Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

Josef Korbel School of International Studies

First Advisor

Alan Gilbert

Second Advisor

Micheline Ishay

Third Advisor

Jack Donnelly


Democratic theory, Disability studies, Justice as fairness, Original position, Political philosophy, Political theory


John Rawls, in Political Liberalism, acknowledges that justice as fairness, as it stands, "may fail" to deliver justice to people with severe cognitive impairment. He continues, "How deep a fault this is must wait until the case itself can be examined." The intent of this work, then, is to revisit Rawls's justice as fairness in light of intervening decades of disability consciousness and the emergence of competing theoretical constructs pertinent to the lives of people with impairment, specifically to people with an inability to reason or to reason fully, and determine whether new perspectives can expand its scope into a more comprehensive model.

A fully democratic theory of justice cannot exclude the "hard cases," so in addition to Rawls's two principles of justice, the author will argue that a third principle of justice must be included to assure true democratic outcomes. The new principle will state: All structures arising from the first two principles must be open to all human beings--fully inclusive--without exception. The author expects that this third principle will be embraced by the reasonable and rational designers because it is in their self-interest to do so. The concept of self-interest--that interest, which might sway a person's choices toward personally favorable outcomes--is seen, by this author, as inclusive of favorable outcomes for all people with whom the designer self-identifies. Arenas of self-interest expand past the boundaries of an individual's actual person and past the confines of time, to encompass others, including one's future self, whose well-being is of such importance to the designer as to define her own well-being.

Rawls means to assure a form of empathetic behavior when he constructs the veil of ignorance. In the original position, because the designer is veiled from all of his individual characteristics, Rawls forces consideration of the circumstances of every possible person the designer could be. The designer must consider those of all possible ethnicities, cultures, genders, classes, economic brackets, endowments, and other individual characteristics. Yet, the veil can never hide from the designer the fact that she can reason, and, if the designer were to make choices based on a narrow version of self-interest, the circumstances of people with cognitive impairment would remain unconsidered. Yet, people actually act within a broader definition of self-interest. The veiled designer cannot know if impairment affects his child or others with whom he identifies, nor can he know, given the nature of impairment, whether he will become impaired imminently or in the future. The unpredictable and non-discriminating nature of impairment means that its lack of consideration in the original position will expose participants, who all have impairment in a potential state, to the consequences of policy, which fails to address circumstances that might define anyone's future. Within an expanded notion of self-interest, the circumstances of people with severe cognitive and physical impairment will be represented because, among many reasons, it is personally advantageous for participants to do so.

The social relevance of people with cognitive impairment, the author will argue, highlights the need for a theoretical restructuring of concepts of contribution and value, beyond rationality, that would lead to a reconceived notion of rights-bearing status and positions of respect. Can theory redefine personhood in a non-traditional way that can, but need not, include the ability to make moral choices, in order to extend value to previously excluded individuals, who nonetheless benefit society through extra-rational contribution? The author will explore the contributions and subsequent value to society of people with cognitive impairment (and all impairment, for that matter). Notions of value should not be confused with ideas of intrinsic human worth. Acceptance of the latter does not lead individuals seeking community, based on mutual advantage, to court the participation of a non-contributor. Only social valuing can uproot the entrenched notion of worthlessness inherent in terms like "useless eaters."

For all people, life as a human being involves living inside a vessel, which is subject to entropy, disease, injury and imperfection. Historically, society has sequestered those who provide reminders of the frailty of the human body and mind, and in so doing has doggedly clung to a chosen, comfortable illusion. What has been lost in this collective behavior is the opportunity to lead truly authentic lives, to embrace and incorporate the complete human experience. People with impairment can lead us in claiming our full humanity and in so doing make an invaluable contribution.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Rights Holder

Michael Neil


Recieved from ProQuest

File Format




File Size

201 p.


Philosophy, Political Science, History