Disabled people are constrained and limited by their bodies....The simple act is that, disabled or non-disabled, we are all limited and constrained by our bodies. To have a body that is any particular wa is to have a body that is limited and constrained in some respects an in comparison to other kinds of bodies. That's just part of what it is to have a body. Some of us are male, some of us are female. Some of us are tall, some of us are short. Some of us are flexible, some of us are stiff. Some of us are stocky, some of us are willowy. There are all sorts of ways that bodies can be. And each way a body can be comes with some limitations and constraints.
We all adapt our preferences due in part to the limitations of our bodies---that's an utterly ordinary thing to do. Elizabeth Barnes (2016) The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, 132 (emphasis in original).
The quoted passage appears in a very interesting and critical discussion of a species of status quo bias to be found in views of adaptive preferences popular among many professional philosophers. I shall turn to this status quo bias some other time. But in reading this passage (and the chapters that followed it), I had what I take to be an ohhh, I should change my idea about what it's like to be human moment. Let me explain.
At the core of Barnes's book is the idea that all human bodies face constraints.+ (One may, in fact, say that to be without constraints is to be godlike; and humans are not god(s), etc.) In particular, it is part of the nature of what it is to be a human body that all human bodies are in a position of not being able to do some X; with X being something other human bodies can do (or could be/have or can instantiate), and X being really important to some humans.* It is a fairly common conceptual and maybe even phenomenological mistake to think of disability in terms of constraint, but to ignore simultaneously the existence of constraints in the context of (complex) experiences that arise from having other types of bodies (even though those bodies by necessity include all kinds of constraints).**
Notice that Barnes's core idea does not rely on heavy duty metaphysics and is compatible with all kinds of natural philosophies. But it does cause problems for views that think of disability in terms of defects or special imperfections of the sort embraced by some Thomists, Christians, and (somewhat uncharacteristically, but often quite intensely) Utilitarians. I don't mean to suggest all Thomists, Christians, and Utilitarians must embrace the 'disability = defective human being' view; after all, one way to understand Barnes's core idea is to recognize in it a version of Augustinianism in which we are all defective (due to the Fall, desire, etc.). (Of course, the idea is not exclusively Augustinian; the idea of human limits is intrinsic to much Greek tragedy, the Hebrew Bible, etc.)
At The University of Chicago, I had been exposed to a heavy dose of so-called (Pittsburgh based) Wittgenstein-heavy Aristotelianism and Analytical Thomism (inspired by work of Anscombe, Geach, and Foot). While the interest in that tradition is not, I think, primarily to label some forms of life defective (or disabled) [on the contrary, it is really about articulating the conditions of flourishing and virtue], I did encounter the idea there that some ways of being human are evidently defective. Because we live in a culture that celebrates images of young and fit bodies, it is hard to resist the ableism.
While appeal to Darwinism blocks some of the perfectionist strains (although leaves it difficult to say what 'life' or 'flourishing' is), even within Darwinism it is fairly natural to talk about normal (or proper) species functioning and once you allow function-talk there is plenty of space to slide into thinking that some members of a species are less fit, less able to survive, malfunctioning, etc. (After all, Platonic Eugenics was not banished by Darwinism, but rather with nods to 'fitness' made more 'scientific' within it!) While, of course, within Darwinism it is not allowed to make deviations from the 'normal' normative, it is a recurring temptation (and I lacked tools to block it). As Barnes writes (in the Preface):
Maybe it's because I was reading Barnes's book while sick in bed during my official holiday, but the idea that my life is limited and constrained by my body finally grabbed hold of me. (This is a distinct feeling from recognizing one's mortality [recall].) It's not that I am not in awe of my wife, who climbs mountains and heli-skis, but I don't think of my inability to climb Mont Blanc as a limitation; I just don't think about it. Most of my needs for recognition are oriented toward qualities associated with my mind [and officially I am no substance dualist!], and most of my demands on myself are oriented toward my ability to care for others and how I cope with and accommodate their limitations (some other time I'll discuss how this connects to fatherhood, which involves a lot of facilitating a child's bodily constraints). It's not that my life is without constraints: I notice the absence of time (and sometimes money) regularly.
But I also became this person. Looking back, I recall that I was a competitive tennis-player as a teenager. At some point I must have recognized without much willingness to confront it that I would not become a college varsity player (let alone a pro). What's key here is that we do not ordinarily understand, I think, our own flourishing and way-of-being as determined by such constraints unless someone else (society, etc.) confronts us with our bodily limitations (e.g., in advertisements and popular culture; or other people's lack of attraction to us). After all, we all adapt our preferences due in part to the limitations of our bodies---that's an utterly ordinary thing to do.
+To be sure, it's not the only important idea!
*It's possible that the property of 'being really important to' is not limited to humans. That's fine. The core idea is not a definition.
**I thank Barnes for discussing these issues with me in correspondence.