The Principle of Totality and the Limits of Enhancement

Ethics and Medicine 31 (3):143-57 (2015)
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Abstract
According to the Thomistic tradition, the Principle of Totality (TPoT) articulates a secondary principle of natural law which guides the exercise of human ownership or dominium over creation. In its general signification, TPoT is a principle of distributive justice determining the right ordering of wholes to their parts. In the medical field it is traditionally understood as entailing an absolute prohibition of bodily mutilation as irrational and immoral, and an imperfect obligation to use the parts of one’s body for the perfection of the bodily whole. TPoT is thus a key element of the system of principles within which an individual exercises her right to life: it helps specify the nature, scope and limits of those actions by which an agent permissibly acts in order to preserve her life. While the Thomistic tradition and the Catholic Church have drawn clear conclusions from the principle regarding, e.g., direct sterilization and non-therapeutic experimentation on human subjects, less attention has been given to the implications of TPoT for non-therapeutic procedures that may positively impact biological functioning or supra-biological goals–that is, for human “enhancement.” We will explore the degree to which TPoT non-univocally guides our use of both artifacts and bodies. We will argue that a careful analysis of these distinct kinds of totalities suggests that the application of TPoT to artifacts and bodies is strongly isomorphic, which is what tempts advocates of the Principle of Autonomy to invalidly infer the absolute dominium of the individual over her body. The inference is invalid because this isomorphism also includes a principle of intrinsic value whose function is to resist the instrumentalization of both artifacts and bodies in some contexts; we are not even related to artifacts as advocates of absolute autonomy believe we are, let alone to our bodies. Rather, the limits of human dominium are determined by the nature and finalities, inherent or acquired, of the objects in question, and it will be argued that articulating these limits raises important, understudied, and fascinating questions about the permissibility of various kinds of human enhancement.
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