Steve Pinker has written a piece in the New Republic criticizing the concept of human dignity in bioethics. It does nothing, he argues, that is not accomplished by a principle of personal autonomy - "the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another."
This is a classical restatement of contemporary liberalism's "thin" conception of the good. Because we cannot say what has value and what does not, the best that we can do is respect the right of others to choose it for themselves - limited by some type of notion that what one chooses not harm others.
As a prudential rule of thumb, this has a lot going for it. In a fallen world, the "top-down" imposition of values - particularly if accomplished by coercion - is a dangerous thing. (One would hope that our more left-leaning friends might develop a greater appreciation of this prudence in the economic realm.)
But as an assertion of moral philosophy or organizing principle for society, its problems are legion. With respect to Pinker's endorsement of personal autonomy, what exactly gives individual choice its value? Why should I respect the right of others to self determination? Their ability to "suffer, prosper, reason and choose" is not my own. To say that I would have chosen to do so were I behind the veil of ignorance is not particularly persuasive once the curtain is down.
How am I supposed to resist the temptation to act upon my perception that some others do not have the same ability to "suffer, prosper, reason and choose?" The Nazis denied this with respect to the Jews. Peter Singer denies it for infants. Pinker, who has famously said that "the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on and off by electricity and extinguished by a sharp blow or lack of oxygen" exhibits a reductionist materialism to which I certainly would not look to protect anyone's life or well being.
As Leon Kass has put it, Pinker seems to know a great deal about science, but "dangerously little" about philosophy and "less than the village atheist" about religion.
H/T: Jay Bullock and Tom Foley