Let’s Face It

Last week, a Cleveland Clinic announced that the first US face transplant patient had been discharged. Her identity and the circumstances surrounding her loss of face have been kept a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons, unlike Isabelle Dinoire, the French lady, whose face was partially chewed off by her dog, was mawkishly paraded in front of the world’s media.

What does it mean to have a face transplant? Unlike other transplantation procedures, the face transplant is not necessary to prolong life but rather it allows those who are hideously disfigured  to re-enter a society. 

But what of wearing someone else’s face? What are the psychological implications? We have just had an academic paper accepted for publication which examines our essentialist anxieties concerning organ transplantation from another individual. In a hypothetical situation, we asked adults to rate how happy they were to receive organ transplant from others after learning about their moral background. We are much happier to accept an organ donation from someone who has led a morally upright life but much more adverse to receiving a life-saving organ transplant from a murderer. It’s a massive effect.

Fairly obvious and all hypothetical you might argue, but in 1999, a fifteen-year-old girl with terminal heart disease was forcibly given a heart transplant because she refused to agree to the life-saving operation because she thought she would lose her own identity. Psychological essentialism is not just an abstract academic pursuit of mine. It has tangible consequences for the way we reason about decisions regarding the assimilation of other people’s bodily tissue. For example, it not only influences the way we regard organ transplantation but also whether we are willing to give consent for the donation of organs from loved ones. After all, many relatives believe that their deceased loved one lives on in the new body.

A face transplant must be the most difficult challenge to the sense of one’s own identity. Good luck to the poor women.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

6 responses to “Let’s Face It

  1. Wow, how odd it must be to wake up with someone else’s face. Even the most extreme plastic surgery patients have a gradual shift to a nigh unrecognizable visage, and then they still have their underlying characteristics.

    It would seem so science fiction-esqe I think.

  2. Personally, I would have thought that the trauma of either vital organ failure or being disfigured to an almost unrecognisable degree would preclude any frivolous squeamishness in favour of re-entering a ‘normal’ life.

    But I suppose that’s not taking into account individuals already predisposed to fantasy and escapism, who never really appreciated life without the promise of something better afterward anyway. One of the more beautiful passages by Richard Dawkins is about the fact that we – simply by being alive – are among the lucky ones. There is far more to be said for existence than most people seem to bother with.

  3. It reminds me of the 1935 film Mad Love, where a circus knife-throwing murderer’s hands are transplanted on to the arms of a famous pianist and then go on to murder again. Or that’s his excuse, anyway. Not sure it’d stand up in court.
    That said, I’d rather have a murderer’s face than no face at all. Although not the Yorkshire Ripper’s – I have little enough time as it is in the mornings, trimming my beard would be an inconvenience too far.

  4. poietes

    I think that you would need to have a very strong sense of self in order to withstand a face transplant.

    We hear and say that beauty comes from the inside, but what a test this would be. I mean, the reasons for having to have this kind of surgery would have to be drastic in the first place, so the individual undergoing it would already be in a fragile state of mind. He/she would think that anything is better than this, this being the deformity, injury, whatever. But then, when faced with the reality of someone else’e face where his/her face had been, that’s something else entirely.

    Sometimes just because we have the ability to do something does not mean that we should do it, for the far-reaching ramifications go well-beyond what we can anticipate in any case study or psycho/sociological projections based on theoretical situations.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  5. We could ask Tony Blair for his opinion on this.

    After all, he’s had enough of the damn things over the past 12 years, and should be able to provide a qualified response.

    If only we could trust what he told us though….

  6. poietes

    Actually made me smile through my migraine. Now that’s a feat, I have to tell you.

    Good old PM Blair. I wonder how life was for him after he couldn’t spend his days with his head up Bush’s arse? (That’s why he needed so many face changes)

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