Most countries allow their citizens to smoke cigarettes, get intoxicated, and eat unhealthy food – despite the harms that such behavior...
Our topic this week is Regulating Bodies. My first gut instinct is to say that nobody really has the right to tell me what to do with my own body -- not even the government. It’s my body. I can do with it as I please. But then I realize that there are things like mandatory seat belt laws, prohibitions against prostitution, and laws against the buying and selling of bodily organs. All these things involve the regulation of the body. So it is definitely true that the state does regulate our bodies. But should the state really be in that business?
A negative answer suggests itself If you start with the thought that each person and each person alone has exclusive ownership of his or her body, you get pretty directly to the conclusion that as long as a person is not hurting anybody else, they should be left alone to do with their body as they please.
On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that the state has an interest in seeing to it that citizens remain healthy and able-bodied. Where are the people who fight our wars or keep our streets safe or care for and educate our children going to come from if the state just sits back and allows us all to eat and drink ourselves to early graves. I don’t mean to say that the state has the right to be a hectoring, hovering, helicopter parent. But just as the state has a legitimate claim to some of our financial resources, it seems plausible to say that it also has a legitimate claim to some of our bodily resources too. If it is alright for the state to tax away some of our wealth, why isn't it also okay for the state to expropriate some of our bodily resources too.
I don't mean to take this line of reasoning too far, however. I’m not suggesting that that state should be able to take one of my arms or one of my kidneys and redistribute it to somebody else. But suppose there was a blood shortage or a bone marrow shortage. What would be so wrong with the state actually compelling healthy people to donate blood or bone marrow to alleviate the shortage?
Maybe a skeptic would grant that donating blood or bone marrow is a good thing and allow that the state can legitimately encourage people to do so. But surely, the skeptic will say, compelling people to do so goes way too far.
That's an important point. And we definitely have to think about the limits of state power. But let’s not get hung up just yet about how far into our bodies the state may legitimately reach. Let's first look at it from a moral point of view, instead. Suppose that there’s a person right here, right now, who needs a blood transfusion or they are going to die. If you could save them by giving a pint or two of of your precious blood, aren’t you morally obligated to do so?
If you side with the skeptic here, you will respond that if one failed to give one’s blood and just let the person die, one could rightly be accused of being a callous, uncaring, s-o-b. But the skeptic will no doubt reject the implication that the dying person has some sort of right to another's blood. My imagined skeptic will insist, again, that a person’s body is entirely that person’s own. She will insist that not a single part of it belongs to the public or the government or to arbitrary strangers in need. If so, nobody else ever has a right to any part of it.
But I think we may just have to bite the bullet here. We just have to deny that a person’s body belongs to her and her alone. Let's see if that bullet blows our head off.
Start by returning to the analogy with taxation. Most people grant that society at large has a moral claim to at least a portion of our private wealth. The tricky question is how much. Clearly it would be wrong to tax people into poverty. But as long as taxation leaves people with sufficient wealth to live fully flourishing lives, society seems perfectly within its rights to demand – not just to request, but to demand -- that we all make financial contributions to the common good.
By parity of reasoning, perhpas we should conclude that just as the government can’t legitimately tax us into poverty, so it can’t legitimately violate our basic bodily integrity. That’s why, for example, neither morality nor the state can require that I give up one of my arms. But perhaps we should also conclude that as long as our basic bodily integrity is preserved, we can be morally and maybe even legally, required to give up what we might call “excess” body parts at least if doing so will increase the well-being of others. And to carry the analogy even further, think of estate taxes. Why not say that just as we confiscate the estates of the wealthy dead for the common good, maybe we should confiscate the bodily organs of the healthy dead for the common good too?
Now I admit that this is pretty heady, pretty counterintuitive stuff. Probably few will agree – at least not at first. But I hope I’ve shown that it’s really not so simple to say exactly who owns how much of one’s body and why and that there are definitely some interesting things to think about here. So now that I've whetted your appetite just a bit, why not tune in, and lend a brain, if not a hand, as we think this through?