The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

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The Human Dignity Conspiracy
Peter Augustine Lawler - 04/17/09
physician holding stethoscope

In 2001 George W. Bush created the President’s Council on Bioethics to “provide a forum for the national discussion of bioethics issues.” The elusive idea of human dignity lay behind many contemporary controversies in bioethics, the Council believed, so it commissioned twenty essays by a diverse group of writers and published them in a collection, Human Dignity and Bioethics.[1] The book was more concerned to highlight controversy than to produce consensus, and it offered no particular set of policy recommendations. Council members—of which I am one—considered the volume a Socratic invitation to inquiry: nothing more, and nothing less.

The best-selling Harvard sociobiological psychologist Steven Pinker saw a lot more. In a widely noticed long essay in the New Republic, he described the book as an aggressive attempt, fueled by radical “religious impulses,” to roll back the American experiment in ordered liberty by “imposing a Catholic agenda on American secular democracy.” Dignity, in that agenda, would trump the scientific progress that enhances our pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. Bioethics would become a weapon in opposition to innovative medical breakthroughs that aim “to maximize health and flourishing.”[2]

In his New Republic essay, Pinker complains that the word “dignity” is simply stupid; it corresponds to no reality known by science. Pinker does not really think that the word “justice” corresponds to any “scientific” reality either, but he endorses appeals to justice as a beneficial way of deterring criminals. The “scientific” fact that we always do an injustice when we punish someone according to an objectively unrealistic standard of justice does not bother him.[3] After all, most people are better off as a result. So it is not so much that dignity is stupid; rather, it is worse than useless—it is an instrument of tyranny. “Dignity” has been mobilized as part of the conservatives’ war against science and human liberty.

Pinker both outs what he sees as a Catholic conspiracy and directs most of his fire against a writer who is not even a Catholic: the Council’s first chairman, Leon Kass. It is Kass’s “pro-death, anti-freedom” views, which are “well outside the American mainstream,” that Pinker particularly loathes. He accuses Kass of calling undignified anything that gives anyone “the creeps”—and “for Kass, that includes eating ice-cream cones in public.” The dignity-freak Kass, Pinker goes on, is guilty of wild exaggerations. Kass calls efforts to extend the duration of particular human lives “the pursuit of immortality,” efforts to improve human performance “the pursuit of perfection,” and screening to protect babies from genetic defects and diseases “designing babies.”[4]

Pinker wildly exaggerates Kass’s propensity to exaggerate, but I do agree that Kass might be overly concerned about the possibility of a Brave New World. Only one chapter of the Council’s book is by Kass, however, and most of the other writers disagree with him in a variety of ways. Pinker’s objection to “dignity” in toto is fundamentally misguided and most unscientific. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether our views of dignity, equality, and liberty depend on religious premises, and reasonable men—including reasonable scientists—disagree on the answer. It is just as reasonable to wonder how “scientific” some scientists really are who cannot account for the dignified human behavior we observe every day.

What Is Dignity?

The word “dignity” is not particularly Christian. It has no special significance in the Scriptures and not much history as a theological concept. Only in the twentieth century did moral theologians begin to use it when addressing issues such as abortion, religious liberty, and economic justice. Neither does the word come to us from the classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, who were concerned with the phenomenon of human excellence (arête) and the “manly” human need to be important or significant. Aristotle’s magnanimous man, we would now say, possesses dignified self-confidence. Aristotle also writes that nobility—what we would now likely call dignity—shines forth in even the most unfortunate circumstances. My nobility or dignity is more my own than is my happiness, which depends on forces beyond my control.[5]

It was with such Greek reflections in mind that the Roman word dignitas took on a basically aristocratic connotation. Dignity is a worthiness or virtue that must be earned, and the dignified man is someone exceptional who attains distinction by his inner strength of character. Dignitas is a self-contained serenity, a kind of solid immobility that cannot be affected by worldly fortunes. For the Stoics, and especially for Cicero, dignity is democratic in the sense that it does not depend on social status; it is within reach of everyone from the slave (Epictetus) to the emperor (Marcus Aurelius). Dignity refers to the rational life possible for us all, but it is really characteristic only of the rare human being who is genuinely devoted to living according to reason.

Dignity, the contemporary Stoic novelist Tom Wolfe shows in A Man in Full,[6] can shine through even in the life of a maximum-security prisoner who seems to have been deprived of every human good. Wolfe’s novel shows both that the Stoic way of thinking is almost completely alien to American life today and that it still has powerful explanatory power. He shows us that our sociobiologists and neuroscientists have something to learn from what we might call Stoic science. The Council’s book would have been more comprehensive had a genuine Stoic contributed a chapter, but no critic has yet registered that complaint.

The early modern philosophers—following, in a certain way, St. Augustine’s Christian critique of Stoic vanity—denied that human beings could ever achieve a rational, inward insulation from the effects of fortune. They contended instead that it is undignified to allow oneself to be a plaything of fortune—of forces and to people beyond your control. There is nothing genuinely dignified in Stoic self-deception about our real bodily dependence. Human beings are stuck with being concerned, most of all, with keeping their fragile bodies alive. So there is something dignified in facing up to that truth and doing something about it—acting with freedom and intelligence to make yourself more secure.

In Hobbes’ view, your own life is infinitely valuable and irreplaceable to you, but it cannot seem that way to anyone else. Therefore, Hobbes reasons, your dignity is nothing more than your “public worth.” And that is nothing more than the price your powers can bring: your dignity is your productivity.[7] Others recognize your worth only insofar as they can use—and are willing to pay for—what you can do. We have every right to work to become as dignified as we can be, but we do not have an equal right to dignity. Hobbes is for equal rights, but equal dignity is impossible.

There is a lot to be said for ranking people—determining their excellence or importance—according to their productivity. Vain illusions which generate the idleness that comes with inward serenity are dispelled. There is, we learn, no invisible realm of freedom, no impregnable Stoic fortress, into which we can securely retreat. It is undeniable progress to stop ranking people according to their social class, gender, race, religion, and so forth. Productivity is the most visible and surest foundation for a meritocracy—which is why Americans today are having more trouble than ever finding a higher standard than productivity to determine their dignity. Even with the economic downturn, Americans are wealthier and freer than ever, but their dignity seems to depend on being useful and pleasing to others. They increasingly lack the inward self-confidence that comes with having a personal standard higher than “success.” We might want to say that Americans are both more and less free than ever—and in a way that would earn a Stoic’s cold contempt.

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