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.
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