Towards a Good Life?

A discussion of the Western philosophical tradition and the lives of people with learning difficulties.

Author: Jan Walmsley

In the book I published in 2010 with Kelley Johnson, we explored what a good life might mean for people with learning disabilities, and consciously looked beyond the ‘usual suspects’ which, since c. 1979 (Jay Report) have informed progressive policy making - normalization, social role valorization and the social model of disability in its various iterations. 

We were moved to do this because we seem to have got stuck. Ever more enlightened and visionary policies, but they have not delivered a better life for many people with learning disabilities, as shown by the English National Survey (Emerson et al 2005). Could we, we wondered, shed any light by looking beyond the disability literature to wider western views of what constitutes a good life.

It was a task we embarked upon with trepidation. Neither of us is a philosopher, but it was to philosophy that we needed to look. It’s a huge area, and much has been written, and there were we, two women with a name for ‘inclusive research’, oral and life histories, pragmatic, even practical methodologies at the far end of the scale from the abstractions of philosophy.

We did it, and to be fair Kelley did most of it, we distilled from the piles of books four themes that western philosophers believe are constituents of a good life: 

In this short piece I explore these ideas briefly, and relate them to the situation of people with learning disabilities, but this is done at greater length in the book, and I encourage you to read it.

Western Philosophy: a distillation of good life themes

Pleasure/virtue and duty

The tension between pleasure and virtue or duty is central to western philosophy, and different thinkers take varying positions on this. Plato saw the good life as dependent upon the use of wisdom or virtue, pleasure came from the exercise of duty and virtue. In Christian thought duty and virtue heavily outweigh pleasure. Pleasure will be the reward in heaven for those who pursue a life of virtue. Later philosophers like Bertrand Russell argue that pleasure is central to a good life - but it is not sufficient. Pleasure is fleeting and episodic, linked to our inner values, the way we reflect upon our lives.

For people with intellectual disabilities the exercise of duty and virtue has little emphasis in contemporary policies. Although contributing to the lives of others was one of O’Brien’s Five Accomplishments, this hardly features in Valuing People Now (2009). Rather the emphasis is on being recipients of the duty, virtue and care of others. Similarly, their pleasures are frequently defined for them by more powerful others


Zygmunt Baumann asks ‘what is wrong with happiness?’. He answers that the equation of happiness with economic growth is a fallacy, increasing affluence leads to the ‘miseries of happiness; the marginalization of people who cannot access material wealth, one upmanship, envy, the struggle for economic superiority for the rest. For Baumann, happiness is part of the way we are managed and controlled, why else should a ‘happiness czar’ be required. A focus on happiness for the self implies selfish individualism, leading to a narrowing view of the wider community and commitment to it (Lasch 1995).

Obviously affluence is a poor basis for the happiness of people with intellectual disabilities, who are overwhelmingly poor, included in those who are marginalized in the quest for possession of material goods. But ‘happiness’ is often on the agenda, it is what people say they are striving to provide, it is a happiness defined and designed for people, rather than by them. Policy documents are illustrated with apparently happy people standing in modern kitchens, or in front of their front door. Happiness cannot be the final goal for a good life. It may come, with fulfillment, with relationships, with comfort, but it is impossible to legislate for it or prescribe it.


Reason has been regarded as a central plank in the good life. Cottingham (1998) suggests three different approaches:

Reason defined in narrow intellectual terms, transcending the dangers of passion and feeling. Platonic thought sees the good life as one whose worth depends upon the pursuit of rational inquiry
A good life as one where the full range of human potential is realized, when passion and reason co-exist in equilibrium (Aristotle)
The view associated with the eighteenth century Enlightenment which equated human history with progress related to our increasing knowledge and understanding of the natural world, and the means to control it.

Overwhelmingly, these male thinkers outlaw emotions and passion as disturbing to the equilibrium sought through the exercise of reason. This has been challenged by some women, for example Martha Nussbaum argues for a rehabilitation of emotions as suffused with intelligence and discernment.

Notoriously, C20 thinker Peter Singer placed reason at the core of what makes us human, and used this to exclude people with intellectual disabilities from the status of human being. It is perhaps this extolling of reason at the heart of a good life that is at the core of the exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities who are defined by their ‘significant limitations in intellectual functioning’ as the 2002 American Association of Mental Retardation definition has it. The view that people with intellectual disabilities have impaired reason may stop us from paying proper heed to their inner lives, their meanings, rather seeking to impose a life that can be called ‘good’ by its external trappings which brings us back to happiness.

Is it possible to envisage a world in which reason holds a less exalted place in favour of a recognition of interdependence? If not then the task of rendering equal access to a good life becomes well nigh impossible.

Freedom and Constraint

Thomas Hobbes paints a graphic picture of a society where freedom is not constrained. It will be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (1969 p. 143). He accords the state, the ‘Leviathan’, the duty of protecting its citizens from the consequences of misuse of freedom. John Rawls (1999) argues that as rational human beings we develop a social contract resting on 2 principles, freedom to pursue the life we want to lead providing it does not harm others; economic and social inequality is unavoidable, but the institutions of society should protect the less well off.

Rawls assumes a social contract existing between individuals who are equal to one another in their freedom to suggest how society should be organized, based on their reasoning and ability to participate. Nussbaum has pointed out that his theory excludes those whose ‘reason’ is not seen as equal. People with intellectual disabilities are those whose interests must be protected in a Rawlsian sense, rather than active citizens who participate in formulating a just and fair society. As with ‘reason’, there is a fundamental exclusion here.

People with intellectual disabilities are constrained by others in their exercise of freedom, and while this may be necessary for safety, it nonetheless renders their citizenship problematic.


Where then did this brief incursion into western ideas about attaining a ‘good life’ lead us? It showed us that in two areas pleasure/virtue/duty and happiness, quite narrow views have been imposed on people with intellectual disabilities, views which, if we take current policy at face value, equate a good life with nice homes, paid jobs and abstractions like ‘independence’ and ‘community’.

This is perhaps less serious than the implications of the emphasis on ‘reason’ on the fight for a good life for all. If the exercise of ‘reason’ is truly fundamental to attaining a good life, then the exclusion of people labeled as lacking reason seems inevitable. Here we must look to challenging the centrality of reason, using feminist arguments which seek to rehabilitate passion and emotion.

To achieve a good life for people with intellectual disabilities requires us to challenge some fundamental tenets of western thought. In this we are not alone. Women have been there, as have people from other cultures. What we conclude is that seeking to ‘fit’ people into a society whose premises fundamentally exclude is not going to succeed, rather we must challenge ideas about what makes us human. It’s a big ask.

People with Intellectual Disabilities: Towards a Good Life? is available to buy from Policy Press.


Cottingham J (1998) Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the passions in Greek, Cartesian and psychoanalytic ethics Cambridge University Press
DH (2009) Valuing People Now The Stationary Office
Emerson E, Malam S, Davies I, Spencer K (2005) Adults with learning difficulties in England 2003/4 London: Health and Social Care Information Centre
Hobbes T (1969) Leviathan Penguin
Johnson K and Walmsley J (2010) People with Intellectual Disabilities: Towards a good life Policy Press
Lasch C (1995) The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy WW Norton and Co.

The publisher is Policy Press.

People with Intellectual Disabilities: Towards a Good Life? © Kelley Johnson and Jan Walmsley with Marie Wolfe 2010.

Towards a Good Life? © Jan Walmsley 2011.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Review | 30.09.11

disability, intellectual disabilities, politics, England, Review

Jan Walmsley


Independent researcher

Also see