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  • Ethical Theories and Discourses through an Ability Expectations and Ableism Lens: The Case of Enhancement and Global Regulation
  • Gregor Wolbring (bio)


Many different ethical theories have been developed over time in the Western World, Asia and other places following various traditions (for many articles, refer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [2012]).1 There are secular and religious based ethical theories. There are ethics discourses such as professional ethics, business ethics, healthcare ethics, bioethics, neuroethics and nanoethics.

How does one reconcile opposing guidance linked to the adherence to different ethical theories? How do we govern our self, human progress and advances in science and technology? How do we regulate our ethics globally? Can there be a global ethics? 215 People make cases for employing all kind of ethical theories. Some make a case for employing a fusion of various ethical theories.16 Furthermore, there is no static set of ethical theories. New ethical theories are developed and deployed and taken up constantly.17 So what makes one choose a given ethical theory or none at all or generate new ethical theories?

Ethics is about what one ought to do. However, as Sherwin recently stated, “we [ethicists] lack the appropriate intellectual tools for promoting deep moral change in our society”.18

Ethics is deeply culturally situated.1920 Ability expectations (want stage) and ableism (need stage) are an example of such a cultural dynamic.2123 Individuals, households, communities, groups, sectors, regions and countries expect certain abilities from themselves or others.24 Ableism leads to an ability based and [End Page 293] ability justified understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment.2126 The author submits that the cultural dynamic of ability expectation and ableism is entangled with ethical theories in three ways: 1) certain ability expectations were and are one trigger for the development of ethical theories; 2) a given ethical theory, depends on certain abilities to function; and 3) a given ethical theory, promotes certain abilities and as such its uptake correlates with the acceptance of certain ability expectations.

This article analyses a sample of ethical theories for their exhibited ability expectations, highlights forms of ableism evident in various ethics discourses, and discusses the implication of the findings for how we govern ourselves, chart human progress and advances in science and technology, locally and globally focusing in particular on the topic of human enhancement. The purpose of this article is to highlight the linkage between ethical theories and the social dynamic of ability expectation and ableism. I do not judge any given ethical theory or ethical reasoning in this article.

What is Ableism?

The disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain were the first to look at cultural dynamics and the cultural impact of ability expectations coining the term ableism as a cultural concept during the 1960s and 1970s.27 The disability studies field uses the term ableism to question and highlight the expectations towards species-typical body abilities (we expect certain abilities from different species; humans are supposed to walk but not to fly, birds are supposed to fly) and the disablement,28 the prejudice and discrimination people experience whose body structure and ability functioning are seen as sub species-typical and therefore labelled as “impaired”.2936 However, the cultural reality of ability expectations (want stage) and ableism (need stage) go far beyond how it is used within disability studies and by disabled activists. Individuals, households, communities, groups, sectors, regions and countries make daily numerous decisions based on ability expectations; some perceive the ability to protect one’s privacy as important, others do not; some perceive the ability to buy a house as essential, others not; some cherish being competitive, productive or efficient, others not; some find the ability to consume essential; some the ability to live in a harmonious equitable society. When ability expectations (want stage) morph into a sentiment where a given ability is seen as essential and one starts judging oneself and others based on an ability seen as essential we have reached the stage of ableism (need stage). Ableism does not have to...


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pp. 293-309
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2017
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