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Cities of the dead

September 21, 2014

A corpse is not a human being.

This follows from a definition of humanity which is based on intangible characteristics, specifically those of individuality, creativity, reason, and will.  It is an intentionally broad definition intended to be applicable regardless of physiology.  An individual’s distinct personality and its ability to interact with other similar individuals determine its humanity, not the form in which those qualities are packaged.  A corpse is incapable of expressing any of them, and is therefore not human.  But what about a living body?  Arguably, a living body is able to express all of them, and could be considered human – but only if those characteristics are derived from the body itself.  According to the definition, they are not.  They are established by external reasoning without reference to the body.  Because the body itself is not involved in their creation, or required for their delineation, it is of no relevance to the process.  For the purpose of determining humanity, a live body has no more importance than a dead one.  Both live and dead bodies may be considered corpses with respect to the possession of humanity.

The term necrophilia denotes a fascination with or love for the dead, or, more precisely, a corpse.  It is a viewpoint, one which places (presumably undue) emphasis on physical forms.  If, from a human perspective, living bodies are the same as corpses, then all activities that treat a physiological body as the main reference point for determining humanity are essentially forms, or implementations, of necrophilia.  And the vast majority of human societies and cultural perspectives do treat physiological bodies as the source of humanity.

For obvious reasons, this cultural necrophilia has wider effects on human behavior and the behavior of human societies.  Physical cowardice is one example.  If an individual is convinced that his humanity resides solely in his physical body, he will go to great lengths to protect that body.  Humanist thought is another case.  It seeks to establish an individual’s ownership of his physical body as the basis for certain central human rights, including personal liberty, privacy, identity, and so on.  The effects of this attitude go beyond mere theory.  It is interesting to note that every human rights movement in recent history has defined itself on the basis of certain physical characteristics possessed by a dispossessed group.  The women’s rights movement responded to a presumed gender difference between male and female bodies.  Civil rights in the United States responded to a presumed difference in skin pigmentation between two groups of different ancestry.  Gay rights responded to a presumed genetic difference leading to less common behavioral preferences.  Other social movements intended to constrain humans rather than liberate them, such as eugenics, also used the “physiological differences” line of reasoning.  From the point of view of our original definition, all these cases seem absurd.  A human being is not defined by possession of a physical body and any characteristics a human’s body may possess are irrelevant to that person’s rights and freedoms.

However, there is an interesting caveat that arises from this discussion.  A human being, even though it is not a human body, may develop an attachment to a particular body, and may resent any actions taken against or offenses given to that body.  This is a reasonable expression of individual will, and not a form of necrophilia – as long as the person continues to recognize that his humanity is distinct from his physiology.  If he begins to conflate the two, and to assume that a corpse is in fact a human being, then he will come to erroneous conclusions about what it means to be human, and about what his freedoms and abilities are.


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