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On Replacement Body Parts


Technological advances are making devices that functionally replace body parts—artificial organs and limbs—more widely used, and more capable of providing patients with lives that are close to “normal.” Some of the ethical issues this is likely to raise relate to how such prostheses are conceptualized. Prostheses are ambiguous between being inanimate objects and sharing in the status of human bodies—which already have an ambiguous status, as both objects and subjects. At the same time, the possibility of replacing body parts with artificial objects puts pressure on the normative status typically accorded to human bodies, seemingly confirming that body parts are replaceable objects. The paper argues that bodies’ normative status relies on the relation of a body to a person and shows that persons could have similar relations to prostheses. This suggests that in approaching ethical issues surrounding prostheses, it is appropriate to regard them as more like body parts than like objects.

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  1. For this way of framing the problem I am greatly indebted to Sparrow and Hutchison (unpublished manuscript).

  2. I leave aside tissue-engineered structures incorporating biological material, as I am specifically interested in objects with a clear artificial status.

  3. Of course, these practical ethical issues are not entirely resolved by an argument for considering prostheses more like body parts than objects, since they involve a number of complex considerations, and there are of course practical constraints on treating prostheses “like body parts.” My argument below thus will not resolve these practical ethical issues, although it will have implications for their resolution.

  4. This points to a pre-reflective relationship between a person and their characteristics. Insofar as evaluations of characteristics are reflexive, the person must already recognize that the characteristics are their own. I leave this aside here but discuss an analogous pre-reflective sense of bodily ownership below.

  5. For detailed elaboration of these and related themes see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty 1962; Atkins 2008; Gallagher 2005.

  6. An alternative suggestion is made by De Vignemont and Farne (2010) in distinguishing between motor and perceptual embodiment (using that term with a different meaning than I am here) and suggesting that both may occur by degrees. I would further suggest that, however the difference between tools of “completion” and those of “extension” is worked out, there is a need for a more fine-grained approach to understanding what is involved in embodiment—and that our moral intuitions may be an untapped resource for the cognitive sciences in this regard.


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This research was supported by Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence funding scheme (grant ID CE140100012). My thanks to Robert Sparrow for extensive comments on several drafts of the paper. Thanks also to other members of the ethics and policy team at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science and participants at the 2017 European Society for Philosophy of Medicine and Healthcare Conference, for helpful comments and questions.

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Correspondence to Mary Jean Walker.

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Walker, M.J. On Replacement Body Parts. Bioethical Inquiry 16, 61–73 (2019).

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  • Artificial organs
  • Prosthetics
  • Embodiment
  • Organ sales