Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

One thing I find myself idly wondering about sometimes is how far it is permissible to modify someone’s body – with their consent, of course. (I want to clarify here that I’m specifically wondering about cases in which A is seeking a modification to be done by B (who is qualified), and I am focusing on the permissibility of the actions done by B.)

There are some things which are obviously permissible to administer to others: braces, corrective surgeries, manicures, and hair cuts/colors to name a few. I would also place most tattoos and piercings in this category.

Less clear are more dangerous/higher-risk body mods. Eyeball tattoos, for example, might be questionable because of the lack of knowledge about their long-term risks – permanent blindness and glaucoma being very real worries. Facial tattoos on young people who do not yet have a stable source of income or have no other tattoos are also questionable. Some tattoo artists go so far as to refuse to do them under these conditions.

My intuition is that most people would not blame a (qualified) mod artist for administering the above procedures, though. I think most of the judgement would fall on the recipients. That is, it’s not the provider’s fault for offering these mods so much as it is the recipient’s fault for seeking them out.

If we push this to an extreme, though, I think it’s possible we do cross the boundary from blaming recipients to blaming mod providers. There are, for example, people diagnosed with a condition called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), who feel an intense disconnect from their abled bodies and wish the removal of (a) limb(s) or sometimes their sight. Lots of energy has been spent within the field of medical ethics attempting to settle the question of whether or not it is permissible for doctors to carry out such a person’s wishes. Even more controversial (but perhaps less plausible) are people who do not have BIID but nonetheless want to modify their bodies in similar ways. What are we to say of body modification providers (I don’t know whether use of the term “mod artist” here is appropriate) who carry out these requests? My intuition here is that many people would not merely be willing to say that it is still just the recipient’s fault for seeking out the body mod; this time, some of the blame does rest on the provider.

I suspect the permissibility of the mod artist’s actions in cases like these are largely dependent on 3 things: First, the intensity of the desire for modification – Is it a desire which, if left unfulfilled, leaves the potential recipient with psychological damage? Second, the preparedness of the potential recipient – Are they aware of the impact this mod will have on their life? Will they still be able to earn a steady income? Do they have any dependents? And lastly, the intentions of the mod provider – Have they shown appropriate concern for the potential recipient?

Going from here, I think a really interesting question to ask is whether or not it’s ever permissible for a mod artist to modify someone’s mental state rather than just their physical state. We already permit some forms of this – hypnosis, for example. But what about, say, lobotomies? What if someone of sound mind were to ask a mod provider to alter their brain such that some of their mental functions were to diminish? And, if technology advances far enough in the future, what if we were able to modify very specific mental traits, like the ability to feel emotions, or wiping certain memories? Would it be permissible to perform such procedures? (I realize this last bit may be a bit of a reach to fall under the umbrella of “body modification”, but strictly speaking it is a modification to a part of the body.)

5 thoughts on “Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

  1. so it’s “caveat emptor” for body mods? yikes, seems pretty burdensome on the recipient. especially when the procedures are usually invasive (even tattooing is considered invasive), and invasive medical procedures are more stringently regulated by the FDA than non-invasive ones. the selection of permissible examples you provide are, with the exception of medical procedures, all non-invasive, thus the risk is much lower – the invasive/ non-invasive distinction may be why we consider them obviously permissible but body mods a grey area for “how far is too far”. medical procedures are obviously a mixed bag of invasive/non-invasive, but the reason they’re granted as permissible is prob because they’re administered by a qualified professional working within a huge & highly-regulated infrastructure/ industry that helps to mitigate risk/ injury etc etc.

    compare voluntary plastic surgery – the technician who carries out the treatment/ the company they work at (sometimes a hospital) can still definitely be liable. why not body mod technicians? a related question to help frame your discussion could be “does the umbrella of ‘medical procedures’ (with similar rights/ liabilities and some level of regulatory oversight) extend to body mods (all/ some/ none)?”

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    1. i don’t quite understand what you’re saying. i qualify at the outset that i am *specifically* talking about *qualified* mod technicians. all further discussion i have assumes that all the relevant requirements with regards to skill, safety, and regulation are met.

      i’m also not sure i’m willing to accept the direct correlation you’re assuming between invasiveness and risk. for example, limb amputation is far more invasive than eyeball tattooing but eyeball tattooing carries a lot more risk.

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  2. Very interesting piece! The BIID issue is pertinent, right?! Particularly in terms of how certain body modification practices are contingently socially approved/authorized because they are interpreted to be “necessary”, whereas other practices are criticized for being supposedly recklessly “voluntary.” I think you open the question really well regarding the politics and ethics around this distinction. Years ago I actually philosophically expressed my concern about the criticism that body modification practices deemed to be voluntary “de-naturalize” the body: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-5914.2012.00488.x
    I’m really fond of your final considerations too. I agree that such practices do comprise body modifications. But then again I follow the Stoic sense that minds are materially causal bodies.

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    1. oooh i’ll definitely be reading your piece!! thanks for sharing 🙂 i haven’t really thought much about WHY people are against body mods – i’m curious to hear more on this concept of de naturalizing the body.

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      1. Often the rhetoric is: the body is nature (necessary). Modifications to the body are socially informed invasions of the body (contingent). I noticed this a bit when I started getting more heavily tattooed too. I think various philosophies have great ways of contesting this conceptual opposition!

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