In continuation of my recent deep dive into the nature of man, I just finished What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, by O. Carter Snead, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. The thesis of the book is Snead’s opinion that the law and practices governing bioethics are in serious need of overhaul. As he states in the introduction, “In America, law and policy are made through often messy processes of discourse, deliberation, and democratic forms of decision-making. This entails grappling with contested matters of deep importance, including competing and divergent visions of how we should live and what we owe to one another. This is certainly the case for public bioethics–the governance of science, medicine, and biotechnology in the name of ethical goods”. And he believes that in our discourse, contending sides frequently invoke abstract principles or rely on premises that do not reflect the full complexity of lived reality. In short, this means for him that our policy is much more aligned with what he calls “expressive individualism” that presumes people to be autonomous, defined only by their capacity to choose, and not enough influenced by our encumbered relationships that he calls “embodied human nature”.
His book makes the case, almost a legal brief, for a new paradigm, one that better represents the gifts and challenges of being human. Through the insights of a range of thinkers, he proposes a vision of human identity and flourishing that supports those who are profoundly vulnerable and dependent. To show how this vision of embodied human nature would affect law and policy, he addresses three complex issues in bioethics: abortion, assisted reproductive technology, and end-of-life decisions in a way that is not right vs. left or secular vs. religious, but by presenting them in the context of recent debates in the pursuit of ethical goods.
This is a deeply philosophical and challenging book, but there is no doubt, as he makes clear, that we need a larger national conversation on the issues he raises, and his work here would be a great resource and outline for the agenda.