Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic
A little while ago, my esteemed colleague and beloved frienemy westwood wrote this little post about cosmetic surgery. Now, westwood, being the intelligent person she is, raised a number of interesting points; however, these points were all, in the parlance of experts, completely wrong.
Technically, westwood’s argument isn’t anti-cosmetic surgery (although I know her thoughts on the subject—and they’re not happy thoughts of rainbows and unicorns). To recap: westwood argues that the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery should not be evaluated based on the decider’s intentions; rather, we should look at the consequences of said decision. So, I’m not sure that I ought to go piece by piece and destroy westwood’s argument, even though I really want to. Instead, I’ll to explain how a primary hidden premise of westwood‘s argument is, simply put, false.
Specifically, before even engaging in a debate about which moral theory to apply to the question of cosmetic surgery, I would demand that my interlocutor prove that cosmetic surgery falls into the category of moral decisions at all. Generally speaking, unless you’re operating under ideas of personal fulfillment and well-being—which I’m not, since I prefer my liberty to be of the negative variety—moral decisions are those which involve our interaction with other beings (including our environment). But what about decisions that involve (or should involve) only us?
First, I realize that we don’t live in isolation: every decision we make has some sort of social ramification; however, the inherent relationality of human existence does not mean that every decision I make will be moral, strictly speaking (although a lot of them will be). So, ask yourselves: is cosmetic surgery something that we ought to debate in the realm of morality (like whether or not we can sacrifice the few to save the many) or is it something that we ought to leave to the discretion of the individual (like whether or not lunch should be eaten before or after an afternoon stroll)?
In order to answer such a question, I think we need to look at what cosmetic surgery essentially is (and for the record, by cosmetic surgery, I am referring to elective—and not corrective—appearance altering surgeries but I am excluding such procedures as penectomies, mastectomies, etc. which are undertaken in the process of sexual transitioning). Cosmetic surgery is, at it’s core, body modification. That’s all. Other types of body modification include: dying one’s hair, shaving, waxing, laser hair removal, plucking, piercings, tattoos, all surgeries involved in sexual transitioning, tanning, skin lightening, etc. etc.
Should we evaluate all of these things as moral decisions? If so,it seems that we must conclude that the plucker of eyebrows with pierced ears and dyed hair (i.e., me) has potentially engaged in some immoral body modifications. One might argue that plucking eyebrows and dying hair are minor and impermanent modifications and are, therefore, exempt from possibilities of condemnation; however, so are boob jobs (just look at Posh Spice—no seriously, she’s fabulous, look at her). So, maybe then, cosmetic surgeries as a whole should not be the subject of moral debate but only certain surgeries, namely those which are irreversible (or at least really difficult to reverse).
But why? What is it about irreversibility that means we can suddenly look at body modification under the harsh light of moral evaluation? And what about transsexuals? They must sometimes undergo irreversible procedures in order to live the life they wish to live. Should we question the morality of their decision? I think not. The line drawn between those body modifications which remain individual decisions and those which are subject to moral debate is entirely arbitrary. There is nothing, really, that separates one type of body modification from the next except for the stigma attached by societal evaluations. Here, I’m going to lay the burden of proof with the claimant: if you want to argue that something about permanence (or indeed any other principle you can imagine) makes particular types of body modification apt for moral discussion, than it is up to you to explain what that something is and how exactly it serves to make cosmetic surgery an ethical topic. Good luck.
Alternatively, a person may choose to bite the bullet and avoid charges of arbitrariness by arguing, instead, that all bodily modifications (not done for health purposes) are subject to moral debate. But why? Presumably, each person (or each adult anyways) owns their own body. And if I am not harming anyone, why should my choices about my body be subject to ethical scrutiny? So, here again I am forced to put the burden of proof with the claimant because I simply can’t see a reason why something so personal and individual ought to be up for moral discussion.
Well, I can see one argument which would place body modification squarely in the sights of the moral debater: a utilitarian approach to charity. I have in mind something like The Singer Solution to World Poverty, in which Peter Singer argues, from the utilitarian perspective (of course) that morality demands that, “…whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away”. Now, body modification might fall into the category of luxuries and, therefore, morality demands that we forgo our hair dying and bikini waxing so that we can give that money to those lacking necessities. But this argument does not apply only to body modification; rather, it applies to everything on which we spend money: food, clothing, housing, entertainment, gadgets, etc.
Now, there are many flaws to such an extreme utilitarian analysis which would make it easy to ignore. But I’m willing to concede one thing: body modification is subject to moral debate insofar as everything else which involves money is subject to moral debate. Money talks. And we should always think about what we, as consumers, are saying. But, this concession amounts, simply, to saying that we ought to think about things before we do them. Fair enough. But does this mean that body modification is a subject of moral debate? As far as I can tell, it means only that body modification is, like everything else, something which should be thought about.
Now that I’ve put you through all that, what am I saying? Well, in a world where women (and sometimes men) continue to struggle for the right to own and control their own bodies, putting up for discussion the morality of body modification just seems cruel. I believe in relationality, and I would never wish to underestimate the social connectedness with which humans are faced. But, I also believe that the individual is the primary unit of political significance and if we wish to respect human rights, we must respect individual human rights, lest we step on some people in the name of some greater good. Respecting the individual in most cases requires that we leave them a realm in which they can be free from the evaluations we impose on the public, social realm. There are some choices which we need to evaluate as moral. But so far as I can see, there is no reason why cosmetic surgery ought to be considered one of those choices.
Filed under: medical ethics | 8 Comments
Tags: body image, body integrity identity disorder, cosmetic surgery, ethics, feminism, freedom, liberty, medical ethics, moral theory, morality, peter singer, plastic surgery, politics, transsexuality, utilitarianism