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Protecting the Body: Principles for the Future

“There’s a war going on over our bodies,” argues a recent essay [1] by Susie Orbach, a noted therapist. She speaks not of overt violence, but rather the alluring “promise of trouble-free, almost body-free existence as we move towards futures constituted by algorithms and synthetic biology.”

According to Orbach, ours may “well be the last generation to inhabit bodies that are familiar to us” given trends in plastic surgery, artificial intelligence, gene modification, cell manipulation, and more. Increasingly we view our bodies as free to make and manipulate as we wish. Bodies are produced rather than inhabited, and products can be sold, advertised, or augmented for consumption, either by ourselves or by others, off- or online. It’s not just the fantasy world of Instagram filters, either, for “ageing and dying are now being reconceived as infirmities and potentially unnecessary.”

As a result, she argues, we are wracked with bodily insecurity. Not simply the fear of being thought ugly or undesirable, although Orbach recounts patients suffering from “anorexia, self-harm, the wish to do away with a body part …, sexual identity confusions.…” Even more, the insecurity is about even having a human body with its limits, functions, needs, and vulnerabilities. This insecurity is so fundamental, according to Orbach, that she prescribes vigilance “about our rights to have a body.” Note, not to do this or that with our body but the right to have a body at all.

Consequently, as we move into this brave new world of previously unimaginable control over our bodies, the need for good principles to guide our reflection and action is vital. Without claiming to provide an exhaustive list, let alone a solution to every issue, I suggest three guiding principles.

First, it is crucial to have a true vision of the human person, an anthropology, rejecting both dualism and reductionism. Dualism holds that I have an identity, or self, distinct from my body, and thus my body is my property to use and dispose as I wish. Reductionism, to the contrary, suggests that I am nothing but a body, no more than an organic robot comprised of parts and functions. Neither are true; instead, I am a composite being, with two principles of my constitution: a body informed by a spiritual or intellectual principle. I am not simply body, I am not simply mind, but neither am I two entities. Since I have a spiritual or intellectual principle, I am free and self-governing; since I have a bodily principle, I am not an angel or a free-floating mind. Moreover, because I am free, I am responsible for my actions I do with my body, or to it, but it is not a mere hunk of malleable flesh. The body is personal, for it is mine, and the body ought to be treated as a person is to be treated, for the body is a constitutive aspect of persons.

Second, morally responsible actions can never knowingly and directly act against the good. There are a variety of goods to be pursued, and we cannot always choose each of them at the same time. For instance, the good of friendship may require me to not head to the gym just now, a trip which would assist the goods of life and health, because my friend needs my help. I choose to seek the good of friendship but do not—just now—seek the good of health. This, however, does not choose against health, for I am not harming my body or my health or my life in choosing friendship. However, if I were to choose against the good of life and health—say by excessive drinking or suicide, I would have acted wrongly. This gives us an expansive but limiting principle when considering the power we have over our bodies. Yes, we are free to augment our lives and our health with medicine and exercise and new technology, but we are not morally free to act against the health, integrity, and life of our body—or the bodies of others—or to seek our bodily health in a way which acts knowingly and directly against some other good. We are quite free to augment our bodily lives, but not infinitely free.

Third, we are entering into this brave new world in ignorance. We simply do not know the consequences to our well-being or the well-being of others of these new powers, including emotional, physical, environmental, social, and religious well-being. As Hans Jonas and others have argued, in such ignorance we have an imperative to be responsible, to act cautiously, and to act in such a way that our powers do not preclude the possibility of living a human life, either for ourselves or for future generations. Since we do not know whether some powers over our body—say new forms of reproductive technologies—would mean for the ability for our descendants to live fully human lives, we have a grave responsibility to be cautious, to refrain, and to admit our ignorance.

Perhaps ours is the last generation with recognizable bodies, but it would be quite terrible if these new bodies were incapable of fully human lives, however insecure and vulnerable these lives of ours may be.