Controlling Other People’s Bodies


Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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71 Responses

  1. zic says:

    Controlling what other people do is a huge part of morality. Why? because morality is prescriptive.

    Morality also engages letting go the urge to control other’s bodies. See slavery, marijuana prohibition, contraception, and conscription for examples.Report

  2. Chris says:

    There are different levels of “controlling” other people’s bodies. For example, there is telling them that they can’t drink extra large sodas, by banning them in restaurants and stores, and there is telling them that they cannot take steps to prevent pregnancy, and should they get pregnant, they are forced to carry within them a resource-guzzling, body and life changing organism that has a frighteningly high chance of killing them, and will, should they not give it up immediately upon going through an extremely painful and, again, life-threatening birthing process, change their life, affect their careers, and likely make them more dependent on others (including, in many cases, the state), reducing their ability to fully participate in the economy (and therefore society) autonomously. Some people see these two examples as fundamentally different classes of things, while other people have a penis.Report

    • kenB in reply to Chris says:

      There are different levels of “controlling” other people’s bodies.

      Sure, so what I believe Murali is saying is that if you think even one of those levels is valid, then just saying “people have a right to control their own bodies” to argue for a level that you think is invalid is inadequate.Report

      • Chris in reply to kenB says:

        Well, I think we’re talking about different things when we talk about control. By bodily integrity, I assume zic means not simply the right to determine what one does with one’s body absolutely, but the right to keep the state (or even an employer) from actively and, in the case of reproductive freedom, rather directly determining what a woman does with her body.Report

      • zic in reply to kenB says:

        @chris I think I’m saying something even more — that in understanding the very concept of bodily integrity, it’s crucial to recognize that without it — particularly when it comes to reproductive rights — women cannot fully participate. It’s not just a matter of right to my body, it’s a matter of being a fully free person. If we don’t grasp this very basic concept, we continue to restrain women by their biology and, as Aquinas said, subjugate them.

        This thought is not even possible to conceive in the absence of contraception; it’s a new development in human history.Report

  3. Griff says:

    I’ll be interested to see if the comments bear this out, but I would have guessed that a majority of this site’s commenters take the same general stance as I do on this question: From a moral standpoint, as long as it doesn’t implicate anyone else’s bodily integrity or freedom of action, you are generally entitled to do whatever you please with your own body. I know most organized religions take a different view, but the somewhat amorphous modern secular morality that I and most of my peers ascribe to tends toward the laissez-faire on a personal level.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Griff says:

      Well said, @griff . This is somewhat what I was trying to get at below. I might say someone SHOULDN’T do heroin, but I don’t know that I’d say it is morally problematic for them to. And I respect the right of people to do all sorts of things to themselves and themselves only that I don’t think they should.Report

      • zic in reply to Kazzy says:

        Remember, the current surge in heroine addiction starts out (for most new addicts) as prescribed pain-medication addiction. In other words, people with chronic pain who are seeking medical help to do the moral thing and continue working.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        A truly moral person NEVER stops working.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

        A truly moral person NEVER stops working.

        [reviews own on-the-clock commenting history. Feels guilty. Resolves to be a better person in the future.]Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

        And stops working to write a comment t about it.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:


      • roger in reply to Kazzy says:

        My take on it is similar to yours Kazzy.

        There are various types and degrees of should.

        There is;

        1) I believe there is a moral imperative that you should not do so.
        2) I believe you should not do so because I would prefer you not to (for your benefit, mine or whomevers)
        3) I believe you should not do so because it will not get the expected result you think

        I guess I am confused on the whole concept of Murali’s “authority of morality.” Seems to me he is taking the nonsense of pre-Darwinian influenced philosophers way too seriously.*

        * Nothing about morality makes sense except in light of evolution.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Thanks for fleshing that out.

        I’m in a bit of a unique circumstance in that my job formally charges me with controlling other people’s bodies. Now, these people are children — different in some important ways than adults — but they are people nonetheless. I do have some internal struggle around the extent and manner in which I “control” them. My goal is to give them as much freedom and autonomy as possible while also balancing the myriad of “goals” that exist for their education — some of which run counter to one another. My goal, in general, is never to micromanage them. Not only do I just hate to play that role, but I think there is something dehumanizing about it when alternatives exist.

        There are times where I kinda sorta have to. For instance, an important skill for young children to learn is the ability to follow multi-step directions. It is an important practical life skill: some procedures need to follow a precise or precise-enough sequence. It also is related to important cognitive processes. To give them such practice, I micromanage certain routines. In identifying which ones to put such emphasis on, I try to steer towards those for which the sequence of events has some inherent value. One such example is hand washing, one of the first things I teach them. If you try to lather soap onto dry hands, you’ll have limited success. Likewise if you if try to dry off your hands before rinsing them. So, I can be a bit of a ball buster — controlling their bodies quite excessively — but with specific outcomes in mind, all of which I consider to be highly positive and aligned with my professional duties.

        Other times, I might similarly give them a sequence of three steps to follow for which the order of steps isn’t important, but which I expect them to adhere to so I can see how they respond to and process novel directions.

        Eventually, though, the goal is to release the reigns. At this point in the year, I might give them three or four tasks to perform and say, “I don’t care which you do first. I just care that they are done.” There is still some amount of control there. They can’t tell me to fuck off and disregard the tasks. But they’re five. Ideally they’re not telling anyone to fuck up for at least a couple more years.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Griff says:

      Most of the peers you know. I think the Big Sort comes into play here.

      I know very few (if any) evangelical Christians. I know some people who grew up in evangelical communities, renounced them, and fled to Blue state America. I grew up in suburban New York and most of my friends grew up in the inner-ring suburbs of major cities or in major cities like me. We also mainly live in deep blue areas.

      My generation and younger seems to swing secular and liberal but there are probably a good deal of religious and/or conservative people in my generation. I just don’t know any of them because we inhabit different parts of the country.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I work downtown, in Pittsburgh. Yet my experience is totally different from yours.
        night and blooming day.

        If one in 7 americans live in the top three metros, how many of them have experiences like yours?Report

  4. Saul DeGraw says:

    I generally think you are right but Chris has a good point with the fact that there are degrees of control.

    Perhaps this shows the unfortunate limits of multi-culturalism as my brother would say. We tend to focus on the light things (food, clothing, holidays/festivities, music) because focusing on anything else would reveal deep rifts and deep disagreements. Cities in the U.S. tend to work on very fraught and fragile social contracts where residents work very hard to ignore things from other cultures that disturb morally and ethically but are legal. A large issue in gentrification is the clash of cultures and changing of dominant cultural mores in the neighborhood. The Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg do not like the hipsters and their immodest dress. Lee can talk more about that though.

    When it comes to certain issues, there are probably no easy answers and no detente. I am not sure if anything but constant fights are possible on these issues.

    I would say in the Hobby Lobby case, the degree of control is going too far.Report

  5. Kazzy says:

    “…if there are at least some things which it is morally problematic to do to one’s own body…”
    “If you think that there are some things (X) people shouldn’t do to their own bodies, you prefer a world in which they didn’t do X.”

    These statements are non-identical in a very important way.Report

  6. Damon says:

    Griff was on point.
    And I disagree with Murali. Trying to persuade someone from doing something, or expressing a preference for people not do do something, or to do something, isn’t a violation of bodily integrity.

    Frankly, “morality” is relative. Since it’s generally based upon religion, it’s doublly irrelevant to me. You can debate me, try to convince me that I should do x, fine. I can choose to listen or not, and then tell you to kiss off. But when you as an individual or society punnishes me for for doing something with my body you don’t like, that’s a violation.Report

    • Jim Heffman in reply to Damon says:

      Actually, you agree with Murali, because what Murali’s saying here is that the “you just want to control people’s bodies” is a meaningless argument, because any moral statement is expressing a desire to control other people’s behavior. People say “you want to control other people’s bodies!” in an attempt to short-circuit a factual analysis with an appeal to emotion.Report

  7. Burt Likko says:

    This, of course, begs the question of whether one is capable of doing something to one’s own body that carries moral implications. I don’t think you can get there by way of either Aristotelean or Kantian methodologies; perhaps there are utilitarian calculi that compel the individual to keep herself in shape to the degree necessary to contribute to the group economy.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Even in raw anarcho-capitalist libertarianism, you have obligations. You work or you die… and work is defined by what the market wants. The market is other people, just like hell.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Patrick says:

        Or you have already earned (or inherited) enough wealth that your obligations are at an end and you can tell everyone else to fish themselves.Report

    • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m pretty sure suicide/attempted suicide has moral implications. Or at least did to the greeks. morals change.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

        As fine an example as any. What deontological or virtue-driven obligation keeps me from checking myself out? Particularly if, on a utilitarian level, life is a misery to me (say, I have a painful, uncurable, lingering disease)?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

        A story on NPR today involved an 89 year old man and his 90 year old wife and how they did the murder suicide thing over the weekend (though, from the story, it seems better described as an assisted suicide/suicide). The couple in question had recently set up all of their paperwork to move them out of their house (of howevermany years) and into an assisted living facility.

        The story then went on to explain that a certain percentage of murder-sucides were of the elderly and how, with the baby boomers and all, we can expect to see jumps in that number.

        Ah, found it:

        I was struck by the… I don’t want to say “neutrality”, exactly, but the fact that there was very little recrimination (outside, of course, of use of the term “murder-suicide”) against this act… there’s the phrase “the community is mourning this tragedy as a Romeo and Juliet type of love story” but the story itself is bloodless. I mean, even for NPR.

        Which seems strange, to me. (Of course, the first comment is complaining that the story should be celebrating the bravery of these folks so maybe I completely misread this story entirely.)Report

    • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Aristotelian and Kantian methodologies get you there pretty directly. That is, because there are rules or virtues that apply universally, they necessarily apply to your behavior toward yourself. Kant and others (famously Camus) focus on suicide, but you can look at the discussions of the ethics of altering one’s body (tattoos, piercings) to see this play out in less dramatic spheres.Report

  8. Creon Critic says:

    I think Chris’s point on degrees of control is important to keep in mind. I’d add that the historical context is pretty important, particularly with respect to controlling women’s bodies. There is a history of patriarchy (e.g. coverture) and gender discrimination that should inform this discussion that I think Zic rightly points to. That is, we should have our antennae up for signs of these longstanding traditions of the particularly severe affronts to women’s bodily integrity.

    Ongoing oppression is much more than trivially true; past oppression, even less so.Report

  9. roger says:

    “If you have ever publicly expressed your views about X, you have just told a whole bunch of people what to do with their bodies. The fact that those particular people were going to do it anyway is irrelevant. Congratulations, you too want to violate other people’s bodily integrity.”

    I disagree with you AND Zic.

    Wanting something to be different about what someone does is not the same as wanting to violate their bodily integrity. Absolutely not.Report

  10. J@m3z Aitch says:

    If you have ever publicly expressed your views about X, you have just told a whole bunch of people what to do with their bodies.

    But I haven’t tried anything beyond moral suasion. I haven’t tried to actively interfere with them doing X with their bodies, nor have I punished them afterwards. Nor have I even advocated active interference or punishment.

    Seems like a world of difference to me.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      This. Three cases:

      1. I believe X is wrong, therefore I will refrain from doing it.

      2. Case 1 + I will express my desire that you also refrain.

      3. Case 1 or 2 + I will seek to make X against the law.

      Case 1 is not controlling. Case 2 is potentially annoying, but again, not controlling. Case 3 is controlling.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Road Scholar says:

        I”d say 2 can be controlling in a very real sense if certain types of power structures exist.Report

      • North in reply to Road Scholar says:

        Perhaps 3. could be refined to
        3. Case 1 or 2 + I will seek to incent you to refrain through force (law, economics, violence etc).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Road Scholar says:

        Good point, @stillwater , though I still think @road-scholar is on to something. For the most part, given Murali’s relatively personal approach to this piece, people are responding based on how they live their personal lives. As such, the power structures that might lead to #2 being more controlling probably don’t exist.

        Case in point, there are things I think people should or shouldn’t do and I have little hesitation from sharing those opinions amongst friends and peers. But if I’m interacting with my students, I’m going to handle that very differently, because of the power dynamics and other aspects of the relationship.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Road Scholar says:

        I’m on board with Road Scholar’s effort to classify the categorjcal distinctions, but I think Stillwater’s critique may indicate a missing category between #2 and #3. If #2 is merely expressing desire, the next level is using emotional coercion, beyond merely an expression of one’s wishes. I might make that #3 and shift trying to outlaw it to #4.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Road Scholar says:

        No argument from me, guys. Consider my comment a first draft, subject to revision and improvement. 🙂Report

      • zic in reply to Road Scholar says:

        I agree with @jm3z-aitch on #2 leading to emotional coercion — a good example might be abstinence-only education or ‘you’ll go to hell’ preaching.

        But I think there are other ways these things are controlled. With alcohol, not allowing places to sell it — dry counties, for instance. With abortion, defunding family-planning clinics is an example. So not making the things illegal, but controlling access to disapproved things so as to make them difficult to obtain. Perhaps it would be economic coercion? I’m not sure if that’s the right term, but it approximates it.Report

  11. krogerfoot says:

    “My body, my choice” and similar bumper-sticker phrases are shorthand for a suite of positions on issues regarding women’s health, centering on reproduction and abortion. I’m sure you understand this, but you’ve written a post that focuses on the literal, semantic meaning of “controlling other people’s bodies” in a way that seems, I don’t know, like you’re parodying a particular type of person who gets hung up on particular words.

    Maybe I’m being dense, but if there’s anyone who’s arrived at their position regarding, say, access to birth control, through an ironclad conviction that controlling other people’s bodies is always and forever morally wrong, I hope this post will persuade them to rethink things.

    If your point is that “you just want to control my body” is often used as a cudgel to shut down argument, OK, point taken. But @zic, for instance, has explained at great length the specific and nuanced things she means when she talks about a societal compulsion to regulate female sexuality and health. Agree with her or not, her ideas are not based on obnoxious sloganeering. Hypercritical semantic analysis of slogans, on the other hand, can be pretty obnoxious and can also be used as a cudgel. Or have I misunderstood the intent of this post?Report

    • Murali in reply to krogerfoot says:

      Perhaps I missed the nuance of @zic’s argument, but it seemed to be a rehashing of “you just want to control my body” with a lot of bells and whistles attached.Report

      • zic in reply to Murali says:


        Women cannot be fully free without the freedom to control their reproduction. There’s a lot of feminist bs about men controlling women that fails to recognize the very basic heart of human history: it’s women’s bodies and reproductive capacity that controlled them, not men. I’m suggesting that when a religious claim is made that seeks moral authority over women’s reproductive lives, it be considered in the light of women’s right to be free to fully participate. Our history and tradition, which lacked the medical technology to give women that right, is loaded with moral controls on women. It’s important to develop a habit of questioning those mores; because limiting women simply because they have a uterus and ovaries is immoral.

        This is a new development in human history; only a half-century old. It is not built into our philosophy, our religious traditions, even our language.Report

  12. Murali says:

    Everyone, thanks for the comments.
    I think it says how poorly I’ve expressed myself if about the only person who gets me is Jim Heffman.

    Let me be clear. I am not talking in any sense about policy or coercion. What I am saying is that at a positive analysis of what morality is (at least sociologically speaking) tells us that morality is a method of social control. Let me describe (rather crudely) a rather curious regularity of social interaction. Person A is about to perform action X. Person B comes up to person A and tells him that he should not X, that X-ing is wrong. Person A refrains from X-ing in response. A common case is when I do something I don’t realise is wrong like practicing my drumming, but which I stop once my neighbour tells me that it is disturbing him. Ordinarily, once I realise I have been inconsiderate, I stop doing the thing I would have otherwise preferred to do. I am not doing this because the neighbour is my boss. I do this because my neighbour has invoked the authority of morality. We all normally do find that moral norms have authority over us to such an extent as to over-ride our normal preferences. But, the implication of what just happened is that my neighbour just used the authority of morality to control my actions. This is as it should be. Morality is a game we play in order to solve certain coordination problems and the act of solving said coordination problems is going to have to involve some sorts of instructions to persons to behave in certain sorts of ways and also telling people when they are not incompliance with those instructions. Any further normative account of morality has to be consistent with this positive fact about morality: Morality is a social tool used to control the behaviour of others. Moreover, this can and often does happen between people who stand as equals with respect to one another.Report

    • Chris in reply to Murali says:

      I don’t think anyone disagrees with you that morality is, or at least is generally used as, a means of social control. Hell, I was just reading this this weekend.

      The question is, as zic has noted several times, one of unequal social control — to the point, in this case, of creating second class citizens — based on gender. Specifically, making women subservient — to the state, to their husbands, to men generally — by controlling if and when they have children. When people talk of “controlling women’s bodies,” this is what they mean. Are they speaking loosely? Perhaps, but it is a shorthand that people here, at least, understand, which is why when some trollish people in zic’s thread talked about transfats and such, they knew damned well what they’re doing. I suspect, however, that the rhetoric of reproductive freedom in the United States doesn’t have as much play over there, so it’s understandable that you wouldn’t catch the shorthand.Report

      • Murali in reply to Chris says:

        Well, in that case, shouldn’t we be really talking about how this burdens women more than it burdens men? And shouldn’t we then be talking about alternatives with different distributions of burdens? It seems like “you want to control my body” is a non-sequitor and it would do the conversation better if we talked about what made this set of norms worse than that one over there. And we would perhaps better approach consensus that way too. I get the same way when hard libertarians throw the non-aggression principle at me. The latter is a slogan, not a justificatory reason.Report

      • Kim in reply to Chris says:

        yeah, probably. bear in mind you’re wading into the middle of a longstanding political argument, one of the fruits of which is Planned Parenthood (a “non-profit” that functions as another branch of government, in order to get around people being squicky about the government directly providing contraception and family planning support).

        Most of the liberals around here (and definitely a good few of the libertarians) would rather we did away with the linkage of job and health care, which would fix this whole problem quite neatly.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        No, because it doesn’t burden men at all. This is specifically a problem for women, and that is the problem: by limiting women’s reproductive freedom, we limit their ability to participate in the economic, social, and political aspects of society, and by limiting their ability to participate in the economic, social, and political aspects of society, we limit their ability to affect their own reproductive freedom. This is where the “controlling women’s bodies” comes in: men, by controlling what women do with their bodies in ways that are specific to women, control women to a much greater extent than the initial act of limiting their bodily freedom.

        If you reread Zic’s post, and many of her comments, I think you will see that she goes well beyond mere sloganeering. She’s making a claim, and providing a justification for it. The slogan is simply, as I said, a shorthand for the broader claim, which she lays out repeatedly.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        In short, if you’re getting hung up on the shorthand, you’re missing everything. Better to just let go of the shorthand.Report

      • Murali in reply to Chris says:


        I’m not talking about burdening men as a class. Ostensibly, the Greens are burdened in this particular case. In discussions about abortions foetuses (maybe?) are burdened.

        A lot of people seem to think that the fact that there has been a history of the legal system placing a disproportionate burden on women bears on the question of whether the balance of burdens in this case is unreasonably tilted against women. I just don’t think that it is plausible.Report

      • Murali in reply to Chris says:


        Also, it seems that it is my body is not just a slogan. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument in favour of the permissibility of abortions is almost explicitly a development of this idea.*

        *Thomson argues that even if the foetus is a person, we owe the foetus no positive duties and can permissibly prevent the foetus from using our bodies. About the only people who should find her argument convincing are hard night-watchman state libertarians. Setting aside my own views on abortion, contra Thomson, the question about the permissibility of abortion depends on whether it is morally required to treat the foetus as if it were a person. I think it is perfectly reasonable that this is more likely in the latter stages of pregnancy and less so in the earlier stages. I do think that the line should be drawn differently than it currently is in the law, and it may turn out that if the line were drawn the way I prefer women would in most cases have a much smaller window to permissibly get an abortion. I just think that people who draw the line differently than I do fail to take account of certain salient distinctions.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Murali, first, there is a difference between shorthand and a slogan. In this case it is a shorthand for a very specific set of ways in which certain people seek to control women’s bodies, ways exclusive to women, and primarily concerned with reproduction. It tells them that there are certain things that they must do, in particular carry fetuses to term should they get pregnant, and certain things they must not do, specifically they must not take steps, other than abstinence, to prevent getting pregnant. Since you’ve read Thomson, you’re aware that one of the reasons she chose her primary analogy — the violinist — is because it highlights the extreme, positive burden being placed on women in denying them reproductive freedom. They are forced to do certain very invasive, dangerous, and life-impacting things with their body by laws restricting their reproductive freedom. This is what the shorthand is for.

        It is true that the Green’s are claiming they are burdened by the fact that they are being required, in order to receive tax benefits, to provide the same level of care to both men and women. What I mean when I say that it appears that you are getting hung up on the short hand is that you are treating it so abstractly that you find their burden comparable with the positive, invasive, and gender-specific burden being placed on women’s bodies.

        A lot of people seem to think that the fact that there has been a history of the legal system placing a disproportionate burden on women bears on the question of whether the balance of burdens in this case is unreasonably tilted against women. I just don’t think that it is plausible.

        Then you are naive. The very fact that you are comparing the two burdens — one of which will, at most, compel someone to sign some papers, and the other of which will harm very many more other people in very tangible, gender-specific ways — shows just how unreasonably tilted the discussion is.Report

      • Murali in reply to Chris says:

        I think calling what the Greens are required to do merely signing some papers mis-states the immediacy of their involvement in the supply chain for contraceptives they (mistakenly) think violate their ethical standards.

        You also misunderstand me. I am saying that whichever burden is in fact heavier, the fact about which burden is heavier cannot depend on the particular history of women’s oppression.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        My point is that the “bodily integrity” claim is, at best, a highly abstract one with the Green’s, and a rather literal one with women’s reproductive rights. This is why it’s shorthand, not a slogan.

        And what I mean is that the history of women’s reproductive rights will influence not the weight that they should receive, but the weight that the two positions are actually given. That, I believe, is what people, should they bring up the history, would mean.Report

      • Kim in reply to Chris says:

        I’ll go with the science, which says that a kid’s brain is … pretty much tabula rasa, and that they really get to be pretty detectable as “human” by sometime between 6 months and two years of age.

        I’m no hardcore libertarian, but I do envision infanticide being okay up to 6 months (naturally, it would be a last resort). This is more or less me balancing Kantian views (Murder is Wrong) against Utilitarian views (If you don’t, Everyone Dies). By the time we’re up to the kid being 2 years old, I’m pretty solid that it would be better for everyone to die than to kill the kid (there’s the moral issue that “you made the determination to keep/raise/have the kid”, and you ought to keep up your end of the bargain No Matter What.)Report

      • Kim in reply to Chris says:

        Many things have historical roots.
        If we passed a law requiring all right handers to walk around with their hands on their head (or something else equally ridiculous), it would be a VASTLY different burden, psychologically, than passing the Same Law for black people.

        To one side, it’s a weird, discriminatory law. To the other, it’s a weird, discriminatory law that folds into an entire history of discrimination, and thus even the minor law is amplified by previous association.

        I’m not saying this is a large effect, or the only effect. I am saying that it is at least worth giving a couple of points to.Report

  13. Murali says:

    Thomson is at her strongest with her violinist example. There are important disanalogies though. Pregnant women are often much more mobile (and thus often have far fewer restrictions on freedom of movement) than the violinist example suggests. The violinist example would be far more convincing if pregnant women actually tended to be bed bound. In fact, for women for whom pregnancy does keep them bed bound, the burden on them is sufficiently heavy to justify abortion.

    That does not even cover the fact that people have stronger obligations towards their own offspring that they don’t necessarily have towards strangers. The burdens that would excuse shirking the latter does not necessarily excuse shirking the former. Unless we are prepared to suppose that we have no more obligation towards our own children than to some stranger, we shouldn’t be so quick to suppose that the violinist, let alone any of her other examples prove the things they are supposed to prove.

    Her Henry Fonda example is even worse. If walking across the room to lay my hand on your brow was all that was required to relieve you of pain, it is extremely implausible that I do not have that obligation.

    Thomson’s paper is a bad paper. In fact, it would be exhibit A in my example of how not to do philosophy. Philosophical examples are supposed to work by providing instances in which all and only the morally relevant features are the same, but in which our intuitions are different. They work by arguing that if your intuitions here say this, they must also say that over in that case.Report

    • Kim in reply to Murali says:

      I dispute that there really is offspring, at the point where the kid is still a fetus. (past that, you’ve got a pretty high bar of “but it’s not hurting YOUU” to clear before any action towards an innocent is allowed — again, I can see it, but it’s a pretty tough bar to clear).

      I also think that you’re allowed to make decisions for the kid, including “this was a bad idea” based on new information while you’re pregnant (husband decides to boink a 16 year old because you’re pregnant and fat, say…).

      This isn’t an ideal world: in this world, having a baby costs you millions of dollars (as you assume the obligation of caring for it until the age of 18 — if we grant that adoption is often morally/psychologically unacceptable).Report

    • Chris in reply to Murali says:

      Murali, I agree it’s a bad paper, and that the analogy doesn’t work (the bulk of my empirical work over the years has been on models of analogy and analogical reasoning, so prominent examples like that are frequent topics of discussion). But it does highlight the explicit, positive burden placed on women’s bodies by limiting their reproductive freedom.Report

  14. Murali says:


    I’m no hardcore libertarian, but I do envision infanticide being okay up to 6 months (naturally, it would be a last resort).

    That’s because you don’t think they are persons. Thomson’s whole argument presumes that foetuses are in fact persons. She’s trying to argue that even if they are persons, there is no obligation not to abort.Report

  15. dragonfrog says:

    I’m surprised to hear something so straight up silly from someone so thoughful and serious-minded.

    We don’t proscribe murder or theft because the physical actions of the murderer or thief are wrong, but because their impacts on the victim are wrong – the exact same physical action of stabbing taken toward an old mattress is totally innocuous; the exact same physical action of putting a thing in one’s coat and walking out the door taken toward one’s own property is totally innocuous.

    At that point, the only examples you have left of “perfectly good” laws violating the right of bodily integrity without clearly protecting anyone else’s rights – such as laws against ingesting certain substances, terminating unwanted pregnancies, selling sexual services, being nude in public, chewing gum in Singapore – are laws I and probably many others here reject as a group on precisely the same grounds.Report

    • Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

      and don’t forget the Eugenics laws, most of which are still on the books and enforced in the good ol’ USA.Report

    • Murali in reply to dragonfrog says:

      We don’t proscribe murder or theft because the physical actions of the murderer or thief are wrong

      I’m not saying we do. Does anything I have said imply that we do?Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Murali says:

        I apologize, you did not – I obviously read your piece too hastily. I misread When I say that you ought not to commit murder, I’m also telling you not to commit murder. in the middle of a paragraph otherwise about things people do to their own bodies.

        My counterargument to your piece is different, I guess. In response to:

        (…) if there are at least some things which it is morally problematic to do to one’s own body, uttering the moral statement in its imperatival form will be telling people what they can or cannot do to their own body.

        I just say: There are no things which it is sufficiently morally problematic to do to one’s own body as to make outright legal prohibition appropriate. I might entertain prohibitions against those considered too young to make an informed choice doing the thing. Tattoo shops rightly require parental consent to tattoo minors.

        But adults should have full rights to bodily integrity and control. Done.Report

      • dragonfrog in reply to Murali says:

        Come to think of it, I don’t strictly agree with When I say that you ought not to commit murder, I’m also telling you not to commit murder either.

        I can say that you ought not to do something, but that it’s your decision, or I can absolutely tell you not to do something. There is a real distinction. “You shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, they’re bad for your health” is different from “Don’t smoke those cigarettes, they’re not yours.”Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:


        I’m not talking about legal prohibition, just about moral norms which people are entirely free to ignore. This comment clarifies what I mean.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        I can say that you ought not to do something, but that it’s your decision

        There are certain senses in which it would be okay to say this, but if the “its your decision” is supposed to convey in any sense moral permission, the statement becomes incoherent. I think RM Hare is somewhere in the ballpark of being correct.

      • dragonfrog in reply to Murali says:

        I don’t think anyone is saying people shouldn’t get to disapprove morally of various forms of birth control. Uttering a disapproving monologue in response to someone’s decision to get an abortion is only “trying to control their body” in that you cause their eardrums to vibrate at certain frequencies.

        Arresting their doctor, shutting down the clinic, or denying them the funds required to cover their medical expenses – that’s what’s at issue, surely (right? surely?).

        What this means is that the only way in which the fact that some act or rule counts as an effort to control what other people do with their own bodies is morally bad is if there is nothing a person can do to himself which is in any sense morally problematic.

        I don’ think you don’t have to hold the view to anything like that absolute level. You only have to hold that there is nothing a person can do to himself which is sufficiently morally problematic to justify passing an act or rule that prevents them from doing it.

        If what someone is doing solely to themselves to be morally problematic to you, your recourse should be limited to attempts at persuasion – and that holds whether you are a friend of the person, or the head of government in the jurisdiction where they live.Report

  16. dragonfrog says:

    In response to your clarifying comment – I wouldn’t express the act of your hypothetical neighbour as trying to control your actions. I’d think of it as pointing out moral aspects of your behaviour that you might not have been aware of, or have given sufficient consideration to.Report