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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Epistemologies: Multiple Perspectives on the Acquisition of Knowledge
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Other deaf people find cochlear implants useful and report that being able to hear is better than being deaf. However, plausibly, those deaf people who seek implants are disproportionately likely to be unhappy about being deaf (as it is more rational to accept the risks and costs of operation if one is unhappy with one’s present state). As the sample of such individuals is likely to be biased, we cannot conclude that it is generally better to be hearing based on their reports.

The Appeal to the Natural

Often people assume that it must be a bad thing to be deaf because they consider being deaf to be a biological dysfunction and therefore “unnatural.” However, even if being deaf is a biological dysfunction, to think that this implies that it is a bad thing is simply to make a mistake. The natural is good only in children’s hymns. In actuality. “Mother Nature” does not care about her offspring, and some conditions that are bad for the individual organism are selected because they increase an organism’s inclusive fitness. To take some concrete examples, evolutionary psychologists have been struck by the fact that some mental disorders, including bipolar disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and sociopathy, seem to have a genetic cause but occur at rates too high to be the result of random mutations (Wilson, 1997). Such disorders can only occur at the rates that they do because they are evolutionarily advantageous in some way. Maybe sufferers take better care of their children or their disorder benefits other close kin. Whatever the exact mechanism, in evolutionary terms these conditions are not dysfunctions, but still they are bad conditions to suffer from. There may also be states that are biological dysfunctions but not harmful. Homosexuality is a possible example (Ruse, 1981). There is no necessary link between an organism functioning properly in a biological sense and being in a good state. As such, asking whether deafness is a biological dysfunction will not help determine whether it is a bad thing to be deaf.


What does it mean to say that a condition is a good thing for an individual? This is a very difficult question, and I cannot answer it fully here. Various accounts of the good for an individual have been proposed, but all are problematic (for an overview, see Griffin, 1986). The problems can best be understood by thinking of the possible ways of determining what is good for an individual as varying along a scale. At one end of the scale, one might rely on asking actual people what they want (the “subjective” or “desire satisfaction” approach). At the other end of the scale, one might claim that something is good for an individual if it helps that individual meet some ideal standard of human flourishing (the “objective” or “Aristotelian” approach). Between these extremes are methods that claim that something is good for an individual if that individual would judge it to be good in ideal circumstances, for example, if he or she were calmer, wiser, and better informed than in reality.

Relying on asking actual people runs into problems: People often do not know what is in their own best interest. They may make mistakes because they lack essential information. Thus, I may take great delight in my win of a free holiday to some exotic-sounding city but only because I have failed to realize that it is in the middle of a war zone. Actual people are also notoriously prone to self-deception. Surveys repeatedly find that the vast majority of people believe they are brighter and more attractive than average (for a review, see Alicke, Vredenburg, Hiatt, & Govorun, 2001). Self-deception is particularly likely to arise when people are faced with making judgments regarding their bodily states, as within our culture how we evaluate our bodies is closely linked to how we evaluate ourselves.

Given such difficulties, it is tempting to move to the opposite end of the scale and claim that something is good for someone if it helps that person to meet some ideal standard of human flourishing. Here, too, there are problems. Relying on the judgements of actual people to determine what is good is satisfyingly down to earth: We only have to ask actual people to find out whether a condition is good. In contrast, appeals to “ideal standards of human flourishing” seem disturbingly abstract. It is not clear how the ideal standards are fixed, nor is it clear how we can find out about them.

To a greater or lesser extent, all other methods on the scale are beset by the problems of the extreme methods. Methods that require idealization run into epistemic problems. As I am not ideal, it is hard for me to find out what an idealized version of myself would value. Methods that make use of the judgments of actual people risk giving the wrong answers; after all, actual people make mistakes.

Here, in seeking to determine what is good for an individual, I adopt the following strategy: I go through potential alleged benefits and disadvantages of being deaf one by one, and see if they survive scrutiny.4 I make use of our commonplace intuitions as to what kinds of thing are good or bad. Thus, I take it that advantages include having a language, having friends, and experiencing pleasant sensations and that drawbacks are things like being in pain and being lonely. While such a method may seem crude, I take it that no one seriously doubts such commonplace intuitions, and so it is worth seeing how far we can get in assessing whether it can be good to be deaf by using them alone.


The most striking differences between those who have been deaf from birth and sign and people who hear are that they experience different sensations and make use of different language modalities.

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