Disability in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction: A Care and Justice Perspective

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Schotland, Sara Deutch
Cartwright, Kent
This study addresses a neglected question: how are the ill, the deformed, and the disabled treated in utopian and dystopian fiction? It might seem obvious that those with disabilities will fare better in an ideal society where they receive adequate if not generous care. However, from the beginning of utopian thought, there has been ambivalence about how to treat those who are impaired and can no longer contribute productively to the state. How can such care be justified in a society with limited resources? This is the first study that examines in detail the representation of individuals with disabilities in utopian and dystopian fiction. I apply a capacious definition to "disability" that includes not only physical or mental impairments but also significant illness and bodily deformity. I argue that in utopian and dystopian fiction, we are invited to appraise societies (in part) by the extent to which those who have physical or functional impairments are respected, and treated or neglected. I further argue that the perspectives of "justice theory" and "the Ethics of Care" can illuminate our readings of texts which utilize the trope of disability in utopia and dystopia to critique or reform social institutions. In utopian texts, generous care is provided to those who can no longer work productively. We see approaches that resemble today's Ethics of Care. In contrast, in dystopian texts, human beings are used as means to ends; their bodies literally disabled and sacrificed to achieve ulterior societal objectives. The concept of medical care is subverted--hospitals are slaughter houses, and medicines are spiked to increase the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. In dystopian worlds, vulnerable human beings are used as means to ends in violation of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. These dystopian texts send a warning about the dangers of applying utilitarian approaches to medical care and skewing the allocation of scarce resources and therapies to those who are, or seem, most valuable and productive.