If you have benefited from Carl Trueman’s new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, may I recommend as companion reading O. Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.
It was listed as one of the top ten books of the year for the Wall Street Journal, with Yuval Levin writing: “A rare achievement: a rigorous academic book that is also accessible, engaging and wise. . . . By sketching out an ethic of mutual obligation rooted in our common vulnerabilities, the book opens a path toward a more humane society. . . . Among the most important works of moral philosophy produced so far in this century.”
Professor Snead is director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and Professor of Law at the university. He is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of “public bioethics,” which looks at how science, medicine, and biotechnology should be governed in the name of ethical goods.
The novelist Walker Percy once wrote: “Everyone has an anthropology. There is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question.” That’s the big idea behind the book. At its core, he argues that bad anthropology makes bad law. In its place he calls for a wise, just, humane, and fully human approach to public bioethics. And that, he argues, must begin by remembering the body. Our embodiment entails certain obligations and virtues—which are uncovered and elucidated in this brilliant treatment.
The conclusion to the book—excerpted below—provides a nice summary of the argument. Every sentence is worth reading carefully.
The fundamental purpose of law is to protect and promote the flourishing of persons.
Accordingly, the richest understanding of the law is an anthropological one, obtained by inquiry into its underwriting premises about human identity and thriving.
In order to be fully wise, just, and humane, the means and ends of the law must correspond to the reality of human life, humanly lived.
The defining character of this reality is embodiment—the fact that we experience ourselves, one another, and the world around us as living bodies.
As living bodies in time, we are vulnerable, dependent, and subject to natural limits, including injury, illness, senescence, and death.
Thus, both for our basic survival and to realize our potential, we need to care for one another. We need robust and expansive networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving populated by people who make the good of others their own good, without demand for or expectation of recompense.
The goods and practices necessary to the creation and maintenance of these networks are the virtues of just generosity, hospitality, and accompaniment in suffering (misericordia), as well as gratitude, humility, openness to the unbidden, tolerance of imperfection, solidarity, respect for intrinsic equal dignity, honesty, and cultivation of moral imagination.
Viewed through the lens of the anthropology of embodiment, all living members of the human family are worthy of care and protection, regardless of age, disability, cognitive capacity, dependence, and most of all, regardless of the opinions of others. Everyone can participate in the network of giving and receiving, even if only as the passive recipient of unconditional love and concern.
There are no pre or post personal human beings in the anthropology of embodiment. Through the nurture and protection of these networks we survive, and eventually become the kind of people who can give to others in proportion to their need, without the hope or expectation of receiving. In this way, we take responsibility for sustaining such networks of care so that they can endure for future generations.
But, more deeply, it is through becoming a person capable of unconditional and uncalculated care of others that we become what we are meant to be. By virtue of our existence as embodied beings in time, we are made for love and friendship.
Our modern dominant anthropology in the three perennial conflicts in public bioethics—the legal disputes over abortion, assisted reproduction, and end of life decision making—is insufficient. It is rooted in expressive individualism, a reductive and incomplete vision of human identity and flourishing. While this captures a truth about human particularity and freedom, it misses crucial aspects of embodied reality.
Through the lens of expressive individualism, there are no unchosen obligations, relationships are instrumental and transactional, and natural givens offer no guidance for understanding or negotiating the world.
Vulnerability and dependence—that of others and even our own—are not intelligible.
And those around us whose freedom and agency are diminished or absent because of age, disease, or disability, are invisible and not recognized as other selves to whom we owe duties of care (in the absence of a prior agreement).
Again, this is a careful, brilliant book showing how the philosophy of expressive individualism simply cannot account for what it means to be an embodied human. Snead shows in clear and painstaking detail how this works out in abortion, assisted reproduction, and end-of-life decision making.
(At time of writing, the book is out of stock at Amazon, but you can get it directly from the publisher.)