Sex with corpses might be philosophically cool. But it’s still not a good idea.
It is reported that Jimmy Savile crept at night into the mortuary at Leeds General Infirmary and committed sex acts on corpses.1
Well, for a start, assuming the acts involved penetration, he had committed a serious criminal offence.2
But shouldn’t we grow up? Shouldn’t we let live, and let the live love the dead? Who was hurt? Isn’t this legislation anachronistic? Doesn’t it stem from superannuated and probably, at root, theological ideas about the sanctity of life – irrationally extended to the sanctity of the dead human body?
If the acts gave Savile pleasure, then what’s the problem? Or, if we grant that the outraged relatives might suffer some distress (because they’ve not read enough philosophy), doesn’t the problem lie only in the fact that the relatives heard about what had happened, rather than in the acts themselves? In which case the real villains are the investigators and the media.
We have strong intuitions about many things. So strong, in fact, that they are often immune to the best arguments of the lawyers and philosophers.
Two of the most fundamental intuitions are cannibalism and incest. Can the repugnance they generate be diluted by argument?
It turns out that it is hard to dilute it. Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators devised two scenarios.
Jennifer is a nice girl – a caring, compassionate vegetarian who is opposed to killing animals. She works in the pathology lab at the hospital. She is given the job of incinerating a fresh human corpse. ‘How wasteful’, she thinks. And she cuts off a lump of flesh, takes it home, cooks it and eats it.
Mark and Julie, who are brother and sister, are travelling together. They decide that it would be fun and interesting if they had sex. Julie is already on the pill, but, just to be on the safe side, Mark uses a condom too. Although they both enjoy it, they decide that they won’t do it again. Nor will they tell anyone. It is their little secret.
Who’s hurt in these scenarios? Apparently no one. And yet most of the participants in Haidt’s trials thought that Jennifer, Mark and Julie were wrong. 13% said that Jennifer was OK: 20% that Mark and Julie were OK.
And then the investigator challenged the participants’ judgments. They didn’t like it at all, and few of them, however good the investigator’s arguments and however appalling the justifications, changed their minds.
Haidt commented: ‘They seemed to be flailing around, throwing out reason after reason, and rarely changing their minds when [the researcher] proved that their latest reason was not relevant.’3
Not relevant? What does he mean by that? He means, of course: ‘Not justifiable according to the norms of the philosophical zeitgeist’.
That zeitgeist insists that the foundational value is autonomy, and the only valid ethical scheme is one or other species of utilitarianism – in which the calculus assumes that the maximization of autonomy is the aim.
It’s interesting, though, that the high priests of the zeitgeist haven’t been running to defend Jimmy Savile’s nocturnal entertainments, or to scoff at the inchoate religiosity of the outraged. Where, for instance, is John Harris, who famously sneered at the use of ‘olfactory philosophy’ in forming ethical judgments?4
Where are the libertarians who think that there should be, subject, perhaps, to some restriction of some obvious harms, an entirely free ethical market?
Their silence, I suggest, indicates an acknowledgment that their solutions won’t do. Autonomy is vital: any ethical or legal system that does not honour it is obscene. But it is not the whole answer. It is not the parent principle, but the shrill teenage child of the parent principle.
When we ask whether Jimmy Savile was wrong, and if so why he was wrong, it is impossible to avoid talk about human dignity. We will come out with things like: ‘It’s not respectful’, or ‘That’s not the way humans should behave’; or, more likely, just ‘I don’t know: just: “Ugh’’. Those answers would be maintained despite Haidt’s articulate researcher contending that they begged a number of significant normative questions. And the real reason that they would be maintained is because they begged far fewer questions than the researchers. The assertions are far closer to the real origins of morality than the second or third order utilitarian and autonomistic principles assumed by the researchers to be foundational.
David Hume trenchantly observed that morality ‘is more properly felt than judg’d of’. 5 He was right. Morality that doesn’t start with our intuitions isn’t starting as near the source as it should be. The autonomists and utilitarians are joining the philosophical party near its end, when the arguments have ceased being really interesting and really difficult.
There’s a fundamental (though complex) relationship between our intuitions and our thriving. That’s not surprising. Those intuitions are vertiginously ancient – rooted deep in our evolutionary past. And we can’t, however rarified our education or sophisticated our technology, escape from the determinants of our thriving that are reflected in our intuitions.
Dignity itself has had a bad press. It’s still philosophically rather embarrassing to use the ‘D’ word. It’s thought of as hopelessly amorphous, absurdly ambiguous, or incurably theological. And it’s not surprising. It has been pressed into service both to justify capital punishment and to decry it; to make the case for and against contraception. And so on. Yet these criticisms can be answered. Dignity can be given a sufficiently hard-edged meaning to make it useful at the legal and ethical coal faces. I have tried to do it myself, proposing an account of dignity based broadly on an Aristotelian conception of human thriving, and not at all on the Imago Dei.6
Yet even if this account or any other existing account of dignity is flawed, there’s still no escaping dignity-talk. There’s still no other way of condemning Jimmy Savile in the way that he has to be condemned.
It’s worth observing that rights won’t give you what I’m saying only dignity can give. Sure, I should have a right as a living person to know that my corpse, or that of my relative, won’t be violated after my or their death. One might even say that rights survive the grave, so that a dead person not only has a right to have their property distributed as their will specifies, but has a right not to be penetrated sexually by a hospital porter. But those assertions are mere assertions. They don’t tell you why these rights exist. They don’t tell you why humans have rights and stones don’t. Unfashionable it may be, but you’ve got to go to human dignity for that.
2. Section 70 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides that:
‘(1)A person commits an offence if (a)he intentionally performs an act of penetration with a part of his body or anything else, (b)what is penetrated is a part of the body of a dead person, (c)he knows that, or is reckless as to whether, that is what is penetrated, and (d)the penetration is sexual.
(2)A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable (a)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both; (b)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.’
3. J Haidt, The Righteous Mind (London, Penguin), 2012, 46
4. J Harris ‘Cloning and human dignity’ (1998) 7 Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 163, 166
5. D Hume Treatise on Human Nature, III: 1.2.1(cited Harris, ibid)
6. C Foster, Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law, (Oxford, Hart), 2013