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Puncturing Australia's cult of the mind

  • 17 September 2012

In addition to more than half a million Australians who currently live with an intellectual disability, nearly 600,000 Australians are projected to be living with dementia by 2030. Yet for most of us, our daily lives have become increasingly dependent upon advanced cognitive activity.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter exemplify the ways in which new technology continues to draw out and emphasise the life of the mind above all else. At the same time, convenient new tools like online banking and shopping carry a hidden burden of knowledge, memory, and comprehension borne entirely by the individual user. The cognitive demands of active social participation have never been so high.

We seem set on a trajectory of ever increasing reliance on individual autonomy, rationality, and self-awareness augmented by complex technologies. But if our culture glorifies the mental life of the autonomous, empowered individual, what does it offer those whose mental faculties are limited or impaired?

We are living in what ethicist Stephen G. Post has called a 'hyper-cognitive' society — a society which not only demands but idealises the mental life as the essence of personhood and individuality. Post has critiqued our present culture's implicit affront to people suffering cognitive deficits such as dementia:

I associate hypercognitive values with the Enlightenment notion of salvation by reason alone and suggest that this imperils people with dementia. Very simplistically, 'I think, therefore I am,' implies that if I do not think, I am not. In essence, the values of rationality and productivity blind us to other ways of thinking about the meaning of our humanity.

The moral implications of such values are clear. The acclaimed Princeton Philosopher Professor Peter Singer has infamously championed the view that:

The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference.

Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings.

It may be no