Culture At Large

The RoboLaw Project and a Christian view of disability

Jason E. Summers

Much of Christian ethical thinking about medical technology has focused on whether particular technologies (such as genetic testing) are appropriate and whether restrictions should be placed on development of particular technologies (such as those intended for enhancement of human capabilities). While these are legitimate areas of focus, the recently inaugurated RoboLaw Project should suggest to Christians the importance of also addressing the public-legal implications of current and future medical technologies.

The RoboLaw Project seeks to clarify issues that arise in the definition of disability given advances in robotics and biotechnology (such as robotic exoskeletons or stem-cell treatments for nerve deafness) that promise to restore normal abilities with unprecedented efficacy. With the increasing capability of these technologies, it is less appropriate to define disability as an “impairment that substantially limits one or more…major life activities.”

Ability-restoring technology has long been a part of medicine. Eyeglasses, hearing aids and tooth crowns are merely different in degree from the most recently developed technological artifacts in their sophistication and ability to restore function. Still, some Christians have expressed reservations about recent technological advances, particularly, as they become more integrated with the bodies of their users.

Certainly some reticence results from the perceived tie between technologies that seek to fully restore abilities and the problematic efforts to eliminate disability by genetic testing. Yet the reticence also has roots in a peculiar sort of Cartesian dualism (“brains on a stick”) that views technologies that interact with the brain and others that evoke the negative connotations of the term “cyborg” as different in kind from other more familiar technologies such as artificial hearts. But, as heirs to the Hebrew understanding of the human person, Christians should instead be among those most able to engage with modern understandings of embodied cognition that reject such simplistic brain/body distinctions.

To be sure, some reticence also results from a distrust of the intrinsic Liberalism and the accompanying belief in the salvific power of technology that undergird much development of medical technology addressing disability. Recent coverage of the RoboLaw project begins with the bold claim from roboticist Hugh Herr that disabilities are “conditions that persist ‘because of poor technology.’” Because disability seems to undermine the Liberal ideals of individualism, autonomy and self-reliance, Liberalism has long had an uneasy relationship with disability, as Holland Stewart recently outlined in a paper at the Christians in Political Science Conference. Thus, while legal protections such as the Americans with Disabilities Act have made great advances in eliminating discrimination and providing fair and equal treatment, they have done so with an implicit understanding that equality is conditional: it comes through legislative means of making those who are disabled “normal” in the sense of being able to fulfill Liberal ideals.

The recently inaugurated RoboLaw Project should suggest to Christians the importance of addressing the public-legal implications of current and future medical technologies.

Conditional worth afforded through normalization of ability, whether effected by legislative or technological means, is a weak and, ultimately, unrealizable protection. Contrary to Herr’s claim, technology cannot eliminate disability any more that it can provide perfect security. Instead, human value must be grounded in teleology - what people are created to be - and that, as Amy Julia Becker has written, is a sort of perfection attainable by those of all abilities: one that constitutes acknowledgement of brokenness and dependency.

This grounding of human value in created teleology does not, however, undermine the legitimacy of seeking technological means of addressing disability. Development of technology is part of the cultural mandate and rightly functions, through common grace, to ameliorate the effects of the fall. Thus, rightly understanding human value as grounded in individual teleology should lead us to consider how best to ensure justice for all people - particularly as disability comes to be characterized less by absent abilities and more by new types of technologically enabled abilities with distinct advantages and limitations (e.g., biomechanical robotic prosthetics and electronic sensory organs for veterans and those having physical impairments from birth).

The distinction between therapy (restoration of normal abilities) and enhancement (extending abilities beyond that which is normal) has been core to ethical evaluation of medical technologies. But, as RoboLaw researcher Anton Vedder has observed, this distinction relies on the fuzzy concept of normality. And, in as much as the notion of normality is tied to the Liberal view of justice as equal outcomes, I believe that Christians should provide a more nuanced view.

New technologies that address disability cannot achieve perfect mimesis and consequently will result in differently abled persons, with abilities that both extend beyond and fall short of those we consider normal. For example, a current-production robotic prosthetic arm may have superhuman strength, but lack fine-motor control. Justice in the soon-to-be future will require that we now develop appropriate understandings of how to grant public-legal recognition for this plurality of abilities.

What Do You Think?

  • How would you define a Christian understanding of disability?
  • How should that guide us as we experience advances in robotics and biotechnology?


Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, News & Politics, Justice