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

May 19, 2008

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:

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

May 17, 2008

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.

New Cloning Success Shocks Vatican: Science Slipping Away from their Pat Narrative

January 19, 2008

The Vatican, and likely many other pro-life groups, are up in arms about the latest work in human cloning. Such outrage was expected of course, and spokesman Elio Sgreccia, who heads the Pontifical Academy for Life, even tries to push the latest trendy talking point that such research is “a product of the past” supposedly in light of other breakthroughs with adult lines (which is false, so where are our friends at the National Review to bemoan this scientific dishonesty!?).

But one also gets the feeling that this breakthrough is threatening to the pro-life side in more ways than just to their ethical objections to the use of embryos. In fact, it brings forward a number of serious flaws in those very objections.
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