In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish he argues that over the past 200 years the emphasis of western justice has shifted from punishing the body to punishing the soul. To support this he cites a number of shifts in the culture, though the most stark example is easily the changing attitude toward torture. He begins his book by citing an exceptionally gruesome execution from 1757 in France in which a man who attempted to murder the king was publicly carted to the execution site where he then had pieces of flesh torn away with red hot pincers. He then had a mixture of molten sulfur and other compounds poured onto the wounds before being drawn-and-quartered. (In this case, however, the horses used were not typically used for such purposes, so they failed to sever his limbs on the first try, so two horses had to be added, which also failed. They then had to cut through all of the skin around the bones so that only the ligaments were holding the victim in place. When that was done, the horses were finally able to pull him apart.)

Foucault uses such a graphic and, in modern eyes, horrifying example to make a point: In the pre-modern world a crime done against the body was punished on the body of the criminal. So a regicide who threatened the king’s body – and by extension, the body of the nation – was punished on his body in the most extreme ways possible. Contrast that, then, to today’s justice system in which direct corporal punishment has been minimized considerably and newer punishments which strike at a person’s “rights” are the norm.

In the new system, the intangible non-bodily rights of a person are targeted. Foucault argues that this is even the case in the vestiges of corporal punishment still in our system, most noticeable in nations that still practice capital punishment. In western countries capital punishment is done behind closed doors because the point is not to inflict bodily harm onto someone who inflicted bodily harm on an innocent, but to take away the right to life from someone that stole that right from an innocent. In short, then, we have the privileging of what Foucault alternatively calls the “soul” or the “abstract conscious” over the physical body.

As I read the chapter, my mind turned to the abortion debate and this question: Assuming Foucault’s characterization of the modern western mind is correct, doesn’t this inescapably influence the way we view the question of abortion? If we are trained in our current cultural understanding to elevate the abstract conscious over the much more physical body, doesn’t it logically follow that in the question of abortion we would favor the woman’s rights over the body of the unborn baby?

This begs a few follow-up questions, then: For everyone, how does this framing of the abortion issue fit into our overarching view of the body within mass culture? Particularly for secular feminists, how does the privileging of abstract conscious over body fit into the overarching picture of the human body and the female body in particular? For pro-lifers, meanwhile, it perhaps should give us another reason to push back against a gnostic or Platonic understanding of the physical body and more reason to read projects like the one Matt is currently working on.

Or, perhaps to connect this to one of Matt’s earlier questions, maybe evangelicalism is gnostic in the same ways and to the same extent that mainstream American culture is?

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

7 Comments

  1. I’m not sure I fully see your connection. It works if one thinks that the unborn baby is an extension of the woman’s body. But if one thinks it is an independent person, then it too has these “rights” that are so valued today (according to Foucault). In fact, I’ve heard pro-lifers use this very line of argument.

    Reply

  2. I think the difficulty comes in arguing if the baby is an “independent person” and what the consequences of dependence or independence might be. Most of my pro-choice friends argue that it’s a “potential life.” So as a potential life – I’m guessing at how the argument might go – they obviously possess a body but perhaps do not yet possess “personhood.” With the idea being that there’s an abstract quality of consciousness necessary to obtain personhood, IE possessing and living in a body is not enough to make one a “person.” Assuming that’s a fair presentation of the view, then I think it links up well with Foucault: The abstract conscious of the “person” is privileged over the body of the “potential person.”

    I’m not really looking to prove anything in this post, I’m just trying to figure out how Foucault’s idea of the abstract conscious being privileged over the body informs our ideas about the abortion issue.

    Reply

  3. As I hear the abortion rights position, it is exactly as you state it, that the fetus has not achieved personhood and therefore doesn’t have rights in any legal sense. Some of the ethical discussions have gone so far as to say that personhood is a combination of consciousness and volitional autonomy, which, the theory goes, are not fully present until a child reaches the age of 12 months. This idea supports a theoretical right to infanticide, and goes to the heart of the euthanasia debate, that we are not fully human if we can’t understand our rights (sound mind) and exercise them under our own power (sound body). Anyway, it does seem to me that the disconnect between the 2 sides on the abortion debate has to do with whether the fetus has a soul at conception or only once it has achieved a certain level of maturity, autonomy and thinking consciousness.

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  4. As any Thomist will tell you, bad metaphysics does lead to the rationalization of grave immorality. A better question is does the Evangelical community recognize that the wider Christian community that is not steeped in modern metaphysics has been pushing back for decades? If not, why not?

    And doesn’t the body have something to do with one’s view of matter? So then wouldn’t what matter is regarded to be philosophically (as opposed to scientifically which by definition can’t say anything about what it *is*) be one of the most important things to know? Or does worrying too much about what matter is imply one is a materialist? (Hint: the answer is NO) Now we’re getting somewhere. Etienne Gilson (one of the premier Thomists of the last century) gave three important lectures at the end of his long and fruitful life, one of which was “Matter for Christian Philosophers”. That was what was on his mind in the few years before he was to meet his maker. And he goes a bit rough on Descartes in the process (not so “refreshing” anymore, huh?)

    You see what Foucault rightly observes (I haven’t read it yet) can’t be resolved at the level of theology or keen social observation. These are merely the expression of more fundamental philosophical beliefs. I’m totally with you on this one, but I’m not sure that Evangelicals are prepared to really examine some unpopular philosophical views on matter and reflect on a lot of work that the Catholics (and their Aristotelian-Thomistic views that drive it) have done on this … um … matter, let alone whether they would join hands. Evangelicals want to accomodate the culture, and the departing with the surrounding culture philosophically isn’t going to be popular. So if you want to oppose the culture on this slide into “gnostism”, then it’s gut check time. There are a lot of Evangelicals who flirt with naturalism for various reasons and they won’t be happy.

    One of my favorite Thomistic Christian philosophers today is Edward Feser.

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/chomsky-on-mind-body-problem.html
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/stoljar-on-intentionality.html
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/god-and-possible-worlds.html

    Until Evangelicals ditch the modernist MP there will always be a strong idealism that amounts to a rationalistic spiritualism. Plato said it was natural for philosophers to “despise the body”. Aristotle changed all that (thank God), but the point is it is natural for ones of the stripe that Plato was. Dallas Willard said that studying philosophy just was to come to understand Plato and Aristotle for many centuries. Evangelicals need to rediscover this truth all over again as the Catholics already have. Come on in, the water is fine.

    Reply

  5. Let’s just imagine someone invents an artificial womb that is able to take an aborted baby and either bring it to term or hold it in suspended animation until a willing volunteer woman comes forward. How would this alter the abortion debate? I suspect the public would generally take both the pro-life and pro-choice stance. They would support a near absolute right of a woman to decide to get rid of an unborn baby BUT would also have no objection to requiring all such abortions use the new ‘artificial womb’ so the child has a chance.

    Hence it seems to me the abortion argument is tune with the argument over kidney donations. You may need a kidney to live, but the gov’t has no right to force me to donate mine to you. I may be a jerk for saying no to you, but I’m within my prerogative to do so because my body is my body even if I want to make bad decisions with it.

    Reply

  6. As any Thomist will tell you, bad metaphysics does lead to the rationalization of grave immorality. A better question is does the Evangelical community recognize that the wider Christian community that is not steeped in modern metaphysics has been pushing back for decades? If not, why not?

    And doesn’t the body have something to do with one’s view of matter? So then wouldn’t what matter is regarded to be philosophically (as opposed to scientifically which by definition can’t say anything about what it *is*) be one of the most important things to know? Or does worrying too much about what matter is imply one is a materialist? (Hint: the answer is NO) Now we’re getting somewhere. Etienne Gilson (one of the premier Thomists of the last century) gave three important lectures at the end of his long and fruitful life, one of which was “Matter for Christian Philosophers”. That was what was on his mind in the few years before he was to meet his maker. And he goes a bit rough on Descartes in the process (not so “refreshing” anymore, huh?)

    You see what Foucault rightly observes (I haven’t read it yet) can’t be resolved at the level of theology or keen social observation. These are merely the expression of more fundamental philosophical beliefs. I’m totally with you on this one, but I’m not sure that Evangelicals are prepared to really examine some unpopular philosophical views on matter and reflect on a lot of work that the Catholics (and their Aristotelian-Thomistic views that drive it) have done on this … um … matter, let alone whether they would join hands. Evangelicals want to accomodate the culture, and the departing with the surrounding culture philosophically isn’t going to be popular. So if you want to oppose the culture on this slide into “gnostism”, then it’s gut check time. There are a lot of Evangelicals who flirt with naturalism for various reasons and they won’t be happy.

    One of my favorite Thomistic Christian philosophers today is Edward Feser.

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/chomsky-on-mind-body-problem.html
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/stoljar-on-intentionality.html
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/06/god-and-possible-worlds.html

    Until Evangelicals at least know enough to consider ditching the modernist MP there will always be a strong idealism that amounts to a rationalistic spiritualism. Plato said it was natural for philosophers to “despise the body”. Aristotle changed all that (thank God), but the point is it is natural for ones of the stripe that Plato was. Dallas Willard said that studying philosophy just was to come to understand Plato and Aristotle for many centuries. Evangelicals need to rediscover this truth all over again as the Catholics already have. Come on in, the water is fine.

    Reply

  7. […] Last week I referenced Foucault’s argument in the opening chapter of Discipline and Punish in which he says that the western mind has shifted in recent centuries away from an emphasis on the physical body and toward the question of ideals, privileging what Foucault terms “the abstract conscious” over the much more physical human body. […]

    Reply

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