Dignity, Always Dignity

Why is it I’m always a day late and a dollar short to these things? Everyone’s already voiced their opinion on this Steven Pinker piece decrying the concept of dignity as an important one in bioethics. But everyone’s opinion seems to be that Pinker was gratuitously rude and contemptuous. Which, I suppose, he was. But did he have a point?

I think he did. So consider this a “one cheer for Pinker even if he is being a jerk” post.

First of all, dignity is a slippery concept. “The dignity of the congregation” is the avowed reason, for example, why, according to traditional Jewish law, women cannot lead prayers. (Because, as women, they are exempt from a variety of time-bound commandments, and hence cannot be counted in the minyan or prayer quorum; to have someone who is not obligated lead the service, meanwhile, would imply that no man in the minyan had the competence to do so, which implication is an affront to their dignity. QED) “Human dignity” is also (part of) the avowed basis for the recent Conservative movement’s decision to permit same-sex commitment ceremonies (not marriages) with rabbinical sanction, in spite of the biblical prohibition on certain sexual relationships (and, what would presumably follow, the need to “build a fence around the law” by prohibiting any relationship which might lead to such forbidden relations). Dignity can be appealed to, in other words, to mandate discrimination and traditional sex roles and to forbid discrimination and traditional sex roles. That’s pretty flexible!

The reason is that appeals to dignity are ultimately appeals to sentiment; the desire to preserve someone’s dignity is the desire to preserve that someone from embarrassment, shame or a sense of being insulted. But what causes embarrassment, shame, or a sense of being insulted varies from person to person, time to time, and culture to culture. One can legitimately ask whether someone would consider this or that to be an affront to his or her dignity, and one can legitimate ask, as a society, when and to what extent society should let respect for people’s dignity overrule other values. And we do this all the time. Should we profile airline passengers by race and religion, even though doing so is probably an affront to their dignity? That’s a conflict between dignity and safety. Should we routinely conduct autopsies even though an autopsy is an affront to the dignity of the deceased? That’s a conflict between dignity and public health (or criminal justice, depending on the reason for the autopsy). We navigate these sorts of questions all the time.

But if the question being asked is: what should we consider an affront to dignity, as opposed to what do we consider an affront to dignity, there’s no obvious grounds for an argument. And I think that’s the real question that Kass is asking: shouldn’t we consider cloning, for example, to be an affront to our dignity. And I’m really not sure how you debate that question. Unless, of course, you start from the proposition that dignity is not a matter of perception, but rather something inherent in the individual human being, presumably because we are all created in God’s image. In which case, I still don’t know how you debate the question, but you’ve certainly made it harder for someone to attack the fundamental premise. Which, I think, is what has Pinker’s dander up.

Now, I don’t disagree that Pinker does nothing to ground his own appeal to autonomy in anything. But he’s still on reasonably strong ground. Whether or not we know why we believe in individual autonomy, we manifestly do believe it (as a society, I mean). I happen to find the whole idea of fundamental rights highly suspect (I agree with Matthew Arnold when he said that, when he thought about it, it became clear that he didn’t have any fundamental rights at all, as rights were merely the reciprocal of duties – which I interpret to mean he could only have a right if someone else had a duty to him, and someone else could only have rights if he had a duty to them, and so it makes more sense to start by asking what our duties are than by asking what our rights are). But the society of which I am a part doesn’t agree with me. So Pinker doesn’t need to ground a belief in autonomy, because he’s not trying to create a consensus around a new belief; he’s just reflecting his society’s beliefs. More specifically, autonomy is the ground on which contemporary mainstream bioethics stands, so Pinker can very legitimately say, simply, I’m standing on the shoulders of those who do this for a living, and leave it at that.

I’m not really disagreeing with the critics on Pinker’s tone, but I really think a focus on tone is a dodge. There is a real substantive argument in his piece, and it’s not a specious one. Why not engage it?

For myself, I’d like to associate myself with “Consumatopia” and his comment on Ross’s post. Conservative critics of the reigning bioethics paradigm should be making the same kind of argument as “deep” environmentalist critics of things like genetically-modified food: three parts precautionary principle to one part stubborn affection for the way things are. Indeed, I think that’s the argument they are making: that we should fear the consequences of too radical change simply because fearing the consequences of too radical change is the right way to approach potentially radical change. But I think they (rightly) worry that such arguments are not going to be terribly persuasive to Americans, hence the (to my mind unpersuasive) attempt to ground these arguments in some kind of natural rights/natural law theory.

And let me make one final point. There is a tendency – notable in the questioning of Pinker at his 2003 visit to the committee – on the conservative side of this debate to conflate questions of ethics with questions of fact. Here’s a good example: Leon Kass asks Pinker, “would you speculate on how an increasingly biologically based account of who we are, whether it be in terms of genes or be in terms of brains, is going to affect how human beings understand who and what they are, that is to say what their human nature is?” There are two ways to take this question. One: a biologically based “account” of who we are is only one possible account that one might choose to believe, and we ought to choose which account we believe on the basis of its likely social consequences. Two: while a biologically based “account” of who we are may prove scientifically valid, we should be alive to the potential social consequences of widespread belief in this valid account, and develop responses to those consequences that we anticipate that are negative. I can well understand why the first way to take it would make Pinker very angry indeed, and why the second would make him suspicious. This is why lovers of science fear this particular trend: because they believe that science, and love of science, is a crowning glory of our civilization, and they do not feel that folks like Kass agree with them in this. “Conservative war on science” or blood libel on our civilization are examples of gross hyperbole, but the kernel of truth is the recognition of a very real conflict of values. As with most conflicts, better to have it out than deny it’s there.