At first glance, the term “expressive individualism” seems benign enough. After all, people throughout the Western world value their personal freedom and the liberty to make crucial life decisions such as whether to have children and how and when they wish to die. What could possibly be wrong with the idea that everyone should be in control of his or her own body and fate to the greatest extent possible and with the least intrusion by either the state or “outdated” social mores?
But there is a dark side to expressive individualism when one enters the realm of public bioethics. In his 2020 book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Harvard University Press, 2020), O. Carter Snead defines for us what the term “public bioethics” encompasses and provides a much-needed genealogy of the field.
He profiles key players in many of the most momentous bioethics-related developments of the post-WWII era from physicians such as Henry Knowles Beecher to jurists like Harry Blackmun and influential scholars in fields such as philosophy and sociology like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah.
Snead chronicles how the field of bioethics came to be shaped by shocking revelations of cases of inhumanity many of which are well-known (such as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study) but many of which are rarely discussed such as medical experiments performed on near-term alive aborted babies. Such cases shocked the public and led to legislation creating commissions and other bodies designed to prevent such horrors.
But Snead argues that much of the action on the public policy front failed for multiple reasons and left vulnerable groups (e.g., the aged, the cognitively disabled, the unborn) outside a legal regime built upon the precepts of expressive individualism. And even those who were supposedly able to express their wishes were often harmed by the expressive individualism paradigm and its legal framework. Snead gives examples of the many actors in the area of assisted reproduction and assisted suicide whose rights can be trampled in the name of a notion of personal liberty that does not account for changes of mind. He also demonstrates that regulation and oversight was often, for all intents and purposes, absent in many cases.
Snead’s book is a clarion call for what he calls “remembering the body.” This is an important book for anyone who may at some point become ill or disabled or who will end up caring for someone who is. That is, it is a book for everyone. It is by a leading scholar, but its readership is anyone with a body and who loves other people—or at least has some control over them.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.