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:
The fallacy Pinker makes here is to conclude that disagreement entails relativity. His examples show that people disagree about what dignity demands. But the mere fact that people disagree about x doesn’t mean that x is relative: people disagree about global warming, but that doesn’t mean whether the earth is warming is a relative matter. (Moral disagreement may be different than scientific disagreement, and thus moral disagreement may imply moral relativism, but that conclusion would require supplementary argument.) So as things stand, it may be that some people are simply wrong about dignity demands, and in their confusion they disagree with others who are correct. Or maybe everyone is wrong or confused about what dignity requires, as in the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
Another explanation for disagreement about dignity’s demands is that these disagreements may be superficial. Suppose Culture X has a convention where callers call back when a phone call is dropped, and Culture Y has a convention that callees call back when a call is dropped. If you knowingly flout your culture’s convention, you’re being (in fact) inconsiderate or rude. Your moral failing is not diminished because the rule in question was fixed by convention, since the moral violation is failing to adhere to a beneficial and accepted convention. so Cultures X and Y differ only superficially—on the conventional level of who ought to call whom—but agree on the importance of being considerate and polite vis-à-vis dropped calls.
Likewise, some determinate facts about what dignity demands will be conventional. My favorite example of this is to imagine your boss ordering you to wear a hula skirt to work. There’s nothing intrinsically undignified about wearing a hula skirt: we would be fine with wearing one if our culture had adopted that sort of dress, and we do not look down on hula-skirt wearing cultures. But given our convention, the request asks us to do something undignified. So although we would reject hula skirts as undignified for ourselves, we do not actually disagree with cultures who see the hula skirt as dignified.
Dignity and pluralism
Pinker’s second complaint is that dignity is “fungible.”
Most of us will agree with Pinker that we should sometimes forsake our dignity, not only for our own wellbeing, but also others’. This observation tells against dignity as a moral consideration only if we expect, as Pinker says the Council does, dignity’s requirements to be inviolable.
But it seems to many philosophers that pluralism about value is more likely true: i.e., that there are multiple distinct, irreducible values which must be weighed against each other when we consider what we ought to do. Pluralism has its difficulties, to be sure. (If there are multiple irreducible values, how can we weigh them against each other? Wouldn’t they be incommensurable?) Nonetheless, our actual reasoning seems to assume pluralism. And for what it’s worth, it isn’t as if the sorts of rights Pinker advocates for instead of dignity—such as autonomy, physical liberty, life, etc.—are not themselves sometimes outweighed by more urgent considerations, as when we may forcibly quarantine someone with a highly contagious, deadly, and untreatable disease. If Pinker’s favored suite of rights are “fungible” in this way, then it doesn’t speak strongly against dignity that we must sometimes forsake a little dignity for more important goods.
Dignity and harm
Pinker’s third complaint is that dignitarian considerations are used to justify harm.
The first thing a defender of dignity should say in reply to this is that Pinker’s examples of harmful “dignity” may not really be demanded by dignity, but rather reflect the distorted, confused, superstitious, or egomaniacal conceptions of dignity at work in the minds of so many. Again, it’s important to see that this isn’t special pleading on behalf of dignity. How would Pinker respond to someone who attacked justice on the grounds that the “justice systems” of the world punish—often cruelly—hundreds of thousands of legally innocent people, as well as millions of people guilty of crimes that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place (such as apostasy or, more controversially, marijuana use)? Or what would he say of someone who pointed out all the immoral wars fought over perceived “injustices”? Presumably Pinker would say that just because people defend their harmful actions by appeal to justice, or even sometimes are genuinely motivated by justice, we cannot conclude that the harmful acts they do are just, and thus that justice itself should be questioned. I agree. But consistency demands that we extend the same courtesy to dignity.
The second thing a defender of dignity should point out in reply is that maybe dignity—genuine dignity—sometimes requires otherwise avoidable harm. This is to be expected if dignity is irreducible to harm-reduction. Justice works the same way. Most people think justice demands punishment even when it will cause harm (to the offender) and not benefit anyone else. Most people think the truth is valuable, even if it will hurt to hear or discover. Likewise, we should expect that, if dignity is a distinct value, it will sometimes require actions that cause suffering for ourselves and others. For example, if an attractive but impoverished woman eschewed sex work because she saw it as beneath her dignity, we usually wouldn’t condemn her, even if the extra money would help her relocate herself and her children to a safer side of town.
SO ALL-IN-ALL I don’t think these three commonly-heard objections to dignity are very good or even show promise. However, we currently do not have a widely accepted theory of dignity, so we have nothing but our guts—our highly biased and idiosyncratic guts—to rely on on questions of dignity. Insofar as good applied ethics requires theory and not just brute intuitions about cases, this problem will continue to weigh heavily against dignity’s invocation in the philosophical mainstream.