Desi Talk – that’s all you need to know 27 LIFESTYLE January 8, 2021 Ending (And Creating) A Life: It’s Not All About You N otre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead argues that American pub- lic bioethics is based on an impov- erished conception of - to quote the title of his new book - “What It Means to Be Human.” I talked with him about his proposal to place bioethics on a new foundation and what implications it has for everything from the national co- vid-19 response to assisted reproduction. RP: You say that a lot of our thinking about issues such as end-of-life care and embryo research is based on the template of the choosing individual who is engaged in a project of self-creation and self-actu- alization. You say that this image wrongly ignores important features of the human condition: our relationships with others, and the fact that we are bodies, not just wills. That sounds a little abstract. How do those blind spots play out in American life? Snead: I looked at the vital conflicts of public bioethics - the law and policy over abortion, assisted reproduction and end- of-life decision-making - analyzing them inductively and asking what vision is at the root of current policies. It’s a concep- tion of a person as an atomized individual will that finds its authentic and original truths and then configures a life accord- ingly. This philosophy tracks what Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor have called “expressive individualism.” But we are not mere wills, we are not mere minds. The human person is a dy- namic integrated unity of mind and body. When you reduce persons to minds, you miss the key parts of human life that flow inexorably from our embodiment: namely our vulnerability, our mutual dependence and our subjection to natural limits as embodied beings in time. As beings who live and die. As corruptible bodies. If you look at end-of-life decision- making, and you take as your point of departure the individual will whose high- est calling is the free construction of one’s meaning and destiny, you miss entirely the human context that characterizes these decisions. People who have lost their capacities to illness are not seeking to realize their unencumbered will, and it is not appropriate to project onto them the views of their past selves. The person’s vulnerability, dependence and limits are invisible in this view, as are our obliga- tions to that individual. RP: One of the points you make about end-of-life care is that people are gener- ally quite bad at predicting their future desires, especially when confronted by complex and hard-to-predict medical situations. I suppose the folly of basing the law on such flawed predictions is connected to the limitations of expressive individualism in general. Snead: We push people to try to control their future decisions about life-sustaining treatments by memorializing their current preferences. But this misunderstands the reality and needs of that context. When people go to the doctor, they are not seeking to define themselves and assert their unencumbered wills. They are instead going to ask someone to take care of them. It’s a profound relationship of vulnerability. My goal in this book is not to settle the policy questions such relation- ships raise but to dislodge the philosophy that we now use to settle them. RP: Your chapter on assisted reproduc- tion, similarly, does not have a policy agenda. It instead targets the assumption behind our mostly laissez-faire policies on it: that we don’t need to worry about any harms done to the lives it creates, because they wouldn’t have existed in the first place without it. That just intuitively feels wrong. Snead: The late John Robertson, one of the most influential thinkers behind the creation of the law of assisted reproduc- tion, held that we can’t concern ourselves with the harms that might befall some of the people created through, for example, cloning. It wouldn’t matter, either, if there were increases in birth defects or autism or prematurity due to multiple gestations after a woman has received a particular kind of fertility treatment. Robertson argues that these harms are not cogni- zable injuries that should lead us to limit the freedom of parents to choose those techniques. The technique is a benefit, not an injury, to the child who would not otherwise exist. But the law isn’t merely a wooden philosophical exercise, it’s a human enterprise to serve human beings. The most important purpose of the law of as- sisted reproduction should be to protect the children who are born using it, which may require regulating or even prohibiting some interventions. RP: You make a strong case that these disparate areas of the law show a basic consistency in philosophical assumptions. I wonder if you see expressive individual- ism as having affected our response to covid-19. Snead: If you want to create wise, just and humane policies and laws for a com- munity and a nation of embodied beings, you have to recognize that the most essen- tial thing is what Alasdair MacIntyre has called networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving, composed of persons who are willing to make the goods of others their own goods without any expectation of getting anything in return. The purest form of this ethic is the parent- child relationship. The child can expect to be taken care of not because she has done something to earn the right to be cared for but just because she is the child of these parents. We have to participate in and shore up these networks not just because they pro- vide for our survival and our flourishing. They also teach us what we are supposed to become: the kind of people who can make others’ goods our own. By virtue of our embodiment we are made for love and friendship. That’s the lens through which I look at covid. What I end up with is something like a preferential option for the weak and vulnerable. We are most fully human when we are taking care of each other. You wear a mask because you want to take care of other people; you don’t bristle at the intrusion on your autonomy. In terms of allocating the vaccine, it means giving it to the weakest and most vulnerable and those who take care of them. RP: While, as you say, you do not go into policy prescriptions in any detail, the up- shot of your argument does not seem like one that either Republicans or Democrats would be fully comfortable with. Snead: I would say both of our major political parties, and the principal ideolo- gies that undergird those parties, embrace a kind of individualism, whether it is lifestyle individualism or commercial indi- vidualism. On the left, people will react adversely to the idea that the relationship of a mother and a child in the womb is not a relationship of strangers fighting over scarce resources. On the right, people will bridle at the idea that this relation- ship should focus us on our obligations to mothers and children more generally. You can certainly make an argument for private ordering as the principal method of nurturing these networks. People on the right might find that attractive. You can also make the case that there are people - migrants, the poor and others - to whom we have obligations that require collective action. Progressives might have that impulse. People are going to raise objections based on their own commit- ments and affinities, but there also may be room for compromise and common ground as well. Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News. -Bloomberg By Ramesh Ponnuru By Noah Smith America Is Pumping Out Too Many Ph.D.s P h.D. programs in the U.S. are in for some big changes. Humanities and social science fields probably produce too many Ph.D.s and will need to cut back. But a big expansion of government- funded research could prevent a similar fate from befall- ing STEM Ph.D.s. The overproduction of Ph.D.s has been an issue for years in the U.S., which has a higher rate of doctorate holders than almost any other rich country. That by itself isn’t a bad thing; it’s generally good to have a more educated populace, and U.S. research- ers help keep the country’s knowledge industries at the forefront of the global economy. Ph.D.s contribute sub- stantially to the university system, providing a source of cheap, highly skilled labor for both research and under- graduate education. But the problem starts when the Ph.D. students collect their degrees and go out into the world. The academic jobs they’re accustomed to pursuing have been drying up. The end of the big 20th-century university building boom was the first death knell for this pipeline. Since many pro- fessor jobs are tenured, there just aren’t many open spots for young scholars unless the country is building more universities - which it no longer is. Do a quick Google search for trends in any academic field - history, anthro- pology, English - and you’re likely to find scary numbers showing a decline in tenure-track faculty openings. Another reason for the job shortage is that colleges, under immense pressure to cut costs, have been shifting away from tenured faculty toward lower-paid lecturers and adjuncts. That pressure has been exacerbated as undergraduate enrollment has flatlined. This condemns many would-be scholars to a bleak ex- istence of low-wage, contingent work. Like waiters hang- ing around Hollywood hoping for their big break, many stick around year after year, forgoing health insurance or living in shabby apartments while their qualifications for jobs outside academia decay. But even as that coveted professor life drifted further out of reach, the country kept producing more Ph.D.s: And, of course, this was all pre-covid-19. The pandem- ic has dealt a grievous blow to higher education, keeping students home and causing some to question whether they’re getting value for money at their schools. One obvious solution is that Ph.D.s need to forsake the unrealistic academic dream and go into the private sector. And that’s a sensible course. The problem is that students’ main career advisers are also their doctoral the- sis advisers, who are themselves academics and therefore tend to know only the academic route. Even more fundamentally, many doctorates are simply not worth it in purely private-sector terms. A history Ph.D. can go into a corporate personnel department or marketing or consulting or launch their own startup or do a million other things - but it’s highly questionable whether they’ll do much better than they would have if they’d just taken a job straight out of college or acquired a master’s degree. So while computer science or statistics Ph.D.s can probably hop up a few rungs on the corporate ladder as a result of their degrees, and engineering and biology Ph.D.s can go get a job in a private lab, doctorate holders in the humanities and social sciences are often going to be underemployed. That’s a recipe for societal dysfunction. Many histori- ans have advanced some version of the thesis that dashed expectations among elites can lead to social unrest. Most recently, historian Peter Turchin has warned that over- production of elites is a harbinger of discord in modern America. There’s evidence that Ph.D. school, never a particularly fun experience, is becoming increasingly stressful thanks to growing worry about careers. A handful of angry, downwardly mobile English Ph.D.s aren’t by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contri- butions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined. Remember, these are very smart people who are very good at writing things, and well-schooled in any number of dissident ideas. Those are the kind of people who tend University of Notre Dame Professor O. Carter Snead is one of the world’s leading experts on public bioethics – the governance of science, medicine, and biotechnology in the name of ethical goods. - Continued On Page 29