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.
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.