Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pinker on Dignity

This must be from some far-right rant site, right?

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. ... Eating on the street--even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat--displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.
No, those are the written musings of Leon Kass, our so-called president's point man on bioethics, as quoted by Stephen Pinker. Pinker has written a response to the 555-page report, Human Dignity and Bioethics, recently issued by Kass and the rest of the so-called president's council on bioethics.

Kass's barely-concealed hatred of the human body comes shrouded in a concern for dignity, a wooly scare-word of a concept cribbed, as Pinker expertly shows, from the annals of Catholic dogma. Here is the most Pinker is able to say in favor of dignity:
A value on dignity in this precise sense does have an application to biomedicine, namely greater attention to the dignity of patients when it does not compromise their medical treatment. The volume contains fine discussions by Pellegrino and by Rebecca Dresser on the avoidable humiliations that today's patients are often forced to endure (like those hideous hospital smocks that are open at the back). No one could object to valuing dignity in this sense, and that's the point. When the concept of dignity is precisely specified, it becomes a mundane matter of thoughtfulness pushing against callousness and bureaucratic inertia, not a contentious moral conundrum. And, because it amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it's just another application of the principle of autonomy.
Go read the whole thing. It's an excellent summary of what's at stake in the struggles between science and faith, reality and ideology, reasoning and gesturing toward reasoning.


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