One of the central tenets of libertarianism, one that ultimately renders it incompatible with Christianity, is its insistence upon self-ownership. Our bodies belong to us, and to no one else, not even God, and the essence of freedom is that we are allowed to do with them as we please. If you want to see what happens when this sort of libertarianism runs amok, as it inevitably does when it is no longer constrained by any normative sense at all, consider this ghastly story by Wesley J. Smith, appearing in the newsletter of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. I confess to being one of those fogies who finds something deeply pathological about our culture’s growing fascination with body piercing, tattoos, gender-bending, transsexuality, etc., so I was not really very shocked to find that there is now something called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a condition in which the patient suffers from a passionate desire to be an amputee. Nor does it surprise me in the slightest that the field of bioethics–of which Wesley Smith, who is truly a national treasure, has been one of the most potent critics–has absolutely nothing useful to say about any of this, and indeed may be on the verge of blithely removing the stigma of "disorder" from it. If there is anything surprising in it all, it’s how quickly the logic of nonjudgmental postmodernism, which liberates us not only from our natural limitations but from the very idea of nature itself, is able to spread, even into hitherto unthinkable regions.
The article raises a very good question: if we have nothing but the ideal of individual autonomy to guide us–pure consumer sovereignty, so to speak–then how is a physician’s amputation of healthy limbs at his patient’s request any different from the enhancements of a plastic surgeon–a nose job, breast augmentation, facelift? The President’s Council on Bioethics under the leadership of Leon Kass (another national treasure) has published a valuable book, called Beyond Therapy, which reflects usefully on the difference between optimizing the nature that we have been given, and treating that endowment as something entirely malleable and dispensable. But to make that distinction, one must first have a conception of nature as something given, something that both defines and constrains us. And that is what we seem to be losing, at least in our elite circles. Who, after all, is to say that those limbs are healthy, if the sovereign patient has decided they are unwanted, and must go?
One is tempted to wonder what more gruesome illustration there could be, of the folly of a social order with no standard higher than individual autonomy. But at the rate things are going, we won’t have to wait long for it.