The Stupidity of Dignity


Conservative bioethics’ latest, most dangerous ploy.

 This spring, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called “therapeutic cloning” that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what’s not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a “yuck” response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President’s Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of “dignity” a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the 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 why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.


Written By: Steven Pinker
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  1. Oxford defines dignity as worthy of honour or respect. The word conjures up Queen Elizabeth walking slowly and ponderously. 

    I have been reading some Bertrand Russell. He likes to point out how much resistance there was to new ideas, even things we take for granted like lightning rods.  The new often makes people uncomfortable, and they oppose it based solely on the state of their tummy.

    An important rule on introducing new technology would be, how easy would it be to undo it,  if some serious drawback showed up later?  This means you need extreme caution before letting new genes loose into the wild.  There is no way to get them back.  If a new medicine is introduced, but only a small number of people take it, that is not such a big deal. But it everyone gets it in the water supply, it is.  Introducing invasive species should not be done lightly.

    Here is BC there a bitumen pipeline and tanker route through the coastal islands to China planned. So far the company has managed to keep all discussion of how one cleans up a bitumen spill (which sinks in water) out of the media, despite my efforts. I am strongly suspicious there is no technology at all to do it.  People are opposing it on emotional grounds. Perhaps what that is about is knowing the Enbridge company is up to no good.  Enbridge has lied and dissembled about too many other things.  We should not discount totally the emotional reaction. Emotions are a way of presenting conclusions of unconscious computation.  Neural nets can’t tell you how they know.

    P.S. I object to Pinker dismissing all Greens as hopeless romantics, or people who don’t believe every word of George W. Bush’s version of what happened on 9/11 as tin foil hat conspiracy theorists (in Angels of our Better Nature). I doubt he has had enough experience with either to form a proper opinion. He is just repeating a  stereotype.

  2. Nice to see Mr Pinker, who can usually only be be seen tiptoeing around -if he even comes close to-the science/religion divide, tread more firmly this time even perilously close to the toes of the bible (t)humpers.

  3. An important rule on introducing new technology would be, how easy would it be to undo it

    Well, the discussion here is about therapeutic cloning, so I think it passes that test. It doesn’t “let new genes loose into the wild”; it makes the genes people already have activate a second time to regrow lost or damaged tissue.

    Emotions are a way of presenting conclusions of unconscious computation.  Neural nets can’t tell you how they know.

    Emotions aren’t a way of knowing at all; they’re just a way for people to be more insistent on conclusions they may not be able to back up.

    I object to Pinker dismissing all Greens as hopeless romantics, or people who don’t believe every word of George W. Bush’s version of what happened on 9/11 as tin foil hat conspiracy theorists (in Angels of our Better Nature). I doubt he has had enough experience with either to form a proper opinion. He is just repeating a stereotype.

    1. His exact wording herein was, “Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology” (emphasis mine), whereas you accuse him of making a comment on  all greens – specifically, that he thinks they are romantics, as opposed to there being a fallacy many members of both groups commit. You’re both missing and misconstruing his point here, and adding “hopeless” for good measure.
    2. Please give an example of a claim made in the official summary of the 9/11 events that it’s reasonable to not accept. And no, the official summary is not simply Bush’s word on the subject; it’s the conclusions of a large committee of expert analysts. You may doubt Pinker looked into it, but I in turn doubt you have the same expertise in forensic analysis of arson that said experts possessed. And my doubt is much better warranted, since almost no-one has that kind of expertise, and Pinker demonstrated in Angels that he’s very, very good at researching a matter in detail.

  4. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the baseline on ideas of dignity were (mis)informed by religious claptrap when ironically the greatest affront to human dignity is religion.  Pandering to mewling puking infantile notions of wanting to be considered special, the comforting sop that somehow existence will be fine because there  is protection of a guardian.  It is treason to our intellect and shames us before every other species. 

  5. Pinker always makes sense 😀

    There are no inherent properties, if we do acquire dignity it is through interacting with others.

  6. Personally I really have few concerns with genetic and biological manipulation. On the contrary I think that is the only way for modern humanity to survive the 21th century. Let’s face it, humans are extremely ignorant and narrow-minded. Characteristics that were probably useful in the past, but that will ultimately lead to the destruction of modern humanity.

    I dream of a new independent nation. A safe haven for people who think life should be governed by reason instead of bronze-age myths. People who are fed up with ignorance and religious bigotry would be welcome to move to this nation and contribute in establishing a nation based on reason and science instead of dogmatic thinking. If I was a billionaire I would make this my main goal in life. To establish a new nation where people from all over the world who appreciate reason and science could emigrate to. Let’s face it. Religious dogma is too deeply rooted in this world in order to eradicate in the foreseeable future. I think it’s not fair to people who are not religious or who want to reason to be the guiding factor in their lives to have to suffer all the stupidity and ignorance religious dogma brings with it. I just don’t think it’s fair.

  7. Every time I sit on the toilet and watch the turd that just left my bowels, the word ‘dignity’ springs into my mind.
    And I smile a little.

    Mr. Kass, are you listening ?

  8. ” This means you need extreme caution before letting new genes loose into the wild.”

    What on earth are you talking about? Genes are not some form of microorganisms that spread like a wild fire. Genes affect an individual, and that person’s offspring. If a gene is likely to cause harm we will most likely see that in the next generation. All this talk about how genetic manipulation may have dire consequences in the distant future has no basis in scientific literature and seems to be no more than fear-mongering. 

    That said, we should of course be very careful since it might have unexpected consequences. Remember that humans have evolved for a very long time. We have faced countless of viruses, microorganisms and other challenges but still we persist. This idea that if we manipulate a few genes then all hell will break loose is just absurd. As we stand, we really don’t even have the knowledge required to turn ourselves into monsters. Remember that most mutations are likely to be harmful and hence not likely to be passed on in the long term. 

  9. Nunbeliever,
    There are several countries, Denmark & Sweden eg., that have secular governments and societies that tolerate religion without it’s ideological interference. You should check them out for yourself.

  10. Two examples:

    The Roundup Ready gene unexpectedly jumped out of food crops into weeds.  This was not catastropic, but unexpected. Genes do not stay where you put them.

    Somebody created a organism to produce alcohol, but only the the last second by accident, discovered it killed plants with alcohol poisoning. Its was originally found on plant rootlets.

    The caution is required simply on the principle it cannot be undone and the effects can be global.. 

  11. I just finished reading Pinker’s Angels of our better nature. It is a fat, excellent, entertaining book full of interesting information you won’t find elsewhere, but Pinker likes to take dismissive pot shots at various groups without providing evidence for his distaste. That is what I was primarily reacting to. It jarred, as so un Pinker-like.

  12. At times like that I remember my colon functions because of zillions of bacteria and it is such a blow to my ego as well as my dignity that I can’t do without the little perishers.

    If I forget this earthy reality and think of God I feel so much more important.

    OK just kidding.

  13. We have genetically manipulated crops for thousands of years.  Our harvesting practice has resulted in the proliferation of cereal crops with defective genes and we rely on those defects (non shattering seed heads) for efficient harvesting.  If the cereals hadn’t mutated this way and had we not selected inadvertantly for this mutation we wouldn’t have any harvest because the plant would shed its seeds before we could gather them.

  14. But do you really *need* to cite evidence for 9/11 truthism being nonsense? Some things are just common knowledge. He doesn’t need to cite evidence for the sky being blue either.

  15. From the OP:

    Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques.

    Heh heh. Evolution+ (slinks away with as much dignity as I can muster).

  16. As a socio- and techno- progressivist, I abhor any limitations placed on human discovery and development of technologies. Especially religiously motivated limitations.

    Our galaxy will eventually collide with Andromeda. Our sun will die out. The resources of our planet will eventually be used up. At some point, an extinction event will happen. As long as we remain powerless to stay death’s hand,  there is no hope. Simply put, the status quo is not good enough.

    Though ever increasing the range of human capabilities can be risky (global warming, weapons of mass destruction) it still offers infinitely more hope than standing still (zero).

  17.   @OP
    The Stupidity of Dignity

    This looks like a high-jacking of the word “dignity” by dogmatists to me!

    “Dignity” should not be confused with “posturing”!

  18. There are two types of dignity.

    1. Exemplary through deeds, not through presumptuous words and a superiority complex. In control of oneself. Calm, but not meek.

    2. The word used by dogmatists to avoid a rational debate, used in a way that says: it’s a good thing, and you can’t disagree with it. But without defining what it is.

    Or so I think 😉

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