Can democratic states justify restricting the rights of persons with mental illness? Presumption of competence, voting, and gun rights


Political Science and International Affairs

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School of Conflict Management, Peacebuilding and Development

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In this paper, I scrutinize the practical and normative justifications for the semi-citizenship of persons with mental illness through a comparative examination of the voting and gun rights restrictions that are often applied to them in democratic states. Informed by Judith Failer’s work on civil commitment, I argue that rights restrictions should not be bundled together in unrelated groupings nor should they be justified through problematic efforts to predict and assess the risk of future violent behavior. Instead, I argue for an approach that presumes the competence of all to exercise rights while at the same time acknowledging that all rights holders – not just those who experience severe mental illness, would benefit from the availability of supported and substituted ways of holding rights when necessary. I elaborate this argument by showing how many of the current approaches to limiting the voting and gun rights of persons with mental illness are normatively suspect. I argue that redressing these according to a presumption of competence and supported decision-making approach will serve to (1) better meet democratic standards of equality and inclusion for persons with mental illness and (2) abandon unattainable ideals of self-mastery that undergird the dominant conception of rights claims for “normal” citizens.


Politics, Groups, and Identities

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