Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, has written something of a screed in The New Republic in which he's very critical of a book produced by the President's Council on Bioethics addressing the role of human dignity in formulating public policy. He's even more critical of the book's contributors and passes up no opportunity to insult them for their views and the religious assumptions which inform them. Pinker is an atheist and is therefore of the belief that dignity, if it exists at all, is irrelevant to human ethical thinking.
There are three sections of his piece to which I'd like to call special attention. In the first Pinker writes:
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 (Italics mine).
This is a good illustration of the confusions in which one gets mired once one abandons the notion of transcendence. The italicized claim is a non-sequitur. How does it follow from the fact that we share certain traits in common that therefore no one has the right to "impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another?" What is the logical connection between the two propositions? There simply isn't any.
Moreover, Macklin and Pinker confuse autonomy with dignity. It is not our autonomy that confers rights upon us. It's the fact that we have dignity. Our autonomy follows from the fact we have a prima facie right, bestowed by God, to be treated with respect. Indeed, this is what dignity is and we have that right because we are created in the image of God and because He loves and values each one of us.
If there is no God, if we're simply a cosmic accident, then not only has no one any right to be treated with respect but no one has any natural rights at all. Whatever rights we have are purely legal, they're just words on paper.
To be fair, most of the chapters in the Dignity volume don't appeal directly to Catholic doctrine, and of course the validity of an argument cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions. Judged solely on the merits of their arguments, how well do the essayists clarify the concept of dignity?
By their own admission, not very well. Almost every essayist concedes that the concept remains slippery and ambiguous. In fact, it spawns outright contradictions at every turn. We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone's dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away. We read that dignity reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. We also read that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity in full measure. Several essayists play the genocide card and claim that the horrors of the twentieth century are what you get when you fail to hold dignity sacrosanct. But one hardly needs the notion of "dignity" to say why it's wrong to gas six million Jews or to send Russian dissidents to the gulag.
Well, then. Why is it wrong for those who have the power to murder and enslave others to actually do it? David Berlinski in The Devil's Delusion quotes Heinrich Himmler, faced with the difficulties posed by Germany's treaty obligations with surrounding countries, as wondering aloud, "What, after all, compels us to keep our promises?" Indeed, Berlinski asks, what does?
On what grounds does Pinker, or any atheist, deny that might makes right? Like many atheists, Pinker believes that somehow moral right, wrong, and obligation can exist in a world where human beings are simply flesh and bone machines. This is the atheist delusion, if you will. They think they can still make meaningful moral judgments after having sawn off the metaphysical branch upon which they're sitting. Having rejected any adequate transcendent ground for moral right and wrong they're left with nothing but their own subjective feelings upon which they base moral pronouncements proclaimed ex cathedra, as though they were grounded in some inexorable law of the universe.
Here's an example:
Worst of all, theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. Even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. And that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.
Forget about the obvious mendacity of the first sentence. Ask instead, yet again, what grounds Pinker has for being outraged by such an affront were it really the case. Once more, all he's doing is emoting, telling us something about his own likes and dislikes, declaring to all and sundry that he doesn't feel good about allowing moral constraints to hold up biomedical progress. But of course, that's no reason for him to think such impediments are actually wrong. On his view they can be nothing more than an unfortunate inconvenience.
Pinker suffers from an advanced case of the atheist's delusion, the belief that moral obligation can be grounded entirely in one's own feelings, and perhaps only a miracle, ironically enough, can cure him.
Yuval Levin offers a devastating response to Pinker's other claims at NRO.RLC