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.