As a foundation for engaging with bioethical issues, it’s helpful to consider who and what we are as human beings. And because human persons are the subjects and objects of morality, how we understand our nature greatly determines how we understand the moral boundaries and standards for treating each other and ourselves.
The reality of the human experience is that all of our natural lives are staged in our bodies. We are conceived in and born from another body; we grow, age, suffer and beget; and our fragile bodies will someday expire. Throughout this epic life cycle, we may occasionally reflect on what it is to be embodied, how we relate to God, man and nature as such, and whether our embodiment is of any consequence to our personal identity. In approaching these questions, ancient and modern thinkers alike have posited a dual nature of man: there is a body and there is a soul. But what are the implications of a dualistic anthropology? And because dualism has had an influence on our thinking for thousands of years, what effects of it can be observed in our culture today?
If we accept our nature as dichotomized human beings, we must deal with the identity crisis that follows. Where does human personal identity exist? Within that which is soul? Or in that which is body?
To identify a person as an immaterial soul (or mind), for example, leads us to a Gnostic tendency to disown the body , the worldly, the physical—instead attending to that which is the soul, the heavenly and the spiritual. For example, Cartesian dualism proposed that we must transcend bodily entrapment to attain knowledge of our true selves.
On the other hand, disowning the soul and reducing human identity to the chemical and biological could undermine the purpose and meaning of our existence—it puts our relationships with God, humankind and nature at risk. Without the soul, we lose our thoughts, feelings, volition and aspirations. Love would be a brain state. Morality and values become an accidental by product or scraps from a society of purely physical beings. Think Brave New World .
So perhaps we are more than merely bodies or merely souls. Maybe the problem is in the disconnection of the two. Essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry has suggested that we are “living souls”—that is to say, we are embodied souls. According to Berry,
If… we believe that we are living souls… acting our parts among other creatures… and if we understand that we are free, within the obvious limits of mortal human life, to do evil or good to ourselves and to the other creatures—then all our acts have a supreme significance.
Consider it: As living souls, each member of the human community and each of the acts we perform have “supreme significance,” because there is both a temporal and an eternal aspect to our existence and we have the moral freedom to do evil or to do good.
This understanding of human persons as living, embodied souls necessarily impacts how we consider life, culture, and the bioethical questions of our day.
If we are more than just souls (with mere bodily shells), would we, for example, wage battle against our bodies via cosmetic surgeries, body modification, and the contraceptive suppression of fertility—a vital aspect of our being and nature (another hint of a Brave New World …)? Would we take greater care for our health? Would we seek better treatment of the physical needs of the entire human community, from the embryo to the elderly?
If we are more than just bodies (with inconsequential souls) then would we attempt to find our selves with mind-altering or mood-enhancing drugs? Would we clone human life for scientific progress or discard our children on the basis of their genetics because these are merely bodies—flesh and blood—we are dealing with?
As a final example, in Walt Whitman’s poem, I Sing the Body Electric —his tribute to the human body—he forcefully exposes the evil of a slave auction by considering the nature and value of the body and soul being sold. He observes:
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for [the slave’s body],
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.
Whitman rightfully recognizes this man as a fellow human being—body and soul, woven together, with intrinsic value and purpose.
In Whitman’s time, a culture that devalued embodied human lives led to the enslaving, exploiting and sacrificing of millions, all for profit, greed and ambition. Today, we witness embryos, the most vulnerable of our human community, being created and destroyed for the benefit of other members of the human community or in the name of “progress.” And we are the casual observers—even participants—of a reverse auction of reproductive goods where buyers publicly issue want ads for human eggs, which are then purchased from the lowest bidder. But “whatever the bids of the bidders, they cannot be high enough.”
If we continue to devalue either the body or the soul, we stand to devalue the entire human person, and this leads to an overall devaluation of all human life. But with a greater awareness and appreciation for both body and soul, we can more effectively and virtuously think and act in our culture. Theology and Human NatureCenter Commentary
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