Snead on Dependence and Dignity
A video interview with O. Carter Snead, author of What it Means to Be Human
Yesterday, I asked what you’d like to see from a bigger Other Feminisms in its second year. Today, we have a glimpse of a possible future, one where I do regular interviews with guests.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of interviewing O. Carter Snead, the author of What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. It was part of a nascent pitch (whose sponsor had to shift priorities) called The Worthy Life Project, which you’ll hear me reference in the video.
While the idea was percolating, I got to conduct interviews with several thinkers I admire, and Snead’s is the most relevant to the project of Other Feminisms, so I’m very glad to share it with you. His book is technically a book about the law, but it examines how the law reflects our assumptions about what lives are worth living, and whether our neediness can ever strip us of our dignity and just demands on others. (No.)
Here’s one of our exchanges. I’ve put together a lightly (emphasis on lightly) cleaned up transcript you can look at here. I’ve edited a little more thoroughly for the excerpt below. You can also download the audio of our discussion here.
A child is where people are most likely to come up against a lovable dependence, a natural dependence. And yet, that hasn't been enough to jar us out of [a fear of dependence], even though everyone has been a baby.
In your book, you put an emphasis on the dignity of the unchosen—we don't choose our bodies and their particular foibles. Despite everyone's best attempts through [genetic screening] you can't actually choose your child; the people who offer to screen for personality are lying to you.
But parenthood itself is framed in our culture now as something that should be an active choice, with abortion lurking as the way to un-choose a child.
And I find it so striking in the book itself that you argue that not only the mother and the father, but the whole community surrounding the parents, are bound together by the unchosen presence of a child. In many debates about abortion, the humanity of the child is written off because of what the baby can't do. The baby before and after birth is dependent: can't feed himself, can't get where he needs to go, can't express himself.
You defend the child's dependence. But you also want to talk about the mother, you say that she's like her child in her need and dependence rather than arguing that the child has dignity because he resembles his presumably autonomous mother. And the passage that stood out to me in your book was
Law and policy, animated by an anthropology of embodiment would view the mother as a vulnerable, dependent member of society, who is entitled to the protections and support of the network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving that must exist for any human being to survive and flourish.
Usually, when we do what you're doing here, analogizing someone to the dependent state of a baby, it's called infantilizing, and it's an insult. So how do you work against this assumption when you make this argument?
O. Carter Snead:
The attentive reader will notice that the mother is not unique in her entitlement to the network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving, nor in her vulnerability, nor her dependence.
The book argues that every single human being, by virtue of their embodiment, is dependent and vulnerable. We’re in need of care and concern and subject to claims of other people who are in need of care and concern because it is, in fact, a network.
I can understand someone saying, “How dare you say that a woman is vulnerable and needs help? All she needs is an abortion.”
Justice Ginsburg's reasoning is that that abortion is a mechanism of liberation. For women to pursue a life that is identical in its participation in the civic and economic life of the country, a woman needs to be able to do what a man does. In terms of sexual expression, sexual behavior, she needs to be free to participate as he does.
And the only way you can do that in a world where, by virtue of natural endowments, she gets pregnant, and he doesn't, is for her to have to have recourse to abortion. […] Abortion is the most kind of dramatic example where we licensed the freedom of a woman by authorizing lethal violence.
We could have a whole separate discussion about the the form of feminism that helps women by helping them catch up to be more like men. […] If we take the least dependent person as our legal norm of a person, is everything else all about catching people up to that level of non-dependence, or is it about accommodating them as equal citizens where they are.
O. Carter Snead:
Now that's very nicely said. And it's a very potent feminist critique that observes that what we're doing in Justice Ginsburg's approach is valorizing male behavior and making that the standard. Here, women are valuable to the extent that they can be like men. A lot of very powerful feminist critique is no, that doesn't respect what women are as women, it simply tries to absorb women into the masculine standard.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the conversation with Snead, as well as what you got our of this format of post rather than our usual essays + reader roundups.
Interviews aren’t very doable for me for the present—it takes at least twice as long to clean up a transcript as to do the original interview, and I didn’t make any effort to learn editing software to clean up the audio or the video. Still, this is something I wish were more doable, since I love having the leaven of another voice (and the excuse to email people I admire or am fruitfully confused by to ask for an hour of their time).
Excellent interview and discussion! I am especially moved by your powerful statement: “If we take the least dependent person as our legal norm of a person, is everything else all about catching people up to that level of non-dependence, or is it about accommodating them as equal citizens where they are.”
What is behind our seemingly universal human desire to avoid dependence? Is it a fear of not being accepted or being deemed less worthy (less human)? Or maybe that we just don’t trust that others will be there if we are too much of a burden. Sadly, there is ample evidence of truth behind both of these fears.
I like how you made an effort to keep bringing the conversation back to how we in our present lives can intentionally encounter those in need, especially for people like me--childless, in my 20s, and in an environment where I rarely have to encounter someone in profound physical need. That's definitely something I reflect on.
I find myself having arguments with friends of mine who are very dedicated to the idea of an expansive welfare state, but who also basically believe that private charities shouldn't exist and that they shouldn't have to do anything personal to help those in need. In their minds, they want to pay higher taxes and in exchange be absolved of any responsibility towards, say, helping the homeless. And I've got to admit that I don't have a response that feels wholly satisfying--I usually respond by advocating for skepticism that concentrating that amount of power and responsibility in one entity is really a good idea at all. But there's an implicit argument on their part that goes something like this: to be a good citizen, all I need to do is pay my taxes and vote for the best candidates. I'm curious how other readers would respond to this definition of the citizen, and how best to advocate for a different model.
I'm also reminded, in a way, of our left-leaning politicians' particularly American way of trying to make the public believe that we can have a European-style welfare state without a European-style VAT. An example is Biden's promise that everything in the BBB Act be paid for without tax increases on those making under $400,000. What's left unsaid is that most of the big-ticket programs in the act are only funded partially by the feds, funded only for the first few years, or scheduled to phase in at the end of the budget period. In reality, keeping these programs permanently will require all of us to pay higher taxes, and if they are worth it, we must acknowledge that it's okay for all of us to have a little bit less so that we can pay for them. Just as we can't reasonably expect the government to be the only resource in caring for the poor, we also can't expect the ultrarich to be the only source of our safety net. In both cases, everyone has to do the work of caring for each other with our resources.