More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

That Steven Pinker article “The Stupidity of Dignity” is now out in published form, and continues to be a source of controversy. For those who detest Pinker’s tone, Russell Blackford has his own, similar, take to the concept of dignity that he penned a few years ago in response to Francis Fukuyama.

A recent commenter suggested I give my own thoughts on one of the Bioethics Council’s “dignity” essays, and I figured I’d expand my comment into a fuller review. The essay/chapter in question is Patrick Lee and Robert P. George’s “The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity.” And they start off with a definition of dignity that I find problematic right off the bat:

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

If the above claim is true, then what’s the use of dignity as a concept in ethics? It cannot be threatened (other than by death), so why would it need to be defended, in practice, at all? And if the indignity of death is what we really care about, there are a lot better ways to show that murder and death are morally bad than to merely assert that they violate someone’s second-order concept of dignity.

The next senses of dignity that they note, those which 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 does make human lives worth protecting in various manners? Why human lives, and not the lives of ants? Why entire human persons, and not the individual cells we are composed of, many of whom are slaughtered en masse with nearly every move we make?

George and Lee have an answer to this question that’s perfectly reasonable as a place to start (though certainly not the only reasonable exceptional human capacity to list): conceptual rationality. So, ok: the fact that human beings have a sort of rationalized concept of themselves and others is indeed important, and it does set us apart from most animals (though there are clearly borderline cases in the animal kingdom: social animals that seem to have self-awareness, that can mourn, that can fall into depression, etc.)

But their argument on the whole then immediately goes on to suffer rather severely from a major pet peeve I have about “on the quick” moral philosophy articles I have in general: the idea that merely stating some result as being “untenable” largely because they assume readers won’t like the result is a worthwhile means of moral argument.

That’s just nonsense. The whole point of doing 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.

It’s true that one concept of the purpose of moral philosophy is to provide some sort of formal justification for moral intuitions we already have. But even that requires delving into the details. And there is an equally important sense in which good moral philosophy needs to challenge and test those intuitions: we know from countless historical and cross-cultural differences that they can contradict, or even go “wrong.” Some moral obligations impose great hardship on people’s comfortable lives, or even their consciences. So it is never enough to appeal to unspoken agreements about what moral conclusion would or would not be generally acceptable.

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 these disagreements.

I don’t, by the way, 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). I can get more worked up arguing for things on my own behalf directly.

And so I then have to say that their definition of what does and does not have dignity quickly becomes hopelessly confused. They start arguing that we respect people not because of any particular attributes they might have, but because they have dignity. But how to do we know what has dignity and what does not? How do we know what to call a person? Oh, yeah, right: because of 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: a rock might be on one long journey towards conceptual rationality that we have no right to frustrate, 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. Choices just get made… somehow. And these choices are somehow “free” of… well, of what exactly? As far as I can tell, amongst the things which they would have to be “free” of is the person’s own existing character and nature. Which makes assigning moral responsibility to the person a bit of a problem, seeing as how the person’s character and nature are the only things that stick around to assign moral responsibility TO.

It’s really a pointless additional 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 important qualities 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.

The trick is accomplished by merely equivocating on the term “human being.” First they carefully define it a way that allows us to carefully describe how and why such a being in particular has moral rights where others do not. But then they immediately switch over into using another sense of “human being” (usually a more common and assumed definition): one that that more expansively includes all sorts of other beings that never fit into the original calculus. Suddenly we are talking about human beings defined by mere possession of a particular sort of DNA. Or perhaps human beings defined as something for which we have future expectations of potential personhood about.

This crafty move completely undermines everything they’ve argued, demonstrating how unseriously they take their own supposedly critical distinctions when it comes to classifying beings and moral rights. To be fair, it’s a very common move, and perhaps one that conservative scholars aren’t even aware they are doing. But it’s essentially a waste of time: substituting creative definitional hyjinks for any sort of first-principles explanation of why abusing or killing an embryo is immoral.

If there really is such a case, it should be possible to make without employing special terminology like “human being” that is so prone to abuse. They should be able to explain, simply, why harming a homo sapien embryo is wrong in and of itself, arguing straight from its own particular set of characteristics rather than just lumping it in under an umbrella term. They should perhaps even be able to do so in a hypothetical world where homo sapien embryos have no relation to adult human persons, and simply must be considered as the sorts of beings they concretely are.

What they can’t do is magic up a unity that tries to distinguish a pig from a person but then ignores all the differences between an embryo and a person, which are of a far greater magnitude. 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.

And being concerned about the dignity of embryos, when unlike any human person they cannot possibly have or have ever had any concern for their own dignity, makes no sense.


8 Responses to More on the Pinker/”Dignity” Bioethics Debate, A Reponse to Patrick Lee and Robert George

  1. This is an excellent analysis – thanks for it. I don’t have a lot to add because I agree with practically all of it. In particular, it’s always a mixture of amusing and annoying to see how such authors want to find that human dignity is somehow grounded in possession of certain properties X or Y (such as Lockean personhood or Kantian autonomy), and THEN argue that human dignity is therefore possessed by entities, such as embryos, that manifestly do NOT possess X or Y.

  2. Bad says:

    As noted, I think there is a strong possibility that most of these philosophers just don’t get how silly that final move is: jumping from looking at specific beings into blanket terms, and then applying those blanket terms wider than was originally justified. Equivocation like that is very easy to fool yourself with, and oddly, much harder to fool other people with, because they immediately sense something is going fishy when particular semantic choices somehow start to make a substantive difference.

  3. Winfried says:

    It makes no sense to claim that the fact that an embryo can and most surely will become a person is irrelevant. Even in everyday life future potential makes a difference right now. I get a better paid job if I can convince my future boss that I have the potential to perform demanding tasks given some additional training, even if I am unable to do them right now. It increases my value on the job market right now.

    And, of course, the hypothetical world where human embryos have no relation to adult human persons does not exist.

  4. Bad says:

    Even in everyday life future potential makes a difference right now.

    You’re confusing the issue of future expectations influencing decisions about future consequences with the issue of acting as if interests exist right now. They aren’t even remotely the same things.

    It would certainly make sense to consider if an action today would harm a person in the future: whether they exist yet or not. But that’s because we can point to an expected negative consequence of that action. That’s not the same thing as trying to talk about the importance of respecting a moral interest that is presently only imaginary, not actual. If that moral interest never comes into existence in the first place, it cannot sensibly be said to have been harmed. There are no expected negative consequences to speak about.

    And embryos won’t “most surely” all become “a person.” A huge percentage do not, naturally. Others become more than one person (twins/triplets/etc.). Sometimes two distinct embryos become a single person (as with a human chimera). Embryos are a particular part of the process, neither the start nor the end, towards creating the sort of being that has all sorts of important moral capacities. But it is not, itself, that being.

    And, of course, the hypothetical world where human embryos have no relation to adult human persons does not exist.

    It doesn’t need to exist. The point is that if there is a serious moral case for the moral interests of embryos, then you could make it whether the world was this one or the hypothetical one.

  5. Moreover, the fact that entity X has the potential to become a human being, while entity Y has the potential to become a cat, might be very relevant to a woman’s decision whether to gestate entity X or entity Y. That’s because she wants to give birth to a human baby rather than to a cat. But that does not mean that either entity X or entity Y can feel pain, fear death, or anything else that might be morally relevant to whether it’s okay to destroy it rather than keeping it alive. The woman can decide not to implant either entity because she just doesn’t want to become a mother.

    Again, my potential to do a good job might be a reason for an employer to prefer me to someone with no qualifications, but it doesn’t mean that I already have the rights of someone already employed there (e.g. to pay, superannuation, etc.). It MIGHT give me a reasonable expectation of employment, but it might not (e.g. the employer may not run a career work-force according to the merit principle, and public policy may not require that this particular employer do so, or the employer may decide not to employ anyone in the job after all).

    Of course potential is relevant to (some of) our decisions, but we have to look at HOW it is relevant. It’s no good saying that E is a potential Z, therefore it is entitled to the same consideration that Zs are entitled to. That doesn’t follow at all. What’s more likely to follow is that if I – right now – I want to have a Z in my future (a new baby, a new employee, or whatever) I have a prudential reason to consider E as a possible candidate for becoming a Z.

  6. RNB says:

    Excellent. I too am completely sick of hearing supposed “justification” from people about rights for potential life. I’m no philosopher, but I imagine that if your blood and guts and bone marrow were splatterred everywhere after a horrific crush, the idiot view would be to collect and save each of those scattered stem cells as a separate potential life. A stupid argument I know. Basically the other RB has said it far more eloquently.

  7. A. Niles says:

    Without the time to offer a proper defense of the the moral positions wrongly misunderstood and attacked within the article above; it is sufficient to say that it is quite sad all of you seem to have ‘drank the kool-aide’ your professors made for you even when their 1960s cultural/sexual revolutionary recipe has proven to be in fact poisonous.

  8. Katievs says:

    Bad, you are overlooking the category of ontological values: the value a thing has by virtue of what it is, regardless of whether its powers are fully unfolded or not.

    An human embryo is the natural fruit of a reproductive act between a male person and a female person. From that point of view, it is very odd and artificial to posit that it is or could be anything other than a person.

    A person is an individual being, not a set of attributes. That being is owed respect before his powers are fully developed, and even if his powers are thwarted by some disaster from ever being able to be developed.

    Certain attributes, such as rationality and free will, naturally belong to personhood–a fact which gives each and every human being an ontological dignity that far surpasses that of any other earthly creature, even when those attributes are inchoate or frustrated.

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