The Stupidity of Dignity

That’s the title of a truly excellent article by Stephen Pinker for The New Republic. The subject is the 500+ page report by the President’s Council on Biotheics attempting to define what human dignity actually is. I despair of selecting just a few quotes, since the whole article is superb, but I will give it a try beneath the fold.

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.

The report’s oddness begins with its list of contributors. Two (Adam Schulman and Daniel Davis) are Council staffers, and wrote superb introductory pieces. Of the remaining 21, four (Leon R. Kass, David Gelernter, Robert George, and Robert Kraynak) are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life, and another eleven work for Christian institutions (all but two of the institutions Catholic). Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality, but, with three-quarters of the invited contributors having religious entanglements, one gets a sense that the fix is in. A deeper look confirms it.

And later:

Despite these exclusions, the volume finds room for seven essays that align their arguments with Judeo-Christian doctrine. We read passages that assume the divine authorship of the Bible, that accept the literal truth of the miracles narrated in Genesis (such as the notion that the biblical patriarchs lived up to 900 years), that claim that divine revelation is a source of truth, that argue for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the physiology of the brain, and that assert that the Old Testament is the only grounds for morality (for example, the article by Kass claims that respect for human life is rooted in Genesis 9:6, in which God instructs the survivors of his Flood in the code of vendetta: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God was man made”).

The Judeo-Christian–in some cases, explicitly biblical–arguments found in essay after essay in this volume are quite extraordinary. Yet, aside from two paragraphs in a commentary by Daniel Dennett, the volume contains no critical examination of any of its religious claims.

How did the United States, the world’s scientific powerhouse, reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory?

How indeed. This should serve as yet another reminder that the sort of religion that takes its scriptures seriously and wishes to impose its views on others is not some straw man concocted by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. It is is the real thing, and it has a depressing amount of support and power in our society.

The head of the committee is Leon Kass. How crazy is this guy?

Kass has a problem not just with longevity and health but with the modern conception of freedom. There is a “mortal danger,” he writes, in the notion “that a person has a right over his body, a right that allows him to do whatever he wants to do with it.” He is troubled by cosmetic surgery, by gender reassignment, and by women who postpone motherhood or choose to remain single in their twenties. Sometimes his fixation on dignity takes him right off the deep end:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone–a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. … Eating on the street–even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat–displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. … Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. … This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

And, in 2001, this man, whose pro-death, anti-freedom views put him well outside the American mainstream, became the President’s adviser on bioethics–a position from which he convinced the president to outlaw federally funded research that used new stem-cell lines.

One time, when I was in college, I walked out of the cafeteria holding a soft-serve ice cream cone. After a few licks I decided I was full and didn’t really want the cone. That was when I noticed an obviously friendly dog walking toward me, eyeing my ice cream with obvious desire. So I knelt down and extended it toward him, figuring he would take a lick or two. Instead he opened his mouth to a truly impressive degree, and took the entire cone in his mouth, nearly taking off two of my fingers with it. He then chewed it up and swallowed, while I watched in awe. Obviously doggy didn’t have a problem with sensitive teeth.

Seriously, how does it even occur to someone to be offended by people eating ice cream cones in public, or to liken the process to what a cat does? This guy is out of his mind, and yet he has the ear of the President.

One more excerpt, from Pinker’s conclusion:

The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using “dignity” to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes “immortality,” improvement becomes “perfection,” the screening for disease genes becomes “designer babies” or even “reshaping the species.” The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.

Well said! Now go read the whole article.


  1. #1 ERV
    May 14, 2008

    We have a required ethics class in grad school. I would get *so angry* when people confused ‘religion’ and ‘ethics’.

    I was like “Scuze ’em. Not accepting blood transfusions is not a ‘moral’ issue. Not doing stem cell research with unused fertilized eggs is not a ‘moral’ issue. Its religion.”

    That being said, Arnie also eats ice cream cones with his whole head. Its like his jaw is double jointed. NOM!!

  2. #2 Anon
    May 15, 2008

    quick question–have you read Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom & Dignity”? Does this Pinker article define dignity the same way Skinner did, back in 1971?

  3. #3 Larry Ayers
    May 15, 2008

    That was a good Stephen Pinker article. I quoted the rather odd and neurotic “cat-licking” quote from Leon Kass in a post at my blog.

    It’s a bit scary to think that Kass affects current politics, an advisor to our government. He seems to have some peculiar issues which should be dealt with, or ignored by the rest of us…

  4. #4 noncarborundum
    May 15, 2008

    One wonders how (or indeed whether) Kass ever manages to eat a sandwich, or an apple. By dainty forkfuls?

  5. #5 Russell Blackford
    May 15, 2008

    Dammit, Pinker is stealing a lot of my thunder here … but it is indeed a great article.

  6. #6 natural cynic
    May 15, 2008

    I seems that Kass’ fussiness and dignity didn’t rub off on his boss/

  7. #7 The Neurocritic
    May 15, 2008

    I think the previous commenter wanted to link to an image of Bush with an ice cream cone, like the one here,

    …or this one, from a White House press release:

    Kass couldn’t even bring himself to say what really bugs him about people eating ice cream cones in public (and it’s not catlike licking):

  8. #8 ChuckO
    May 15, 2008

    If we still lived in a Freudian era, you could have a real field day with this guy Kass. Hmmm, what does licking a ice cream cone represent in Freudian terms?

  9. #9 bobyu
    May 15, 2008

    With a name like Kass, for the sake of maintaining any dignity, you might as well have had a name like Smuckers.

  10. #10 Nomen Nescio
    May 15, 2008

    Seriously, how does it even occur to someone to be offended by people eating ice cream cones in public, or to liken the process to what a cat does?

    more to the point, has he ever watched a domestic cat at the food bowl? they might be the most prissy, prim and careful eaters among the non-human animals. i sometimes wish i could eat as neatly, and i’m one who prefers to eat my hamburgers with knife and fork.

  11. #11 Kurt
    May 15, 2008

    noncarborundum: One wonders how (or indeed whether) Kass ever manages to eat a sandwich, or an apple. By dainty forkfuls?

    That reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George starts eating candy bars with a knife and fork… but it sounds like Kass is far more neurotic than George Costanza was.

  12. #12 Pierce R. Butler
    May 15, 2008

    Pinker doesn’t mention this one way or the other, but somehow I suspect that the entire 500+ pages of this book on the primacy of human dignity from the President’s Council on Bioethics don’t include the words “waterboarding”, “Guantanamo”, “Abu Ghraib”, or “Geneva Convention” – not even once.

  13. #13 Comstock
    May 15, 2008

    [quote]If we still lived in a Freudian era, you could have a real field day with this guy Kass. Hmmm, what does licking a ice cream cone represent in Freudian terms?[/quote]
    We do still live in a Freudian era, which is why people in these very comments have noted that Kass clearly has his own issues that he is dealing with. Modern psychology might not subscribe to all the nuances of Freud’s theories. Heck, a lot of the specifics are without a doubt totally disregarded by modern analysts. But he still laid the groundwork for the much of the modern understanding of mind and behavior and such.

  14. #14 AnswersInGenitals
    May 15, 2008

    Bioethicists are like quarks: they are never found in isolation, but only in groupings referred to as “committees”. Any attempt to isolate a bioethicist (by injecting large quantities of cash, for example) only results in the creation of new groupings called sub-committees.

    Where there any Chinese on the council? Many Chinese consider that cutting up one’s food with knife and fork at the table in front of others is extremely uncouth. The food should be prepared in the kitchen in bite size pieces to be eaten at the table with chop sticks. Don’t know how they attack ice cream cones.

  15. #15 Caledonian
    May 15, 2008

    Yes, in the same way that alchemy laid the groundwork for chemistry.

    That doesn’t make searching for the Philosopher’s Stone or trying to turn lead into gold are any less kooky, and it doesn’t make alchemical thought any less ridiculous.

  16. #16 Chris Bell
    May 15, 2008

    Did you see the prissy response from Yuval Levin? If I had more time, I would Fisk it myself. Distortions of Pinker’s argument from top to bottom.

  17. #17 windy
    May 15, 2008

    “Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone–a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.”

    If licking an ice cream cone in public was good enough for MacGyver, it’s good enough for me! (What, me Freudian?)

  18. #18 Ivar Husa
    May 15, 2008

    Pierce Butler’s observation that waterboarding wasn’t mentioned even once is at once perceptive and wickedly funny.

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 15, 2008

    Chris Bell-

    Thanks for the link to Levin’s response. It’s pretty ridiculous. I love the part where Levin refers to the “devastating grilling” Pinker received from the Council when Pinker testified before them. Go have a look at the transcript and see if you can find any trace either of devastation or of grilling.

  20. #20 JimCH
    May 15, 2008



  21. #21 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    May 16, 2008

    Thanks for calling attention to it, JimCH. I, for one, would have missed a chuckle.

  22. #22 Reginald Selkirk
    May 16, 2008

    “Dignity” was cited in the California Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on gay marriage.

  23. #23 Reginald Selkirk
    May 16, 2008

    From Levin’s response:

    Pinker’s essay is a striking exhibit of a set of attitudes toward religion and the West’s moral tradition that has become surprisingly common among America’s intellectual elite. It is a mix of fear, suspicion, and disgust that has a lot to do, for instance, with the Left’s intense paranoia about the Bush administration, and with the peculiar notion that American conservatives have declared a “war on science”;…

    Fear, suspicion and disgust are all appropriate responses. “Paranoia” is the wrong word, since the Bush administration is indeed out to increase its own power and emaciate our civil liberties. Whether or not notions about the Republican war on science are “peculiar,” they are fully justified by the facts.

  24. #24 Unsympathetic reader
    May 17, 2008

    Kass is kinda the “Rifkin of Bioethics”, forever doomed to chasing his tail. Or rather, he would have been doomed to chasing his tail and being ignored if not for the up-is-down world of George Bush the Younger.

    I do find it odd that nobody on the Ethics Council who has a Ph.D. is actually trained as a scientist. That unique experience seems to have been reserved for the MDs. I think that’s a good thing, at least in the sense that it hopefully reflects, perhaps, on the better judgment of Ph.D. scientists to *not* be on a committee such as that one. Leave that work to those more comfortable with playing God, like philosophers and medical doctors.

  25. #25 Unsympathetic reader
    May 17, 2008

    I take it back: I do like Floyd Bloom. But WFT is he doing slumming there?

  26. #26 Russell Blackford
    May 17, 2008

    Just to flog my wares a bit, I’ve had a fair bit to say about this subject of dignity in various places, and I really must consolidate it all somewhere in the light of this new report having appeared from the President’s Council.

    But I reckon I had a pretty good swipe Fukuyama’s views over here:

    (Francis Fukuyama has, of course, been one of the key allies of Kass on the President’s Council.)

    By the way, two things:

    1. Kass doesn’t head up the Council anymore, Jason.

    2. For those taking the opportunity to attack bioethicists, your comments are misplaced. People like Kass give bioethics a bad name. Mainstream bioethicists like Peter Singer (when he’s doing work in philosophical bioethics) and the various folk who edit the refereed journals in the field (e.g., Bioethics, American Journal of Bioethics, Journal of Medical Ethics, Monash Bioethics Review … to name the ones that I’ve had some connection with) are not even remotely like Kass. One goddamn huge problem with the President’s Council is that it’s been designed (clearly deliberately) to exclude most mainstream bioethical opinion.

  27. #27 bob koepp
    May 17, 2008

    For what it’s worth, there’s definitely something odd about the way Kass has (mis)appropriated ‘dignity’ to oppose mainstream bioethics’ championing of autonomy. The central role of autonomy in bioethics reflects Kantian influences; and Kant was quite clear that in his view, the capacity for autonomy is the ground of human dignity. Fancy that!

  28. #28 aSk Blogcu
    May 19, 2008

    En GŁnceL Teknoloji ve Bilim Haberleri Sitesi… Mutlaka Girmelisiniz..

    En GŁnceL Teknoloji ve Bilim Haberleri Sitesi… Mutlaka Girmelisiniz..

  29. #29 SteveWH
    May 21, 2008

    Sorry, I’m a little late to the debate. While I generally agreed with Pinker’s position (Kass is an ethical idiot who deserves to be taken to task for his poorly thought-out and weakly defended positions), I can’t really get behind this article. Pinker makes a major error – he equivocates on the word ‘dignity’.

    “Dignity”, in an ethical context, is a deontological term (deontology is the ethical theory that looks at the nature of the action to decide whether it is morally right or wrong, rather than, say, the consequences or the character and motives of the agent). To say that someone or something has dignity is to say that it is morally wrong to treat that person or thing in certain ways, regardless of the consequences of refraining from the action. Pinker talks about ‘dignity’ in terms of “being dignified”, that is, bearing yourself in a socially respectable way. Same word, very different idea.

    It’s clear form Pinker’s first paragraph that he’s starting from a very different ethical perspective – consequentialism – which says that whether or not an act is morally right or wrong depends on the outcomes of that action. Consequentialism and deontology are two very distinct ethical theories with very different implications for action and policy. This is where the main disagreement lies – Pinker and the (self-proclaimed) Defenders of Dignity make very different assumptions about how to think about ethics. The rest of the details fall out from that disagreement.

    I haven’t read any of the book Pinker is reviewing, but having read a bit of Kass’s work and being somewhat familiar with the President’s Council, I would not be surprised if a lot of Pinker’s general assessment of the book and its motivations are accurate. But he doesn’t do himself or biomedicine any favors by completely missing the point of “dignity”.

    Oh, and Pinker also makes a lot of assumptions about what it means for people to be “better off” and “worse off”, and even if I generally agree with him, he shouldn’t use assumptions that his opponents don’t share without defending them at least a little.

  30. #30 Robert Kraynak
    October 12, 2008

    I think that people are missing the weakness of Pinker’s argument – dignity may be a term that is difficult to define, but are so are terms like “justice ” which are nonetheless essential to politics. Pinker’s appeal to justice as resepct for the autonomy of people is one version of the human dignity argument. It means he too believes in human dignity, but he can’t ground it in his Darwinian materialism which undermines dignity, justice, rights and other ethical norms and he basically cannot oppose the idea of the strong taking away the autonomy of the weak. Pinker needs to admit his dependence on some version of dignity, as the special moral status of human beings which merits respect.

  31. #31 izolasyon
    November 1, 2008


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