Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How Dignified Are Appeals to "Dignity"?

The standard Dictionary definition of dignity is "the state of being worthy of honor or respect". Many human actions are classified as immoral because they allegedly contravene the requirements of dignity. What should we make of such vague claims? Not much.

Steven Pinker rips the new President's Council of Bioethics Report on Human Dignity and Bioethics in his aptly titled review "The Stupidity of Dignity". Here is a sample:

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

...Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

...How did the United States, the world's scientific powerhouse, reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory? Part of the answer lies with the outsize influence of Kass, the Council's founding director (and an occasional contributor to TNR), who came to prominence in the 1970s with his moralistic condemnation of in vitro fertilization, then popularly known as "test-tube babies." As soon as the procedure became feasible, the country swiftly left Kass behind, and, for most people today, it is an ethical no-brainer. That did not stop Kass from subsequently assailing a broad swath of other medical practices as ethically troubling, including organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants, even the dissection of cadavers.

And this editorial in the latest issue of Nature also rips into ethical appeals to the concept:

The law introduced by Switzerland in 2004 to protect the dignity of animals, plants and other life forms is now in conflict with the country's research agenda. Two top Swiss universities have been forced to appeal to the supreme court in a bid to secure the right to perform perfectly reasonable experiments that have been banned because they are said to offend the dignity of the non-human primates involved. The problem in this instance lies in an interpretation of the law that flies in the face of research reality.

The Swiss law is at odds not only with beneficial research but also with good sense. Even plant scientists potentially face restrictions on the kinds of genetic engineering they are allowed to do, and debates have arisen about the abuse of dignity in decapitating wild flowers.

These two stories nicely illustrate how lapses in our moral thinking can adversely impact the flourishing of human societies.