Steven Pinker’s Stupid Tantrum

May 14, 2008

I just read a ridiculous screed by Steven Pinker in the New Republic that is beyond ludicrous. His primary purpose seems to be to attack Leon Kass, who agree or disagree with him, is a very serious thinker. A secondary point seems to be that the President’s Council on Bioethics is pushing a Catholic agenda. The third point is that human dignity is no basis for crafting public policy and bioethical principles.

It might help his case if Pinker could get his facts straight. Case in point: Pinker writes that Kass was appointed to head the President’s Council on Bioethics, “a position from which he convinced the president to outlaw federally funded research that used new stem-cell lines.” But that is exceedingly strange since, 1) the Council did not exist when the president’s policy was made and, indeed, was only created in the aftermath of that decision, 2) if Kass (who is Jewish) were really pushing the Catholic line, the President would not have permitted any funding of ESCR. You see, the Catholic Church opposed the Bush plan, and 3) as far as I know Kass has never publicly commented upon funding of ESCR nor on it propriety or lack thereof. But what the hey, why let facts ruin a good demagogic jeremiad?

Pinker goes even further off the rails in his blather over the President’s Council’s focus on human dignity as a basis for bioethical decision making. As I understand the term and its use in bioethical discourse, dignity means the intrinsic value and overarching importance of human life–which apparently Pinker opposes. But he makes a fool of himself by misusing the term as it is used in bioethics debates–to mean something much less. For example, Pinker says that dignity is “fungible.” From his rant:

The Council and Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread- eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety.

Pinker is completely missing the point, probably on purpose, by mixing up what we might call capital-D Dignity, e.g. intrinsic worth, value, and importance with small-d dignity, e.g., not being in a humiliating or potentially demeaning circumstance. I didn’t lose my intrinsic worth because I had a colonoscopy last summer. But it wasn’t something I would want to do in public and yes, it would be embarrassing to have it done in display window. But protecting the importance of human life and the minor “indignities” of being comical whilst getting out of a small car or the ludicrous posturings of hot sex are two totally different concepts.

He also states that dignity is “harmful,” again misusing the term totally:

ean Bethke Elshtain rhetorically asked, “Has anything good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity?” The answer is an emphatic “yes.” Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader’s conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.

Wow, that’s original: The Left branding someone perceived to be on the Right, as a Taliban. But such name calling is par for the course for a certain mindset, particularly when it comes to Kass: Apparently they can’t out argue him philosophically, so they resort to the cheapest name calling.

But back to the point: Surely Pinker–who is after all a Ph.D–knows that the kind of phony dignity to which he refers is not what the term means in the bioethics debate. And indeed, terrible harm does come from denying Capital D human dignity. Slavery is a perfect example. The intrinsic dignity of slaves is denied by their very servitude. Eugenics is another example, in which the equal moral worth of some were denied, leading to mass forced and involuntary sterilization. The list is long.

Pinker’s tantrum is emblematic of a certain mindset that fervently desires to pursue an anything goes bioethics and biotechnology and is like phosphorous hitting the air when confronted with a different value system. Pathetic.

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