The Anthropology of Expressive Individualism

Expressive individualism, in its purest form, takes the individual, atomized self to be the fundamental unit of human reality. This self is not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment. No object of choice—whether property, a particular vocation, or even the creation of a family—is definitive and constitutive of the self. In Michael Sandel’s words, it is an “unencumbered self.” Because this self is defined by its capacity to choose, it is associated fundamentally with its will and not its body. The individual—the person—is thus understood to be identical with the exercise of this particular type of cognition. Therefore, expressive individualism is inevitably dualistic—privileging the mind while subordinating the body in defining the person.

Flourishing is achieved by turning inward to interrogate the self ’s own deepest sentiments to discern the wholly unique and original truths about its purpose and destiny. This inner voice is morally authoritative and defines the route forward to realizing the authentic self. The truth about the self is thus not determined externally, and sometimes must be pursued counter-culturally, over and above the mores of one’s community. In Sandel’s words, the expressive individual self is a “self-originating source of valid claims.”

Relatedly, as Rodercik Long and Charles Taylor point out, expressive individualism does not recognize unchosen obligations. The self is bound only to those commitments freely assumed. And the expressive individual self only accepts commitments that facilitate the overarching goal of pursuing its own, original, unique, and freely chosen quest for meaning.

This is the anthropology that will emerge from an inductive analysis of several of the vital conflicts of American public bioethics. Before proceeding to that analysis, however, it is important to examine some of the general criticisms leveled against expressive individualism, as well as some of the alternative virtues, goods, and practices that can correct the errors of this anthropology.

Forgetting the Body

What, then, is problematic about the anthropology of expressive individualism and why might it be an ill-suited vision of human identity and flourishing for American public bioethics? To put it most succinctly, expressive individualism fails because it is, to borrow a phrase from Alasdair MacIntyre, “forgetful of the body.” Its vision of the human person does not reflect and thus cannot make sense of the full lived reality of human embodiment, with all that it entails. After all, human beings experience themselves and one another as living bodies, not disembodied wills.

Because human beings live and negotiate the world as bodies, they are necessarily subject to vulnerability, dependence, and finitude common to all living embodied beings, with all of the attendant challenges and gifts that follow. Thus, the anthropology of the atomized, unencumbered, inward-directed self of expressive individualism falls short because it cannot render intelligible either the core human realities of embodiment or recognize the unchosen debts that accrue to all human beings throughout their life spans.

An inexorable reality of embodied human life is dependence. Most obviously, given the way human beings come into the world, from the very beginning they depend on the beneficence and support of others for their very lives. Among mammals, human beings in their infancy and youth have an unusually long period of dependence for basic survival—infants and babies require help with nutrition, hygiene, and general protection. Obviously, this dependence on others for basic needs is not merely a transient feature limited to the beginnings of human life. There are, of course, those who spend their entire lives in conditions of radical dependency. But because all human beings exist as corruptible bodies, periods of serious illness, injury, and senescence create cycles of often-profound dependency throughout the life span for everyone. Consider, due to the very nature of living as bodies, in MacIntyre’s words, all human beings exist on a “scale of disability.”

Given the role of dependence intrinsic to bodily existence, if human beings are to flourish, they must “receive and have an expectation of receiving the attentive care [we] need when [we are] very young, old and ill, or injured.” The care that human beings need must be unconditional and noncontingent. The weakest and most afflicted among the human community will, of course, require the most intensive and sustained care.

The paradigm for such caregiving—upon which nearly everyone relies in his early life—is provided by parents. MacIntyre argued that in its fullest expression, good parental care makes the object of concern this child; the commitment is unconditional and does not depend on the child’s circumstances (such as disability), and the needs of the child are treated as paramount, over and above those of the parents. MacIntyre pointed to parents of disabled children as the pristine model of this form of care. The same need for unconditional and noncontingent care arises again, of course, as human beings move towards the end of life’s spectrum, if not before.

French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel similarly noticed the universal experience of human dependency. He also noted parental love and care are essential to development and flourishing. In his words, parents provide a “humanized cosmos” for the growing child who is welcomed and loved unconditionally.

The anthropology of expressive individualism misses this basic feature of human life because it misses its lived realty; dependence is not part of the picture. Expressive individualism’s image of the human person is one fully formed, at the height of his cognitive powers, turning inward to learn the truths that, when expressed, will form his identity and shape his life’s course. Jouvenel criticized social contract theorists for similarly forgetting the dependence of life in its early stages of development: “These are the views of childless men who must have forgotten their childhood. Like Miltons Satan and fallen angels, the expressive individual self “know[s] no time when [it was] not as now; Know none before [it], self-begot, self-raisd / By [its] own quickening power.” A purely inward-looking and individualistic anthropology can give no intelligible or justified account of uncompensated, unconditional, and often self-sacrificial care of others. There is no warrant to give more than one could ever hope to receive. There is no imperative to give to those from whom nothing will ever be repaid in return.

The dependence of embodied human beings is not limited to relying on others for mere biological survival. The development of the capacities needed to negotiate and thrive in the world inexorably depend on the support of others. As Alasdair MacIntyre observed in his book Dependent Rational Animals, it requires the selfless and sustained work of countless others to build an individual’s capacities for freedom and flourishing, such as the abilities to defer gratification, to imagine and choose from alternative futures, to obtain useful knowledge about the world, to cooperate with and care for others, and to come to know yourself. These are the qualities needed to become, in MacIntyres words, an independent practical reasoner. Development toward this goal requires a family and a community of persons who are willing to make the good of others their own good.

In this way, individuals can become the kind of people who are capable of making the good of others their own. Charles Taylor noted that even the traits required for thriving under the ambit of expressive individualism depend on social structures and conditions that nurture the development of such capacities. Indeed, even a theory of the “autonomous self ” requires a culture and civilization in which such an idea can emerge and be transmitted.

A single-minded focus on exploring and expressing the inner depths of the atomized self does not, within its own normative framework, include robust categories of community and cooperation for the sake of others. This is the grounding insight of Sandel’s critique of John Rawls: “What the difference principle requires but cannot provide is some way of identifying those among whom assets I bear are properly regarded as common, some way of seeing ourselves as mutually indebted and morally engaged to begin with.” An unencumbered self, without constitutive ties to others, does not recognize an imperative to share for the sake of the least advantaged when it is not in its own interest to do so.

Even the development and knowledge of one’s own personal identity—the touchstone of expressive individualism—requires sustained support from others. MacIntyre argued that without a narrative context, the individual “story telling animal” is dislocated and disoriented. In After Virtue, MacIntyre elaborated: I can only answer the question What am I to do?if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find my­ self a part? Who we are is rendered intelligible by the narratives that form us—even if one chooses to rebel against the normative direction and embedded ends of the traditions and communities that have shaped this story. But the point is that one does not create his or her own narrative ab initio. Self-identity is in large part shaped by the inheritances, traditions, and cultures of others—family, community, civilization. Sandel puts it this way: “I move in a history I neither summon nor command, which carries consequences nonetheless for my choices and conduct.” And this history is the product of generations who have come before and will be sustained by those not yet born.

Moreover, human beings come to understand and refine their identities in conversation with others. Taylor called this the “dialogical” character of human life. We understand ourselves not only by expressing ourselves, but by virtue of the reactions and responses of others—especially in genuine friendship with those whose goods we share. In collaboration with and in struggle against others, we give an account of ourselves as well as hold others to their own accounts. This results in a process of refinement and clarification that enhances and deepens self-understanding. Thus, the self-expression that is key to identity and flourishing in the anthropology of expressive individualism requires others for recognition and response. This, too, is a form of human dependence.

The anthropology of expressive individualism is monological and ahistorical. As MacIntyre wrote, “from the standpoint of individualism I am what I myself choose to be . . . a self that can have no history.” The unencumbered self is by definition incapable of constitutive relationships. It cannot genuinely make the good of another its own good. Moreover, its good is not fully knowable by others; it is accessible only in full through self-interrogation and then expression. The unencumbered self is thus consigned to profound loneliness. Sandel captured this tragic circumstance in this arresting passage:

However much I might hope for the good of a friend and stand ready to advance it, only the friend himself can know what that good is. Where deliberating about my good means no more than attending to wants and desires given directly to my awareness, I must do it on my own; it neither requires nor admits participation of others.

It is clear that the life of embodied human beings is characterized by vulnerability and natural limits. Dependence is a central fact of human life. To live as a human is to incur debts—to our families and caregivers, our friends, our communities, and our civilization. In the words of the late British philosopher Roger Scruton:

For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice. We are bound by ties we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements.

An anthropology of expressive individualism lacks the resources to recognize, much less repay these debts. It cannot give an intelligible account of the debt owed to those who kept us alive and taught us what we needed to thrive in the world. It cannot explain the role played by and obligations incurred to others whose friendship and mutual calling to account led to the refinement and clarification of our own self-understanding. A fortiori, as a solely inward-looking anthropology, expressive individualism does not supply a justification for the payment of those debts in nonreciprocal and unconditional fashion to others who have nothing to offer us by way of recompense. It lacks a principle of belonging or moral obligation sufficient to build a community or civilization that will not serve one’s interests beyond this life.

The failure of expressive individualism to respond to the reality of embodied human lives regarding their mutual dependence, integrated constitutive goods and histories, and shared unchosen obligations to one another is also associated with an array of social pathologies that are concerning in themselves, but also loom large for American public bioethics.

First, as Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah have observed (echoing related concerns raised by Alexis de Tocqueville), a purely inward-directed atomized self becomes untethered from social ties, including the most intimate family connections. The inner depths of the self which hold the sources of meaning and normative orientation are never fully transparent to others, raising the specter of a thoroughgoing relativism. At the same time, Bellah observes, the individual experiences alienation and dislocation, as he longs for community and shared values, but is isolated and enclosed within his own sentiments.

The conception of human relationships not as a web of mutual indebtedness and shared concern but rather as merely instrumental and transactional exacerbates existing inequalities and compromises the networks of support for the weakest and most vulnerable. Jouvenel colorfully refers to this as a “legalitarian fiction” that “results in a chartered libertarianism for the strong.”

The anthropology of expressive individualism, with its singular focus on the individual self as the sole source and summit of unique meaning, creates not only loneliness and alienation, but enhances the fear of death. In an address to the International Academy of Philosophy in Lichtenstein in 1992, Nobel Laureate novelist, poet, historian, and Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn elaborated:

Man has lost the sense of himself as a limited point in the universe, albeit one possessed of free will. He began to deem himself the center of his surroundings, adapting not himself to the world but the world to himself. And then, of course, the thought of death becomes unbearable: It is the extinction of the entire universe at a stroke.

This death-haunted existence looms large for the vital conflicts of public bioethics, as I show in detail in What It Means to Be Human. A thoroughgoing and singular commitment to expressive individualism may even result in a lessened commitment to human rights. In his 2016 book, What Is a Human?, social scientist John Evans undertook a fascinating empirical study of the relationship between one’s anthropological accounts of human identity and flourishing and attitudes toward “genocide, torture, experimenting on persons against their will, buying body organs from poor people, committing suicide to save money for families.” He found those who embraced a philosophical anthropology that privileges the cluster of traits and qualities most connected to expressive individualism (namely, the active cognitive capacities to invent and pursue future-directed plans) were “less supportive of human rights.”

Finally, the erosion of social ties noted by Bellah and Taylor (drawing again upon Tocqueville) could have deleterious consequences for self-government more generally. The so-called intermediate associations that comprise “civil society” are diminished as expressive individualism advances. People turn away from such shared enterprises, retreating into their own narrow circle of individual concerns. Without the buffer of civil society between the state and the individual, Bellah and his coauthors expressed grave worries of a resulting “mass society of mutually antagonistic individuals, easy prey to despotism.”

Given the failure of expressive individualism to account for fundamental realities of embodied human life, including especially its uniquely relational and interdependent features, and the potential individual and shared adverse social consequences that follow, what is to be done?

Here it is useful to turn again to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre for guidance.

An Anthropology of Embodiment

Because the anthropology of expressive individualism is impoverished due to its forgetfulness—of the body, of human interdependence, of the consequent gifts received from and debts owed to others—the development of a fuller and truer vision of human identity and human flourishing can only be forged by a kind of remembering. In order to develop the virtues and practices necessary to participate and thrive in what Macintyre calls the “networks of giving and receiving,” we must remember who we are and how we got here.

First, we must remember that we entered the world profoundly weak and vulnerable, dependent upon others for our very survival. We needed others to feed us, to protect us, to keep us clean and warm, and to nurse us back to health when we were sick. We needed others to teach us how to behave, the habits of forbearance and delayed gratification, the discipline to restrain our selfish animal impulses to put ourselves first, and the moral vision to see others as objects of respect and concern, with goods that we share in common. We needed others to react to our self-understanding and expression, to help us to define ourselves both in collaboration and competition with them. We needed a family, a community, and a civilization to transmit expectations, values, and standards, which shaped us as we accepted or rejected these sources of meaning in full or in part.

We need to remember the fact that even in a normal life trajectory, we will need this care and support again, in periods of illness and senescence. As MacIntyre writes, it matters that

Those who are no longer children recognize in children what they once were, and those who are not yet disabled by age recognize in the old what they are moving towards becoming and that those who are not ill or injured recognize in the ill and injured what they often have been and will be and always may be.

Those who cared for us and who will care for us in our moments of profound vulnerability, especially when we could not and will not offer anything by way of recompense, did and will do so unconditionally and noncontingently. Those who cared for us knew that these efforts would likely be vastly disproportionate to any reciprocal support that might be offered back in return in the future. They gave us care even when all we could do was passively receive it. This was and will be the care required to sustain and shape us, by virtue of our lives as embodied human beings.

Remembering who we are and where we came from in this way should awaken in us a profound sense of gratitude and a sense that a fitting response to such care is to become the kind of person who makes the goods of others her own—to become one who cares for others without condition or calculation. When one remembers how he came to be who he is, through this sustaining network of unconditional care and concern, he becomes alive to the fact that it is not possible to repay those who supported us; the only response is to extend the same care and concern to others in need, not because it satisfies a balanced owed, but because this is what it means to become one who is responsive to others solely because of their needs, without calculation or self-interest. We will be able to offer such care and concern because in having received it, we become people capable of extending it to others.

Within this framework, one’s gaze is not fixed, limited to her inner self and its depths. One’s attention instead turns outward, understanding that flourishing is becoming a participant and steward of the network of giving and receiving that sustains life as humanly lived. This outward-facing vision is augmented, strengthened, and sharpened by memory and moral imagination. What goods, virtues, and practices are necessary, then, to participate in and contribute to the network of giving and receiving that is a response to the interdependence of embodied human life? They are what MacIntyre has called “the virtues of acknowledged dependence.” It is through the cultivation and practice of these virtues that one becomes a person capable of the relationships of “uncalculated giving and graceful receiving” that characterize human flourishing.

The virtues of uncalculated giving include just generosity, hospitality, and “misericordia.” Just generosity is manifest by acting in the aid of another merely on the grounds of her apparent need. It is just in the sense that it is fitting to return what we have received, and it is generous in the sense that is offered in genuine regard for the particular other in need. The measure of the response owed is proportionate to that need, and not a function of self-interest or rational calculation of likely return to the caregiver. Hospitality is the duty to render aid to the stranger simply because he or she is a stranger, ungrudgingly and without condition. Misericordia is the virtue of taking on the suffering of another as your own, which can oblige one to provide care and assistance, or if this is not possible, to accompany the other in his or her suffering.

The principal virtue of graceful receiving is the practice of gratitude. This is the fitting recognition and response to the care of others, past, present, and future who support us in our dependence. Again, the fruits of such gratitude include the desire and disposition to extend the virtues of uncalculated giving to those in need, because they are in need.

Another good that flows from both retrospective and anticipatory gratitude for the care and concern of others, as well as the giftedness of life more generally, is humility. As Michael Sandel pointed out, recognition that our life and talents are not of our own making can be a powerful counterweight to prideful self-regard. Moreover, it can temper a disposition toward rational mastery and a purely extractive attitude toward ourselves, others, and the natural world.

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 might provide the principle of sharing that is missing from an anthropology of isolated individual wills seeking to realize their own self-invented dreams.

Moreover, gratitude and the humility that travels with it can give rise to what Sandel (quoting theologian William F. May) callsopenness to the unbidden.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. Sandel notes that this virtue is most clearly demonstrated (and learned) in a parents acceptance of her child as a gift, rather than a project or vessel into which a parent pours his own hopes and dreams. Openness to the unbidden is closely tied to MacIntyres vision for “the paradigm of good motherhood and fatherhood” which is seen most clearly and beautifully in the parents of seriously disabled children.

Gratitude for the gifts of otherssupport and life itself is also fertile ground for the cultivation of the sense of solidarity—extending one’s field of concern to encompass those beyond his immediate circle of family, friends, and community, to encompass the wider circle of humanity. It grows from the recognition that dependence on the generosity and uncalculated giving of others is a universal condition of human beings, owing to their embodied existence.

Another fruit of gratitude and the acknowledgment of human interdependence is a sense of human dignity. While “dignity” is a famously contested concept, the sense here is one of the intrinsic equal worth of all human beings who are alike in vulnerability, neediness, and subject to natural limits. All human beings stand in the vast and particular networks of giving and receiving necessary for human flourishing. All human beings are created and embodied, unrepeatable, precious, and fundamentally equal. All are equidistant from Pascal’s “two infinities” between which humankind is situated. The equal dignity of all human beings in virtue of their humanity becomes clear once all of the tests and standards (mostly focused on cognition and active powers) devised by the strong to measure the ultimate worth of the weak, according to the former’s interests, are stripped away and abandoned.

For these fruits to grow from gratitude and the insights that follow from it, it is necessary to cultivate and practice the virtue of truthfulness. It is necessary to be honest with and about oneself and his nature as an embodied and thus interdependent being. And one must be honest with others as the dialogical nature of our shared life unfolds.

Having considered the many virtues of acknowledged dependence, it is possible to see one overarching good under which all of these goods and practices necessary to the flourishing of the individual and shared lives of embodied beings might be situated. And that is the good of genuine friendship. Just generosity, hospitality, misericordia, gratitude, humility, openness to the unbidden, solidarity, dignity, and truthfulness, are all virtues and goods that cohere within the concept of friendship, understood as a relationship of persons who make one anothers goods their own. Friendship, in this sense, is an essential good for the flourishing of embodied beings. One is supported and sustained throughout his life by those who make his good their own without calculation or expectation of return. And by receiving such support, one develops into the kind of person who can and wants to be just this sort of friend.

What kind of education of affections and inclinations is required to sustain these goods and practices of virtues of acknowledging dependence? To remember the body and its meaning for our lives and relationships, it is necessary to cultivate the moral imagination. One must learn to see himself in the dependent child, the disabled, and the elderly to remember his origins and his future. And to feel gratitude to those who have in the past and will in the future sustain his life and thriving. He must learn to see in those who need aid the people who provide the opportunity for him to become a friend through the practice of uncalculated and unconditional giving. These others become the occasion for the practice of generosity, hospitality, misericordia, humility, openness to the unbidden, solidarity, honesty, and respect for dignity.

Alongside these virtues and goods, an additional corrective to the idea of expressive individualism are practices that draw one’s gaze from inside toward the outside. These are practices that take one outside of oneself, and that reveal the reality of interdependence and relationality of life as humanly lived. The paradigm for such a practice, which becomes directly relevant to the discussions that follow about public bioethics, is parenthood. Sandel describes parenthood as a “school of humility,” in which we ideally accept children as gifts rather than products of rational control and place their needs and futures above our own. The lived reality of dependence, relationality, and intersubjectivity comes into sharpest relief between parents and children. Becoming a parent makes it (sometimes painfully) clear that one’s good is not entirely self-contained to the truth and goals found solely by interrogating one’s inner depths.

The shift from an expressive individualist anthropology to one of embodiment owing to parenthood can occasionally be seen in popular culture. At the conclusion of his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s protagonist leaves his family to join the aliens on their spacecraft to pursue his lifelong dream and obsession. In a documentary on the making of the film, Spielberg observed that he wrote this ending before he became a parent and “would never have made Close Encounters the way I made it in ’77, because I have a family that I would never leave.”

The radical reorientation of one’s perspective as a parent is not limited to drawing his gaze outward only to his children, but it transforms how we view all other people, within the paradigm of parent and child. In the American sitcom “The Office,” the lead character Pam Beesley captures this in her account of how she now views the creepy and villainous bondage slave known as The Gimpin Quentin Tarantinos dark but comic film Pulp Fiction: I used to watch Pulp Fiction and laugh, and now I’m like, that poor gimp is somebody’s child!”

Other practices that can shift the inward gaze outward include participation in what Robert Bellah described as “communities of memory”—associations with their own stories and traditions that “can allow us to connect our aspirations for ourselves and those closest to us with the aspirations of a large whole and see our own efforts as being in part, contributions to the common good.”

When Taylor, MacIntyre, Sandel, Bellah, and others focused their critique of expressive individualism, primarily on the domains of academic philosophy and the social practices of modern Western culture, they did not focus on the institutions of the law. But as my book What It Means to Be Human illustrates, expressive individualism is manifest there as well. Legal icon and Dean of Harvard Law School Roscoe Pound (1916–1936) noted in his magisterial work The Spirit of the Common Law that American law is deeply animated by a conception of personhood akin to that identified by Sandel, Taylor, and others.

Indeed, Pound described American law as “characterized by an extreme individualism,” such that “the isolated individual is the center of many of its most significant legal doctrines,” and features “an uncompromising insistence upon individual interests and individual property as the focal point of jurisprudence.” Pound sketched out a multilayered account of how this came to be, including the influences of eighteenth century political theories, Puritanism, and other factors. Harvard law professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon likewise observed (and critiqued) the individualism at the heart of much of American law which embraces as paradigmatic the “free, self-determining, and self-sufficient individual.”

Insights from this essay about expressive individualism and the anthropological “corrective” of recalling our embodiment and its meaning anchor the analysis of three “vital conflicts” of American public bioethics—the vexed legal and policy disputes over abortion, assisted reproduction, and end-of-life matters in What It Means to Be Human. Expressive individualism is the underwriting anthropology of all of these domains. Because this account of human identity and flourishing omits the lived reality of human embodiment, with all the consequent gifts and challenges of dependence, vulnerability, and natural limits, it is not a suitable normative foundation for the law and policy in this field.

It cannot make sense of or respond justly or humanely to those lives that are characterized by radical dependence, and who are historically the victims of exploitation and abuse, such as the victims identified by Beecher, the sharecroppers of Tuskegee, or the just-aborted newborns discussed in the Kennedy hearings. What is needed is a new vision and framework. In my book What It Means to Be Human I explore how the virtues of acknowledged dependence might be integrated into the habits of thought and even the laws and policies of American public bioethics.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Excerpted and slightly modified from WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN: THE CASE FOR THE BODY IN PUBLIC BIOETHICS by O. Carter Snead, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Stanisław Wyspiański, Self-Portrait, 1894; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


O. Carter Snead

O. Carter Snead is Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, Professor of Law, and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the principal bioethics advisory body to Pope Francis, and the author of What It Means to Be Human.

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