Steven Pinker's screed against of the President's Council on Bioethics will be officially published by The New Republic on May 28 (h/t Holopupenko).1 He writes of the Council's recent document Human Dignity and Bioethics,
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. (emphasis added)
Pinker charges that dignity is a vague notion. Perhaps. As vague a notion as “dignity” might be, he seems to have little notion what improvement in life means: to know how to improve life requires a clear notion of the ends or goods that life is supposed to achieve. As we'll see, Pinker can offer little more than "autonomy" as an end of human life.
So it should come as no surprise that Pinker is hopelessly confused about bioethics. Newsflash: the accent belongs on "ethics" not on "bio." "Bio" is a modifier and "ethics" the subject. This is why, as important as scientific data is to its deliberations, it is more important that Council members to have ethical training than that they have scientific training. Science provides the raw material for bioethical discussions (which needs to be parsed scientifically), but the actually thinking in these discussions is unavoidably ethical (that is, extra-scientific).2
Pinker upholds "autonomy" as the true basis of bioethics:
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. (emphasis added)
Newsflash: not all humans have the same capacities "to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose." And even if they did all have the same capacities in these departments, it is much less than clear that they would have the same capacity to articulate themselves and defend their interests. Perhaps he and Macklin are thinking that all humans are adults, but even here, it is still less than clear that the postulated equality holds.
The egalitarian paradigm of "autonomy" appears to work well in the central bright spot of human life, but breaks down on its shadowy borders. Humans both at the beginning and at the end of life cannot reason and choose independently. People in the center of their adulthood struck by illness also lose these capacities.
Of course, Pinker can salvage "autonomy" (restoring its bedrock edges) by maintaining that people lacking these capacities are unworthy of protection. In that case, equal capacity is intended not so much as a description of human beings as much as a re-definition of which lives are "human" and thus worthy of life and legal protection.
But if one is going to monkey around with the definition of "human," it's rather difficult to find a principle that allows one a substantial disagreement with Nazi bioethics: wasn't the Nazi's modus operandi simply to redefine what human lives were worthy of life? These days of so many addictions, it is especially easy to get an individual autonomously to surrender his autonomy. Having "willingly" surrendered his autonomy, such an individual could be easily enough recategorized as non-human and disposed of at will. But then the whole notion of the individual is a legal fiction. "No man is an island," so why should we expect individualism to provide ethical "bedrock"?3
Of course, it would be much easier to take Pinker seriously if he weren’t so manifestly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. But then his bigotry is of a piece with his dislike of the ethical dimension of bioethics. As Walker Percy writes, modern man tries to hold two opposing views in his head: the materialist "scientific" view of himself as a mere organism, and the (remnants of the Judeo-Christian) notion of himself as possessing a sacred worth. The latter of course is the basis of our system of government and rights: our worth and our rights are not based on some ability we have, but on the fact that we are "created human." (Not that the reasoning behind these notions of rights strictly depends on any sort of revealed truth: Aristotle's ethical system without Divine revelation substantially agrees.)
Pinker is perfectly consistent in railing against Jewish and Christian thought. But now we have to wonder: does he really have a substantial disagreement with Mengele? Or does he simply part ways with Mengele's inability to avoid being "caught" by a more powerful authority?
2. Come to think of it, Pinker's misunderstanding of "bioethics," his elision of "ethics," casts into a different light the word's coinage. Was it an attempt by "scientific" biology to usurp the prerogatives of ethics, an attempt to sever or mute its connection with the tradition of ethics? From my understanding, it seems that the people who devised the term were more on Pinker's side of the discussion than on Kass's.
3. Neuhaus had some valuable thoughts on human dignity, which I quoted here.
Steven Pinker, "The Stupidity of Dignity: Conservative bioethics' latest, most dangerous ploy," The New Republic (May 28, 2008). [The histrionic tone evident in "latest, most dangerous" approaches self-parody.]