Steven Pinker on “dignity” (Diigo Bookmarks 05/17/08)

by Yule Heibel on May 16, 2008

    This is a great essay by Steven Pinker, which skewers the conservatives’ “latest, most dangerous ploy,” namely their “defense” of “dignity.” Pinker proceeds from bioethicist Ruth Macklin’s 2003 challenge to the conservatives, her essay, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.”

    From his essay:

    The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. 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. [Source

    Exactly. Autonomy should be the key driver — not some “wooly” concept of dignity, which, as Pinker points out, is usually used as a weapon to keep “uppity” people in place (women, for example, or gays wanting to marry, and so on). From “dignity of…” to “sanctity of…” is just a small shift, after all. And once they’ve cowed people with the godawful sanctity stuff, the authoritarians have won.

  • tags: bioneering, bioethics, ethics, dignity, steven_pinker, autonomy

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