Body Fetishism

One way in which we, as actual persons, differ from noumenal selves is that we are embodied. So, one natural step toward a more comprehensive conception of the person that does not focus exclusively on the will involves recognizing the body as an aspect of persons that is pertinent to their dignity. But here too we are on slippery ontological grounds. A narrow but important line separates the idea of respect for embodied persons from mere body fetishism. Talk, both religious and secular, of the body’s sanctity and inviolability often crosses this line.26 There is a crucial difference between, on the one hand, exploring the implications of people’s embodiment for permissible and impermissible ways of treating them, and investing the body itself with moral value as a site of dignity and as worthy of respect, on the other.

To be sure, we often do attach value to bodies and their parts: since I am right-handed, my right hand is of greater value than my left. But notice that such practical valuations measure the body’s value for us, in contrast to the kind of valuation the idea of dignity signifies, our own value. The suggestion that the body has dignity thus involves a category mistake. The grammar of dignity and of respect is concerned with what is done to the person rather than to the body. What is done to the body attains moral significance derivatively and can be fully revealed only in a language that pertains to persons rather than to bodies and their parts. Of course, the value that the body has for us does have a bearing on how our own value ought to be protected and expressed. But the two—the body’s value and our own—remain separate ideas that should not be confused.

It would help to avoid the confusion if we attend to the difference between our ordinary body-talk and our person-talk: not everything done to the body is also done under the same description to the person whose body it is. This is masked by cases in which the same verb describes both: to kick John’s leg is to kick John. The same applies to touching and injuring. However, to break John’s leg is not to break John, and to pierce his ear is not to pierce him. These are trivial examples, and the disparity they reveal between talk of the body and of the person is easily overcome. We are inclined to say that what was done to John in these cases is simply that his leg was broken or his ear pierced. But in other cases this gap between bodily predicates and personal predicates is wider and not so readily bridged. Touching the genitals may be molesting the person; pouring water on someone’s head, baptizing him; tweaking someone’s nose, insulting him. In these cases, we can attain to the normative significance of the respective actions only by replacing the bodily descriptions with such verbs as molesting, baptizing, or insulting, which pertain essentially and exclusively to persons, rather than to bodies.

Conflating body-talk with person-talk can have far-reaching and unwelcome implications. Here are two examples. First, consider Mary, who cuts open John’s chest and mutilates his body in countless other ways. Yet if Mary is a surgeon, and what she does is surgery, then all of this bodily devastation amounts to curing John.[1] By failing to distinguish between the bodily and the personal, dominant legal doctrine would lead to the absurdity that every medical operation is a prima facie case of battery, to which the surgeon need plead a lesser-evil defense. The second example concerns a cluster of practices, most prominently the sale of human organs, that allegedly exhibit offensive “commodification.”27 I do not mean to advocate a market in body parts, but only to warn against a facile and overly confident judgment that such markets violate human dignity. Only if, say, kidneys themselves had a value beyond price would their sale be necessarily offensive. Since dignity resides in the person, to determine whether selling organs violates human dignity requires that we ascertain the meaning of such a practice and the message it conveys regarding the value of the persons whose organs are on sale.

Being alert to these and other pitfalls is important, but avoiding pitfalls does not yet give us a sense of direction and guidance in this difficult terrain. It would be nice to end this chapter on a more affirmative note, by at least gesturing in the direction of an ontology of persons that can serve as a firm foundation for the concept of dignity and determine the contours of respect. But to view ourselves as the authors of our values and as self-creating is to maintain that no such foundation exists. What we ultimately appeal to when we make a judgment about such questions as what a body-affecting action amounts to by way of affecting the person whose body it is, is the meaning of that action, which is the meaning we give it. And as Pico helped us see, to mark the ontological void in which we operate and that we must fill is not to lament a handicap that vitiates the idea of dignity but is rather to identify the source of this idea and its habitat.

  • [1] It may be objected that the example does not reveal the gap I claim, since it can be said thatwhat Mary does, though in some ways injurious to the body, is designed to heal John’s body,and so does not require a shift from body-talk to person-talk. I do not find this objection persuasive in this case; talk of healing the body is to use “body” as a metonym for the person. Butif you are troubled by the example, think of electrical shocks, psychoactive drugs, and braindissection, where interferences with the body are designed to heal the mind.
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