Monday, May 19, 2008

Death of Dignity: the danger of theory

You can become so deeply entrenched in theory you completely looses touch with your humanity. A fascinating example of this is a recent article by Steven Pinker a professor at Harvard: “The Stupidity of Dignity” Pinker argues that the idea of human dignity has no real value and should have no part in discussions of what is right and wrong. The ethical theory that has lead him to this absurd conclusion is his focus on autonomy (a person should make his/her own decisions without coercion). The curious idea that each human being has some inherent value (ie: Dignity) is just a mental trick to make us respect the will of others. Pinker seems especially offended that religious people see dignity in God's regard for humans rather than our will for ourselves. Pinker then cherry picks some rather absurd arguments based on dignity to show us what a foolish idea this is.

Pinker makes his argument with all the tack and self-assuredness of a scientist assuring us that there is no such thing as love. “Love is only a mental trick our brains use to describe our sexual need to pass on our genes. Why be so na├»ve as to talk about love when what you mean is sex? Besides this unnecessary concept of love is impossible to define precisely and is subject to misuse.” Similarly Pinker tells us the human dignity we see in each other is a useless illusion.

Forgive my reactionary response, but such ideology can have real and dangerous consequences. Pinker is right that in many (perhaps most) situations my ethical obligations based on respecting the dignity of another person involves respecting and deferring to that person's will. But when you strip away human concepts such as dignity and replace them with theory your calculations can lead you to dangerous places. The bioloethics based on autonomy only allows for the will of a human, therefore those who have no will have no value. Pinker never mentions this in his essay but the principle difference between those who talk of dignity and traditional bioethics is the ethical ability to kill our fellow human beings. Those who cannot make decisions such as unborn children or the mentally disabled can be killed without ethical dilemma because you have not violated their will. Dignity sees value in all humans, will or no will. Believing in human dignity means that traditional bioethics have given the nod to the murder of millions of human beings—humans with value and rights simply because they are human. (Perhaps it is too sensationalistic to mention that ideologies on the supremacy of the human will also lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.)

Is Pinker a monster? No, but perhaps the inhuman calculus of his ethical reasoning may stand as an example to all of us whose attachment to an ideal threatens to cloud out our humanity. I know that in this blog I have rather staunchly espoused certain ideas and ethics, and it is with shame I say that sometimes in defense of these ideals I have acted in ways that are less than humane. I have even been ungracious when disagreeing with my wife. Theory is fine, but be cautions if it leads you away from love, compassion, or respect for the dignity of others.

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