In one of his philosophical parables, the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (fourth century B.C.) describes a man he calls Splay-limb Shu. This man’s “chin is sunk in his belly,” Zhuangzi writes. “His shoulders are above his head, and pinched together so they point to the sky. His five organs are on top, his thighs tight against his ribs.” In Zhuangzi’s era as in our own, most people would consider Splay-limb Shu to be unfortunate.
But Zhuangzi, whose work frequently challenged society’s norms, sees things differently. He notes, for instance, that Shu is in no danger of being conscripted into the military or pressed into forced labor. Instead, he lives contentedly in his community, supporting himself by “plying a needle and taking in laundry.” Shu, Zhuangzi concludes, is “able to keep himself alive and to live out the years Heaven gave him” precisely because he is different from others.
Even today, this insight is striking. Zhuangzi poses the idea that Shu’s difference — one we would classify today as a disability — is not a misfortune, and in doing so challenges an assumption that has existed in cultures of all kinds for millenniums.
It is hard to pinpoint where this idea — that it is inherently bad to be disabled — originated, but in the West, examples go as far back as ancient Greece. The linking of virtue and beauty with “normality” appears in Plato’s account of Socrates’ dialogue with Crito, in which Socrates asserts that “the good life, the beautiful life and the just life are the same” and that life is not “worth living with a body that is corrupted and in bad condition.”
Plato’s student Aristotle later argued explicitly in “Politics” that “no deformed child should be raised,” but should instead be left to die of exposure. Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophers later found Aristotle’s normative conception of human nature congenial to the mainstream Abrahamic traditions: The ideal form of the human being exists in the mind of God, who “created man in his own image”; differences or variations from this norm are to be considered deviant. It is not coincidental that the Bible asserts that one may not become a priest if they are “a blind man, or a lame … or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye.” (Leviticus 21:18-20 KJV.)
In the Chinese context, though, Zhuangzi is arguing against a Confucian conception of “normality” that, like Aristotelianism, is teleological: A higher power, Heaven, decrees what “human nature” is, and human nature determines all the normative facts, such as how many limbs a human should have, standards of physical beauty, tastes in food and music, and morality. This view implies that to be “different” is to be defective.
We see the target of Zhuangzi’s critique in another passage of his writing, in which Confucius meets an amputee, Shushan No-Toes. Confucius is at first dismissive of No-Toes, but then, turning to his own disciples, condescendingly praises No-Toes for doing so well, despite his disability. Although it is supposed to have occurred 2,500 years ago, the pattern of the exchange will be familiar to those labeled “disabled” today. (See John Altmann’s 2016 essay “I Don’t Want to Be ‘Inspiring.’”)
But No-Toes explains that from the perspective of the universe, there is no real distinction between nondisabled and disabled: “There is nothing that heaven doesn’t cover, nothing that earth doesn’t bear up.” It is Confucius, No-Toes suggests, who is really “disabled” because of his inability to see past conventional distinctions. The very concept of disability, then, is “socially contingent,” defined by a society’s limitations, not the true worth of an individual — an argument found in the work of several contemporary philosophers of disability, including Shelley Tremain, Joe Stramondo, Melinda Hall and Cal Montgomery.
Zhuangzi understands virtue as manifested by living in accordance with nature. Corruption occurs, according to Zhuangzi, only when one deviates from nature’s path. If nature determines that a person has one arm, splayed limbs or a hunched back, the person can embrace these changes and harmonize with them. As Zhuangzi says, “Virtue [takes] no form.”
Zhuangzi is a creative and flexible author, so it is no surprise that later in the same work, Confucius is ironically appropriated as the spokesman of Zhuangzi’s own position. This Confucius says he wants to become the disciple of an amputee, “Royal Nag,” because he “looks at the way things are one [or whole] and does not see what they’re missing. He looks at losing a foot like shaking off dust.” Royal Nag (and Zhuangzi) saw, long before contemporary epistemologists, that similarity and difference are standpoint dependent: “Looked at from their differences, liver and gall are as far apart as the states of Chu and Yue. Looked at from their sameness, the ten thousand things are all one.” In short, the common assumption that it is “bad” to be “disabled” makes sense only if we project our parochial and historically contingent human values onto the fabric of the universe.
One response to this critique would be that disabilities are bad, not because they are violations of the objective teleological structure of the universe, but because they are inefficient. Those who are “disabled” are simply less functional, less able to achieve their goals, than those who are “normal.” This leads easily to the conclusion that eliminating disabilities would be better, not just for society but for the disabled themselves. Contemporary technology seems to have put this almost in our grasp. With the advent of both genetic screening technologies and Crispr gene editing, we are approaching an age in which we may be able to design the human body; perhaps soon the new normal for the American family will be designer babies. We may be approaching a world in which illness is eradicated, a world of physical and mental harmony and homogeneity among all peoples. This, many would argue, is surely the stuff of a utopia — a “brave new world.”
The seductiveness of this argument illustrates the danger of the hegemony of instrumental reasoning — reasoning employed to find the most efficient way to a given goal. It is an important aspect of wisdom, but it also carries the temptation, especially in modern capitalist society, to reduce all of rationality to means-end efficiency. In some cases, means-end efficiency results in an inappropriate and inhuman standard.
To think that we have moved beyond this pitfall would be nice, but we haven’t. It is still very much with us. As the coronavirus pandemic began to overwhelm medical capacity in the United States in March, the disability activist and writer Ari Ne’eman argued that the triage guidelines that certain states were putting into use indicated that it was preferable to let a disabled person die simply because it would require more resources to keep that person alive. The principle of granting equal value of human lives, Ne’eman wrote, would then be “sacrificed in the name of efficiency.”
We do not mean, in this brief essay, to dismiss all of philosophy outside of Zhuangzi. The sayings of Confucius include a passage in which the master is a respectful and congenial host to a blind music master (“Analects,” 15.42), and the later Confucian tradition includes the stirring admonition, “All under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows or widowers — all are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to.” Readers of the New Testament will recognize this as a core value in the teachings of Jesus. In fact, many figures and institutions in the Abrahamic traditions have been at the forefront of caring for the disabled, precisely by appealing to the Platonic view that humans’ ultimate value lies in their immaterial souls rather than their contingent material embodiments.
But in this time of rampant sickness and social inequality, and given our fundamental duty to extend equal treatment, compassion and care for others, we think Zhuangzi is an important and insightful guide, a Taoist gadfly, if you will, to challenge our conventional notions of flourishing and health. With the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act approaching, this ancient Chinese Taoist reminds us that it is the material conditions of a society that determine and define disability. We have the power to change both those material conditions and the definition of disability.
John Altmann (@iron_intellect) writes about philosophy for general audiences and is a contributor to the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series of books. Bryan W. Van Norden(@bryanvannorden) holds a chair in philosophy at Vassar College and is the author most recently of “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto.”