Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

In response to Stephen Pinker’s essay bemoaning the vacuity of “dignity” as a concept in bioethics, let’s highlight some critical responses from other thinkers: Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, and Alan Jacobs.

Let’s accept every single one of their criticisms about Pinker’s tone, his paranoia, and his obviously less than impartial personal opinions about people like Leon Kass. Nevertheless, Pinker does very clearly and very directly raise a lot of serious, and possibly fundamental, problems with the concept of “dignity” in bioethics. And none of these writers seem interested in responding to that particular challenge. Which is too bad, because that’s really the only interesting part of the whole debate in the first place.

As one commenter said:

I’m not convinced Pinker has all the answers, but he seems to be taking the dignity argument more seriously than Jacobs, Douthat, or Levin. I tend to expect better of all three of those names. If Pinker was only 20% substance, that’s a higher percentage than any of the rest of us have achieved today.

Just to be a little provocative myself, let me say that I suspect the high regard that conservative scholars have for “dignity” lies in the fact that it, unlike the concepts of liberty and personal autonomy mediated by due process which have served us quite well so far, “dignity” is malleable enough that it allows the otherwise absurd idea that a random citizen sitting on their front porch is violating their own dignity by behaving in a way those scholars find distasteful (like licking an ice cream cone, or holding the hand of their gay lover). This also alleviates the often distressing inability to directly justify their dislikes as being immoral or harmful in any sensible, non-theological fashion.

“Dignity” also has the amazing power to declare morally important actions and objects that have no “personal” capacity in and of themselves: such as nerveless, intention-less cells that happen to have certain proteins active (i.e. fertilized eggs), but lack any objective capacity that anyone can tie to an ethical interest. If you can’t explain why breaking apart an embryo is morally wrong in any sensibly direct fashion, well then you can always argue that doing so is a sort of bitter voodoo-doll assault on humanity’s dignity, by proxy!

As is often the case, I’m being a little glib here myself. But I don’t think I’m entirely without merit either. It’s true that personal autonomy has it’s own gray areas and problems, but it at least makes sense on some concrete level, especially as a principle value in a diverse and contentious society, and that provides a far more promising foundation than a concept that seems to mean everything and nothing. Furthermore, many of its problems can be redressed far more easily than the critics I referenced above allow. Even under a personal autonomy framework, we can, for instance, still understand why respecting the wishes of someone when they are not actively awake or unconscious would be important.

In that spirit, here’s a much more intriguing and substantive response to the Pinker article, from another writer at the American Scene, Noah Millman.

5 Responses to Fail? Critics Respond to Pinker’s Essay on “Dignity” as Ethically Worthless

  1. William says:

    If you have the time, I’d recommend the essay by Patrick Lee and Robert George, or at least the first few paragraphs, from the collection that Pinker reviewed:

    There is a stronger definition of human dignity that avoids a number of Pinker’s objections:

    “The dignity of a person is that whereby a person excels other beings, especially other animals, and merits respect or consideration from other persons. We will argue that what distinguishes human beings from other animals, what makes human beings persons rather than things , is their rational nature. Human beings are rational creatures by virtue of possessing natural capacities for conceptual thought, deliberation, and free choice, that is, the natural capacity to shape their own lives.

    “These basic, natural capacities to reason and make free choices are possessed by every human being, even those who cannot immediately exercise them. One’s existence as a person thus derives from the kind of substantial entity one is, a human being—and this is the ground for dignity in the most important sense. Because personhood is based on the kind of being one is—a substantial entity whose nature is a rational nature—one cannot lose one’s fundamental personal dignity as long as one exists as a human being.

    “There are other senses of the word ‘dignity.’ First, there is a type of dignity that varies in degree, which is the manifestation or actualization of those capacities that distinguish humans from other animals. Thus, slipping on a banana peel (being reduced for a moment to a passive object), or losing one’s independence and privacy (especially as regards our basic bodily functions), detract from our dignity in this sense. However, while this dignity seems to be compromised in certain situations, it is never completely lost. Moreover, this dignity, which varies in degree, is distinct from the more basic dignity that derives from simply being a person.”

    And there’s much more. Sure, it’s a little bit convoluted, and perhaps imprecise. Furthermore, I have no idea how you can make this argument without some sort of theological foundation, but it rules out a number of Pinker’s examples: the man getting out of a small car, the dignity of the dictator, and even the weird Leon-Kass-versus-ice-cream argument.

    Now, I think I’m actually with Millman on this one. In the United States, like it or not, autonomy is our base-line concept, and it serves us pretty well. The concept of “human dignity” needs to undergo this sort of scrutiny if it is ever going to be helpful.

  2. Bad says:

    one cannot lose one’s fundamental personal dignity as long as one exists as a human being.

    This is the sort of problem we face though: if the above is so, then what’s the use of dignity as a concept in ethics? If it cannot be threatened, so why would it need to be defended? The next senses of dignity, that can be threatened, work out to be little more than a sense of pride in a particular cultural context. And it makes little sense in any case to roll many different meanings of a word into one. What we’re after is a coherent concept, not a list of definitions all shoehorned into a different meanings of a single word.

    The real aim this particular essay is, in any case, to figure out what beings are due what sorts of moral status. And that’s a worthy and important aim. But I’m not sure how “dignity” helps illuminate any of this, because especially as they derive it, it’s a secondary smorgasboard word, not the matter itself. What makes human lives worth protecting in various manners? They have an answer that’s perfectly reasonable, though probably the only reasonable capacity to list: conceptual rationality.

    But their argument on the whole then immediately goes on to suffer rather severely from something I find to be a huge problem in moral arguments in general: the idea that merely stating some result as being “untenable” because they assume readers won’t like the result is a worthwhile means of moral argument. But that’s nonsense. The whole point of moral philosophy is to make the specific case as to why this or that is incorrect, not simply appeal to people’s habits and moral prejudices. 200 years ago, moral philosophers could have argued that this or that philosophy was absurd because it would lead to the conclusion that slaves deserved full rights and citizenship. But merely appealing to people’s dislike for some conclusion is not the same thing as making a coherent moral argument. If we wanted to merely appeal to fleeting prejudice, or to whatever this or that random person decides is “too high a price to pay” based on some itself unexplained and unjustified judgment, then we wouldn’t have need of moral philosophy at all: everyone could simply take their intuitions and run with it as they please.

    Just to give an example, it might well seem weird that, say, Singer’s philosophy says that a rat with a toothache is due more consideration than a child with a slightly less painful toothache. But merely putting that out there and hoping people find it weird is an exercise in laziness, not an argument. I think there are probably some very good reasons why even Singer would disagree that the rat takes precedence. But when your job is to be a moral philosopher, it’s simply depressing to spend your time running away from your duties to explain the content of your disagreements.

    Now of course, I don’t really have much interest in defending Singer’s particular take on things (aside from the fact that I think most condemnations of his thinking are lazy tilts at straw men), when I can get more worked up arguing for things on my own behalf directly.

    And so I have to say that their definition of what does and does not have dignity becomes hopelessly confused. They start arguing that we respect people not because of any particular attributes, but because they have dignity. But how to do we know what has dignity and what does not? Oh, yeah, right: a particular set of attributes (in their case, rationality, but defined so broadly that we might as well conclude everything MIGHT be rational, since who knows: it might be on one long journey towards conceptual rationality, who is to say?)

    Their subsequent discussion of “free choice” is as pathetic and meaningless as most such attempts: it spends all of its time dancing around the complete failure to reconcile the claim that past states do not determine choices with any sort of functional description of how choices could be made at all in the first place: with or without causal warrant. It’s a pointless exercise in any case, since things like rational and conceptual powers are good enough to do the work of separating humans from animals.

    Or, at least, they were until the authors completely toss those ideas aside in a mad dash to include embryos. I mean look at this, it’s just embarrassing:

    Since human beings are intrinsically valuable as subjects of rights at all times that they exist—that is, they do not come to be at one point, and acquire moral worth or value as a subject of rights only at some later time—it follows that human embryos and fetuses are subjects of rights, deserving full moral respect from individuals and from the political community.

    What? The game in the above paragraph is merely an exceedingly sloppy definition of “human being.” They’ve spent most of the essay arguing that something called a “human being” is set apart from other creatures because of certain things, and now they want to insist that things that clearly DO NOT have any of those certain things are nevertheless human beings all the same (I suppose because they are now prepared to merely equivocate over into another sense of “human being” defined differently, by mere possession of particular DNA, or something for which we have future expectations about): thus completely undermining everything they’ve said.

    You can’t magic up a unity that tries to distinguish a pig from a person but then ignores the difference between an embryo and a person. Nothing, aside from DNA, about the particular sort of being an embryo is, is more like the particular sort of being a person is than a pig is. The fact that a embryo can become a person is as irrelevant as the fact that we could potentially one day make a pig as smart as a person (and give it all the rational capacities we agree are so important). Potential is not actuality. We don’t give toddlers the right to drive in the present just because they will one day be up to it.

  3. William says:

    You’ve given me a lot to think about; I’m going to try to work some of it out here.

    I think that there are actually two ways to “magic up a unity,” so to speak. First, one might believe that human beings are some sort of special creation. Second, one might believe that humans possess a special, almost mystical substance capable of “knowing essences,” and that all other creatures lack this substance.

    But that’s just the thing: arguments about human dignity cannot avoid resting on either certain kinds of theology or Aristotelian philosophy, both of which are “foreign” to the American public square. (Is essentialism the right word? I don’t know.) So if you’re a theologian or an Aristotelian philosopher, the George article works, because you already believe that the unity can be magicked. If you’re not, then the article is nonsense. I’m certainly not competent to carry out the philosophical argument, and I’m not sure which side I prefer.

    What the Council is trying to do is develop a concept of dignity that doesn’t require theology or Aristotle, but we’ve seen that they run into terrible difficulty: like you said, it gets hopelessly confused. And so, ultimately, autonomy is easier to work with: it’s clear, it’s much closer to neutral, and, because it is based on conceptual rationality, it could render dignity superfluous. That was the real point of “The Stupidity of Dignity.” Though I still think Pinker did a poor job of representing his opponents’ arguments, his own position is a strong one, for the reasons you’ve highlighted.

  4. Bad says:

    First, one might believe that human beings are some sort of special creation. Second, one might believe that humans possess a special, almost mystical substance capable of “knowing essences,” and that all other creatures lack this substance.

    The problem with both is, of course, that they are non-empirical and hypothetical. We can likewise hypothesize just about anything to come to any conclusion we want, for instance imagining that rocks secretly have important conscious wills that we should respect by not mining. Once we move into this territory we’ve pretty much given up the philosophical profession.

  5. William says:

    If I wanted to argue with that, I’d have to defend the value of non-empirical, hypothetical knowledge, and don’t think I’m the man for the job.

    I’ll keep an eye on this blog for a while, to watch for further developments. Have a good one.

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