Indignity and Bioethics

Published May 14, 2008

National Review Online

Human dignity has long been a contentious subject in American bioethics. A frequently employed if ill-defined concept in European political life, in international law, and in the ethical tradition of the West, dignity has had a particularly hard time finding its precise meaning and place in the Anglo-American sphere. Is it just a synonym for equality or autonomy, or does it describe something else — a concept foreign to our political vocabulary? And either way, does it belong in an American bioethics, or is it best left safely across the pond? Different scholars and observers through the years have taken for granted quite different definitions of the term, while others have simply denied its utility altogether.

To try to organize the dispute and help to make sense of the term, the President's Council on Bioethics — established by President Bush in 2001 to, among other things, “provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues” — recently produced a collection of essays laying out the range of views on human dignity for public examination. The council (which I served as executive director during part of the president's first term) invited two dozen experts, including members of the council itself as well as outside academics and writers, to offer their thoughts on human dignity and bioethics.

The volume has so far drawn a modest response from bioethicists and others, some applauding the effort to lay out the range of opinions, and some bemoaning the lack of agreement on so seemingly basic a concept. But this week, in the latest issue of The New Republic, the volume has also elicited a bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol from an academic celebrity. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of books on language, cognition, and evolutionary biology, seems to have decided that the concept of human dignity is not only “stupid” but is a weapon of aggression in the arsenal of a religious crusade intent on crushing American liberty and “imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy.”

Pinker's essay is a striking exhibit of a set of attitudes toward religion and the West's moral tradition that has become surprisingly common among America's intellectual elite. It is a mix of fear, suspicion, and disgust that has a lot to do, for instance, with the Left's intense paranoia about the Bush administration, and with the peculiar notion that American conservatives have declared a “war on science”; and it involves more generally an inclination to reject any idea drawn in any way from a religiously inspired tradition — which unfortunately includes just about everything in the humanities.

These elements are all powerfully evident in Pinker's screed. After briefly introducing the subject, his essay manages almost entirely to ignore the substance of the volume under consideration (taking up no particular essay in the book, for instance) and addresses itself instead to what the author imagines is a sinister Catholic conspiracy to subject the nation to a papist theology of death. With deep alarm Pinker informs his readers that some of the contributors to the volume make their living at such “Christian institutions” as Georgetown University and that some of the essays even mention the Bible, which leads him to conclude that the work of the bioethics council, in this book and in general, “springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.”

This is, to begin with, patent nonsense. Even a cursory review of the council's reports and deliberations will demonstrate it has spent significantly less time than even its Clinton administration predecessor considering any explicitly religious views or discussing religious issues, and has in no way sought to ground any positions, arguments, or recommendations in religion. Huffing in his panicked flight from an imaginary inquisition, Pinker seems unable to distinguish between an openness to learning from the insights of the Western tradition and an assertion of sectarian theology. He even rejects the pedagogical value of literature (hectoring one contributor to the volume who has dared mention a novel), and seems to treat as a noxious pollutant any artifact of our civilization that has not been peer-reviewed by a committee of tenured biologists. 

This leaves Pinker in the peculiar position of denying the grounds for even his own standards of ethics, though he is blissfully blind to the difficulty. Rather than human dignity, he wants to lean for support upon “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.” But why not? Why should minimum capacities demand maximal protections if not for reasons rooted in the very traditions and sources he declares out of bounds, or a Popish cabal?

But Pinker will not wait to hear the answer. He rushes on to paint the bioethics council as a committee of pious executioners, arguing that “this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing,” and asserting without basis that the council (which, more than all of its predecessors in previous administrations, was designed to provide a diversity of opinion and not merely support for the positions of the president who appointed it) was “packed” with “conservative scholars and pundits, advocates of religious (particularly Catholic) principles in the public sphere, and writers with a paper trail of skittishness toward biomedical advances, together with a smattering of scientists (mostly with a reputation for being religious or politically conservative).” Pinker might have examined the record of the council's discussions (including its devastating grilling of him in 2003, which may help explain some of his vehemence), its reports, and the backgrounds of its members, especially the scientist members, for a sense of how absurdly misinformed is this diatribe.

He is not much better informed about the book he claims to have read, asserting, for instance, that no one was given an opportunity to defend the view that dignity means essentially nothing more than autonomy or is a useless or pernicious concept, though several of the essays in the volume (most notably Patricia Churchland's contribution, and elements of Daniel Dennett's, among others) do just that.

But Pinker saves his most brazenly venomous and disingenuous assault for one of the volume's contributors in particular: Leon Kass, the council's former chairman. He begins with a sweepingly inaccurate survey of Kass's views and w
orks, and misleadingly implies that a passage he quotes from Kass's 1994 book about eating is from Kass's essay on dignity in the volume being reviewed, later referring again to the passage while never offering any context. He says Kass has “pro-death anti-freedom views,” and asserts that Kass is a “vociferous advocate of a central role for religion in morality and public life.” A vociferous person is publicly insistent — can Pinker point to a single instance of Kass calling for a central role for religion in public life? Pinker concludes by repeating the scurrilous lie that Kass “fired” two members of the bioethics council who disagreed with him “on embryonic stem-cell research, on therapeutic cloning (which Kass was in favor of criminalizing), and on the distortions of science that kept finding their way into Council reports.” Disagreement on stem cell research and therapeutic cloning were an intentional function of the original design of the council's membership, as about half its members disagreed with President Bush's views on one or another of those issues, and were chosen with that disagreement in mind. Neither of the two members Pinker has in mind was by any means the most vocal or active of these opponents, their departures had nothing to do with their substantive views, and several of the members named to the council since their departure have also opposed the President's views on these issues. Scientific content in all of the council's reports, meanwhile, was carefully vetted with outside experts before publication, and it is no surprise that Pinker offers no specific instances of “distortions of science” — there are none he could offer.

Loath to rest easy with religious bigotry and slander, however, Pinker concludes with a stunning display of confusion, managing to mystify himself with simple questions and to dismiss centuries of debate with a shrug. He then informs us that dignity is relative and fungible, and — at last, the punch line — that it is in any case just a phenomenon of human perception. He says those who disagree with him have blood on their hands (“even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die”) and so, by implication, that no limit on scientific research could be justified on any grounds other than safety.

It would be hard to answer the bioethics council's thoughtful and varied collection with a less appropriate rejoinder than Pinker's insulting, ill-informed, and anti-intellectual tirade. He misrepresents the most elementary facts about the council's work and intentions, repeating baseless charges and engaging in crude character assassination; and his assertion that the council is intolerant of dissenting opinion is belied by the fact that his rant is based on remarks he actually delivered at a council meeting, by invitation. His fears of a religious, and especially a Catholic, plot to overthrow democracy are absurd. And his insistence on filtering out of American life any hint of religious influence is badly misguided.

Even if dignity remains difficult to define, undignified public discourse is easy to discern, and Pinker has offered an obvious example.

Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine. He is a former executive director of the President's Council on Bioethics.

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