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Normative ethics and non-normative embodiment

Jackie Leach Scully, Institut für Geschichte und Epistemologie der Medizin, Universität Basel

Powerpoint presentation


Ethical norms are concerned with the behaviour of embodied persons, but embodiment has been relatively neglected by moral philosophy. In this paper I argue that exceptions to normative embodiment are worth more ethical attention, and for practical as well as theoretical reasons. As science acquires greater power to shape the parameters of the body, it is beliefs about the moral significance of anomalous bodies that will set the limits to biotechnological intervention.

Bodily difference can be conceptualized through any number of different frameworks: biologically, socially, through language, through narrative, phenomenologically, psychoanalytically, etc. I suggest that the two theoretical frameworks dominating current thinking on the body, the biomedical and the social constructionist, fail adequately to describe the body's ethical significance. A further difficulty is their lack of conceptual resources for engaging with non-normative embodiment.

Like gender, class, or ethnic origin, bodily difference and disability influence the kinds of experience a person can have (some disabled people experience things that people with normative embodiments don't), as well as the interpretation of apparently common experiences, as they are refracted through the peculiarities of each individual's social positioning and biography. Some feminist ethicists have argued that the experience of gendered difference results in a distinctive moral perception and 'voice'. As a result feminist ethics has challenged traditional understandings of key ethical concepts in ethics, and particularly in theories of justice, such as equality and independence. In this paper I suggest the experience of bodily difference as disability may similarly modulate the meaning of moral terms like autonomy, detachment and connection. I consider how conventional medical and bioethics' failure to take the moral perceptions of disabled people into account may be remedied.

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