Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” That’s all too true of America today. A global pandemic has upended our lives. Racial unrest convulses our cities. And our politics have devolved into blood sport, as toxic as it is tribal.
We have indeed forgotten who we are and what we owe to one another. We desperately need to remember. To do that, we need a better anthropology. When most people hear the word “anthropology,” they think of scientists documenting life among isolated tribes in far-away islands. But originally, the term meant simply an account of what it means to be and to flourish as a human being.
We make laws and public policy for the protection and thriving of persons. And when we do that, we usually have an idea of who and what a person is, though often our idea remains hidden and unexamined. Too often, our understanding of the person is flattened, incomplete and downright inhuman. It leaves out our mutual dependence, vulnerability and finitude.
Our laws, and the anthropology that lies behind them, treat the individual as self-centered, self-seeking and self-maximizing, unburdened by unchosen obligations, detached from family and community and indifferent to the weakest among us, including children, the disabled and elderly.
The inconvenient child can be terminated in the womb, while others conveniently “rent” wombs through surrogacy if they consider children a suitable accoutrement to their lifestyles. The suffering elderly and terminally ill are increasingly permitted to commit suicide-by-doctor.
The social scientist Robert Bellah first dubbed this anthropology “expressive individualism.” In this vision, the body is merely instrumental towards such ends, as are the natural world and even our closest human relationships.
This is an anthropology uniquely unsuited to public bioethics, which primarily concerns the frailty, dependence and natural limits that arise from our lives as embodied beings. Instead of working to build up and reinforce the ties that bind us, the laws of abortion, assisted reproduction and end-of-life decision making provide limited weapons appropriate to a world of strife among strangers: the right to terminate human life in the womb, to make and select for a baby suitable to our preferences by almost any means available, and to be “left alone” or perhaps even to annihilate ourselves in the face of decline and dying.
But the harms associated with expressive individualism don’t stop with bioethics: Is it any wonder that a society that thinks of itself as an assemblage of competing, selfish wills would eventually tear itself apart, as we are now?
We need a better anthropology, one that recognizes that we are born into bodies, families and communities that as philosopher Michael Sandel says, we “neither summon nor command.” Instead, we receive our bodies and familial ties from nature, and these, in turn, make demands on us: Our parents expect us to care for them in their twilight, the gift of life in the womb demands love and protection, the disabled remind of us our own vulnerability and in this way make us more fully human.
A better anthropology and, therefore, a better politics must facilitate the creation of what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving,” in which we make the goods of others our own. To create and sustain such networks, we must practice the virtues of just generosity, hospitality, misericordia (accompaniment of others in their suffering), gratitude, humility, openness to the unbidden, tolerance of imperfection, solidarity, respect for dignity, and honesty.
In other words, we must embrace the virtues of authentic friendship. We must remember our embodiment and what it means. And then, God willing, we will remember that we belong to one another.
O. Carter Snead is professor of law and director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture and at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is “What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics” (Harvard University Press), from which this column was adapted.
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