pertaining to disability are never about variance in modes of being – they are about lack, an eerie lack. From cognitive aberrances to physical abnormalities, the “identity” of disability is one of fundamental insufficiency. This fundamental insufficiency spans far beyond just mere physical capacity, it is an ontological insufficiency. It is an error incased in flesh. A disabled person is to be deemed insufficiently “human” – monstrous. However, in this state of monstrosity, it lingers in almost every apparatus. The disabled are at the boundary of the Anthropos. Yet, in their abandonment, they become recentered as a conceptual ghost. Their abandonment is the result of a very particular terror. This specter haunts all technologies tasked with the administrating of life. The ever-present threat of a disabled future is the ghost in the machine. It is a ghost that haunts nearly all biopolitical activity.

Furthermore, it is at the limit. It must be brought in; some extension must be made. The extentionist approach of liberal politics fails those with disabilities time and time again. The incorporation of disability into the humanist framework, one based in the synchronicity and unity of bodies, would certainly shatter it. Disability breaks essential physiological links that hold up the most pristine armatures of the notion of the “universal man”.

We must be honest with one another here about what is actually being intimated by this austere ableist utilitarian approach. It is a call for processes of the administering of life to identify these bodies as a threat to the anatomical order. No one needs to tell the utilitarian this system already does this; it is just simply more refined than a prescription that harkens back to Aristotle’s suggestion in Politics that abnormal children be subject to exposure. Every medical rationing protocol that uses quantified data sets on amorphous assertions of “quality of life” makes this clear.

The staunch utilitarian intellectual is merely an apologist here to peddle moral assertions meant to allow ableist regimes of health to take a sigh of relief, knowing there is some intellectual structure that still stands with them. Unfortunately for them, the structure is rather weak. This contemporary theory of utility positions itself on the meekest side; not simply because it is ableist, but because it is strangely and nauseatingly moralistic. Singer’s work serves as a timeless indicator as to why theories of complex embodiment are so important. Singer, and others like him, often argue that, when analyzing the nature of a particular set of choices made by a governing entity, marginal cases are not particularly helpful data. This disposition is ill advisable. It is the marginal cases, the minor histories, the exceptions, the oddities, the hidden, the forced away, and the silenced that tell one the most about the world one is situated in.

Further Reading

Butler, Samuel. 1937. Erewhon.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2007. “May ’68 Did Not Take Place.” In D. Lapoujade (Ed.) Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. (A. Hodges and Mike Taormina, Trans.) South Pasadena: Semiotext(e). 233-236

Eddy, Melissa. 2014. “Monument Seeks to End Silence on the Killing of the Disabled by the Nazis.” The New York Times. Sept. 14. From https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/03/world/europe/monument-seeks-to-end-silence-on-killings-of-the-disabled-by-the-nazis.html

Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. (R. Howard, Trans.) New York: Pantheon Books.

Kollontai, Alexandra. 1977/1921. “The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy.” In A. Holt (Ed.), Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rotzoll, Maike, Paul Richter, Petra Fuchs, Annette Hinz-Wessels, Sascha Topp, and Gerrit Hohendorf. 2006. “The First National Socialist Extermination Crime: The T4 Program and Its Victims.” International Journal of Mental Health 35 (3): 17–29. (if you need access to this, I can get you a copy)

Siebers, Tobin. 1998. “My Withered Limb.”  Michigan Quarterly Review.  37 (2).

Singer, Peter. 2005. “Ethics and Disability.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 16 (2): 130–33.

Singer, Peter. 2011/1979. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] The societal and even the ontological/metaphysical abandonment of those with disabilities is not completely dissimilar from the forced seclusion of the madness described in Madness and Civilization. Often, the purpose of these institutions and mechanisms of treatment is not to “cure” or “improve” the physiology of the subject, but rather place them out of sight where they are no longer an active element in the social milieu or political composition. Societies so deeply bound to ethical theories that cannot adequately address cases on the margins cannot help but keep those who make up such cases hidden away.

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