Pinker’s Dignified Stupidity?

Steven Pinker has a new article up in The New Republic savaging a new report by the President’s Council on Bioethics on Human Dignity. The report is here.

As background, Pinker notes the influence of this editorial by Ruth Macklin at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx (great place btw, I used to live very close it) where Macklin argues that the concept of dignity is either too vague to be useful or is simply no different than legal notions of autonomy.

If the latter of course, then Pinker’s real aim (which is clear from the essay) to argue for a John Stuart Mill-esque utilitarian ethics hitched with a libertarian legal outlook, then Macklin’s thesis that dignity is no different than autonomy wraps up the debate.

The recent Bioethics Report on Dignity is for Pinker (and I haven’t seen any commentary disagreeing with this particular point of the argument) a response to Macklin.

There are a lot of responses that could be made.  Like Yuval Levin on the paranoid style of Pinker’s attack or its apocalyptic discourse from Douthat.

But I’d like to take a different tact. But what none of these criticisms point out is that Pinker by dint of his philosophical (and by extension political) pov has no choice but to argue for an ethic of utilitarianism.  The reason, following Ken Wilber’s AQAL integral outlook, is as follows.  Pinker argues against the reality of consciousness.  He is a materialist.  He is the author of a book entitled The Stuff of Thought–clearly expressing his primary metaphor of thought as material object.  As opposed to a book entitled something like The Quality of Thought.  Or the Depth of Thought.  Or the Meaning of Thought.

In Wilber’s terminology this is the reduction of the rich Kosmos (left and right hand quadrants) into the flat cosmos (right-hand only quadrants).  When reducing all thought/consciousness (codeword:  dignity) to material, biological reality, then the only ethic is only of increasing pleasure/comfort and decreasing pain/discomfort.  Link that up with Pinker as one in a long line of Anglo-American individualist scientist-philosophers like Hume, Mill, Darwin, Dawkins, and voila you have his view.  His attack particularly focuses as a result on Catholics because of the communitarian-social emphasis (LL as opposed to UL/UR Pinker).

Given that he has destroyed the possibility of making evaluations of depth, then Pinker like any other materialist is still doing the best he reasonably can ethically.  It ends him up transparently shilling for the myths of liberal Enlightenment modernity:  progress, reason, achievement, freedom.  Not that those are bad, just hardly the end all be all he needs them to be to fulfill his thesis.  Not that there aren’t other pieces of evidence for the destruction of modernity, “rational” social organizational ethos, and the like.  [See Postmodernity among many others for any number of these criticisms].

This fundamental monkey wrench in his machine comes out in the following quotation:

Almost every essayist concedes that the concept [dignity] 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.

Actually a moment’s reflection would reveal I think it really isn’t that hard to see how both of those seemingly contradictory things can both be true.  If I had a slave and beat the hell out of him and branded his body like the cattle he would be, then I would have destroyed the dignity of his physical body.  I would have damaged his dignity on an emotional and psychological level because of the abuse.  The status of slave would leave him “undignified” in social ranking.  And yet, again following a notion of Consciousness (which is Ultimately Free even beyond relative political freedom of the kind Pinker and I support), he would be dignified and is dignified inherently, intrinsically in his core.  As a being of consciousness. He would still have a choice how to act (obviously within the confines of slavery) that could be construed as dignified or undignified in the face of cruel slavery, with a great degree of sympathy no doubt to be maintained for the possibility of “undignified” activity as not unrelated to the indignities perpetrated upon his person.

That latter point is important to point out because the Ultimately Free from the perspective of Consciousness (or in more theological terms as child of God) can be either a support, a la abolitionists, to argue for the emancipation of slaves AND a la Southern Christian segregationists that they will get their reward in the after life so we don’t have to bother hurting them in this one.

But if dignity is nothing other autonomy and capacity to reason (as Pinker argues) which would obviously preclude torture or medical experimentation upon someone who chooses in full use of faculties to not have some procedure bio-ethically or otherwise, done to them.  But obviously what about those who do not have such a voice?  Anti-abortion advocates would of course point out the voiceless as including fetuses.  On the other end of the life spectrum, the possibility of euthanasia contrary the will of someone who no longer has faculties of reason and autonomy but whose being would still arguably have dignity and worth.

Those are legitimate questions to be raised and not so easily dismissed as the evil right-wing Christians who hate science and take delight in death.

I will repeat my criticism of (so-called) pro-life elements to show how fair and balanced I am.  Everyone ethically is choosing life and death.  The relevant questions are what kinds of life and death, to what degree, how are they imposed, and how do we reason with one another and keep tabs on our actions in a way that is not mandated by the social-moral police or whatever.  Pinker (just as those he opposes, at least their more radical shrilly elements) wants to imagine himself as pro-life and the enemy as pro-death.  Everyone is combinations of both.


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  1. Actually, a hardcore materialistic utilitarian like myself would argue that without reason and autonomy, there is no ultimate worth. After all, who can truly value my life but myself – somebody who can understand what it feels like to be me? Thus, as they are without this capacity for self-appraisal, I must conclude that foetuses are not intrinsically valuable. (They are, of course, still valuable extrinsically – to the parents, or loved ones).

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