Journal of Medical Ethics
Naturalism and the social model of disability: allied or antithetical?
The question of how disability should be defined is fraught with political, ethical and philosophical complexities. The social model of disability, which posits that disability is socially and politically constructed and is characterised by systemic barriers, has enjoyed broad acceptance that is exemplified by the slow but steady progress in securing civil rights for persons with disabilities. Yet, there remains a palpable tension between disability studies scholars and activists and bioethicists. While philosophers and bioethicists should heed the theories developed from the standpoint of persons with disabilities, disability activists should acknowledge the possibility that philosophical theories about the basic reality of disease, illness, health, function and impairment offer a more steady foundation for social or political critiques of disability. I argue that naturalistic theories of function and dysfunction provide a valuable starting point to clarify questions about the broader concept of disability. A naturalist theory of function may serve as the core of the concept of disability and provide disability scholars and bioethicists alike a stronger set of arguments in analysing real or potential instances of disability.