Tattoos, piercings, etc.

  • I can remember a world where tattoos and multiple piercings were neither normal nor fascinating, but it’s clearly not the world anyone under 20 grew up in.
  • The morality of tattoos is on more than one axis. As a Christian moral question they run afoul of the charity that one owes to his own body, sc. leaving aside what is peculiar to his state, what is not appropriate to Christ’s own body isn’t appropriate to the body of Christians, and his body scarring was entirely inflicted from without and testifies to sin while his body in itself was the lamb without spot or blemish. In the Catholic tradition we add to this that the sacrament of the eucharist affects a real union of the body of Christ with the body of the Christian and so incorporates the one into the other.
  • Within the Catholic tradition there is also the problem of no tattooed saints, i.e. that body scarring and inking is not a part of any saint’s spirituality.
  • On the axis of natural law tattoos and piercings are wrong to the extent that they manifest a belief that one’s body is his own to dispose of as he sees fit. It’s hard for me to see how one could tattoo himself without presupposing this, but it seems possible for at least some sorts of piercings to arise without this conviction. Cultural norms play a role here up to a point, bearing in mind they aren’t self-justifying.
  • The relevant axiom is supra corpus custos non dominus, that one is keeper or tenant of the body and not the lord or property owner of it. It’s more an apartment than a house, and so permanent alterations do not fall under our authority. Plato first articulates this view at the beginning of Phaedo as an argument against suicide, and he is right to point out that the principle is mystical. Absent a mystical sense we wouldn’t expect anyone to get it.
  • Permanent physical alterations of course immediately divide into the medicinal/ therapeutic and what is other than these, with the former having a moral permission as broad as the latter is narrow.
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