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Justice and Cognitive Disabilities: Specifying the Problem

1 January 2008


The question of how to treat people with cognitive disabilities (PCDs) poses an important problem for Rawlsian theories of justice because it is unclear whether PCDs are included within the scope of moral personhood. Rawls’s Standard Solution focuses on nondisabled adults as the fundamental case, while later addressing PCDs as marginal cases. I claim that the Standard Solution has two weaknesses. First, it relies on a dichotomy between nondisabled and disabled that is tenuous and difficult to defend. Second, it makes the theory circular in a vicious way. I argue that Rawls’s theory can be revised so that it solves the problem of how to treat PCDs while avoiding the two weaknesses of the Standard Solution. There are three constraints on any successfully revised Rawlsian theory: 1) it must be resourcist rather than welfarist; 2) it must provide some principled basis for limiting our obligations to PCDs; and 3) it must address the whole range of PCDs, including the most severely disabled individuals.


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