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Thursday, December 14th, 2006


Biocapitalism and Biostatism

In modern political discussions, it seems to me even when I'm reading the brightest and the best, dimensions get left out of the discussion, allowing what is possibly a clear view of some of the problems to lead to what is almost surely a narrow view of the possible solutions.

I have been looking again at Peter Augustine Lawler's writings. I haven't yet seen an essay that did not contain much good insight. In fact, probably every time I read or hear him (say, on Mars Hill Audio), I come away with an altered perspective on the subject. When I single him out for treatment it isn't because I think he is dead wrong. I do so because I think he is almost right.

Lawler complains of the results of a "creeping libertarianism" in society, saying it is often very creepy. When he explains how it is creepy, I find myself in agreement. The commodification of the body begins as an experiment in individual liberty by some. Later, when the majority do such things, there is not so subtle pressure for everyone to do them. Even employers get into the act. Do we want a world in which mood brighteners and plastic surgery are necessary for employment?

The question is a good one. My discomfort is with the implied answer. We shouldn't allow it! And the perhaps more mildly implied means: legislation. Which means, we solve with guns a problem that might be solved in another fashion through social sanctions. Or perhaps through deeper deregulation.

Lawler quotes Gilbert Meilander on the problematic nature of allowing our bodies to become commodities: "It puts every individual in the imaginary and genuinely alienating position of understanding the 'self' as existing apart from the body, as wholly sovereign over the body, as a 'spiritual overlord' free to use the body as one pleases." Now, there is a lot to this. But even if we think it is bad for the individual to see himself as his or her own 'spiritual overlord', what can we do about it? Statist solutions replace the individual as overlord with the state as overlord.

In place of monetary power, Meilander and Lawler think political power is a good solution. Except what does this imply? They say, for example, that I don't own my kidney. So if a law against kidney sales is made, can people be jailed for engaging in such sales? This gives the government ownership of those they incarcerate. What happened to dignity?

The substitution of one principle in the Declaration with another principle is also a statement of politics. It says that other members of the Republic get to vote on what rights we have. This creeping statism has gone quite far over the years. If Lawler can see a Brave New World where rich people can buy organs at will, I can see one in which the populace votes out all rights altogether on the pretext of securing higher moral values, only to see their rights gone and no values advanced.

John Taylor Gatto describes how one purpose of compulsory schooling was to make children into human resources. They are brought up to expect to work for corporations rather than becoming enterpreneurs. This doesn't sound so shocking until you realize that at the time this scheme was hatched, most Americans did work for themselves. Now, think about it. To term people as "human resources" is the commodification of the individual. If mood brighteners are becoming necessary to get hired, it is in part due to having corporations provide so many jobs. The more enterpreneurs out there, the fewer people face these pressures.

And when you think about it, just what are the people in poorer countries doing when they sell a kidney? They are getting goods they could otherwise only get at an astronomical output of their labor. Instead of acting as human resources in the sense of wage slaves, they take a medical risk. Is this worth it? I think they have the right to decide that. The individual who faces the question has a greater interest in determining what promotes his dignity than any legislator does. Even on the category in question, dignity, I think autonomy will do a better job of solving problems. If some of the solutions are creepy, I think the creepiness is endemic to the lives of those who make the choices. It is terrible to think that someone on this planet would have to resort to selling a kidney to get their children out of servitude or to buy a new dwelling place. But what is dignified about their children working long hours outside the home, or continuing to live in a hovel?

To call for using political solutions to prevent a creepy future ignores the fact that so many present forms of creepiness are the result of statism. To fault the Declaration of Independence and suggest that voters can replace one of its principles appears plain foolish to me. If it weren't for John Locke, I'm sure many more of us would be rotting in jail right now—for the best reasons I 'm sure. Autonomy sounds like a bad idea until you face the prospect of losing it. Without it there is no dignity.

Lawler says that "For those of us who aim to limit the spirit of biocapitalism in our time, the task ahead is very daunting indeed." Biocapitalism is creepy in part because of the power of the engine. But much of the engine is itself constructed artificially. Medicare is one factor that Lawler mentions. The power of corporations is another factor that must be factored in. Except that they exist as privileged entities created through legislations. True libertarianism would cut these aspects of the engine way down. And it is these things that make the prospect of our Brave New World so scary. People will end up in a system they can scarcely get out of. This is true. But the machinery was built on statism. To suggest that we fix it with yet more statism will in the long run probably mean swapping biocapitalism for biostatism.

If the state gets to define dignity and control organ donations, what is to prevent it from some day requiring donations for some higher social good? Meilander suggests that the state allow people to make a gift of a kidney but not sell one. If the state can do this, then why can it not require an individual to give a kidney as a gift? For what Meilander sees as the evil is the autonomy of the individual who would sell a kidney. And the commodification of the kidney. But if political power is no problem, since it may be used to prevent such a sale, and if transfer of a kidney is no problem, since the individual can give one as a gift, then why can't the state require this benevolence from its citizens? I fear that attacking autonomy in the name of dignity leads to conclusions that are chilling in another direction.

Some years back, there was a revolution that brought about the Soviet Union, a place where the problem of commodification was solved politically. Lots of people died with the dignity that came from not being able to sell their labor. Of course their inability to freely contract their labor didn't mean they didn't have to work. Likewise, I think here we're seeing a veiled attempt to socialize humanity. If the state can prevent you from acting as owner of your body, the state will act as that owner when you violate its laws.

The account is truly odd when it gets most elegaic: "The idea that selling one’s body is a right depends, says Meilaender, on an understanding of bodily ownership that 'sever[s] the person from the body.' It puts every individual in the imaginary and genuinely alienating position of understanding the 'self' as existing apart from the body, as wholly sovereign over the body, as a 'spiritual overlord' free to use the body as one pleases. Yet this view is misguided: I delude myself when I think of my allegedly surplus kidney as no different from, say, my land—that is, as part of my net worth, to be disposed of at will. If I think of myself truly as a whole or embodied human being, who is more than the sum of my mental, willful, and physical parts, then my 'bodily integrity' continues 'to be a very great good', inseparable from my integrity as a living person."

This sounds rather good until you consider how it will work out in reality. Let us imagine a South American worker who has to work 17 hour days in the mines. He never gets to see his family. His boys are fatherless. Meilander says we must not allow him to sell his kidney so that he might live a life where he has more contact with his children. No. Instead he must shovel in the dark, comforting himself with the fact that his bodily integrity is a very great good. He must further ignore the fact that a very real chance exists that a mining accident might disrupt that bodily integrity any day. Allowing him to sell his kidney would turn him into an irresponsible person. He'll probably blow the money in Rio on expensive hotels and showgirls. Someone might object that this was not argued. Except the conclusion seems to have been drawn for the man that there is no possibility that he could have sacrificed his kidney with a sober estimation of how his body could best be used. For use his body he must. For many people in the world, their lives are more enslaved to economics than we can imagine. Allowing free choices allows the individuals to decide when one kind of bodily enslavement has done more to create alienation than the removal of a kidney. Some might prefer to risk being buried early to continuing to bury themselves alive.

To suggest a political solution to alienation is itself bizarre. Our current political environment is the result of much discrimination. It is the application of abstract principle to create a large machinery that did not exist in nature. We have moved away from nature in creating this superstructure. The larger the thing becomes in scale, the further removed we are from nature. In the distant past, even if you were arrested or jailed, there was a sense of community with those who made the arrest. This is largely gone. To try to make an inhuman state the tool for humanizing our world is to fail to see what the modern state is. If you believe in bodily integrity, use your own body to persuade your neighbors not to sell their kidneys. And then be prepared to listen to them as they explain why they wish to do what they plan to do. Their "creepy libertarianism" might turn out to be their best human choice. And your "creepy statism" won't be adding to their alienation.

3:56 pm Pacific Standard Time

[  posted by Rick Ritchie  |  4 comments  |  Permalink  ]