Tongue splitting, bodily harm, and human dignity

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

Contemporary cosmetic surgery has become a tool for realising bizarre personal fantasies. Sometimes it also leads to significant bodily harm. “Tongue-splitting” is an operation whereby a person’s tongue is split from the tip to as far back as the underside base. The operation has become a common alteration for body-modification enthusiasts, who say it heightens their sense of taste and touch.

Some jurisdictions, however, have enacted a ban on the procedure. The operation can be painful, and can temporarily impede one’s capacity for speech.

In a recent post on the blog Practical Ethics, UK lawyer Charles Foster considers the legality and ethics of the procedure.

Foster discusses the case of R v BM, where a Wolverhampton tattooist was found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a patient after splitting their tongue. Even though the customer consented, the court found that consent was not a defence against having inflicted grievous bodily harm.

Foster argues that the ruling represents a defence of basic human dignity, which transcends the ambit of personal autonomy:

[The ruling] is a salutary reminder that there are limits to the law’s protection of personal autonomy. Factors other than autonomy are in play in the criminal law. I have argued elsewhere that the primary factor (and the foundational factor in the criminal law – in which all other factors, including autonomy, are rooted) is human dignity.

Indeed, Foster argues that in harming another, one does violence to one’s own human dignity:

One might say that X causing injury to Y is doubly culpable because in doing so X outrages not only Y’s dignity but also his own (X’s) dignity…dignity is ‘Janus-faced’.


This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees.

Dignitarian medical ethics

Linda Barclay

Abstract

Philosophers and bioethicists are typically sceptical about invocations of dignity in ethical debates. Many believe that dignity is essentially devoid of meaning: either a mere rhetorical gesture used in the absence of good argument or a faddish term for existing values like autonomy and respect. On the other hand, the patient experience of dignity is a substantial area of research in healthcare fields like nursing and palliative care. In this paper, it is argued that philosophers have much to learn from the concrete patient experiences described in healthcare literature. Dignity is conferred on people when they are treated as having equal status, something the sick and frail are often denied in healthcare settings. The importance of equal status as a unique value has been forcefully argued and widely recognised in political philosophy in the last 15 years. This paper brings medical ethics up to date with philosophical discussion about the value of equal status by developing an equal status conception of dignity.


Barclay L. Dignitarian medical ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics Published Online First: 13 October 2017. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2017-104467

Dignity and the Ownership and Use of Body Parts

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics / Volume 23 / Issue 04 / October 2014, pp 417-430

Charles Foster

Abstract: Property-based models of the ownership of body parts are common. They are inadequate. They fail to deal satisfactorily with many important problems, and even when they do work, they rely on ideas that have to be derived from deeper, usually unacknowledged principles. This article proposes that the parent principle is always human dignity, and that one will get more satisfactory answers if one interrogates the older, wiser parent instead of the younger, callow offspring. But human dignity has a credibility problem. It is often seen as hopelessly amorphous or incurably theological. These accusations are often just. But a more thorough exegesis exculpates dignity and gives it its proper place at the fountainhead of bioethics. Dignity is objective human thriving. Thriving considerations can and should be applied to dead people as well as live ones. To use dignity properly, the unit of bioethical analysis needs to be the whole transaction rather than (for instance) the doctor-patient relationship. The dignity interests of all the stakeholders are assessed in a sort of utilitarianism. Its use in relation to body part ownership is demonstrated. Article 8(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights endorses and mandates this approach. [Full Text]