Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Down with dignity?

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

12 comments:

illusory tenant said...

Leon Kass should be aware that there's more than one village atheist, and they know quite a bit about religion.

Nice play on "village idiot," however. Doubtless a nod to the Psalmist.

What exactly gives individual choice its value?

I should think that individual choice is itself intrinsically valuable. Why does there need to be some external measure of the value of individual choice? It is a value.

PaulNoonan said...

I don't think Pinker or anyone else has a problem with dignity. I think thye have a problem with equating dignity and human frailty, and using the good name of dignity as an argument to preserve death and suffering, and to purusue the Luddite path at the expense of technological advancement.

I also think that conservatives tend to overstate the extent to which non-conservatives adhere to relativism.

illusory tenant said...

I also think that conservatives tend to overstate the extent to which non-conservatives adhere to relativism.

Not only that, but also that moral relativism is somehow inherently deficient compared to moral absolutism.

What is a criminal sentencing hearing, if not an exercise in moral relativism.

Dad29 said...

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?"

Picking on the freshman law-school class again?

Dad29 said...

IT, someone else might suggest that the conviction is the exercise of absolutism and the sentence-hearing the exercise of mercy.

Brett said...

Dad29:

I doubt the categorical imperative (the grand-daddy of absolute morality) was the subject of affirmative defenses. But, I know I don't know the definitive answer to that, so at least I know something.

Rick Esenberg said...

I also think that conservatives tend to overstate the extent to which non-conservatives adhere to relativism.

I tend to agree which is one reason that I like David Tubbs reference to modern liberalism (and he is using the term in a broader sense than Democrat/Republican) as "morally reticent."

But Pinker does reduce bioethics to moral relativism. And its a slippery relativism. IT can certainly believe that individual choice is extrinsically valuable, but why? Why should I care about his choice so long as he has no power to threaten mine? There are answers to that question but they can't consist of a simple resort to choice an an ultimate value.

I don't think Kass equates dignity with fraility and it is hardly Luddite to wonder whether a thing that can be done ought to be done.

illusory tenant said...

IT can certainly believe that individual choice is extrinsically valuable ...

Intrinsically.

You didn't answer my question, though. Not that you're obligated to, of course, but I thought it was an interesting one.

Rick Esenberg said...

Sorry, that's what I meant. Why is should your choice be intrinsically valuable to me. If your question is about criminal sentencing, I don't think that making moral distinctions is the equivalent of moral relativism.

Dad29 said...

I have quoted some folks who believe that the Modern Project is relativism descending from Nominalism.

That is certainly NOT to say that all relativists are immoral. Far from it.

However, if relativism is doctrinal, then what is "morality" but the values of X or the values of Y?

It either is or ain't murder, even with distinctions as to degree. Can't be not-murder for IT and murder for Rick.

Unless we live in Babel.

PaulNoonan said...

IT can certainly believe that individual choice is extrinsically valuable, but why? Why should I care about his choice so long as he has no power to threaten mine?

I believe the simplest answer to this question is that the alternative is slavery.

PaulNoonan said...

Leon is a Luddite quote of the day:

I have to say that I'm pessimistic. I think growing up in the United States in the post-World War II era was as good a time as one could wish for--we got all those things that were in the 1939 World's Fair: washing machines, dishwashers, products to relieve the arduous toil of everyday life. Yet all those things haven't made anybody happier. We're not grateful for those devices. You could not today put on a World's Fair and arouse intense longings for a future we don't know. We simply couldn't do it, because there are no more deep unfulfilled human wishes for which technology of the future is going to provide the answer. Yes, we'd like a cure for cancer, and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. But in terms of how we live, we already have more than what we need to live well.

http://www.reason.com/blog/show/114637.html

Leon loves frailty and death quote of the day:

The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.

http://www.reason.com/news/show/34771.html

And how about a quote that shows both? The additional commentary comes from Virginia Postrel:

In his 1985 book, "Toward a More Natural Science," Kass criticizes moderns for not emulating the ancient Greeks: "We, on the other hand, with our dissection of cadavers, organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, body shops, laboratory fertilization, surrogate wombs, gender-change surgery, 'wanted' children, 'rights over our bodies,' sexual liberation and other practices and beliefs that insist on our independence and autonomy, live more and more wholly for the here and now, subjugating everything we can to the exercise of our wills, with little respect for the nature and meaning of bodily life."

Congress is basing legislation on the reasoning of a man who finds the dissection of cadavers morally troubling. This isn't about the 21st century. It's about the 16th.