In comments below on my post about Yuval Levin’s book, Imagining the Future , Michael Peterson asks : “Will someone, somewhere, define human dignity?” Not me, at least not in this post . . . but here’s an account of what needs to happen first. One of the best passages in Yuval’s book is a dissection of a certain problem conservatives confront in arguing about bioethics. The right, he tells us,

must transform moral sentiments into arguments for morality. Its chief ally in this effort is the deep moral wisdom at the heart of our civilization — by which most Americans live their lives. But the effort itself can pose real risks to precisely the character of that wisdom. The nature of both modern science and modern politics demands that the argument proceed in this way. Both incessantly unveil the veiled and shine light on hidden things. We gain much that is immensely beneficial from both, but we risk losing much if the process of transforming sentiments into arguments is not carried out properly [ . . . ] (128).

For Yuval, the conflict is between the “implicitly mysterious taboo” and the “explicitly known and meticulously scrutinized object” (127). For a number of reasons, I prefer to speak of things forbidden or interdicted instead of things that are taboo; foremost among them, I suppose, is that I think Philip Rieff is right that ancient cultures organized around fate viewed taboos as pertaining to power whereas Jewish and Christian cultures organized around faith viewed interdicts as pertaining to authority. But I also want to suggest that we should distinguish between nouns and verbs that are forbidden, or to be hidden, or shameful, and so on. Because Yuval also notes incisively that the concealed or tacit or secret in our lives, when subject to the forces of contemporary science, becomes “an event wide open to a variety of experimental manipulations” (126). Some forbidden things are forbidden deeds or occurrences which are dragged out into the light to be interacted with in many new ways. But some forbidden things are concrete nouns. And I think I’m safe in saying that one of the ways in which we tend to destroy the forbidden or ‘stigmatized’ character of some nouns is by redescribing them as mere bundles of events or occurances. Scrutinizing an event is a different experience, with different moral implications, than scrutinizing an object. It is perhaps analogous or tantamount to the difference between beholding an image and beholding the real thing the image represents.

Strangely, however, in an effort to maintain the moral sentiments which attach incoherently or inchoately to things kept hidden and secret — things that might be forbidden but might not, and might even be sacred — Yuval finds himself falling back on the virtual language more applicable to the experience of events and images than nouns and realities. Moral sentiments, it turns out, are ‘senses of’ things. Yuval wants conservatives to “develop and articulate a coherent worldview,” especially with regard to “loosely defined terms like ‘human dignity’” (129), and rightly so; but it is hard to tell whether this requires or actually ‘cashes out’ as a “sense of the appropriate uses and limits of human power,” a “sense of what is humanly important,” a “sense of what the future may plausibly bring,” and a “sense of responsibility” (130-31). Yuval winds up leaving us with the paradoxical notion of an “explicit sense of the world” (129).

All this puts me in mind of George Kateb’s introduction to his book The Inner Ocean , a collection of essays that defend the individual, as liberals are apt to do, on the basis of rights. Kateb admits doubt that “Mill would have remained absolute” in his defense of “‘self-regarding’ activity” had he “taken up certain cases that unawareness or decorum prevented him from discussing” — cases like “consensual incest between adults, the use of addictive drugs, voluntary slavery, extreme sadomasochism, nonhomicidal cannibalism, necrophilia, bestiality, and voluntary acceptance of one’s own sacrifice” (13), all things that Kateb rejects as individual rights. He justifies these exclusions by announcing “no right to accept another’s renunciation of a right” (13), but obviously this is as ‘principled’ a stance as the stance against ‘extreme’ sadomasochism, and slips quickly into tautology (whatever you can’t renounce must be a right, and whatever you can, not). Yet Kateb recoils from the determination that these bad things must also be banned things because they “injure the human dignity of people who do them” (14). Since Kateb does not “associate human dignity with any teleology or reason for being,” however, he is forced to raise “in dismay” the fact that he is “not able to deal” with the issue “adequately” (14). He sighs:

Let us say that a society of rights-based individualism encourages these and other crepuscular activities to become topics for open and popular discussion; that that fact can be taken as a paradoxical sign of the moral grandness of such a society, for practically every desire can be honestly admitted and talked about despite shame or without shame [ . . . ] (14).

Here a liberal winds up in the same predicament Yuval diagnoses among conservatives. It turns out that contemporary science and politics alike cause us to treat forbidden things precisely as if they were not forbidden — as the precondition of forming our ‘value judgments’ about them! But why? Perhaps the culprit is scientific and political individualism — methodologically individualist in the first case and rights-based in the second. We have discovered that both these kinds of individualism are in fact corrosive to individual identity. Methodological individualism tells us that only large-n statistical studies, in which the individual is minimized to his or her most interchangeable, can produce usable knowledge; rights-based individualism tells us that people must be allowed to interact expressively in ways that disrupt and undermine the boundaries of personal integrity as long as they want to and ‘aren’t hurting anybody’, although we all recognize that the ‘line’ between what counts as hurting and what doesn’t is, by the lights of rights, arbitrary or inexplicable. So the inevitable result is ‘unrebuttable’ personal testimonies about how you can commit incest and still be a perfectly normal person .

Scientific and political individualism seem to put the definition of dignity in the hands of individuals. But it turns out that they really put the definition of individual in the hands of individuals; no matter what people do to themselves and one another, they appeal to the same basic concept of dignity to justify their acts. Only, they describe their acts as events which somehow fail to strip them of the individual character to which dignity attaches. We stop talking about what you have to do to remain intact as an individual (noun) and start talking almost exclusively about what you can do to experience individuality (verb, adjective, adverb, etc.). The full spectrum of experiences of individuality are said not to destroy dignity, but they corrode or undermine the very thing that it turns out dignity depends on — individual being , which, from this perspective, suddenly looks a lot different from individuality . Our integrity or identity as individuals is actually the precondition of our bearing dignity; dismayingly, we have it within our power to strip ourselves of dignity, even minimal dignity, because we have it within our power to fragment or even destroy our individual being.

What would seem to be needful, then, in order to have a productive conversation about the meaning of human dignity — and in order to preserve our liberal regime — is a prior theory of individual being which isn’t scientific or political.

More on: Books, Theory

Articles by James Poulos

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