An opinion of Laura Rizzerio, philosopher (UNamur)
The principle of “free self-determination” is often invoked as a decisive criterion in certain ethical debates (abortion, euthanasia, care, organ donation, drugs, prostitution, etc.). It states that everyone has the right to decide independently about what they want for their own body, which seems legitimate. The problem is that this principle is often confused with the much broader principle of “full self-ownership” and this causes misunderstandings in its interpretation and implementation. It is in an attempt to dissipate these misunderstandings that I offer these few reflections here.
The principle of “full self-ownership” states that we have the right to use our body as if it were a “thing” that we possess, and to do with it what we want, while no one has the right to use it without our consent. That of “self-determination” refers only to the idea that we are people capable of acting autonomously, whose considered choices concerning oneself must be respected. If we stick to these definitions, we easily understand how these principles differ and also that, unlike the principle of “free disposal”, that of “full ownership” sins by its abstraction. Indeed, if we can easily experience a certain autonomy, experiencing “full self-ownership” seems much more complex, even impossible… and not necessarily desirable.
Can we indeed relate to our own body as “a thing” of which we have the property? Not so sure. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty has clearly shown why our body, the place par excellence of our relationship to the world, must be viewed as something other than an object that we possess. “[…] Both seer and visible, he who looks at all things, he can also look at himself, and recognize in what he sees the other side of his seeing power. (The Eye and the Spirit, 1960). By seeing oneself “seeing”, by touching oneself “touching”, the body is much more a medium that gives us access to the world by entering into a relationship with something other than oneself than a “thing” that belongs to us. In other words, the body reveals the world to us as endowed with meaning, common and shared. It is for this, moreover, that we owe him attention, respect and care (care) in all circumstances.
It is here then that we can make a link with the other principle mentioned above, that of “free disposal”, because this principle finds in my opinion its justification precisely in the way of conceiving the body that we have just discussed. recall. Why should we respect each person’s autonomy and freedom, if not because each person is unique in the approach to the world made possible by their body? So, yes, acknowledging that everyone has the right to choose independently when it comes to their body is legitimate. The problem is that too often we confuse “autonomy” with “independence” and the absence of constraint, and we thus fall back into an abstract notion. Because, who can claim to experience autonomy in the sense of “full independence”?
Setting boundaries to guide our choices
Absolute independence requires transparency to self made impossible by being embodied, emotional and relational individuals. Very significant human experiences bear witness to this, because our feelings of love, tenderness, but also pain and sadness, constantly remind us that our lives are intertwined with those of others and that they evolve in an environment given. The search for our autonomy must accommodate these constraints and can therefore never be translated into a pure search for independence.
All of this leads us to conclude that the principle of “free self-determination” constitutes a legitimate decision-making criterion that must be taken care of and respected. But this principle should not be equated with that of full ownership of oneself and one’s body because, unlike the latter, it is based on the fact that we are relational beings, registered in a given environment, building ourselves thanks to the belonging to a common world. This requires him to set limits to guide our choices, so that no one can claim to make his body an “object” which he can dispose of as he pleases. Both his own and that of others.
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