In ‘What It Means to Be Human,’ Carter Snead Challenges Our View of Culture, Law

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Notre Dame Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett—now a newly minted Supreme Court justice—is in the spotlight these days, and properly so.

Practically overnight, she has become a transformational figure on the high court and in our culture. But another titan of the Notre Dame Law School has just released a book that promises a transformation of a different kind.

In “What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics,” published by Harvard University Press, O. Carter Snead lays out an inspiring and integrated vision of the human person and proposes a new methodological approach to lawmaking based on this deeper understanding of our embodied humanity.

Snead is one of the world’s leading bioethicists and director of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. He has served on numerous governmental commissions and advised all three branches of the federal government on bioethics and human rights. 

“What It Means to Be Human” builds on his wide experience across the disciplines of philosophy, science, medicine, and public policy to advance a rounded vision of the human person and human freedom.

Snead incisively argues that our culture’s current understanding of the human person is fundamentally flawed. As a result, our nation’s laws fall tragically short in protecting persons and in promoting human flourishing.

Echoing the work of sociologist Robert Bellah, Snead critiques “expressive individualism,” the regnant ideology reflected in current American law. This anthropology assumes an unfettered right to translate one’s desires into reality in an entirely self-autonomous manner. Such an approach treats people as mere products of the mind, not products of the mind and body.

We fail to acknowledge the limits of our biological constitution, which is not free to assert itself to whatever end it pleases. Rather, we are embodied and, therefore, finite, vulnerable, dependent creatures. The human body gets tired, gets sick, and can become disabled. It needs replenishing, it ages, and ultimately, ceases to function when we die.

Building on the thought of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Snead reminds us that we are rational creatures, yes, but dependent rational creatures bound to one another for support and care. From infancy to old age, nature—our bodies—dictate our dependency in innumerable ways.

By reminding us of the limits of “expressive individualism” and proposing to resituate public bioethics around a more fully human understanding of the person, Snead reminds us that we belong to each other in a web of unchosen familial and societal obligations.

He gives us new eyes with which to envision a cultural and legal framework that stands up for the most vulnerable precisely when—and because—they cannot stand up for themselves.

Snead emphasizes MacIntyre’s “virtue of uncalculating giving and graceful receiving” that allows us to experience gratitude, tolerate imperfection, respect the dignity of others, and to participate in the goods of authentic friendship.

In short, Snead argues that we are made for love and friendship, and that this allows us to care for those who are vulnerable and dependent. Our laws ought to encourage that love and friendship, reflecting our vulnerability and dependence.

Snead applies this approach to some of the most vexing conflicts in the law today. In his chapter on abortion, for example, he offers a critique of the legal and constitutional weaknesses and the philosophical-anthropological shortcomings of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. He reveals how “expressive individualism” creates a relationship of strife between mother and child. 

This, says Snead, leaves us with abortion laws that distort and corrupt this relationship and utterly fail to recognize its beauty. By restoring the centrality of the human body, he offers a new approach that literally “re-members” the embodiment of the human fetus and the human mother as dependent, vulnerable beings worthy of full protection.

There’s much more of course, as Snead moves nimbly between beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues, including reproductive technologies, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Showing how each reflects an “expressive individualistic” anthropology, he exposes our public policy as a hollow and empty promise of protection. 

Modern expressive individualism demands freedom from pain, suffering, and unwanted death, a demand completely alien to the lived human experience, and in doing so only inflicts more of it. Only by remembering the body and building laws anew upon a fuller notion of the human person can these laws become more humane. 

From beginning-of-life to end-of-life issues, from the beginning to the end of “What It Means to Be Human,” Snead issues a thought-provoking challenge to our modern legal regime that is premised upon a misconception of the human person. 

Snead offers a road out of this unhappy and illusory cul-de-sac, a road that requires the fortitude to accept our bodily reality and the generosity of spirit to love generously.

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