Jag Levak’s belief that it would be morally praiseworthy for a woman to grant a dying child’s request for sexual favors has succeeded in illuming some grand canyons that separate our approaches to moral reasoning. In this article I’d like to address one of those deep fissures that lead to such different outcomes. That fissure arises depending on how we answer this question: do I own my body?
Imagine that we are talking about a bicycle. You say you are going to paint the bicycle blue. Is it morally justifiable for you to do that?
The question invites another question: is it your bike to paint? If it is your bike then it likely is justifiable for you to paint it. But if you merely have it on loan from somebody else and that person has not given you permission to paint it, then it would seem you shouldn’t paint it. The principle is straightforward: if you don’t have ownership of something you don’t have the same rights over it that the person who owns it does.
The same principle applies to the body. If a person believes they own their body in a way analogous to ownership of the bicycle then they will view as morally permissible an entire range of actions which we would not consider moral if we believed that people did not have primary ownership of their bodies. In that case trashing our bodies or using them improperly without permission or contrary to the explicit will of the owner would be open to moral censure just like trashing a bicycle that is merely on loan.
Christians believe that human life is a gift from God. Our lives are not ours to live as we please. The perspective is captured eloquently in this poem by Elizabethan poet Ben Jonson on the death of his first son:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;
Seven yeeres tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soon scap’d worlds and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
Ben Johnson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
The key line is found when Jonson reflects that his child was lent to him. His child was never really his. Imagine that your neighbor loans you a lawnmower for seven straight years and then one day you come home and discover that he took it back again. Have you any ground for complaint? Of course not. Your only place is to thank the owner for the seven years of use.
That is Jonson’s attitude about the seven years he enjoyed with his beloved son. And it is the same attitude a person should have for every day they are able to enjoy life in this material body.
Life is an extraordinary gift, but it is a gift on loan. Like the bicycle, so with the life, we do not retain absolute ownership of our bodies and our moral judgments must be qualified accordingly.