Reader Response

Reality, Identity, and Ethics: Philosophical Complexities in “*BD* 11 1 86” 

Lindsey Ryan Mathews

“*BD* 11 1 86” a short story by Joyce Carol Oates will leave many readers shaken, questioning reality along with their ethical and moral perpetuity. This story focuses on the debate surrounding one of the most controversial matters of our time; the capabilities of science and bioengineering for humanity’s benefit. Modern science has pushed the boundaries of what was once inconceivable. Oates pushes science extremities over the edge in this short story. Written in third person from the protagonist’s point of view, we follow a teenage through the last few months of his difficult senior year of high school. The mystery of the story will engage readers demanding their attention until the shocking conclusion. The perturbing climax of the story results in a disclosure that makes us question humanity and ourselves. Any reader could become engrossed with this story, but philosophy students would find this reading especially captivating. The story brings to attention numerous philosophical topics and debates that encompass their career. Oates’s story initiates discussion into metaphysics, epistemology, ethical theories, and philosophy of the mind including identity and body theories; making readers inquire about the fundamental questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries.

When a person reads there are various mechanisms at play that affect how a reader engages with a text. Much of literary criticism revolves around “the act of reading” (Felski, 3) instead of the “objects read” (Felski, 3). In Rita Felski’s book, Uses of Literature she places value on the reader, how and why readers engage with texts. Felski divides reader engagement into four categories, recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. Readers of *BD* 11 1 86 will experience all of these emotions. The protagonist Danny Neuworth is a confused teenager, the majority of adults remember this time in their lives and will be in a position to relate. The uncertainty within the story enchants readers making them continue to the next page. The disconcerting conclusion leaves readers shocked and questioning humanity. The most prominent category that readers, philosophy students in particular will experience is knowledge. After reading “*BD* 11 1 86” students will be presented with creative insight into the ethical matters they are confronted with. This story could reinforce their philosophical beliefs or call into question the beliefs held, leading to new perspectives and considerations.

One of the primary studies of philosophy is epistemology, the study of knowledge. Without epistemology there would be no reason to believe in our thoughts, beliefs, or actions. It explains how our minds relate to reality. Can Danny understand reality since he was bioengineered in a lab? Is his reality true or false; is he a real being or not? Epistemology predicates cognitive sciences and mind-brain theory. Cognitive sciences search for answers to questions such as, are mental states only held within the brain or do other materials help construct identity and reality? Philosophical readers are left to ruminate about Danny’s reality and identity.

Danny’s plight will set in motion discourse into idealism and rationalism, a branch of epistemology, that states reality is made up within the mind. Danny is a body donor that was designed in a laboratory. Readers are left to question Danny’s state of reality. Philosophy students will be introduced to contemporary notions associated with Descartes and his rationalism claim of “cogito ergo sum” I think therefore I am. Danny can conceptualize himself without a physical body, the mind and body are disparate. What happens when the two are completely separated? If reality is entirely within the mind and constituted by ideas, is it murder to remove a brain from a body donor; even though Danny was created by scientists for that precise objective? Danny is “the property of *BIOTECHINC*, and not independent entities. Without *BIOTECHINC* you’d [Danny] never have been born” (Oates, 14). Danny’s reality and entity might be illusory but according to Descartes; Danny is a thinking being. In philosophy the direct opposition to idealism is materialism, all reality is reduced to physical states. Is Danny’s reality constructed by physical states? If materialism is an actuality then Danny’s reality would be definite. The physical world continues to exist no matter if a being is fabricated or authentic. What reality is and how it is perceived remains a fundamental question and debate in philosophy. In Oates’s short story dubieties emerge regarding humans and their reality. Is this reality achievable for scientifically engineered beings? If all reality, knowledge, and identity is reducible to the mind and ideas, what role does Danny’s body represent in identity and reality?

Danny Neuworth is to be detached from his body, his brain will be shut down humanely and eliminated for an older or terminally ill man, who will then inherent Danny’s pristine eighteen-year-old body. Identity theory centralizes on who a person is and what constitutes the essential self. This theory is notable while examining “*BD* 11 1 86.” Is Danny’s identity established in his mind or body, is it an amalgamation of both? This a question that will intrigue philosophy majors. According to body theory, reality and identity are restricted to the physical body inhabited throughout life. If Danny’s body is his principal self, will the contracted owner of Danny’s body be affected by this and incapable of relating to the body? Will an elemental part of Danny remain after the procedure? Memory theory alleges that the self and identity is embedded in consciousness and memories. If memory theory is accurate the arranged owner of Danny’s body will be in the position to maintain his identity, even with a new body that he was not born with. The owner’s brain will stay intact with its consciousness and memories. There by postulating memory theory as the dominating concept regarding identity theory. What happens to Danny’s brain and consciousness? The imperative ethical dilemmas within this story lead to careful deliberation in response to morality and humanity. Philosophy majors will be tantalized with the ethical queries abundant in “*BD* 11 1 86.”

A substantial amount of Joyce Carol Oates writing involves controversial matters in an imperfect and unfathomable world. She explores ethical standards and morality, with complex situations concerning humanity and its influence and manipulation throughout the world. In The Atlantic Oates is interviewed by Jessica Murphy Moo in the article “The Art of the Unconscious.” Oates delves into the ethical implications of her story and her interest in biotechnology. Oates states, “Most of my stories and novels have some turning point that involves an examination of morality” (Oates, 5). In “*BD* 11 1 86” philosophy students will have much to ponder regarding the ethical controversy that arises in this story. In modern science we now have the capability to genetically engineer and alter DNA, clone, perform organ transplants, along with harvesting them. Perhaps brain transplants will be the next advancement in modern science. But what about the body donor in this situation? Is it moral to harvest a body for the intent of someone else’s needs or desires? Oates is exploring the ultimate moral predicament when she writes of a character that is intentionally engineered for one objective, to sacrifice his entire body and life for another. “*BD* 11 1 86” stimulates ideas and rouses passionate emotions in readers. It will prompt any reader to question their ethical values and morality, but philosophy students will be highly enticed by the ethical implications surrounding this short story.

In philosophy ethical theories cover the principles of morality, the standard of what is right or wrong and how this prescribes to human character. Ethics are concerned with what is right or wrong for individuals and society. In Oates’s story we are confronted with the question of, is it ethical to harvest organs? We can also reflect on this question in regard to animals. In Danny’s case we have to consider if it is ethically moral to genetically engineer a being who will essentially be murdered for another individual? Ethical theories are divided into two groups, teleology, and deontology. Teleology revolves around the rightness of an act and depends on the consequences. The emphasizes in teleology is concerned with morality and is orientated towards the certain end goal or act. Viewing Danny’s situation through a teleological lens readers are left with an irresolute response to these questions. The consequence of ending Danny’s life is erroneous but what if it saves another human being? Readers will experience the same ambivalence concerning deontology. With deontology the rightness of an act depends on the intent and the fulfilling of a moral or duty. Deontology asserts that actions are morally right or wrong and are independent from the consequences. Is it moral to scientifically engineer a being, even if the individual is created to save a life? “*BD* 11 1 86” is copious with philosophical questions that are enigmatic leaving readers with uncertainty.

Similar to philosophical questions “*BD* 11 1 86” is unable to find explicit answers due to the contestable and contrasting views regarding the complexities of the inquires. Tantamount to philosophy this story holds no absolute truths. The felicity found in this story revolves around the close inspection of questions that have no definitive answers. Readers can question themselves and what their beliefs are, while also querying humanity and society. Oates is no stranger to writing about the problematic and perplexing circumstances of human existence. In an article written by Eileen T. Bender, she expatiates Oates expertise to write “of the human spirit in an imperfect and chaotic universe” (Bender, 423). In “*BD* 11 1 86” readers observe Oates at her most compelling. This story takes humanity and scientific progress to new levels, making readers, philosophy students in particular; question reality, morality, what is right or wrong in an ‘imperfect and chaotic’ world.


Works Cited

Bender, Eileen T. “Between the Categories: Recent Short Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 1980, p. 415. EBSCOhost,,cpid&custid=ns149246&db=a 9h&AN=7134668&site=ehost-live.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature: A Positive Aesthetic. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Lynn, Steven. “Chapter 4, Creating the Text Reader-Response Criticism.” Texts and Contexts:

Writing about Literature with Critical Theory, 7th ed., Pearson, Boston, 2016, pp. 73–107.

Moo, Jessica Murphy. “The Art of the Unconscious.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 July 2005,





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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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