Human dignity has long been a contentious subject in American bioethics. A frequently employed if ill-defined concept in European political life, in international law, and in the ethical tradition of the West, dignity has had a particularly hard time finding its precise meaning and place in the Anglo-American sphere. Is it just a synonym for equality or autonomy, or does it describe something else — a concept foreign to our political vocabulary? And either way, does it belong in an American bioethics, or is it best left safely across the pond? Different scholars and observers through the years have taken for granted quite different definitions of the term, while others have simply denied its utility altogether.
To try to organize the dispute and help to make sense of the term, the President’s Council on Bioethics — established
by President Bush in 2001 to, among other things, “provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues” — recently produced a collection of essays
laying out the range of views on human dignity for public examination. The council (which I served as executive director during part of the president’s first term) invited two dozen experts, including members of the council itself as well as outside academics and writers, to offer their thoughts on human dignity and bioethics.
The volume has so far drawn a modest response from bioethicists and others, some applauding the effort to lay out the range of opinions, and some bemoaning the lack of agreement on so seemingly basic a concept. But this week, in the latest issue of The New Republic, the volume has also elicited a bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol from an academic celebrity. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of books on language, cognition, and evolutionary biology, seems to have decided that the concept of human dignity is not only “stupid” but is a weapon of aggression in the arsenal of a religious crusade intent on crushing American liberty and “imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy.”
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”; and it involves more generally an inclination to reject any idea drawn in any way from a religiously inspired tradition — which unfortunately includes just about everything in the humanities.
These elements are all powerfully evident in Pinker’s screed. After briefly introducing the subject, his essay manages almost entirely to ignore the substance of the volume under consideration (taking up no particular essay in the book, for instance) and addresses itself instead to what the author imagines is a sinister Catholic conspiracy to subject the nation to a papist theology of death. With deep alarm Pinker informs his readers that some of the contributors to the volume make their living at such “Christian institutions” as Georgetown University and that some of the essays even mention the Bible, which leads him to conclude that the work of the bioethics council, in this book and in general, “springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.”
This is, to begin with, patent nonsense. Even a cursory review of the council’s reports and deliberations will demonstrate it has spent significantly less time than even its Clinton administration predecessor considering any explicitly religious views or discussing religious issues, and has in no way sought to ground any positions, arguments, or recommendations in religion. Huffing in his panicked flight from an imaginary inquisition, Pinker seems unable to distinguish between an openness to learning from the insights of the Western tradition and an assertion of sectarian theology. He even rejects the pedagogical value of literature (hectoring one contributor to the volume who has dared mention a novel), and seems to treat as a noxious pollutant any artifact of our civilization that has not been peer-reviewed by a committee of tenured biologists.