IN 2008, Steven Pinker wrote a New Republic essay titled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” which slammed George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics’ report Human Dignity and Bioethics. Pinker objected to the frequent and central appeals to “dignity” in the Report’s moral rationales. The first few sections of Pinker’s essay criticize the uniquely Judeo-Christian—especially Catholic—conception of dignity the Council assumes. But later in the essay Pinker offers three objections to dignity as a “foundation for bioethics.”
In fact, Pinker’s three objections to dignity-based (or “dignitarian”) arguments in bioethics, if sound, would undermine such rationales in all areas of applied ethics. And since Pinker’s concerns are still often echoed in philosophy forums—indeed, in some recent talks these sorts of objections have been levied in reply to my dignitarian defense of gun rights—it’s still worth our time to consider them.
In this post, then, I’m going to critique Pinker’s objections to dignitarian rationales. My reply will not assume any particular conception of dignity (Catholic or otherwise), so it should be useful to all sorts of dignitarians. Nonetheless, this is a purely defensive exercise in that I don’t offer any new reasons to think dignitarian concerns should play a role in applied ethics. I simply argue that Pinker’s objections fail to show they shouldn’t.
Dignity: relative or objective?
Pinker’s first objection to the relevance of dignity in bioethics is that dignity is relative: Continue reading