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Why Our Most Important Conversations Have to Begin with Who We Are

Perhaps the most helpful framework I know of in wrestling with moral issues comes from T.S. Eliot. Before we can know what to do with something, we must know what that something is for. For example, before we decide what we should do with human life (whether we should take it, make it, or remake it), we should know what human life is for.

The opposing sides of contemporary debates around bioethics, i.e. abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, in-vitro fertilization, and other assisted reproductive technologies, often proceed from very different beliefs about what it means to be human and, therefore, what it means for humans to flourish. 

That is essentially the very important argument made by Notre Dame Professor O. Carter Snead in his new book What It Means to Be Human, which was recently called “the most important book of moral philosphy so far this century” by public intellectual Yuval Levin. 

(Now, if you’ve already checked this off as too academic because of phrases like “moral philosophy” and “public intellectual,” I will have failed. My interview with Snead on the BreakPoint Podcast should change your mind.)

Our laws and policies and debates about beginning and end-of-life technologies are proceeding these days, says Snead, without a shared or articulated vision of “what it means to be human.” Or, to use T.S. Eliot’s framework, we are greenlighting incredible technologies and freedoms about how to begin life and how to end life, without a foundation for understanding what humans are for.

Absent any official conversation, contemporary bioethics merely assumes the dominant cultural narrative about human existence: that we are autonomous individuals living in moral isolation from everything and everyone. As Snead profoundly argues, “everything” includes our own bodies. In other words, some of the most profound moral decisions are made as if people are “disembodied wills.” Philosopher Alisdair McIntyre put it simply, “We have forgotten our bodies.”

Here’s why that matters. If we aren’t bound by our bodies, then we aren’t bound by the bodies of others, which means we have no responsibility for anyone for anyone or for any obligations that are not chosen. No relationship, not with fellow citizens, not with family members or friends, not with tradition or religion, can define for us who we are or how we live. 

This view of what humans are for, or perhaps what humans are not for, has been dubbed “expressive individualism,” and is the dominant worldview shaping our laws and our cultural imagination when it comes to what humans should do, and what we should be able to do with humans (including those not yet born, or who are infirmed and elderly, or who perceive themselves to be “born in the wrong body,” or who are fertile or infertile when they don’t want to be).

This caricature of real people and the way we live fails to take into account one of the most basic realities of human existence: that we live and encounter each other as bodies, not just as desires and wills.  And our bodies are vulnerable. They are fragile. They get sick, and they eventually die. This reality creates mutual obligations within families, friends, and neighbors. Namely, to give without expectation of getting anything back and, also, and this is important, to receive without being able to give back.

In What It Means to Be Human, Snead makes clear that simply debating the morality of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted reproduction is not sufficient. Moreover, it’s not enough to train our kids or disciple Christians just in the morality of these issues. We have to ground our definitions, debates, and catechisms in anthropology, in what it means to be human. 

If we are to love our weak, vulnerable, and dependent neighbors, if we are to defend them, 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.

My interview with Professor Snead can be heard on the BreakPoint podcast. Please listen, and then buy two copies of What It Means to Be Human: one for yourself and one for your pastor. Both the Podcast and the book are available at

Publication date: November 17, 2020

Photo courtesy: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.

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