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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 26, 2010

The Public and The Private in the Twenty-First Century

Joseph A. Stramondo
Pages 121-134

How an Ideology of Pity Is a Social Harm to People with Disabilities

In academic philosophy and popular culture alike, pity is often framed as a virtue or the emotional underpinnings of virtue. Yet, people who are the most marginalized and, hence, most often on the receiving end of pity, assert that it is anything but an altruism. How can we explain this disconnect between an understanding of pity as a virtuous emotion versus a social harm? My paper answers this question by showing how pity is not only an emotion, but also a power relation. Using the ideas of Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, I explain how pity is understood as harmful by the one pitied because he is acutely aware of how it obscures his unequal power relation to the pitier and denies the pitier’s role in creating this domination. This is all done with an eye toward what I see as the quintessential class of people who are harmed by pity: people with disabilities.

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