The stupidity of dignity

Steven Pinker notes that Bush’s Council on Bioethics has put out a 555-page report called Human Dignity and Bioethics.

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.

Yes where have we heard that before…from the archbishop of Canterbury, from the pope, from lots of meddlesome priests.

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.”…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

Just what I said! Last November. Twice.

Macklin of course says it much much better.

To invoke the concept of dignity without clarifying its meaning is to use a mere slogan…Why, then, do so many articles and reports appeal to human dignity, as if it means something over and above respect for persons or for their autonomy? A possible explanation is the many religious sources that refer to human dignity, especially but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings. However, this religious source cannot explain how and why dignity has crept into the secular literature in medical ethics.

Well, maybe it can, actually; words and concepts can cross borders.

Pinker goes on.

Goaded by Macklin’s essay, the Council acknowledged the need to put dignity on a firmer conceptual foundation. This volume of 28 essays and commentaries by Council members and invited contributors is their deliverable…And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For 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.

Just like the archbishops and cardinals. Never mind what the research could do to end horrible diseases, instead focus on the threat to ‘human dignity’ of research on cells in a petri dish.

Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

And then he goes into the details. It’s infuriating stuff; don’t miss it.

The last paragraph makes the obvious and devastating point.

Theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. 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 that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.


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