Steven Pinker, writing in The New Republic, takes aim at The President’s Council on Bioethics for mulish opposition, on largely theological grounds, to a variety of promising medical and scientific efforts.
The council, in its recently issued report Human Dignity and Bioethics, leans heavily, as the title suggests, upon an imagined need to preserve human “dignity”. Like anyone else, I’m all for dignity, but once it starts to affect legislation, and executive decisions about research funding, we ought to be taking a closer look at how we determine what “human dignity” actually is, and what makes it so important that it is worth sacrificing lives — as suppressing medical research certainly will — to protect. Pinker is not amused.
Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a “yuck” response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President’s Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of “dignity” a rubric for expounding on it. 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.
Whatever that is. 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.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of 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. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.