We humans have bodies. We also are bodies. That is the profound reality of embodiment, of being personal bodies. It is also our most personal challenge. If we are ever able to accept who and what we are, we have to accept the rich but often ambiguous paradoxes of being body-persons.
We experience our bodies as limits, but at the same time they are opportunities to be real and engaged in the world. Our bodies are our self-revelation to the world; but they often conceal our full reality. We can experience them as objects of study and we can discipline them when we learn to walk or dance or play a musical instrument. At the same time they are glorious revelations of our self-knowledge, in art and science, or in a beautiful union of the physical and spiritual when we become the music we play or the athletic moves we master. Our bodies humble us in their creaturely dependency, and they are our glory when they reveal our transcendence.
The ambiguities of being embodied persons have led some people over the ages to propose a deceptively simpler account of what we are. Why not be one or the other: either a mere body, a thing or a vaunted mental self freed from our humble physicality? Maybe we are just animals or even machines. On the other hand, maybe we are just minds or brains. But both options split us in half and turn one part of us against another. Both require a depersonalization of our bodies.
Such is the world of alienated human bodies. They are things set apart from our personal being.
Concretely, we can see how this occurs in human sexuality. In its most extreme form, alienated, depersonalized sex is at the rotten core of rape— literally turning others into mere things, robbing them of their personal meaning. Sadism and masochism are mirror images of sexual alienation. Lesser forms of depersonalized sex are pornography or fetish-ism—sexual engagement with things—and the body as commodity, obvious in prostitution. One may also wonder whether the repression of feeling, commitment and deepest personal longings is emblematic of the casual “hooking up” culture.
More generally, the ideology of alienation from our bodies touches upon our very identity as human persons. In early 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics shocked many of its readers by publishing an article asserting that newborn babies are no more persons than fetuses are. Its “medical ethicist” authors, while admitting that neonates are genetically human, hold that such humans are not subjects “of a moral right to life” because they lack the properties of persons who can view their own existence as having value. They coin the term “after-birth abortion” for the killing of such depersoned human bodies, since there is no damage to their personal interests.
Our estrangement from our very bodies, our humble origins and helpless dependency upon others is paralleled by the increasingly fashionable claim that a person can be dead even though that person’s body is alive. A number of ethicists over the past decades have followed in the steps of philosophers like Peter Singer and Mary Ann Warren, who have argued that helpless and dependent men and women, deprived of their “higher” brain functions, are no longer members of our privileged caste of persons.
As Walter Glannon writes in Biomedical Ethics: “If persons are defined essentially in terms of the capacity for consciousness, then a person dies when the region of the brain that generates and sustains this capacity permanently ceases to function. Perhaps we should say there are two definitions of death; one for persons and one for human organisms.”
Of course, if newborns and the mentally incapacitated are excluded, like the unborn, from the family of human persons, we may do with them anything we want. But the ultimate price will be paid not only by our wounded and vulnerable brothers and sisters.
There are terrible possibilities facing us in this new century, from endless war to economic collapse and civil disorder; but perhaps the most terrible is the most subtle. If we succumb to the temptation to divest ourselves of our bodied condition for the sake of some alienating dream of autonomous and disembodied minds, we may indeed achieve the twisted desire. But if we do, it will be at the cost of our very selves.