February 29, 2024

Let’s return to the basics of human experience, says bioethicist

Human beings are not unconnected atoms

It’s not often that a bioethics text gets rave reviews from both Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass. However, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, from Harvard University Press seems to be making waves.

According to a review in Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog by Charles Camosy, the author, Carter Snead, of Notre Dame University, is about as important a contemporary voice in bioethics that we have today.. Hie basic argument in What It Means to Be Human runs like this:

“Most of public bioethics—perhaps for understandable reasons flowing from the dramatic failures of medical ethics during the 20th Century—has an “incomplete and false vision of human identity and flourishing. It is a vision that defines the human being fundamentally as an atomized and solitary will [original emphasis].” It equates human flourishing solely with the capacity to formulate and pursue future plans of one’s own invention. Our legal understanding of issues related to public bioethics now tragically “views the natural world and even the human body itself as merely inchoate matter to be harnessed and remade in the service of such projects of the will.”

Snead contends that ideology which privileges autonomy captures important truths about human freedom, but it also means that we have no obligations to each other unless we actively, voluntarily embrace them. Under such circumstances, the neediest must rely on charitable care. When it is not forthcoming, law and policy cannot adequately respond.

He addresses three complex issues in bioethics: abortion, assisted reproductive technology, and end-of-life decisions. Avoiding typical dichotomies of conservative-versus-liberal and secular-versus-religious, he recasts debates over these issues and situates them within his framework of embodiment and dependence.

Snead concludes that if the law is built on premises that reflect a fully lived reality of life, it will provide support for the vulnerable, including the unborn, mothers, families, and those nearing the end of their lives. In this way, he argues, policy can ensure that people have the care they need in order to thrive.

In an interview with Camosy in Crux, Snead explains:

I propose virtues and practices necessary to build up … networks of “uncalculated giving and graceful receiving” on which we all depend for our survival and flourishing. Put most succinctly, I argue that by virtue of our embodiment, we are made for love and friendship. And for public bioethics to be just and humane, it must be built upon this truth.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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