January 19, 2006

Choice and the Embodied Mind

This one will be long.

I. The Embodied Mind

We are embodied minds, free-willed intellects intimately involved in the affairs of our material surroundings. Heidegger used the word Dasein for our existence and our 'nature' or 'essence' (Wesen), which can be broken into da, `there', and Sein, 'being. Being-there. We are minds, rational intellects, but always-already oriented towards the affairs of the world. This same theme of the embodied mind also plays critical roles in Nietzsche (a predecessor of Heidegger) and Foucault and Dworkin (and other feminist and queer theorists of our own lifetimes, intellectual heirs of Heidegger). Even Descartes or a mainstream Christian, with a substance dualist ontology and a strict divide between body and soul, where only the soul is the 'true' self, the Self-in-itself, must recognize that mind and body are closely woven together, at least temporarily. Feeling hungry or satiated, chilled or warm, or otherwise comfortable or uncomfortable, can influence the quality of our thinking; and we can 'psych' ourselves into better or worse physical performances. Thus, in thinking about the self, in contemplating personal identity, we can neglect neither the body nor the mind.

II. The Body

One's body is not merely a thing associated with the Self-in-itself (ie, the mind or soul), or even just another one of one's possessions, like one's bed or one's cat. The body is part of the Self-in-itself, at least in 'this life' or 'this world', if one believes in some flavour or another of metempsychosis. Our personal identity is as much tied into our bodies -- what we look like, how attractive we are, what physical activities we enjoy or dislike -- as our minds -- our spiritual and moral beliefs, our ideological affiliations, or intellectual pursuits. In Kantian terms, we are not just noumenal selves or minds, appearing as bodies in the phenomenal world of our surroundings. The noumenal and phenomenal 'selves' are two aspects of one 'thing', two ways of regarding the unitary Self-in-itself. This is true even if our phenomenal aspect is temporal and temporary but our noumenal self is eternal: at least for now, we ARE our bodies, as much as we ARE our minds.

Hence, bodily integrity is as sacrosanct as mental integrity. The right to autonomy, the founding principle of our legal and moral systems, must cover both body and mind equally. Freedom of speech -- autonomy of thought -- is on the same level as autonomy of body -- the right to choose what to do with one's body. This is not to be mistaken for the right to dispose of one's property as one sees fit, however. The state has the authority to regulate that right, or seize one's property by eminent domain. Rather, this is the higher right to autonomously determine one's own identity.

The state can regulate, forbid, or force the disposition of property when such regulation (&c.) proves to be in the overwhelming interest of society as a whole. The question of where to draw the line that establishes when 'society as a whole' has an 'overwhelming interest' is a crucial one, of course, but it is not at issue here. Only when one person's efforts at self-determination attempt to override another's do we recognize a legitimate role for the state in this arena.

(Despite my language, I am, as usual, not speaking from a legal perspective, but rather a foundational one.)

III. Choice

Access to safe and legal abortion intersects, in our society, a long list of determinations about one's identity. Just a few:
Shall I be a mother?
Shall I be a wife?
Where shall I live?
What career shall I pursue?
How ambitious shall I be?
What people shall I associate with?
What shall my love life be like?
What shall my family look like?
Shall I conform to traditional feminine norms?
Shall I conform to traditional norms of my race/ethnicity?
Shall I conform to traditional norms of my class?

The determination to abort, or to carry the pregnancy to term and put the child up for adoption, or to raise the child, does not set answers to these in stone. But each determination in one area informs the possiblities for others. Thus, limitations on abortion, like limitations on who one can marry or what clothes one can wear or what careers one can puruse, impose broad limitations on one's right to determine one's identity autonomously. As an embodied mind, a woman's options for reproduction play a crucial role in her determination of Herself-in-herself (sich an sich).

An artificial limitation on these options must therefore rise to meet the highest standard. A utilitarian argument -- that the state has an interest in regulating and requiring reproduction in the interest of maintaining the population, for example, or to increase the supply of babies for adoptive parents -- completely fails to meet this standard. Such an argument -- call it an 'eminent domain' argument -- views (female) bodies as property, baby-making machines whose disposition can be legally regulated, rather than as aspects of autonomous persons.

Eminent domain arguments therefore make use of at least one of two intellectually and morally bankrupt premises:
  1. Persons are minds only, not bodies.
  2. Women are not persons.


Unknown said...

Weird... I was having an argument today on an internet forum that covered some of this ground (but in far less technical terms).

Noumena said...

Well, I wanted to write something on embodiment, and that Pandagon link got me thinking about 'you can always just put it up for adoption' arguments, so it was kind of a matter of getting from A to B. Not really a coincidence if you were arguing this at Pandagon, or 'nearby' in the noosphere. (How would a proper metric be constructed? Hmm ... )

Anonymous said...

I think one important issue to think about here is the meaning of personhood. I agree that a person is an embodied mind, and that bodily integrity is at least as worthy of respect as mental integrity. Moreover, such a respect entails carving up social space for self-determination. However, I can imagine pro-life arguments claiming that a foetus is a person and thus an embodied mind whose bodily and mental integrity ought to be respected. In order to address this issue, we need to clarify what an embodied mind is. What is a body? Is it characterized merely in terms of human life in a technical sense, or are there qualifications that need to be added to this definition? Also, what is a mind? Is it to be defined biologically, and if so, would that mean that mind=brain, or is it to be defined in a social context that requires interaction with other human beings and the world?

These are very difficult questions. It is not easy to draw the "personhood line." One might be tempted to say that personhood requires ability for self-determination, but then we would be denying personhood to infants, the handicapped,... It also seems inadequate to equate personhood with having a brain or with having a human genome (and both of these definitions would rule out abortion). Bodily considerations are also murky, for there are many individuals who have little power over their bodies but are still entitled to personhood, I'd say.

The debate over abortion has usually been tied to the personhood dilemma, and looking at the literature can be overwhelming, for there seem to be as many good arguments for the granting of personhood to unborn foetuses as there are against it.

I think that one of the biggest problems in the contemporary ethical debate surrounding abortion is that it is impossible to evaluate the ethical status of this practice without having to look at all sorts of social issues that obscure the question. Most women who find themselves in the position of considerign abortion cannot make their decision based merely on considerations about the dignity to which all embodied minds are entitled or whether their own self-determination ought morally to override that possibly attributed to the foetus. Instead, they are alienated from this critical personal dilemma by having to ask questions such as: can I deal with the social stigma of being an unmarried mother or a single parent? or, do I have the social resources to raise a child in a society that refuses to take any sort of collective responsibility for the development of its young? or, do I have to give up all my professional/educational goals because there are no social resources to aid me in the monumental task of supporting and nurturing a child? The list, of course, goes on. My point is simply that the moral debate over abortion is in my opinion mute right now. It is nearly impossible to discuss the ethical validity of the act itself in terms of individual self-determination when every social factor surrounding it impedes maximal self-determination, for a lot of times the decision to abort is itself forced on women. And I know this for a fact because I worked for some time at an abortion clinic. The issue is not just whether women should be free to have abortions, but also whether they should be free not to. With social conditions such as they are today, the decision to abort or not is seldom a real ethical dilemma in the sense that women are rarely able to own their decision as a clear moral choice steming from their ability to determine their own future freely. Rather, they often face this choice as something imposed on them by social conditions.

I wish that the social ills that often push women to have abortions figured more prominently in every discussion about abortion, for it is almost impossible to understand the ethics of abortion as an individual choice when in practice it is almost never a free choice, even when it is pursued. And the importance of maintaining the legality of abortion ought to be discussed alongside the importance of providing a better social network for women who desire to take their pregnancies to term, for only the conjunction of these two elements can provide a foundation for choice.

Noumena said...

Reading Natalia's comment, I began to wonder about how one might connect the theoretical approach I'm taking here with the more 'pragmatic' or 'socially-located' considerations she brings up, and I've talked about elsewhere (scare quotes because neither term seems entirely accurate).

One rough possibility might be to extend the line I take here: a person is not just an embodied mind, but also an en-cultured body. Just like it is illegitimate to consider her as a disembodied intellect, it is equally illegitimate to abstract her from her cultural context -- and, indeed, from the particular situation in which she stands when faced with the possibility (or not!) of making a choice.