The ameliorative project asks us to look at more than these familiar considerations when evaluating explanatory adequacy. When evaluating theories of social categories, the ameliorative project asks us to consider what role these categories have to play in social progress--with the background assumption that understanding and explaining social injustice is part of what will help us to address it....When we're dealing with theories of social kinds and social categories, part of the work such a theory needs to do is distinctively social work...
What is interesting, worthwhile, useful, etc. about disability as a category is, I content, that it's a social category people have found useful when organizing themselves in a civil rights struggle...The social category of disability is philosophically interesting, that is, because of the disability rights movement. -- Elizabeth Barnes (2016) The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (41-2)
Yesterday, I noted in passing, that in her analysis Barnes relies on a notion of progress. But there are really multiple notions of progress at work in her arguments. First, the one described above, is the notion of social progress that is embraced by the "disability rights" movement that understands itself as a "civil rights struggle." (Among the most interesting passages in the book are Barnes's treatment of the role of 'pride' in this struggle to be found in the sixth chapter.) This struggle is about many things, in addition to gaining "civil rights" including obtaining (political, social, legal) recognition (not Barnes's term, but it includes the right to a social space to "celebrate a marginalized feature" (182)), combat prejudices and stereotypes (173), and develop -- as Barnes emphasizes -- insights into what we can know (183). That is, Barnes's explanatory project hopes to contribute to progress.
As an aside, participation in such a civil rights struggle can also generates what I (with a nod to L.A. Paul) have called 'Transformative Political Experience' (TPE [recall]). Such a struggle is intended to change the identity of both society as well as the individuals that participate it in lots of intended, but also (foreseeable) surprising ways. Barnes quotes many activists whom express sentiments like these, "My life and my thinking were liberated...These disability warriors taught me a new way to live that frees me from my past." (184, quoting Tammy S. Thompson) TPEs are to be expected from participation in social movements.
Second, Barnes appeals to previous social progress in other social categories during her arguments. She has to do so, in part, because she is combating the (let's stipulate) prejudices of deeply entrenched common sense, including practices of "social ostracism" (153) as well as the authority of numerous moral and metaphysical theories who take the intrinsic badness of disability for granted. The idea is something like, if common sense and moral theory has been wrong in the past, it can be so again.
This strategy is especially notable in her treatment of adaptive preferences, where she draws on let's call them enlightened attitudes that have become more widespread and the consequence of overcoming a "history" in which the "female body was pathologized in much the same way that the disabled body is currently pathologized" or the "more recent" common attitudes that "being gay was a type of psychological disorder" (134). This history of successful social progress is presupposed as (i) a partial template for the progress she wishes to contribute to and (ii) as a shared understanding between Barnes and her readers. And, rhetorically, Barnes relies on (ii) throughout the book. By embracing (ii) Barnes, thus, runs the risk of alienating those readers who are reserved about (say) gay liberation or other aspects of modernity in various ways.*
Third, the "conception of disability" Barnes wishes to explain is distinctly "modern" (44). It is itself the consequence of the partial success of the "disability rights movement" and the "social solidarity" found in it. (44) I say 'partial' because as we have seen, Barnes is clear that more progress is needed (see, for example, 52).
Even though the conception is modern, Barnes allows herself to apply the concept (anachronistically) to prior historical agents: "Richard III had a physical condition such that the (actual, present) rules for making judgments about solidarity employed by the disability rights movement classify that condition as something the disability rights movement is promoting justice for," (50; emphases in original). I leave aside here, the interesting question if such a judgment hinders or promotes historical understanding about Richard III (for us or for him [somewhat controversially among historians, I have defended the use of anachronism [recall here and here]). But reflection on this points the way toward a fourth, notion of progress embedded in her treatment.
Barnes is interested in the category of what "we currently call disability." (52) She never fully explains who belongs to this (perhaps thin) unity, 'we.' It's clear from the passage I just quoted (and lots of other things Barnes say) that it applies to those who are likely to accept or fall under the "rules" of application (of the term 'disabled') as worked out in the (evolving and sometimes fractious) 'disability rights movement' that help Barnes 'rigidify' the content of 'disability.' Barnes is admirably clear that her species of (modest) social constructivism is compatible with (i) social indeterminacy (49--no surprise because Barnes is one of the leading metaphysicians of indeterminacy [recall])--, (ii) social contingency (53), and (iii) that our interest in this category can change even disappear across "times and worlds." (52)
But she does not address what to make of those in our times who may not be part of the disability rights movement because, say, either (a) they are not on board with the first three notions of progress* (because they are reactionaries in some sense) I had listed above or, more interestingly to Barnes's aims, (b) because they live in culturally distant lands where various civil rights movements are seen as threatening indigenous ways of life. Let's stipulate that the disability rights movement is also intended for them (that is, (b)) and culturally sensitive and inclusive; even so, there may be cultural and social routes to the empowerment and amelioration of their locally entrenched, 'disabled' lives that are not well-served by the categories and aims of 'us.'
That is, there is an unacknowledged danger in Barnes's project of giving a "philosophical account of disability in general" (55; emphasis only added on 'in general'), which may unintentionally hinder or displace other ameliorative projects. Here Barnes participates in (fourth) a totalizing progressive, tendency characteristic of philosophy since Plato (but distinctive of Enlightenment thought). That would be no problem if the culturally distant lands were culturally isolated from 'us.' Yet, because Anglophone philosophy and culture is (still) dominant and, in academic context, the template that is to be emulated by university and grant administrators everywhere, this is not an idle speculation. As it happens I am an ignoramus about the ways in which disability is conceptualized and empowered/ameliorated in different cultures, so I can't judge if this danger is truly real or mere idle speculation.
The point is this: Barnes's project is set up to allow for "contextual variation" (53) within a culture. Yet, the way I understand her project it (unintentionally, perhaps) runs the risk of tacitly assuming cultural hegemony at a given time even though it is nobly committed to combating hierarchy within our culture. To the best of my knowledge performing analysis of social concepts that does not run such risk has eluded analytical philosophy thus far (recall also this post and this one.)
*It is notable, for example, that Stateside the American Disability Act, for all its limitations, enjoyed bipartisan support in ways that long eluded other civil rights movements.