In the image of

Dignity. We got an interesting discussion in the comments, and I suddenly realized (belatedly) that I could think of contexts in which the word ‘dignity’ wouldn’t repel me: contexts and situations in which people have managed to hang onto their dignity despite the assaults of other people or of nature. I probably still wouldn’t use it myself, but I would see the point of it.

But where this started was with Leon Kass; that’s why potentilla asked the question that prompted my series of them. I left Kass out of the dignity post, because I wanted to talk about the idea more generally and also (partly) more loosely. I wanted to free associate, partly. But now let’s look at Kass some more.

He uses the word no fewer than eight times in that speech, and it’s fundamental to his whole strawman indictment of ‘scientism’. He uses it to give force and weight and a kind of prestige to his alarmist fantasies about ‘soul-less’ scientism.

Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity…All friends of human freedom and dignity—including even the atheists among us—must understand that their own humanity is on the line…Instead, bioprophets of scientism…issue bold challenges to traditional understandings of human nature and human dignity…In order to justify ongoing research, these “humanists” are willing to shed not only traditional religious views but any view of human distinctiveness and special dignity, their own included…Here, in consequence, would be the most pernicious result of the new biology…the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike, and its replacement with a view of man, no less than of nature, as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization.

The whole long speech is a textbook example of the attempted argument ‘this would be bad therefore it is false,’ and it also relies repeatedly and consistently on absurd false dilemmas. Every few paragraphs we’re given a choice between two alternatives as if two exhausted the possibilities when in fact there are myriad other possibilities. The whole ‘freedom and dignity or scientistic reductionism’ binary is the overarching false dilemma, of course, and the one between ‘ the idea of man as noble, dignified, precious, or godlike’ and ‘mere raw material’ is one of the many supporting false dilemmas. And that string of adjectives hints at why I basically dislike the word. I don’t and don’t want to think of humans as noble, dignified, or godlike. Valuable (rather than precious), yes, but the other items, no. And that doesn’t force me to choose ‘mere raw material’ instead – why the hell would it? Leon Kass just says it would, he never explains why it would.

And that makes me suspicious of the word and its uses. I suspect that it’s the kind of word that people like Kass reach for when they want to snow credulous audiences with grand verbiage. People like Kass meaning people making fundamentally bad, sloppy, emotive arguments; people relying on rhetoric and tingly words to make their case for them because nothing else will do it.

Norm doesn’t agree.

One oddity of Ophelia’s argument, as it strikes me, is that it holds to the meaninglessness of ‘human dignity’ while at the same time insisting that humans shouldn’t be degraded or humiliated. But ‘degrade’ carries on its face that there is a standard in light of which some person is being reduced…But if we believe – as Ophelia does believe – that there are general standards valid for the treatment of all human beings and just because of their humanity, then it seems logical to say that there are general forms of human degradation and humiliation and that human dignity is the thing they assault.

I don’t think so. I think the standard in light of which some person is being reduced is that of the ordinary average ‘normal’ state of affairs – I don’t even think it necessarily has a name. It’s just how things ought to be, how we feel all right; degradation and humiliation are intrusions on that. I don’t think when we are humiliated or degraded we normally think of our ‘dignity’. I still think dignity is in a way asking too much – I think we can claim a right not to be degraded but I’m not sure we can claim a right to dignity. But it’s also true that I don’t object to that usage, whereas I do object to Kass’s. I think Kass’s really is meaningless, because I think humans don’t have dignity in the sense that he means it – dignity such that it’s a violation of it for a cognitive scientist to research emotions or morality. His idea of it depends, as he says all too frankly in the closing pages, on our being ‘in the image of God.’ I’m leery of the word because it seems to be all tangled up with nonsense on stilts of that kind.

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