“Expressive Individualism”: How a shallow view of the self underlies arguments for abortion

By Paul Stark, Communications Director, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life

Editor’s note. This appeared in the February edition of National Right to Life News. Please share with all your pro-life family and friends. Also send any comments to daveandrusko@gmail.com.

“Expressive individualism,” writes Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead, is “the conception of human identity and human flourishing” that “[anchors] the American law of abortion.”

That term, coined by sociologist Robert Bellah, is probably unfamiliar to most people. But the ideas it represents are everywhere. Expressive individualism defines the human self by her inner psychology and her will—her ability to choose in accordance with her own desires and plans. And her flourishing (i.e., what’s good and right for her) consists in uncovering those desires and manifesting them in the world. This view tells us, as a popular expression puts it, “You do you.”

In his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, historian Carl Trueman traces the centuries-long development of this way of thinking about the self. Snead, in his own recent book, What It Means to Be Human, critiques the idea and ties it to public policies and court decisions governing abortion and other issues in bioethics.

There is truth to expressive individualism. Values like autonomy, authenticity, and self-expression are important. But this view misses out on much of, as Snead says, “what it means to be human,” and the consequences can be disastrous. Indeed, many of the arguments for abortion, in one way or another, seem to reflect the influence of expressive individualism. They elevate choice over the rights of the vulnerable, they dismiss our responsibilities to those who need us, and they dehumanize human beings who can’t yet express themselves.

Seeing this connection can help us understand the mindset of those who defend abortion—and how their arguments go wrong. 

Autonomy arguments

Consider, first, arguments that appeal to autonomy. Autonomy is at the core of the expressive individualist ethic, and it’s easy to spot in the rhetoric surrounding abortion. Defenders of abortion invoke the “right to choose” and “reproductive freedom.” They affirm moral agency and self-determination. They tout the freedom of a woman to chart the course of her own life. 

Autonomy is a real ethical principle. But it can’t work on its own as a rationale for abortion. After all, we have a “right to choose” to do lots of things, but not everything. We don’t have a right to harm innocent people, for instance. If that’s what abortion does, then autonomy doesn’t justify abortion. We should have the freedom to determine many facets of our life’s journey, but not the freedom to have others killed so that we get what we want.

Expressive individualism, though, often treats autonomy as an end in itself. The mere fact that we choose something makes the choice good. Willie Parker, a prolific practitioner and advocate of abortion, calls the act of choosing “sacred.” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says abortion should be permitted because “we are all endowed with a free will.”

Yet no one consistently subscribes to this understanding of autonomy. The ability to choose an action doesn’t entail that we should choose that action (or that it should be permitted by law). Free will doesn’t mean that every choice we make is right or just. Some choices obviously aren’t. In fact, this view of autonomy gets it backwards. An action isn’t good because we choose it; we choose it because we think it’s good, valuable, or worthwhile.

Some people push unbridled autonomy even further. In a landmark 1992 abortion case, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior holding that the Constitution’s protection of “liberty” requires states to allow the killing of unborn humans. Why think that? “At the heart of liberty,” the Court explained in a widely quoted passage, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Carl Trueman calls the Court’s argument “a concise articulation of … expressive individualism.” Similar claims can be found elsewhere in the abortion debate. Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, says the lives of her children began “when I delivered them” because “that’s my own personal decision.” Étienne-Émile Baulieu, the French doctor who developed the mifepristone abortion drug, puts it this way: “It is up to each person to define whether there is, or is not, a person developing in the uterus. The definition … may change for each pregnancy.”

This is the idea that reality is whatever we decide it is. Again, though, no one can really buy into it. “Serial killers and child molesters still (thankfully) do not have the right to ‘define their own concept of existence,’” quips Trueman. Feminist scholar Sidney Callahan notes that, just as unborn children today are “measured by the parent’s attitudes and … defined by the parent’s feelings,” so too throughout history “men have ‘wanted’ women. … The unwanted woman could be cast off when she was no longer a desirable object.”

There’s a reality outside of our own choices, desires, and self-definition. We don’t get to choose that other human beings don’t matter. They matter whether we like it (or “want” them) or not. That, indeed, is what it means for people to bear human rights. Such rights can’t exist in the reality-inventing world of expressive individualism.

No-obligation-to-help arguments

Expressive individualism also influences more sophisticated arguments for abortion. In her well-known bodily autonomy argument, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson contends that a pregnant woman has no obligation to care for her child through gestation—that she has a right to refuse bodily support (via abortion) even though her child will die as a result. As Snead points out, Thomson makes the expressive individualist assumption that we have no obligations to others beyond those we voluntarily choose to accept.

One problem with Thomson’s view is that, even if women have no special obligation to help their unborn children, abortion isn’t a mere withholding of such help. It is intentional killing, often through a brutal process of dismemberment. So if unborn children have human rights (such as the right not to be killed and the right to bodily integrity), then abortion violates them. But another problem is that we do sometimes have obligations to other people who need us—especially those whom we are responsible for bringing into existence. 

Expressive individualism sees each person as an “unencumbered atomized will,” Snead explains. The truth, though, is that we are all subject to bodily limitations—to the limitations of age, disability, disease, and so forth. That makes us vulnerable and helpless during at least some periods of our lives, such as when we’re young and when we’re old. Sometimes we depend entirely on others for our flourishing; sometimes others may depend entirely on us. Human beings, of necessity, form “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving” (as Snead quotes the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre), and so we find ourselves embedded in these networks and assuming obligations to each other, not as a matter of choice but as a matter of relationship. 

Thus parents (not just mothers, but fathers too) have a responsibility to their dependent offspring. And, as a society, we have obligations to pregnant women who too often face difficult and unfair circumstances. Both mother and child deserve protection and support. 

Abortion, observed Mother Teresa, has “pitted mothers against their children” and “sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience.” No human relationship is more intimate or foundational to human flourishing than that between a pregnant woman and her unborn child. 

Expressive individualism treats people like they are on their own, and—even worse—it treats mother and child like competitors. They’re not.

Exclusion arguments

Appeals to autonomy and bodily rights can’t justify abortion. They can’t justify a violation of human rights. Ultimately, the case for abortion depends, instead, on the exclusion of unborn humans from the community of those who have rights to begin with. Unborn children, according to this view, simply don’t count as valuable “persons” who deserve the care of others and protection from lethal violence. And here again we see the influence of expressive individualism—in at least a couple ways.

First, in the area of philosophy concerned with personal identity, many philosophers hold an explicitly psychological understanding of the self. On this account, I am not, strictly speaking, a human being (a human organism)—I am a consciousness or a bundle of mental properties (beliefs, memories, desires, and so forth) that came into existence long after my body (the human organism) came into existence. So I was never a fetus (or maybe even a newborn or a toddler). While abortion certainly kills a human being, it doesn’t kill a being like me.

Here’s how Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, a defender of infanticide as well as abortion, puts it: “I am not the infant from whom I developed. The infant could not look forward to developing into the kind of being that I am …. I cannot even recall being the infant; there are no mental links between us.”

But this view defies both common sense and sound philosophy. “The truth … that you are the same individual living being as the fetus from which you developed,” writes philosopher Christopher Kaczor, “is a matter of observation and scientific data. You now, you at 10 years old, you at 10 days following birth, you 10 days after conception and you at all stages of your life in between stand in bodily continuity.”

Indeed, whatever else we may be, we are bodily beings, and the science of embryology shows that our bodies came to be at fertilization. We were all once embryos and fetuses, just as we were once toddlers and teenagers. We are, in fact, members of the species Homo sapiens. So to kill an unborn human is to kill one of us.

Second, most philosophers who defend abortion, even some who don’t think our psychology defines us, think that psychology is what matters morally. They think that, in order for someone to count as a person or to have rights, she must possess developed capacities for mental functions like sentience, self-awareness, rationality, choice, and self-expression. 

Many ethicists contend, in particular, that what matters is the fulfillment of desires or the satisfaction of preferences. Killing someone, on this view, is only wrong if it thwarts such desires—if it deprives the victim of a life that she values. Since unborn children lack the cognitive functions necessary to have desires or to pursue their own life plans, killing them isn’t wrong. 

“Only those currently capable of thriving when viewed through the lens of expressive individualism are persons,” explains Snead, describing the view at hand. “Those, like the human fetus, without such capacities do not qualify as a person.”

This approach faces all sorts of problems. Its standard for personhood excludes more humans than just unborn ones—it may also exclude newborns, people with severe cognitive disabilities, patients with advanced dementia, and others who are powerless and vulnerable. That’s why a number of leading pro-choice ethicists have no meaningful objection to infanticide.

“The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus,” conclude Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

The argument also demolishes the concept of equal rights. After all, the relevant psychological traits vary in degree from person to person; some people have more, and some people have less. Some of us take a greater “interest” in living—and thus have a stronger right to life—than others. If expressive individualism is true, then equality is just a fiction. “It is hard to avoid the sense that our egalitarian commitments rest on distressingly insecure foundations,” acknowledges moral philosopher Jeff McMahan, a defender of abortion.

The underlying problem, though, is that this is too shallow and incomplete a view of human flourishing. Mental properties aren’t all that matters, and thwarting desires isn’t the only thing that can make killing someone wrong. Indeed, people can be harmed even when they don’t psychologically experience the harm. The exploitation and abuse of a man with Alzheimer’s, for example, harms and wrongs him whether or not he ever realizes it. He has a right not to be exploited or abused even if he currently lacks the ability to form desires.

So, too, do children in the womb have a right not to be killed. The most fundamental harm of killing someone isn’t the thwarting of preferences. The most fundamental harm of killing someone is depriving her of the good that is her life as a human being. To kill someone is to attack and destroy her body and take her life.

That’s what abortion does, and that’s why it’s unjust. 

A better understanding of the self

Expressive individualism—with its inward focus on individual psychology and autonomy—simply misses this. It dehumanizes and neglects vulnerable human beings, allowing the self-interest and wishes of the strong to trump the rights and needs of the weak. That, in essence, is the “pro-choice” position.

A better understanding of the self, by contrast, is what Snead calls “an anthropology of embodiment.” It recognizes that we are embodied human beings, that we depend on each other, and that every single one of us matters. We have rights not because of our cognitive abilities, or our independence, or the desires and decisions of others, but rather simply because we are human.

“An anthropology of embodiment,” concludes Snead, “does not reward the powerful with greater legal protection and withhold the benefits of the law from the weak. … [It] would follow Hans Jonas’s injunction that ‘utter helplessness demands utter protection.’”