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What it Means to be Human—O. Carter Snead on remembering our bodies



What does it mean to be human? For many modern westerners, it means being an individual with a will, free to choose what we desire and unencumbered by other wills. None of our choices – a house, a job, a family – truly define us because we are always free to choose something else.


This popular perspective is frequently termed expressive individualism and Carter Snead insists that it is forgetful of something rather obvious: our bodies.


Each of us enter into the world as fragile, vulnerable, embodied being, radically dependent on the "uncompensated, unconditional, and often self-sacrificial care of others." Because expressive individualism leaves no place for our dependent bodies, Snead puts forward an anthropology of embodiment that calls for recognition of our vulnerability, gratitude for those who have loved us into life, and a moral compass shaped by obligation to dependent others.


If we did not create ourselves and depend upon others throughout our lives, the world and those in it are not simply materials for us to rationally order, harness, and exploit for our own projects. This “ethic of giftedness,” as Sandel called it, awakens the felt need to share with others—including especially those who were not as fortunate in the natural distribution of gifts and benefits. Embracing the gifts of one’s life with gratitude and humility makes one especially alive to the least advantaged who have not received the gifts they need to flourish on their own. ... This is a disposition of welcoming and hospitality towards others in all their uniqueness and particularity, a toleration of imperfection and difference. This is the opposite of raw choice, rational mastery, and control.


Read "The Anthropology of Expressive Individualism" or listen to a short, lucid talk from Carter Snead on the topic. For more, check out Snead's book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.

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