What if the brain in a vat has a body?: Medical ethics and human beings

Rebacca Y X Tock1

1 Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Sydney Australia Email: rebacca.tock@gmail.com

Alistair Campbell claims, “the body is of central concern to most people’s understanding of the moral issues raised by modern biomedicine and modern medical practice. Yet, strangely, it is either devalued or largely ignored in much contemporary writing about the ethical aspects of these disciplines”[1]. This paper takes up the challenge to understand this claim and explore the normative significance of the body in medical ethics. Outlining the effect of the conventional dualist paradigm in medicine, I will suggest that the traditional ‘brain in a vat’ model of medical decision-making ignores a fundamental fact of human beings, that they are embodied and therefore medical morality should attend to the lived experience of illness.

Accepting the framework of medical ethics provided by Beauchamp and Childress[2], I will suggest that the rational decision maker that is the normative subject of the medical encounter is an unnecessarily idealised representation of the patient. Although this representation is challenged by feminist critiques of autonomy[3], others suggest that even this critique lacks a full consideration of the limits that biology place on autonomy[4]. By suggesting a phenomenological approach to the body in medical ethics, the gap between the ethicists, patients, and practitioners may start to close.

[1] Alastair V. Campbell, The Body in Bioethics (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009). 2.
[2] Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[3] Catriona Mackenzie, “Conceptions of Autonomy and Conceptions of the Body,” in Feminist Bioethics : At the Centre, on the Margins, ed. Jackie Leach Scully, Laurel Baldwin-Ragaven, and Petya Fitzpatrick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
[4] Jonathan Beever and Nicolae Morar, “The Porosity of Autonomy: Social and Biological Constitution of the Patient in Biomedicine,” The American Journal of Bioethics 16, no. 2 (2016).


Rebacca is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University undertaking research into the theoretical role of the body in medical ethics. Her research interests lie primarily in the field of applied ethics and healthcare.

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