Is human dignity a stupid idea?

Steven PinkerIn the minds of most people, human dignity must surely be a cornerstone of bioethics. But as BioEdge has often pointed out, most bioethicists feel differently about it. In fact, low-intensity academic warfare is sputtering along over a 2003 proposal by bioethicist Ruth Macklin that "human dignity" (scare quotes de rigeur) should be junked. It is either too vague to be meaningful or it simply restates other notions, such as respect for autonomy or capacity for rational thought.

The controversy provoked the President’s Council for Bioethics to respond with a fat book of essays which, for the most part, defend the disputed notion. And this in turn has provoked Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, to rebut it in the most influential opinion journal in the US, The New Republic, under the inflammatory headline, "The Stupidity of Dignity". Since Pinker is one of America’s top public intellectuals, his argument is worth reporting.

Surprisingly, most of it is ad hominem. He attacks the Council as a body stacked with Catholic "theocons" and led by a conservative Jew, Leon Kass, whom he calls pro-death and anti-freedom. He objects strongly to Kass’s distaste for licking ice cream cones on the street. But eventually he grapples with "human dignity" itself. He criticises it for being relative (some people find public consumption of ice cream dignified), fungible (colonoscopies are undignified and we willing endure them), and harmful (think of Saddam Hussein’s highly dignified military parades). An insistence on human dignity will eventually put us all at risk of being arrested by "the ice cream police", Pinker argues. What most people call dignity is simply respect for autonomy and respect for persons, and nothing more.

"Theocon bioethics" also rejects developments in modern science and medicine, including longevity, improved health, embryonic stem cell and IVF, according to Pinker. It "does not want medical practice to maximise health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing."

No doubt there is a personal element in this dust-up. This is not the first clash between the two scholars. Writing in the journal Commentary last year, Kass's defence of a non-materialist account of human nature against the Harvard academic was rather acerbic: "One hardly knows which is the more impressive, the height of Pinker’s arrogance or the depth of his shallowness... he does not understand that the empowering organization of materials -- the vital form -- is not itself material." But Pinker, being no philosopher, still fails to grasp Kass’s interpretation of human dignity. He thinks it has a lot to do with ice cream cones, even though Kass explicitly founds it upon man’s capacity for "reason, freedom, judgment, and moral concern".

In any case, if the Council wanted to spark a debate, it has succeeded. The book was debated at Stanford Law School a few days ago. Dr Hank Greely, a prominent law professor there and an expert in biotech, expressed his own scepticism. "I don’t see why the human species as a whole is inherently entitled to dignity," he told students.

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