Here’s another post I wrote recently for ThinkTheology but forgot to share with you. Sorry!
At the risk of making it seem like all of us on this blog have suddenly developed an unhealthy (and frankly un-Christmassy) obsession with death, I wanted to offer a post off the back of Liam Thatcher’s recent series on immortality.
I’ve found his series really excellent – stretching, fascinating and enlightening – and I wish he’d written it about a year ago when I was writing my MA dissertation. I was looking at how we treat dead bodies, and using that as a way in to considering the role of the body in the concept of personhood.
Throughout history and throughout the world, mankind has believed that there is something special about human corpses. Rather than treating the corpse as garbage, an empty shell, the husk which once housed a person but can now be discarded with no more regard than a piece of chaff, people have prepared bodies, dressed them, preserved them and disposed of them with ritual and care. Those rituals differ from place to place, but the underlying fact is that they exist.
Of even greater significance is that fact that they continue to exist in a world in which Plato’s conception of the dualism of body and soul is so widely accepted – if not even assumed. Few people in the West today would disagree with the idea that the ‘real’ person is some intangible part of them that vanishes at the point of death, leaving only a husk behind. The logical outworking of this position would be to consider the body as something akin to a prison or a shell, which “ought to be thrown away as worse than dung”1 after the soul – the true self – has been released from it. This just isn’t the way humans treat bodies, though. It is seen as hugely disrespectful, sacrilegious, even abhorrent in some deeply visceral way, to do anything that harms the body even long after death.
This has been illustrated to me time and again when talking about my dissertation. I tell people about some of the things you can donate your body to – not just the vague and over-arching ‘medical science’ which sounds noble, clinical and impersonal in reassuringly equal measure, but things like ballistics testing, where your body can be shod with the latest technology in army boots and lowered onto a live land mine to see how much damage is caused, or be shot in the face at close range to test the effectiveness of non-lethal weapons. If the body is just a husk, this should cause no qualms at all; the research is directly related to saving other lives, and specifically the lives of police- and service-men and –women – the good guys who keep us safe. Why wouldn’t you want your old rubbish put to such a good cause?
Of course, part of the reason is to do with our relational nature. Your body is not just your body – it’s your mother’s child’s body and your child’s parent’s body. It’s your husband’s wife’s body and your brothers’ sister’s body (or vice versa). It represents love, friendship and memories; hopes, dreams and fears. The bullet isn’t just being fired into an arrangement of ocular devices, nasal cavities and labioglossal tissue – it is damaging the eyes that shone when they saw you, the nose that wrinkled at your smelly feet and the mouth that laughed and talked and kissed and ate day after day, appearing in memory after memory. We know it doesn’t hurt them, but the visualised destruction is still distressing.
Yet this cannot be the full explanation of our distaste, otherwise it wouldn’t matter if those who died alone with no family and no mourners (a surprisingly high number per year) were used for such experiments. If the value of the body is entirely bound up in its relationships, then surely those who die relationless can be shipped off to be experimented on without compunction. The fact that this sounds barbaric suggests that at some level we hold the body in higher esteem than we think we do – could this be an affirmation of Liam’s proposed “combination of holism and dualism [suggesting] that man is made of two parts, but [affirming] the functional unity and integration of the whole, without making Platonic value judgments between the two parts”?
So far, so interesting, if in a somewhat esoteric sense. I want to contend, though, that it has some important practical implications, particularly for some of the hottest topics of our time.
If it is true that the body is of equal value to the concept of personhood as is the mind (the terms ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ are often used interchangeably in philosophical discussions of personhood, ‘soul’ being such a religiously-weighted word), then if either is missing or damaged, the person still has value and we who have both are honour-bound to treat him as such. If we act respectfully to the body of a deceased person, believing that in some way he can be harmed, even after death, by the harming of his body, what does this mean for those who are still alive but whose bodies and minds are not functioning fully?
Firstly, severely physically disabled humans must count fully as persons, even if they are not able to express a desire to remain alive, for even though their bodies do not function the same as those of most other people, they are still possessors of both bodies and minds.
Secondly, severely mentally disabled humans must count fully as persons, even if they are not able to express a desire to remain alive, for even though their minds may not function the same as those of most other people, they are still possessors of both bodies and minds.
Thirdly, the elderly and infirm must count fully as persons, even if they are not able to express a desire to remain alive, for even though neither their minds nor their bodies may function the same as those of most other people, they are still possessors of both bodies and minds.
Fourthly, and perhaps most controversially, pre-natal babies must count fully as persons even before they are able to express a desire to remain alive, for even though neither their minds nor their bodies may function the same as those of most other people, they are still, from a very early stage of development in the womb, possessors of both bodies and minds.
Many secular philosophers seek to argue that the measure of personhood is an awareness of oneself as a continuing thinking being – an ability to have (affirmed, to all intents and purposes, by an ability to express) memories of the past and desires for the future – and that when this ability is not present, our moral obligations to the husk in front of us are no greater than those we have to an empty box or discarded crisp packet.
Faced with such a perspective, it can be hard to know where to begin to make our counter-argument – I submit that our intuitive, deeply ingrained respectful treatment of corpses is one helpful place to start.
[Note: One of our blog commenters pointed out that there was a bit of woolly thinking in my argument, that I see it as irrational to think bodies or persons can be harmed after death, but rely on our instinctive desire to behave respectfully towards them as the crux of my argument. I clarified my position in the comments like this:
I think the way I’d want to reconcile it is to say that often our instinctive reactions/responses to things can be revealing of our truest, deepest understanding of their value. The way we act on those instincts may be (or appear) irrational, but that doesn’t detract from the validity of the impulse, it just reflects our limitations as humans.
I hope that helps.]
1. Attributed to Heraclitus, cf NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003) p. 49 footnote 97