by Susan E. Wills
May 30, 2008
Who would have thought that human dignity is a dangerous concept? It is the foundation of human rights and freedom, and the basis for the equality of all men and women. Because of our human dignity, each of us owes respect and concern to every other member of the human family. The principle of human dignity has been a boon to the world.
So it came as a surprise that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, writing in The New Republic ("The Stupidity of Dignity," May 28), declared war on human dignity. He is livid that this idea should guide medical care or bioethical decisions.
Pinker attacks the President's Council on Bioethics (too many Catholics and their sympathizers!), the Council's recent volume of essays on Human Dignity and Bioethics, its former chair Leon Kass, M.D., and "theocons," sometimes defined as social conservatives who believe that Christian moral principles like the right to life should have a role in public policy. His "Stupidity" screed relies on hyperbole, contradictions, and misstatements of fact to malign Dr. Kass and other Council members.
Pinker basically sees dignity as a "stupid" measure in bioethics for two reasons. First, he opposes constraining the freedom of scientists, patients, and patients' surrogates by any objective moral standard. To him only the relativistic "personal autonomy" standard is tolerable. In this regard, however, Pinker seems to miss the point that a doctor's freedom and autonomy are constrained when he or she must slavishly follow the immoral demand of a patient's surrogate instead of his own medical judgment. ("Doctor, don't treat dad's pneumonia!" "But he could live for many years." "Exactly!")
The second reason Pinker rejects dignity is that he dumbs down the concept of "dignity" to encompass tyrannical or farcical situations where self-important people demand royal treatment, or people are subjected to "indignities" like a "pat down" search by airport screeners. Pinker understands dignity as "a phenomenon of human perception," our reaction to others' outward appearances. He concedes that dignity has a "limited" usefulness in medical care, if it means respecting the patient in all the superficial ways one would like to be treated when hospitalized—privacy when using a bedpan, wearing one's own jammies rather than the open-backed gown—as long as the recognition of outward dignity "does not compromise their medical treatment." And by medical treatment, Pinker includes the autonomous right to die by assisted suicide or euthanasia, against which the principle of inherent human dignity weighs heavily.
The autonomy standard also yields another result Pinker favors in the area of biomedical research. Embryos and fetuses have no voice to assert their autonomy, so it's pretty much open season on them. Their behavior and bearing don't command our respect.
Seeking evidence of a papist plot to shackle scientific progress, Mr. Pinker has taken the trouble to count how many times the word dignity appears (over 100) in the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church. He could have done the same search on international documents on human rights and bioethics and come up with a similar result. If he'd stopped to read the relevant sections of either or both, he might understand why the principle of human dignity is no threat to science. It simply guarantees that progress will not occur at the expense of our common humanity.
Mrs. Wills is Assistant Director for Education & Outreach in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.