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What It Means To Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics


Friday Book Pick: What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics by O. Carter Snead


A book on American public bioethics may not be what you expect to see in this blog usually dedicated to spiritual reading and prayer, but I propose that this “book pick” is not so far afield. Today’s selection may not be classified as spiritual reading, but it will certainly assist you in spiritual thinking.


First of all, let me establish what is meant by American public bioethics. Bioethics concerns the hot topics that pique our attention and elicit our grave concern when they come up in the nightly news. These are the issues that determine the way we vote and the politicians we support. American public bioethics is the field where law, public policy, and human life converge. The big three topics in the field of bioethics are abortion, assisted reproduction technology, and death and dying.


Professor of Law at Notre Dame University, O. Carter Snead is one of the world's leading experts on public bioethics. In his latest book, What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics published in October 2020, Snead looks at the main issues of American public bioethics through the framework of anthropology, the vision of the human person and human flourishing.


Looking at public bioethics through the lens of anthropology makes perfect sense. The laws and policies that regulate bioethical issues pertain to life—to human lives. There is a direct correlation between one’s anthropological premise and one’s stance on human rights. The law—all laws—exist for the protection and to promote the flourishing of the human person. In order for laws to be just and humane they must correspond to the reality of human life. Simply put, good law must be based on the truth about the human person. Law follows life.


Building on the work of contemporary philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, and Charles Taylor, Professor Snead analyzes and summarizes the prevailing view of the human person in our society which is the foundation on which our current laws are built.


Snead explains how the reigning anthropology, which he terms “expressive individualism,” is not reflective of the real experience of human life. Professor Snead then goes on to outline a more adequate and realistic view of the human person, which he terms an “anthropology of embodiment,” and then goes on to explore the three big issues in American bioethics while applying his more realistic, experience-based anthropology.


What then is the prevailing view of the human person in contemporary American society? What is the popular vision of human identity and of what does human flourishing consist? What are the tenants of the anthropology that govern the way laws are made and the way we treat one another? Professor Snead’s work stands on the important research of sociologist Robert Bellah who conducted extensive studies to answer the question: “How do Americans see themselves as persons and derive meaning for their lives?” In his 1985 book Habits of the Heart he coined the term “expressive individualism.” Individualism as an American trait is a concept with which we are all familiar. Bellah’s research shows that Americans “across a variety of context, both public and private, affirm the view that the individual person considered in isolation is the fundamental defining normative reality [my emphasis].” And in terms of reaching our potential, Bellah found that human flourishing “consists in the expression one’s inmost identity through freely choosing and configuring life in accordance with his or her own distinctive core intuitions, feelings, and preferences.”


To summarize then, the view of humanity according to “expressive individualism” begins with the premise that it is the individual as autonomous, separate and distinct from social relations (including the family) that is the fundamental unit of human reality. And furthermore, persons are identified with and defined by the exercise of their will, “their capacity for choosing in accordance with their wants and desires.” This concept of personhood then gives a decisive privilege to “cognition as the indispensable criterion” for classification of personhood.


As for what is meant by the expressivist part of “expressive individualism,” Bellah’s research shows that across a wide cross-section of people, individuals rank their own flourishing according to their ability to “freely create and pursue the unique projects and future-directed plans that reflect their deeply held values and self-understanding.” In other words, Americans prefer to think of themselves as independent, autonomous beings who are not dependent on others for anything. We think of ourselves as flourishing and at our best when we get in touch with our own personal desires and “will” them into being through our capacity to choose.


Snead proposes that while such an anthropology captures important truths about human freedom it has several fundamental flaws. Most basically it forgets about the body. The basic reality that we are embodied beings makes us, from the first moment of our existence, dependent on another person—namely our mother. In addition to forgetting the body, this view of the human person neglects the limitations and vulnerability that all human beings experience as a result of being embodied: in the early stages of our development, we humans need constant, total care; at times of infirmity and weakness, assistance and support is essential; at the end of life, we are similarly in need of a caring network of other people. Expressive individualism neglects the reality of human interdependence. Expressive individualism renders relationships transactional. Natural human interdependence is seen most obviously in the family unit which is the building block of the greater society. One of the consequences of expressive individualism with its overemphasis of autonomy and independence is that it denies the obligations human beings have to one another. Expressive individualism rejects the notion that we have an inherent obligation to our fellow human beings even if we have not voluntarily embraced such an obligation.


If expressive individualism, centering as it does on the independent, autonomous person at the height of their cognitive powers, and who is defined by his or her power to choose, is the foundation for American bioethical law, where does that leave the vulnerable, dependent person with limited cognition due to age, development, or disease? Snead makes the case that American law and policy has been unable to make an adequate response to bioethical questions precisely because of its starting point—the definition of what makes us human.


Getting a thorough breakdown of the trending views on the human person is reason enough to read this book. But Snead does not leave us with merely an analysis of the flawed anthropological viewpoint of our American society; he goes further to outline a more adequate view of the human person. Persons are embodied beings, necessarily dependent, vulnerable, and subject to natural limits. Persons come to self-understanding and are most likely to flourish in a network of other persons. This view of the human person Carter Snead terms an anthropology of embodiment, and he shows that simply by taking into account that we are not pure intellect and will, and that as embodied beings, for both for basic survival and also to realize our potential, we need to care to for one another.


Snead’s thesis then is, that to improve bioethical law, a revision of its anthropological foundations is required. His proposal is that we adopt an anthropology of embodiment that takes into account who really are, as vulnerable and subject to limits, and who we should be for one another simply by virtue of our common humanity. The virtues necessary for living from such a vision of the human person include: just generosity, hospitality, misericordia (or suffering with), gratitude, humility, openness to the unbidden, solidarity, dignity and truthfulness.


What it means to be Human is a groundbreaking work on the anthropological foundations of American public bioethics—topics relevant to all of us as Americans. I call it groundbreaking in part because Snead addresses these critically important issues by starting from the foundations of our thinking and extrapolates the conclusions to our actions. In other words, he starts with the poisoned roots of American public bioethics rather than starting from the rotten fruits (e.g., abortion, frozen embryos and assisted suicide). Carter Snead talks about abortion, the pill, in vitro-fertilization, assisted suicide, and the dignity of human person without talking about God, Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden, the soul, heaven or hell. The value of being able to engage this discussion in such a manner needs no explanation.


My long held pro-life convictions are not the side-effect of being a religious sister, nor are my convictions a mere byproduct of being a convinced and committed Catholic. I am unwaveringly pro-life as the result of being a grateful member of the human race. As a thinking person I arrive at the obvious and self-evident conclusion that life is good and should be protected. And resulting from the bedrock conviction that human life is sacred, it is evident that the process by which human life comes into the world and departs is also sacred. My religious beliefs offer further support for these convictions, but neither faith nor revelation is necessary to arrive at these truths which were once self-evident to all. It seems to me that in order to make these truths self-evident again, we need to be able to conduct the conversation beginning from the starting point of our common humanity and the goodness therein. This excellent book is a great new resource to that end.


But because you and I happen to have the benefit of faith and supernatural grace in addition to our God given reason, we know that prayer and fasting are also needed if we are to play our part in this war in which we find ourselves. Let us engage with mind and heart, and with soul and strength, as we work together to care for all and to make earth a little more as it is in heaven.


Mother Clare, CFR

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