The Bright Man’s Burden

On the Right of Mere Normals to Restrict the Civil Liberties of the Mildly Mentally Retarded
  • Daniel I. Wikler
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


In many states, the mildly retarded must submit to the guidance of competent persons or authorities before making important decisions.1 These include the decision to marry, to have children, to enter into financial contracts, and to live alone. Generally speaking, adults of normal intelligence may make these decisions without obtaining the consent of anyone, and they value this autonomy. When persons of normal intelligence, acting through the state, take custody of the retarded, they do not seek the consent of the retarded, who acquire protection but lose their legal rights. If we claim that relative intellectual superiority justifies restricting the liberties of the retarded, could not exceptionally gifted persons make the same claim concerning persons of normal intelligence? I propose to examine the moral importance of relative intellectual superiority, and to consider whether it can serve as adequate grounds for denying full citizenship to the mildly retarded.


Normal Person Civil Liberty Mental Capacity Competent Person Full Citizenship 
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  1. 2.
    J. Mercer, Labeling the Retarded [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973])Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    J. Feinberg, “Legal Paternalism” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 1 (1971): 105–124.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977) p. 508.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Hastings Center 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel I. Wikler
    • 1
  1. 1.Program in Medical Ethics, School of Medicine and Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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