The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“‘What It Means to Be Human’ Review: Unchosen Obligations”: Yuval Levin in The Wall Street Journal

by James Wilson Institute on December 4, 2020

Yuval Levin, a friend of the James Wilson Institute, wrote an excellent piece for the Wall Street Journal recently. In this article, titled Unchosen Obligations, Levin reviewed the book What it Means to be Human, authored by Prof. O. Carter Snead of the University of Notre Dame. Levin praises Professor Snead’s book as an example of an ambitious examination of bioethical disputes and moral philosophy and anthropology. The book explains clearly one of the most complicated and controversial fields through a lens rooted in deep philosophical soil. Prof. Snead draws on the philosophy at work to lay out the role that law must play in this increasingly debated field. Levin states that the book What it Means to be Human is a rare achievement: a rigorous academic book that is also accessible, engaging, and wise.

Some excerpts from the book review:

Bioethics has always been enmeshed in controversy. Arising out of gross abuses of the rights of human subjects in mid-20th-century scientific research, the field has grown to take on a variety of thorny challenges at the intersection of morality and biomedicine— from embryo research and organ markets to artificial reproduction and physician- assisted suicide.

Mr. Snead’s subject is “public bioethics,” by which he means not the work of advising particular patients or clients facing difficult decisions but the work of setting out laws, rules and policies regarding the uses of biotechnology and medicine. He begins by drawing out the often unstated assumptions beneath such frameworks. “American law and policy concerning bioethical matters,” Mr. Snead writes, “are currently animated by a vision of the person as atomized, solitary, and defined essentially by his capacity to formulate and pursue future plans of his own invention.”

“What It Means to Be Human” may have its greatest impact outside public bioethics. That field is now intensely politicized, and stubbornly resistant to criticism. It is likely to remain in the business of constructing sophistic permission structures justifying a dehumanizing but convenient disregard for the weak and vulnerable in the all-atoning name of choice. Dissenters from this orthodoxy, like Mr. Snead, often defy easy political and professional classification. Their work is rooted in deeper philosophical soil and therefore tends to grow beyond the bounds of bioethics.

Thus Mr. Snead’s book, which presents itself as a legal text, proposes to broaden our idea of what the law is for. Where it touches sensitive domains like the beginning and the end of life, he writes, “the role of the law should be to help create, support, and protect the networks of giving and receiving on which we all depend in our vulnerability as embodied beings in time.”

To read the full article click here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790