We're More Than The Sum Of Choices. A Critique Of "Expressive Individualism"

            A good friend of mine is a physician. In a recent conversation, I was describing a new book I had just read, referring to a powerful critique of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s  famous defense of the right to have an abortion, first published in 1971 in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Imagine you awoke to find that you had been surgically attached to a world-famous violinist, she argues, and that you were you must remain so for the next nine months in order for him to survive. Would you feel your rights were violated?

           Of course you would. You would be compelled to host a stranger in, at best, a symbiotic relationship. At worst, the stranger is a parasite, living off of you. An unwelcome stranger, imposed upon you by others.

           Such is the fetus, she analogized. It is a sort of tumor. Autonomy suggests the “host” have the right to say “no” to the tumor and have it removed.

           “But that assumes,” I said, “that a fetus is like a tumor.”

           “Well, you know it is,” the physician told me, “as a matter of definition.”

           I took the correction; I’m no doctor.

           As I sat down to write a brief review of O. Carter Snead’s, What It Means To Be Human: The Case For The Body In Public Bioethics, I looked up tumor in an online dictionary. Here is what I found: “A swelling of a part of the body, generally without inflammation, caused by an abnormal growth of tissue, whether benign or malignant.”

           I can’t accept that a fetus is an “abnormal growth.” It is perfectly normal. Each of us reading this is proof of what happens when the growth is permitted to develop. At some point, we “become” sentient humans.

           Snead is a professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame. His new book, published by Harvard University Press in 2020, is not a theological text, however. He writes as a naturalist, observing the world around him and asking whether the ideas and ideals in which our laws are grounded correspond to our lived reality.

            His thesis is simple. They do not. In this eloquent and accessible book he makes a persuasive case that our law can, and, indeed, must, do better.

           Snead refers to the law’s anthropology, the assumptions and conclusions flowing from them that we use in our accounts of human nature, of what it means to be human. Relying on the work of Alisdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, he describes our anthropology as rooted in “expressive individualism.” We are what we will, and our will is reflected in atomized individuals making choices about what is important, reducing all else to either means to our unique ends, or impediments to the ends we choose in isolation from others. We’re at a time now where we value choosing for the sake of choice; diversity becomes an end, not a means to something better. We end up impoverished. Clearly, he’s right. Simply watch the news some night. Our news anchors are aliens describing a newly discovered planet.

            In the area of bioethics, the matter under consideration in this book, Snead concludes our anthropology yields legal conclusions that do not reflect the lived realities of our lives. We are minds capable of individual thoughts and idiosyncratic wills. But we aren’t atoms springing fully formed into some state of nature, capable of making our own way. We begin our lives as utterly dependent on others. In a long life, we fall ill from time to time, and are once again dependent. And we are, alas, mortal – at the distant horizon of each life is death. The independent will on which we stake all is but a dazzling flicker that requires tending both to erupt, to endure, and to avoid being extinguished.

           Snead discusses three areas of bioethics and how this sense of expressive individualism yields awkward, and unrealistic, conclusions: abortion, assisted reproduction and death and dying. Does an ethic that regards a fetus as an abnormal growth of tissue really serve? And if all we value is the will’s ability to choose, to express itself, then what of the frail elderly? There’s little edifying about the utter dependence of a person knocking on death’s door, at least from the standpoint of expressive individualism. (Snead’s account of the difficulties arising in the area of assisted reproduction is less persuasive, perhaps because I did not understand all that he said about the technology of such reproduction.)

           Snead argues a simple but profound point. We are not disembodied minds. We are, in fact, embodied, from beginning to the very end of our lives. To create, nurture and support the bodies on which our minds depend requires more than mere expressive individualism. The detached individual regards as binding only obligations freely chosen; an embodied mind recognizes the significance of unchosen obligations and unearned privileges.

           There is something undeniably right about this. As I read it I understood why artificial intelligence skeptics have a point about whether AI will ever achieve general human intelligence. A rationatinc machine simply isn’t human; it cannot experience the world we inhabit, fraught, as it is, with highly contingent and bodily connections to mere matter.

           The cultivation of such virtues as generosity, hospitality, gratitude, openness to the unbidden, uncalculated giving and graceful receiving enrich the human experience; they are not social tumors to be shed when they impair the will. There can be no community in a world of sovereign anarchists. Our bodies tether our minds to a world of dependency.

           Just as I finished this book, a loved one fell ill. I was at once summoned to be present to respond to needs I hadn’t chosen. Misercordia, sharing the suffering of another, was all that was really required. My presence in the face of suffering enriched my life and the life of my loved one. It was as though a brief illness were assigned us to teach me what Snead had to say.

           Since finishing this wonderful book, I’ve also read Charles Taylor’s brief Malaise of Modernity. Again, a subtle argument in favor of recognizing the virtue of something other than regarding the world and its contents – all of its contents – as mere instrumental means of accomplishing the object of my will.

           Aristotle nailed it centuries ago. We are political or social creatures. We’ve forgotten that at our peril. Is that why physicians, our healers, can say without reflection that a fetus is a tumor, an unwelcome growth? All of us are summoned into being by acts independent of our will. We find ourselves in webs of interpersonal connections that define the horizon of what becomes possible for us, at least early in our lives. Snead has me wondering whether our lives would be enriched by embracing the common, the natural, the interpersonal dependencies that make us who we are.

         It’s clear that this is the first of many books Snead will write about the limits of expressive individualism. I anxiously await the next. In the meantime, read The Case for the Body in Human Bioethics. It is a thunderclap in a time of trouble.


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