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Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics

by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George

Cambridge University Press, 222 pages, $80

Like it or not, the dominant mode of philosophical reflection in the English-speaking world is Anglo-American analytical philosophy. Although this is sometimes characterized as a method rather than as a set of doctrines, it has its own prevailing orthodoxies—including the view that we are entirely material objects, exclusively the products of a series of physical processes reaching back into cosmic history. In questions of value and conduct, the prevailing analytical orthodoxy is that ethics is about promoting or respecting the good of persons, where that good is understood as consisting in the satisfaction of considered preferences.

Putting these orthodoxies of human nature and value together yields consciousness-centered utilitarianism or, equivalently, hedonistic consequentialism. That theoretical mix has been brewing for over a century, with the vapors seeping from the philosophy journals into the classroom and the public culture. Over the last half century, Western societies have been moving toward the same conclusion: Human beings are subjects of consciousness residing in the extended bodies that also serve as instruments for the production of gratifying experiences.

It is no small task to challenge these orthodoxies in a serious and sustained way—which makes all the more welcome the new volume from Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics. The book falls into two parts. Chapters 1 and 2 present an essentially Thomistic alternative to the contemporary philosophy of mind. Chapters 3 to 6 then apply the results to a range of ethical issues: drug taking, abortion, euthanasia, and sex. The discussions are academic in character, detailed and sometimes abstract, and dialectical in presenting and countering lines of objection and reply. In later chapters, particularly that on sex, there are also hermeneutic and phenomenological strains—exploring the meaning of human experience, describing its structure in sensitive and pastorally useful ways.

The favored account of human beings is inspired by Thomas Aquinas’ avowedly anti-Platonic argumentation in the Summa Theologiae. For St. Thomas, it is one and the same subject that senses, thinks, and acts. Accordingly, since what sees and walks is a sentient animal, so too is what thinks and deliberates: Thus human beings are animals. Lee and George elaborate and defend this position through a sustained criticism of present-day philosophical views. Central to this is the telling point that explanations of features and activities—seen as aspects rather than simply coincident but independent phenomena—call for the identification of functional and substantive unities. And since these aspects are extended over time, the principles of unification need to inhere in enduring substances. This conclusion also tells against contemporary versions of Hume’s view that persons are collections of experiences associated with bodies.

There is a version of philosophical materialism, called “whole-person physicalism,” that could accept much of what is argued to this point. Lee and George turn therefore to establishing that some powers of human persons transcend materiality. Apart from the intrinsic interest of such a possibility, they evidently take the point to be necessary for the claim that human beings are the kinds of things that merit full moral respect—the kinds of beings requiring never to be treated merely as means. Nonmaterialism also seems a requirement for a range of religious ideas about the origin, dignity, and destiny of humankind.

Plenty of moral philosophers share the position about the special moral status of human beings while remaining agnostic about the metaphysics of personhood. Lee and George, however, are committed to a high view of morality as involving absolute obligations of respect toward human persons, and they take this to imply a radical difference in kind between human beings and other animals. They look for an explanation of this difference in humanity’s transcendence of materiality.

The argument is again Thomistic-Aristotelian in inspiration. Human beings not only see and feel, they understand and engage in abstract reflection. But the terms of such intellectual activities are universal essences, which are not material entities. Hence we have a power of cognitive commerce with the abstract and, since powers reflect the natures of their possessors, we must have a nonmaterial element to our nature.

This argument is put at one point by saying: “So the term of the intellectual act is a non-physical content. And the intellectual act is a non-physical act.” The second claim seems to be derived from the first, but that may be a problem, transferring a property of the content of an act to the act itself—since, after all, a melody may be soporific but the notes that carry it need not be; and while the content of a tumbler of scotch is alcoholic, the glass itself is not.

Still, the general line in the book is interesting, and it grows stronger when the authors move to consider free action, arguing against determinism. Although human beings are essentially animals, there is an aspect of them—their abstract reason—that is not a product of biological development and that is not essentially dependent on the body for its existence. So it can, in principle, survive bodily death, not as a human person but as a separated soul seeking re-engagement with animal existence—a need that believers expect to be met by bodily resurrection.

Most philosophers do not tie moral philosophy so closely to metaphysics, but Lee and George draw out of the developed view of the person the resources to establish powerful arguments against hedonism, abortion, euthanasia, and sex outside heterosexual marital union.

Occasionally the arguments seem strained. The hedonist is accused of inconsistency in engaging in debate about the truth of ethical value, given his view that the only good is pleasure. But a hedonist might distinguish scientific and practical interests, recognizing truth as the end of the first, and pleasure that of the second, and say the task of establishing the truth of hedonism belongs to the former. Or again he may say the pursuit of truth is the greatest pleasure, not because of the value of truth but because of the depth and duration of the pleasure that contingently derives from it.

From the incarnational and animalistic foundations of human nature, Lee and George draw compelling conclusions about what belongs to our dignity. The metaphysical-cum-spiritual status of humans simultaneously sets limits to how others may act toward us and to how we may deploy our own agency. We merit the regard due to rational beings from the moment of conception to that of death.

The final chapter begins with the words “No one doubts that dualism has often influenced views of sexual morality,” and it shows how extensive, enduring, and unexpected that influence has been, surviving the rejection of Cartesian and Lockean dualisms of mind and matter and their replacement with materialist views. Still, the separation of agent and body persists in the idea that human bodies are, or may be deployed as, instruments for the production of pleasurable states of consciousness. Lee and George oppose this with an account of sexuality as naturally oriented toward forms of personal union or community that also have the further end of creating, nurturing, and educating children.

The greatest interest lies in the detail of the argument and the way in which it illuminates the familiar while also producing unexpected insights and leading to a noble and convincing conception of human beings as at once living animals, intellectual subjects, and moral and spiritual beings. This is a valuable contribution to the re-expression and development for our time of a tradition of philosophical thought about which too little is known. Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics should help to rectify that. And, in doing so, it will aid the much needed challenge to prevailing orthodoxies.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs.

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