Being a Person

"Expressive Individualism" Ignores a Full Human Experience

A philosophy major once told me, "All you ethicists really write about is sex and death." He was joking, but after I thought about it, I decided he was not wrong. Bioethics is concerned with the edges of life—its beginning and end. Even when we talk about technological and pharmaceutical enhancements to our bodies, we're really talking about the implications of frailty and finitude. Birth and death are the bookends of our experience as embodied human beings. They mark the times when we are completely dependent on others; we bring nothing with us when we enter life and leave all when we depart.

Even though embodiment is an integral part of the human experience, our laws reflect a vision of human flourishing that denigrates the body and elevates the will. The body, and nature for that matter, is to be exploited or refashioned to enable a person to achieve his or her desire, whether that be to adopt a new identity or to stay always young.

This vision of human flourishing changes how we relate to one another. Do you want to be a parent? There are laws (or a lack of laws) that allow you to use any means available, including borrowing another woman's body, to achieve that goal. Do you want to remain childless whether you become pregnant or not? There are laws that let you achieve that, and few legal or social burdens that stand in your way. Do you want to control when, where, and how you die? More and more jurisdictions are passing laws that will help you end your life on your terms. Our laws help us to become the author of our life story. The role of our relationships, whether the doctor-patient relationship or the family, is to further our desired narrative.

Bioethicist and political scientist O. Carter Snead's recent book, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, addresses the failure of our laws to account for our lived human experience. He argues that our laws are inadequate because American public bioethics "is grounded in a gravely incomplete and thus false vision of human identity and flourishing."1 He looks at our laws on abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, and physician-assisted suicide, and shows how they prioritize "expressive individualism." According to sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined the phrase, expressive individualism posits self-fulfillment and personal autonomy as the defining characteristics of what it means to be human, while ignoring our shared experiences of vulnerability, mutual dependence, and finitude.

Expressive Individualism

Snead draws heavily from the writings of Bellah, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel to help us understand our cultural assumptions regarding the good life. Each of these writers addresses and critiques the implications of individualism in our modern world. They build on the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who, after visiting America in the nineteenth century, used the term "individualism" to describe the way he saw Americans relating to their society.

Based on answers people gave when they were asked what they valued most in life, Bellah concluded that twentieth-century Americans subscribed to the notion that each person has "a unique core of feeling and intuition" that needs to be expressed.2 He came up with the term "expressive individualism" to denote this kind of individualism.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, building on this analysis, says the goals of expressive individualism (which he calls "Romantic expressivism") are self-expression, self-realization, self-fulfillment, and discovering authenticity.3 In other words, the key to happiness is the freedom to construct the identity you want to have and become the person you want to be based on a morality you find within yourself. You are free to break any ties you have had to a particular community, past or present, and you can choose your own preferred social and moral obligations, roles, and values. The political philosopher Michael Sandel describes a person like that as the "unencumbered self."4

You can see how the implications of expressive individualism play out today. If I self-identify as a "bisexual trans man," then I should be free to pursue that identity without facing any legal, societal, or moral encumbrances. My employer can't enforce a dress code that prevents me from expressing this identity, and the law cannot hinder me from using men's facilities or from marrying whomever I wish. Public bioethics must affirm that I can do whatever I want with my body.

In principle, being free to pursue one's goals, to make choices about one's future, and to control what is done to and with one's body is not a bad thing. Autonomy is good—when it is tied to its moral roots in human dignity. Most of our laws on informed consent and human-subject research are predicated on the dignity of the individual. But problems occur when we take away those moral roots and replace them with a self-centered vision of ourselves as the arbiters of truth.

Personhood Theory

If self-fulfillment is the highest good, then what do we do with people who are dependent on others, such as infants, the disabled, or the elderly? This is where personhood theory comes in. Personhood theory says that not all human beings are persons, and that only those who are deemed to be persons have legal rights and protections. Those not so deemed may be human, but they have few, if any, rights.

What, then, constitutes a person? Different people draw the line in different places. Some say it's the ability to reason; others, that it's the ability to have meaningful interactions with others. Perhaps some would even say, as in Philip K. Dick's short story "Pre-Persons," that it's the ability to do algebra. The lines tend to become arbitrary.

As for who has the authority to draw the line anywhere, that question remains unaddressed.

What the Law Allows

To help us understand the priority placed on expressive individualism in public bioethics in America, let's take the example of a fictional girl named Emily. Emily is a college student whose supportive parents always told her she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up. After living through the Covid-19 pandemic and helping people in low-income countries, Emily decides she wants to become an infectious disease expert. She works hard to get into an elite program at a top-tier university and is accepted by the school of her choice. But during her freshman year, Emily gets pregnant. Having a baby, she is convinced, would completely derail her plans of becoming a doctor and helping other people. What do our laws allow Emily to do?

Thanks to the Supreme Court's decisions in Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, Emily can choose to have an abortion. Her state may impose certain restrictions, such as not permitting abortion after the second trimester or after viability, but if she is willing to travel, she can find a state where abortion is legal right up until the moment of birth. At any rate, Emily has an abortion and continues her studies.

Years pass. Emily is now in her late thirties and has been a successful infectious disease expert for more than a decade. She is also engaged, and she and her fiancé would like to have a child, but there is a genetic disease that runs in the men in her family and Emily wants to make sure her child will not have it. So she wants to have a girl, and would also like to make sure that her daughter is smart, so that she will have every chance to succeed in life. What do our laws allow Emily to do here?

The United States is often called the "Wild West" of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) because, compared to other countries, it places few restrictions on their use—not even a medical reason is required. If an individual or a couple chooses to use IVF, they can select the sex of the embryo to be implanted. Also, though the science behind it is spurious, genome-wide association studies can be used to screen embryos for certain desirable traits, including intelligence. Indeed, there are very few limits on the reproductive technologies people can use to get the child they want—as long as they have the requisite financial resources.

So Emily and her fiancé use ART to have a baby girl, and later, feeling bolder, they also have a boy. Both children are healthy, and their parents have meanwhile gotten married.

A couple of decades pass, after which, their children grown and successful careers behind them, Emily and her husband decide to spend their retirement traveling. But before they embark on their first trip, Emily suffers a stroke caused by a brain tumor. She survives, but doctors tell her that the prognosis for a full recovery is not good; she will likely suffer permanent cognitive and physical disabilities. Emily is crushed. This is not the life she wanted for herself, nor does she want to be a burden on her husband and two children. She would rather end her life on her own terms. Now what do our laws allow her to do?

A real-life scenario like this was played out in 2014 in the case of Brittany Maynard, a young California woman who was diagnosed with brain cancer and wanted to end her life before becoming incapacitated. At the time, physician-assisted suicide was not legal in California, so, amid much publicity, Maynard moved to Oregon expressly to take advantage of that state's permissive law. On November 1, 2014, she gathered her loved ones around her and then ingested lethal drugs prescribed by a physician. Two years later, California legalized physician-assisted suicide, and today, six other states plus the District of Columbia permit it as well.

Our fictional Emily decided to follow in Maynard's footsteps.

What We Were Made For

In sum, at several crucial stages of her life, Emily regarded her body as being in the way of the life she wished to construct for herself. Our laws permitted her to have an abortion, to use ART to have children, and to obtain medical help in killing herself, thereby supporting her desire to arrange her life on her terms, but they did not—and do not—address what it means to be embodied. As Snead points out, embodiment means that, throughout life, we exist on a "scale of disability" that changes with age, health, and circumstances.5 But our laws do not address our finitude, vulnerability, and need for others.

An ethic of expressive individualism claims that it is licit, even proper, for people to treat each other as instruments for their own self-fulfillment. But this is not what we were made for. Snead says that a fuller anthropology looks outward rather than inward, encouraging people to identify with the vulnerable, disabled, elderly, and dying. We were made for love and authentic friendship. When we rightly relate to one another as embodied beings, we learn to respond to life with gratitude, which we then live out in our compassionate care for each other at all stages of life.

1. O. Carter Snead, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Harvard University Press, 2020), 2.
2. Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), 333–334.
3. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1992), 507.
4. Snead, 76, 77.5. Snead, 229.

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #57, Summer 2021 Copyright © 2022 Salvo |


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