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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Remembering the networks of giving and receiving

O. Carter Snead on the disabling assumptions of expressive individualism in public bioethics

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Remembering the networks of giving and receiving

“What do law, policy, and politics have to do with ‘anthropology,’ defined in its original sense as an account of what it means to be human? At the very deepest level, law and public policy exist for the protection and flourishing of persons. Thus, all law and public policy are necessarily built upon presuppositions about what it means to be and thrive as persons. Accordingly, the pathway to the deepest understanding of the law requires a searching anthropological inquiry. The wisdom, justice, and intelligibility of the law’s means and ends are fully graspable only once its underlying vision of human identity and flourishing is uncovered and assessed. . . .

“The anthropology of American public bioethics begins with the premise that the fundamental unit of human reality is the individual person, considered as separate and distinct from the manner in which he is or is not embedded in a web of social relations. Persons are identified with and defined by the exercise of their will — their capacity for choosing in accordance with their wants and desires. Thus, this conception of personhood decisively privileges cognition as the indispensable criterion for membership in this category of beings. In this way, it appears to be dualistic, distinguishing the mind from the body. The mind and will define the person, whereas the body is treated as a contingent instrument for pursuing the projects that emerge from cognition and choice. Moreover, under this anthropological approach, capacity for cognition is not only the hallmark of individual personhood, it defines the very boundaries of the world of persons versus nonpersons. (This, of course, becomes of crucial importance when operationalized in the vital legal and policy conflicts of American public bioethics.) Thus, given its singular focus on the thinking and choosing atomized self, the anthropology of American public bioethics represents a strong form of individualism.

“The anthropology of American public bioethics is likewise strongly expressivist in its conception of human flourishing. As used here, ‘expressivism’ holds that individuals thrive insofar as they are able to freely create and pursue the unique projects and future-directed plans that reflect their deeply held values and self-understanding. These projects and purposes emerge from within the self; neither nature, ‘natural givens,’ nor even the species-specific endowments and limits of the human body, dictate the ends of individual flourishing. Put another way, the anthropology of American public bioethics is strongly anti- teleological. It does not recognize natural ‘ends’ that guide understanding of the flourishing of the individual human.

“Within the anthropological framework of American public bioethics, it seems that human relationships and social arrangements are likewise judged in light of how well or poorly they serve the self-defining projects of the individual will. Under this account, individuals encounter one another as atomized wills. These individuals come together in collaboration to pursue mutually beneficial ends and separate when such goals are reached or abandoned. Or perhaps they encounter one another as adversaries, who must struggle to overbear one another in order to achieve their self-defined and self-defining objectives.

“Accordingly, the anthropology of expressive individualism elevates the principles of autonomy and self-determination above other competing values in the hierarchy of ethical goods, such as beneficence, justice, dignity, and equality. When operationalized in law and policy, the focus turns to eliminating obstacles, perhaps even including natural limits, that impede the pursuit of the self-defining projects of the will. As will be seen, given its history, tradition, and culture, in American public bioethics, the primary mechanism toward this end is the assertion of ‘negative’ rights. . . .

“Because the anthropology of expressive individualism is impoverished due to its forgetfulness — of the body, of human interdependence, of the consequent gifts received from and debts owed to others — the development of a fuller and truer vision of human identity and human flourishing can only be forged by a kind of remembering. In order to develop the virtues and practices necessary to participate and thrive in what [Alasdair] MacIntyre calls the ‘networks of giving and receiving,’ we must remember who we are and how we got here. First, we must remember that we entered the world profoundly weak and vulnerable, dependent upon others for our very survival. We needed others to feed us, to protect us, to keep us clean and warm, and to nurse us back to health when we were sick. We needed others to teach us how to behave, the habits of forbearance and delayed gratification, the discipline to restrain our selfish animal impulses to put ourselves first, and the moral vision to see others as objects of respect and concern, with goods that we share in common. We needed others to react to our self-understanding and expression, to help us to define ourselves both in collaboration and competition with them. We needed a family, a community, and a civilization to transmit expectations, values, and standards, which shaped us as we accepted or rejected these sources of meaning in full or in part. . . .

“Insights from this chapter about expressive individualism and the anthropological ‘corrective’ of recalling our embodiment and its meaning will anchor the following analysis of three ‘vital conflicts’ of American public bioethics — the vexed legal and policy disputes over abortion, assisted reproduction, and end-of-life matters. Expressive individualism is the underwriting anthropology of all of these domains. Because this account of human identity and flourishing omits the lived reality of human embodiment, with all the consequent gifts and challenges of dependence, vulnerability, and natural limits, it is not a suitable normative foundation for the law and policy in this field. It cannot make sense of or respond justly or humanely to those lives that are characterized by radical dependence, and who are historically the victims of exploitation and abuse. . . . What is needed is a new vision and framework . . . [by which] the virtues of acknowledged dependence might be integrated into the habits of thought and even the laws and policies of American public bioethics.”

— from O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Harvard University Press, 2021)

O. Carter Snead was a guest on Volume 153 of the Journal.