One of the Wall Street Journal’s Top Ten Books of the Year
A leading expert on public bioethics advocates for a new conception of human identity in American law and policy.
The natural limits of the human body make us vulnerable and therefore dependent, throughout our lives, on others. Yet American law and policy disregard these stubborn facts, with statutes and judicial decisions that presume people to be autonomous, defined by their capacity to choose. As legal scholar O. Carter Snead points out, this individualistic ideology 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.
What It Means to Be Human makes the case for a new paradigm, one that better represents the gifts and challenges of being human. Inspired by the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Snead proposes a vision of human identity and flourishing that supports those who are profoundly vulnerable and dependent―children, the disabled, and the elderly. To show how such a vision would affect law and policy, 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, Snead recasts debates over these issues and situates them within his framework of embodiment and dependence. He concludes that, if the law is built on premises that reflect the 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 this provocative and consequential book, Snead rethinks how the law represents human experiences so that it might govern more wisely, justly, and humanely.
“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.” ―Yuval Levin, Wall Street Journal
“Illuminates the ways in which our flawed anthropology―our wrongheaded ideas about what it means to be human―negatively affects our bioethics…The lengthy section on abortion alone is worth the price of admission.” ―Alexandra DeSanctis, National Review
“This remarkable and insightful account of contemporary public bioethics and its individualist assumptions is indispensable reading for anyone with bioethical concerns. Whether you agree or disagree with Snead’s perspective, all will be in his debt for this critical work.” ―Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue
“O. Carter Snead has written a brilliantly insightful book about how American law has enshrined individual autonomy as the highest moral good. He suggests an alternative foundation for contemporary bioethics, based on an understanding of human beings as social creatures, embedded in mutually dependent physical bodies. Highly thought-provoking.” ―Francis Fukuyama, author of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
“A book rich in scholarship but for a much wider audience than scholars. The content of our bioethics will shape the course of our human future. That’s what makes this book so valuable.” ―Charles J. Chaput, First Things
“Snead makes it clear that simply debating the morality of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted reproduction is not sufficient…We have to ground our definitions, debates, and catechisms in anthropology, in what it means to be human. If we are to love and defend our weak, vulnerable, and dependent neighbors, we ought also remember that we, too, will be weak, vulnerable, and dependent someday. This is what being human is, and our laws and policies should reflect it.” ―John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, Christian Post
“Faulty anthropology makes for faulty law, especially when the subject is human life itself. Through a meticulous analysis of American legal cases touching the beginnings and ends of life, O. Carter Snead demonstrates how our entire approach to bioethical matters ironically ignores the lived reality and value of human embodiment, pointing the way to a richer approach that will promote social solidarity. A most significant achievement!” ―Leon R. Kass, Chairman, President’s Council on Bioethics (2002–2005)
“ What It Means to Be Human belongs on the desk of anyone concerned about the challenges ahead in the field of public bioethics. After taking a hard look at the flawed assumptions that shape most of today’s thinking, Snead outlines an approach firmly grounded in the complexity of human experience.” ―Mary Ann Glendon, author of The Forum and the Tower
“Public bioethics has for too long labored under the illusion that its purpose is to maximize individual choice. Snead shows how this results in policies that are hostile to human beings as they actually are: essentially embodied, ever dependent on others, flourishing only when loving and being loved. This is required reading.” ―Farr Curlin, Trent Center for Bioethics, Duke University
“One of the world’s leading bioethicists…Snead issues a thought-provoking challenge to our modern legal regime that is premised upon a misconception of the human person.” ―Maureen Ferguson, Daily Signal
“Helpfully reframes the major issues in public bioethics.” ―Jacob Shatzer, Front Porch Republic
“Doesn’t mire itself in the latest bioethics debates, most of which have become dizzyingly complex in the past few years. Instead, it returns us, not a moment too soon, to a discussion of first principles…Advance[s] an anthropological framework for understanding human beings (and for devising laws and policies) that takes birth and death, youth and age, ability and limits―essentially the embodied self―into account.” ―Nora Kenney, National Review
O. Carter Snead is William P. and Hazel B. White Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, Professor of Law, and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the principal bioethics advisory body to Pope Francis, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.