Anne Phillips says we have lots of rights over our bodies but no absolute authority to do what we like. John Harris doesn’t believe bodies are the sort of thing that can really be owned. Brooke Magnanti says that criticism of people’s choices about their bodies is framed in moral terms but often stems from disgust rooted in religious or other prejudices rather than in science.

Why should our rights to our bodies be any different to those we have over land, goods or money? I can think of seven arguments one could make.

The first is connection.  We cannot be separated from certain parts of our body (at least not while remaining alive), so our rights are inalienable in a way that our rights to other property are not. If we were fixed to a particular tract of land, then perhaps we should naturally have similarly special rights to that land?  What of the bits of us we can dispose of? Perhaps those are like crops grown on our special land, which we may sell or give away. There is, nevertheless, a presumption that these things are ours to begin with, which is perhaps why we feel Henrietta Lacks, whose cell culture was taken from her without permission or payment, and still thrives in labs around the world, was badly treated.

The second reason our rights to our bodies are treated as special might be a combination of precautionary hesitation and respect for humanity at large and human dignity. Generally the law and morality is concerned to give human beings special protection, and if our bodies are seen to be treated with disregard as if they were no more important than old clothes, that might encourage bad consequences for the treatment of human beings generally. But some people might abuse their special rights and be reckless and disrespectful to their own bodies, and so it seems to me that the respect arguments tends more to support the conclusion that bodies should not be property at all – not even our own.

Third is a sense that our body is a protected sphere – no-one else’s business. I think it’s impossible to deny the powerful appeal of this intuitively. It seems related to the moral view that you can do what you like so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. However, I can’t see any strong rational case for it apart from the other arguments considered here.

Fourth is a pragmatic argument similar to the one often advanced for private property in general. While there are no absolute rights in play, it is in practice likely that most of the time we will manage our own property best.  Society should therefore strive to limit its interventions and give us as much control as it can, consistent with other moral requirements.

The fifth argument is that rights over our own body are absolute and special, perhaps because they were given by God or because they are just a prima facie desirable good in themselves like (according to some) freedom.

Sixth, we might offer a more technical argument. Rights, we may notice, all appertain to persons. There cannot, then be any ownership of persons because then the recession of rights would have no final root and might be circular or indefinite. If we cannot have ownership rights over persons, then it is a natural extension to limit the ownership of rights over bodies.

The seventh reason suggests that a special ownership of our own bodies is invariably part of the implied social contract in place in any organised society. The deeper reasons may be matters of psychology or anthropology, but ultimately this is simply a human universal.

I think there’s at least something in all seven, but I still don’t think they completely over-ride society’s right to regulate the matter given sufficient justification.


  1. 1. Callan S. says:

    A very lawful question. It seems to take law as being so ingrained, so necessary that you would have to determine rights to your very own frame in order to somehow be ‘okay’ in being that frame.

  2. 2. Stephen says:

    The presenters seem to believe that the person is their conscious selves and that they merely inhabit a body. (No mention of that dark and murky, and possibly malevolent, subconscious that we have to contend with.) A better approach is to understand that we are composed of all three parts and each part is inseparable from the others. We don’t own our bodies, we are our bodies.

    If you give away part of your body, for example by donating a part of your liver, then it is no longer part of your body. It belongs to whoever you gave it to.

    Most of the discussion really consists of how individuals interact with others and the social implications. Socially, dwarf throwing affects other dwarves by reinforcing or creating negative attitudes towards them. Notice though, that not only the body of the dwarf gets thrown, but their conscious and unconscious parts as well. All three parts will be affected by the action.

  3. 3. Michael Murden says:

    “I think there’s at least something in all seven, but I still don’t think they completely over-ride society’s right to regulate the matter given sufficient justification.”

    What constitutes “sufficient justification” for commandeering another person’s body? Clearly the law in most places allows for incarceration and in some places allows for execution, but “regulation” seems to me to suggest something less fraught than criminal justice. Do you have any examples where the state should be able to regulate the uses to which a person may put his or her own body under civil processes?

  4. 4. Cognicious says:

    Michael Murden said: Do you have any examples where the state should be able to regulate the uses to which a person may put his or her own body under civil processes?

    Once you exclude the whole of criminal justice, there isn’t much left of state regulation, because regulating is done by means of laws. States do proscribe many uses of bodies. Prostitution; child labor; trespassing (taking one’s body to the wrong place); tattooing of minors without parental permission; indecent exposure; in some places, I suppose, wearing Nazi symbols in public–but all these are legal matters where the state concerns itself with them at all.

    Maybe the authority of a penal institution, an organ of the state, to force-feed prisoners who carry on hunger strikes too long would fulfill your criteria.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    I’m not looking to set out a manifesto and I wouldn’t want to get drawn into debating specific issues, where there are invariably specific factors (and I might turn out to be wrong!). Cognicious mentions some of the cases; but even if there were in practice no cases where the state happened to be justified in making rules about what we did with our bodies, my point would still be that it couldn’t be ruled out in principle: there’s no over-riding case for the specialness of one’s body.

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