The Political Philosophy of the Body

Convenor: Sean Aas


Jeremy Bramhall, a famous British transplant surgeon, ‘signed’ his work by inscribing his initials onto the livers of patients, using an argon laser. Though harmless, many would agree that this sort of act is and ought to be illegal. You, and not anyone else, should get to decide what happens with your body. You have rights in your body, and its parts. But why? To answer this, we seem to require a political philosophy of the body: an account of when, why, and how societies ought to recognize our authority over the items that embody us.

Much existing work on this topic is classified as ‘applied’ or ‘practical’ ethics, and focuses on the how: what rights we have exactly, in our bodies and their parts. There are, for instance, longstanding debates about the commodification of body parts and services. Is there something distinctive, and distinctively worrying, about selling sexual and/or reproductive services? Should markets be permitted in kidneys, or in blood products?

There is less work on when something ought to be protected, as a body part. Still, philosophers and theorists have asked: Do we retain body-like rights in our body parts after we die; or, differently, while we live but after these parts are detached? What can be a body part, in the first place? Must the body be flesh and bone, or can it include inorganic items like artificial heart valves and prosthetic limbs? Should we go even further, recognizing body rights in items that realize the ‘extended mind’? As a recent article asked: could compromising your computer, or your phone, constitute assault and battery, rather than mere vandalism?

It seems likely further progress on the pressing practical issues will be enhanced by tying discussion of when and how our body rights ought to be protected with relatively novel questions concerning why we ought to protect the body in the first place. Is the morality of the body fully captured by the idea of a right to ‘bodily integrity’? Do I have rights to my body because I am my body or rather (also?) because I own my body? If body rights are based in identity, which accounts of the nature of the person support which ways of drawing bodily boundaries? If, on the other hand, body rights are more like ownership rights , how is the justification of body ownership like, or unlike, the justification of property ownership? Are body rights ‘natural’ rights, or are they ‘social constructs’? If the latter, what values ought to determine how society constructs our embodiments?

Papers are welcome on these, or any other, practical and/or theoretical question about the nature, extent, and import of our rights in our bodies and their parts.