22 Mar 2009

Siep, Normative Aspects of the Human Body, 2 Evaluation of the Human Body

by Corry Shores
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Ludwig Siep
Normative Aspects of the Human Body

II: Evaluation of the Human Body

Through humanity's history, we have treated our bodies in a wide variety of different and opposing ways: as,
1) the prison of the human soul or the presence (Dasein) of human personality,
2) God's image or the devil's tool,
3) the source of vexation or the source of happiness.

Our body is made of flesh. In this way it belongs to the material world. Yet, our true spiritual essence does not belong to this world. In fact, our spirit longs to rid itself of its material confines. Hence "death is the best thing that a philosopher or a true believer can strive for." (172b) However, the body is also our source of pleasure. As such, it is the "abiding now" (nunc stans). Hence it is our only way of really achieving immortality.

Our bodies have a great variety of parts that together function harmoniously. Our organic nature has on-the-one-hand served as the standard for perfection in art and technique. But it is also what makes us "closer to worms than to any higher spiritual being." (172 bc) And according to one perspective, our organic harmony is viewed as a mirror image of the cosmos. So our body's organization should serve as a model for our human communities. But from another perspective, our body's organization can be seen as a "whimsical and insatiable tyrant enslaving the human mind and with its violent passions destroying all forms of human communities." (172c)

We see that in the very least, these above evaluations are based on certain metaphysical, moral, and religious presuppositions. Also, they are founded in different senses and uses of the term "body." In some cases it is metaphorical. And in others it is empirical. Or it could be biological, medical, philosophical, or poetic. So the meaning of "body" is not completely univocal. However, it is also more than mere word-play. (172d)

So there is a very wide diversity of ways that humans have conceived their body. And the ways we have treated our body is no less diverse and contradictory. Some have neglected or punished their bodies. Others have devoted their whole life to its beauty, health, or performance. (172-173) As well, many have altered their body in a great variety of ways and for a broad array of reasons. Some have influenced the growth or size of their body for the sake of religion, aesthetics, hygienics, medical health, or its instrumentation. Some means to do so are nutrition, natural and chemical drugs or poisons, directly cutting it, or mechanically changing its parts. Deformities have been no less important. There was a famous 18th century beggar who allowed people to use his hunchback for a writing desk. And some Indian parents have actively deformed their children's bodies by breaking their legs. They do so in order to prepare them for a life in begging. (173a)

So humanity has viewed and treated its body in a wide variety of ways. Hence it might seem that there is no good way to speak scientifically about its normative or evaluative aspects. But there is still one way to do so. We could examine how different cultures, religions, and philosophical perspectives have understood the nature and value of the human body. We could then consider the norms for the body's treatment which follow from its different conceptions.

But contemporary societies are pluralistic. And their citizens are autonomous. They have constitutional rights to conceive and treat their bodies any way they choose. So it seems that these cultural and traditional norms would not serve a contemporary ethics of the human body.

Sieb wonders. Really? Instead it seems our culture's evaluation of the body limits the ways we may treat it. We still debate abortion, euthanasia, sex-change surgury, self-mutilation, somatic gene therapy, and so forth. Although, in many cases other people's interests are involved. We might consider the embrio as an individual. Then it would have rights. And when people mutilate themselves, that might burden our medical insurance. And a doctor's moral beliefs factor-in when deciding to perform euthanasia. Also some conservatives hold normative views about what is natural in morality and law. For example, some conservatives hold that homosexuality is unnatural. So we see that altering our own body has consequences for others. This could ground a normative standard for how we can treat our body.

Things, however, are different now that we have the the potential to alter our genome. So it seems we cannot really base our normative ethics on issues regarding how others are affected. So for example, we would like to say that it is wrong to change the human genome. But doing so might not be much different from certain cultural traditions that alter our body. Nonetheless, it does seem that these enhancements will affect future generations. So in this way it does involve the interests of others. And perhaps that means we are entitled or even obligated to help future generations genetically. If so, we need to determine the criteria for evaluating the worth of given genetic programs. For this reason, we need to create an "evaluative view of the human body, which can generate norms." (174a) This is not a private matter. These genetic choices we make will be imposed on others.

Yet, we must distinguish two concerns:
1) the problems of permitting people to enhance their body or its genetic make-up, and
2) the criteria for how we can alter future generations' genetic constitution.

But both concerns share these common questions:
a) Is the human body merely an instrument of its owner's wishes?
b) Thus can the owner enhance it according to his desires?

Sieb says no. He offers four theses:

1) We must regard the body holistically. And the human body as a whole is the "basis and point of reference for our social rules." So if we change our body, this might have social consequences. It is a public task to anticipate and evaluate these possible changes.

2) Our body feels pleasure and pain on account of its feelings, performance, health, and beauty. This is the source for some of our values. They tell us what other humans need too. There are many types of people who are incapable of defending their interests, for example, the poor, the unborn, the future generations, and the handicapped. We can know that these other people too will have bodily needs like our own.

3) The human body has a "traditional shape." We should regard it as our common heritage. It's owner may not treat it as its property or as its tool.

4) We cannot assume that we know what the future generations will want and need. Hence we may not change this bodily heritage on their behalf. However, there could be some instances where we might save future generations from "expected heavy suffering." In those cases the public will need to debate the matter.

[Directory of other entries in this series.]

Siep, Ludwig. 'Normative Aspects of the Human Body.'Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. (2003) 28(2), pp.171-185. Available online at:
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