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A lack of com­passion and a fun­da­mental mis­un­der­standing of human nature underlie American bioethics, according to Pro­fessor O. Carter Snead, who pre­sented “What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics” on April 14 in Plaster Auditorium. 

Snead, who is the director of the de Nicola Center of Ethics and Culture, and a pro­fessor of law and political science at the Uni­versity of Notre Dame, inves­ti­gated two ques­tions over the course of the lecture: What vision of human flour­ishing is under­writing the policies of American public bioethics? What con­sti­tutes human flourishing?

According to Snead, public bioethics con­sists of the gov­er­nance of science, med­icine, and biotech­nology in the name of ethical goods. It is con­cerned with the meaning and con­se­quences of human embod­iment the fact that we expe­rience our­selves, one another, and the world around us in and as living bodies.

In Snead’s opinion, the biggest problems facing American bioethics today are laws sur­rounding assited repro­ductive tech­nologies, abortion, and assisted suicide. The vision of human flour­ishing that under­writes these policies, known as “expressive indi­vid­u­alism,” cannot be a fit ground for public policy because it doesn’t take seri­ously the feature of “embod­iment” in other words, the fact that we are bodies, which makes us vul­nerable, dependent on one another, and nat­u­rally limited. As a result of this phi­losophy, our culture has become deaf to these human weak­nesses and makes us insen­sitive to children, the elderly, and the dis­abled, Snead said.

“You can’t respond to the needs of human beings, you can’t protect human beings, you can’t promote their flour­ishing if you don’t have a vision of who a human being is,” he said. 

Junior Emma-Sofia Mull, a phi­losophy major who attended the lecture, said that she gained insight into her own assump­tions about human flour­ishing after reading Snead’s book “What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics” in a class with Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy and Religion Nathan Schlueter.

“I learned that I had inter­nalized what I now know to call expressive indi­vid­u­alism the idea that my identity is up to me, I don’t have ties, I don’t need people, because I can be whatever I want to be,” she said. “I think reading books like this and being able to identify yourself in that mindset is so freeing and helpful.”

According to Snead, the laws and policies of public bioethics often emerge in response to scandals. In America, he argued, three events led to the culture of bioethics that we find our­selves in today. First, anaes­the­si­ol­ogist Henry Beecher, who studied the Nuremberg Trials, was struck by the doctors who took advantage of con­cen­tration camp res­i­dents during World War II to further medical knowledge, yet claimed that they were con­tributing to the greater good. Second, an exper­iment in Tuskegee, Alabama, was con­ducted by the U.S. gov­ernment in which researchers pur­posely withheld syphilis treatment from sick indi­viduals to study the effects of the disease on the com­munity. Third, researchers from the U.S. traveled to Scan­di­navia to perform invasive exper­i­ments on aborted babies who were still alive. 

“Their argument was, ‘We’re just trying to bring some­thing good out of a bad sit­u­ation,’” Snead explained. “What these scandals show is that American public bioethics from its inception to this very day is uniquely com­pli­cated because it involves the seamless inte­gration of great goods with serious, grave risks.”

In other words, these researchers used unethical means to pursue the public good, which poses the complex question: Who are we, and what do we owe to one another?

This question isn’t limited to the sci­ences, however. Snead said that law plays a large part in deter­mining public bioethics because it reflects a society’s values, as well as its con­ception of justice. 

“If you want to know what a given culture cares about, look at the law. What do they forbid? What do they encourage? What do they allow without any inter­vention?” Snead said.

Law also shapes our con­cep­tions of freedom, justice, and autonomy. 

“People take their bearings, rightly or wrongly, from what the law permits, forbids, or encourages,” Snead said. “Law rests upon mostly unde­clared con­cep­tions of human identity. Who and what does the law assume a person to be?” 

Based on American laws sur­rounding abortion and assisted repro­ductive tech­nologies, as well as assisted suicide, the vision of human flour­ishing under­writing them is expressive indi­vid­u­alism. This theory under­stands people as iso­lated, unen­cum­bered, and “atomized” selves, abstracted from any context, tra­dition, family, or nation. The self is defined as the “will” or “desire” of the indi­vidual. It pri­or­i­tizes the mind the bundle of desires that con­stitute the “inner voice” — over the physical body. The person is reduced to his capacity to choose, and human flour­ishing is defined as the imper­ative to live out your own “truth” and project it into the world. Expressive indi­vid­u­alism rejects the idea of natural limits as well as any objective rules for human flourishing. 

According to Snead, human beings are not only char­ac­terized by the will, but also by our embod­iment. The many gifts of the embodied life include family, com­munity, civ­i­lization, “uncal­cu­lated giving”, and “graceful receiving” in other words, rela­tion­ships that are driven not by the hope of some gain but by grat­itude and humility. These rela­tion­ships teach us what we are beings made for love and friendship. On the other hand, expressive indi­vid­u­alism ignores vul­ner­a­bility, imper­fec­tions, and depen­dence, and refuses to rec­ognize the “unchosen oblig­a­tions” of children, the elderly, and the dis­abled. This leads to people who are lonely, alienated, and haunted by death. 

Snead argues that we must remember the body in our legal framework. We can do this by pri­or­i­tizing net­works of uncal­cu­lated giving and receiving, espe­cially fam­ilies. By par­tic­i­pating in these net­works, we learn to acknowledge vul­ner­a­bility and embrace the inevitability of depen­dency in childhood and old age. 

“What are the virtues and prac­tices nec­essary to sustain these net­works?” Snead asked. “Chief among them is the virtue of just gen­erosity, or giving to others not because you have a prior oblig­ation, but in pro­portion to their need; hos­pi­tality, or caring for strangers because they are strangers, not because you expect some­thing out of it; and mis­eri­cordia, which means taking on the suf­fering of others as if it was your own suf­fering.” Snead also listed grat­itude, sol­i­darity, dignity, truth­fulness, and friendship as essential virtues for the preser­vation of these networks. 

 Ulti­mately, Snead said, these virtues find their appli­cation in activ­ities that take people out of them­selves and their own con­cerns and encourage them to focus on others. Through par­tic­i­pation in com­mu­nities that tran­scend the indi­vidual self as well as the present moment, we can tap into those net­works of uncal­cu­lated giving and receiving that are the lifeblood of true human flourishing.