Bio-politics and Person: An Ethical Reflection in the Age of Globalization

Author: Adriano Pessina

Bio-politics and Person: An Ethical Reflection in the Age of Globalization

Adriano Pessina

Separating human being from person devolves into self-alienation, social justice

The term "bio-political" is ambiguous and it would be necessary to question the legitimacy of a politic of life that demands to be a politic on life. Today, in the West, in the epoch of globalized markets and their collapse, of totalitarian ideologies, bio-politics risks being expressed in terms of a macro-ideology which aspires to influence the legislation of individual countries.

What is the difference between an authoritarian bio-politics — which in Karl Popper's opinion, already emerged from the pages of Plato's The Republic— and the bio-politics which subsequently culminated in the fanatical health and racist biologism of the Nazis, and a liberal bio-politics which uses the language of the rights of the individual that, however, often clash with the rights and claims of the citizen consumer?

One cannot speak of bio-politics without taking into account the matter of justice. Citizenship and the recognition of dignity are necessary although not sufficient conditions to ensure just relations among men and women, that is, relations which can guarantee a common and peaceful coexistence to which every individual has a right.

After the Second World War a belief gained ground: that the concept of citizenship must be broadened and that human rights be no longer or solely attributed to the person as a citizen but rather as a human being.

The introduction into politics of this notion, dear to Christian tradition, which supported it to express faith in the Trinitarian God, is nevertheless having the opposite effects to the one hoped for. Moreover, it is producing in Western societies forms of discrimination based one the model of the neoliberal culture.

In the ambiguous kernel of the notion of person, as modernity understands it, the conditions already exist to overturn the project of the inclusion of all people, irrespective of their status, race, age, health, assets, in a common area of recognition, protection and promotion.

There is no equality unless it is based on the recognition of dignity as a quality intrinsic to being purely human. If dignity is a quality that. can be lost or possessed, if it is seen in the moral terms of the exercise of the human will and reason and not in ontological terms, then there is no doubt that dignity will vary and equality disappear.

To have rights because one is a person and not because one is a human being, thus already establishing a duality — human being/person — means imposing on concrete existence a fracture that with time will produce the same effects that are present in the dualism (in some aspects, less serious) established between the human being and the citizen.

In fact, the dualism: human being/citizen is always an extrinsic dualism that can be healed by extending citizenship, which distinguishes between people but does not disunite the human being in himself.

On the other hand to impose on the human condition a distinction between man and person would mean dividing the human being in two.

The manipulation of human beings at the embryonic or fetal stage, euthanasia as a plan to extend assisted suicide, the plan to perfect the human being with recourse to improving eugenics in the context of liberal bio-politics, are in fact permitted in the name of the sovereignty that being a human person — that is, one who is compos mentis, adult, capable of understanding and willing, a citizen of the West, a consumer and producer, in other words, a protagonist of the mutual contractual exchange on which a liberal society is based — can exercise over a human being, who is not yet, or is no longer, a person.

This great division — reminiscent of the great division between being and having to be, which sought to eliminate the category of truth from the context of ethics does not concern human beings but the human being.

The return of the ancient formula, echoed in Nazism, of existence that is not worthy of life is today interiorized by the individual himself. Thus a strange love-hate relationship is established with that corporeity which he is, and which on the contrary he thinks he possesses: a love and hate relationship with his own body in which the former dialectic, servant-master, is emulated.

But precisely because one is a human body and does not possess a human body, that abstract rule contemplated by an unrealistic anthropology is untenable: illness, old age, difficult relationships, stand in the way of the person's control over his own body and those periods of illness when the body becomes a sort of stranger hindering the person's projects.

This gave rise to the idea that it would be better not to allow those children to live who might not enjoy the status of person because they are affected by illness and by being obliged to live their life dependent on others and to suffer the tyranny of their sick body.

Hence also the idea came about of planning our own end in advance with directives for the time when we shall no longer be able to exercise control over our own body, when our self-awareness has faded and we have to be entrusted to others.

This dualism, hailed in the notion of person, is also at the root of the new way of viewing sexuality and its "rights". Indeed, if the person has a body then the person is neither male nor female; consequently being male or female would not depend upon the body alone but rather on free choice.

The invention of one's identity and personality as a design and choice is fostered by this split: homosexuality as an option and a right and no longer as a fact or a destiny can be theorized in this gap between the person and being human, between mind and body, between desire and physiological identity.

The person assumes the neuter gender which, while it sanctions politically correct language under the illusion of avoiding discrimination on the basis of the male or female gender, it in fact dissolves the actual character of the human being who is never neuter, never without a body.

Today, becoming women or becoming men no longer means developing in time the conditions of being a human person, that is, either male or female but means shaping the neuter according to personal choice.

Paradoxically, by a trick of history or human stupidity the problem one wished to solve returns: in order to enjoy the recognition of others the simple quality of being human no longer suffices.

What Hannah Arendt said about prisoners in concentration camps deprived of citizenship and of every right can be repeated: "The concept of human rights was shipwrecked the moment that individuals appeared to have lost all the other specific qualities and relations except for their humanity. The world has not found anything sacred in the abstract nakedness of being a human being" (H. Arendt, Le origini del totalitarismo, Einaudi, Turin, P. 415).

According to Arendt, "a man who is nothing other than a man seems to have lost the qualities that impelled others to treat him as one of them".

Indeed, separating the human being from the person means introducing serious problems of social justice that undermine the political principal of equality.

Eva Kittay, an American philosopher, shed clear light on this problem. Starting with the direct experience of her daughter affected with congenital cerebral paralysis, she brought the problems of caring for and assisting people with disabilities into the limelight.

At a first glance these problems might seem to concern a specific category of people: the disabled. And in our imagination we think, for example, of children affected by Down's syndrome, of paraplegics, of people in a vegetative state, or of the elderly who are no longer self-sufficient.

In fact, it is not a question of anthropological or social categories, because the more or less extreme forms of dependence that some of them experience are part of the human condition and are therefore aspects of life which, in different ways and for different periods, concern us all, directly or indirectly.

Yet the problem is that these people risk being seen as politically marginal if we think of a liberal theory of justice inspired by the model of mutual exchange among citizens, where the parties of the social contract are free, equal and independent people.

To correct this approach Martha Nussbaum had recourse to two sources: Aristotelian anthropology and Marx's theory of need. In this way Nussbaum sought to extend the concept of human dignity also to what she defined as the animal dimension of the human being. But there is no animal essence in man over which he would exercise a sort of control. In the human being everything is human, even those aspects that allow him to be compared with an animal.

Only because the human being has humanized the animal is it possible to animalize the human being: but in this way, once again, the awareness of that naked quality of being human of which Arendt speaks is lost. This quality is clearly expressed in Thomas Aquinas' lapidary definition of the human being:

"Therefore person in any nature signifies what is distinct in that nature: thus in human nature it signifies this flesh, these bones, and this soul, which are the individuating principles of a man, and which, though not belonging to person in general, nevertheless do belong to the meaning of a particular human person" (Summa Theologiae, I., q. 29, a. 4).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 November 2008, page 4

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