Should we prohibit breast implants? Collective moral obligations in the context of harmful and discriminatory social norms

Journal of Practical Ethics 3 (2):37-60 (2015)
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Abstract
In liberal moral theory, interfering with someone’s deliberate engagement in a self-harming practice in order to promote their own good is often considered wrongfully paternalistic. But what if self-harming decisions are the product of an oppressive social context that imposes harmful norms on certain individuals, such as, arguably, in the case of cosmetic breast surgery? Clare Chambers suggests that such scenarios can mandate state interference in the form of prohibition. I argue that, unlike conventional measures, Chambers’ proposal recognises that harmful, discriminatory norms entail a twofold collective moral obligation: to eliminate the harmful norm in the long run, but also to address unjust harm that is inflicted in the meantime. I show that these two obligations tend to pull in opposite directions, thus generating a serious tension in Chambers’ proposal which eventually leads to an undue compromising of the second obligation in favour of the first. Based on this discussion, I develop an alternative proposal which, instead of prohibiting breast implant surgery, offers compensation for the disadvantages suffered by individuals who decide not to have surgery.
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