Human “Dignity”

Steven Pinker has an in-depth article in The New Republic, entitled “The Stupidity of Dignity,” examining the 555-page report, Human Dignity and Bioethics, released by the President’s Council on Bioethics. In it, he exposes the problems with the concept of human “dignity,” the explicitly religious nature of much of the report, the general kookiness of the Council’s founding director, Leon R. Kass. It is an excellent, well-written and thoughtful piece; go and check it out.
[via EvolutionBlog]


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3 Responses to “Human “Dignity””

  1. Sigurd Says:

    The problem I see is the traditional pot-and-kettle argument, which is why I take any political commentary with a hefty dose of salt. The author raises some good points, particularly about the background of the essayists – but leaves off stating what their backgrounds actually are, educationally at least. He cites the ‘ice cream cone’ excerpt, but that quote begins with ‘worst of all from this point of view’, which implies that the original author was expressing a point of view, that may or may not be his own – and, judging from the content, the original author him- or herself likely sees as absurd. I’m curious what the content was in the preceding and following paragraphs, but the article’s author is only presenting the absurdity without the context.

    The problem is that it instills cause for doubt. I try to examine what I read critically, when it comes to news and politics at least. Anything can be nitpicked to death, but I refrain because I’m as interested in the point the writer is trying to make as I am their basis – people can have a point and still be wrong, after all. But in instances like this, the author is, at the very least, citing poorly – while the example is indeed absurd, if he’s trying to show the incompetence or slant of the author of the cited work, he could have picked a better citation (assuming he’s correct). But that’s at best. At worst, he’s blatantly quote-mining to paint the picture he wants. By fumbling the execution, he leads me to question beyond whether or not he’s a careless researcher. By fumbling it badly, he leads me to wonder how deep the rabbit-hole of his own slant really goes.

    I’m not expecting any political commentator to be objective – frankly, considering the time and attention it takes to do the job, I think that’s generally unrealistic. But execution like that not only shoots you and your case in the foot, it adds to the laundry list of causes for doubt in political media.

  2. twistedone151 Says:


    First, Steven Pinker is not exactly a political commentator: he’s a cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist (see here. Secondly, that quote from Leon Kass does, in fact, express Mr. Kass’ views (more on Mr. Kass). Here’s a webpage that has more of that quote, which comes from his book “The Hungry Soul.”
    Lastly, you can actually read the 555-page report in question here, and see for yourself how much the report relies on “the yuck factor,” religious (Christian) arguements, and kookiness in line with Mr. Kass’ other remarks.

  3. Sigurd Says:

    Fair enough on most points, but doesn’t negate some of my reservations. Whatever Pinker’s own background (which was nice to know), he’s put on the cap of commentator for this peace which, whatever else it may be, seems pretty clearly a political subject. I may be stretching the concept of ‘political’ from the connotative to the denotative, but not much.

    As far as I’m concerned, while the quote from the book may be indicative of Kass’ own views, I still don’t think it establishes it with any amount of conclusiveness. The qualifying portion of the quote still has its effect on the following text. He is encouraging the reader to step outside their own shoes for a minute, but it’s basically unclear whether those shoes are his. It’s good to be able to read the rest of the text – the body of it instead of just the incendiary parts. But, critically, this still isn’t enough to convince me that this is Kass’ own view.

    The last part brings me to what may be the main underlying issue by my view. This is the Internet. A great deal of information is available at our whim, but the quality is always questionable and deserving of scrutiny, if a user is to really distinguish facts. Kass’ Wikipedia article is pretty well cited, so no strong complaints in this case. Pinker discussed a text that he never linked or really cited – just quoted, which is an important difference to me. If he cited it, I could pull up the report, find his quote and read the surrounding material for my own verification. A word search will perform a similar function, but I that’s not the point I’m getting at.

    As a professional in a technical and research field, there’s no way he could be what he is without familiarity with citation. By not doing so, it’s implicit that either he A) expects the reader to have already read the work ourselves, B) expects us to continue on by tracking down the 555-page document ourselves and reading it after his article, or C) never to read it. Not linking the article either makes my impression swing towards the former.

    I admit, when it comes to web articles (now, because of them, extended to print media), I’m suspicious. I think I have good cause for it. I’m probably going to at least skim the document myself, now that he’s brought it to our attention. So, if his goal was option B, he’s succeeded. But, as stated in my last post, giving clear cause for doubt does not really cement his position as a credible source to me – even if Pinker turns out to be one, so much the better, but he’s getting me into the habit of doing his homework for myself because he’s not sharing.

    And this is the rub – I’m an interested party, and considering there’s not a single quote from the 28-essay, 555-page document, that’s my only responsible choice. Whatever his qualifications, Pinker is a stranger to me. I’m not taking anything, especially something this charged, on faith. If he’s right, so much the better, but he’s serving much more as a signpost than a digest. Which isn’t what I’m looking for – and I would have really valued it if it had been.

    Again, this may be an anachronism of mine. The WWW being what it is, I suppose the only reasonable expectation of an intelligent audience would be for them to check the facts themselves. It would have been nice if I’d been able to rely on him for material to form some expectations and questions, though.

    It occurs to me that I may be rambling. This is a pretty good subject, but it’s large, and out of respect for my audience I want to be thorough. I hope I haven’t beaten the dead horse too badly.

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