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In May, Steven Pinker published in the New Republic a jeremiad against dignity as a tool of thought in bioethics. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, works at the interface of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and psychology. He is, like most of that kind of psychologist, a materialist and naturalist in philosophy, and a Democrat in politics—and he is reflexively allergic to interventions in public-policy debates by Jews and Christians who speak and think as such.

He usually writes a clear, energetic, and winsome prose, but “The Stupidity of Dignity” was densely clotted with passion and threaded darkly with irrational hatreds. The occasion was Pinker’s reading of Human Dignity and Bioethics, a 550-page volume of essays commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Several things distress him about the volume.

First, he doesn’t like the fact that many of its contributors “work for Christian institutions” or “are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life.” He is especially exercised by the prominence of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the volume’s essays, even in those by non-Catholics. And he is even more exercised by the connections that some of the council’s members, and more of the volume’s contributors, have with First Things. (Along the way, Pinker asserts, incorrectly, that the council’s original chairman, Leon Kass, has been a board member of First Things.)

On its face, these worries are instances of simple, dogmatic antireligious sentiment: If it’s Catholic or Jewish, it must be bad. Pinker himself sees this, sometimes, and draws back from it: “Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality . . . . Of course, the validity of an argument cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions.” But these of courses are interspersed with several paragraphs—perhaps one-fourth of the entire piece—in which these motives and affiliations are expounded at length.

Second, and more substantively, Pinker thinks that dignity is largely useless as a moral concept and that the uses it does have are not distinctive. It has, he thinks, no currently clear and agreed definition, and it is relative in the sense that its meaning varies according to time, place, and culture. This is the fungible-and-relative objection.

When applied to questions in bioethics, Pinker insists, the notion of dignity produces deeply negative results, including the rejection of the principle that medical practice ought to maximize health and flourishing; rejection of the “modern conception of freedom”; advocacy of “pro-death and anti-freedom views” (said specifically of Leon Kass’ deployment of the dignity idea); and support of “moralistic justification[s] for expanded government regulation of science, medicine, and private life.” This is the bad-results objection.

In light of these objections, Pinker thinks (following the bioethicist Ruth Macklin) that bioethical argument ought to replace dignity with autonomy. That concept of autonomy provides all that’s needed by way of safeguard against abuse, and it does so without the drawbacks of dignity.

Well. Let’s take the fungible-and-relative criticism first. About this, Pinker is largely correct. It is indeed the case that there are wide and deep differences among the contributors to the volume he discusses as to what dignity means and, therefore, what it permits and rules out. This fact, by the way, calls into question Pinker’s depiction of the volume as a stalking-horse for the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church: If it were that, there’d be less variation on this matter than there is.

He’s also right that understandings of what it means to be dignified or to have dignity have varied over time. This is obviously true with respect to which human behaviors are thought dignified: Habits of dress provide the most obvious examples of variation (near-nakedness at dinner is dignified in some places and times, and very much not so in others), but it is true, too, with respect to sexual and eating habits (Kass thinks licking ice cream cones in public undignified; I, like Pinker, do not). Pinker is right, too, about variance in understandings of what human dignity essentially consists in. Some have thought that human dignity is given most essentially by being an image of God; others that it is given most fundamentally by being capable of rational thought or by feeling pain while knowing that one is doing so. The candidates are numerous.

But it’s hard to see why Pinker takes this to be a criticism of the concept. He certainly does not tell us why. He merely opposes it to the concept of autonomy, as though that idea were transparent and thus neither fungible nor relative. But of course it is at least as opaque, fungible, and relative as dignity. Though it has a much shorter history, autonomy exhibits at least as much variation in the ways it has been understood and applied as dignity does.

This is because autonomy, like dignity, is a high-order abstraction in theoretical anthropology, intimately linked in any particular instance with some particular and disputable understanding of what human beings are. Appeals to autonomy made by a materialist—someone who thinks that a complete inventory of what there is in the cosmos includes only things that take up space—look different from such appeals made by a Jungian or a Freudian or a Marxist. Terms such as dignity and autonomy rest, whenever they are deployed, in the close embrace of detailed and particular construals of what it is to be human. Pinker’s sleight of hand in his diatribe is to pretend (duplicitously?—for surely he knows better) that this is not so in the case of autonomy. The fungible-and-relative criticism is no more than hand waving, a thoughtless prejudice given verbal form.

More interesting is the bad-results objection: the claim that those who like to talk about human dignity are thereby led to have public-policy thoughts they shouldn’t have and that certainly ought not be enacted in a modern and free society. By contrast, he says, the public-policy thoughts of those who like autonomy-talk belong in such a society and ought to be enacted there.

Pinker offers few examples to support this contention. So I’ll provide them for him. Autonomy-talkers typically support, among many other things, the effective absence of legal constraint on the availability of the following: the taking of human life in the womb; the bringing into being of humans as sources of stem cells; the bringing into being of humans as sources of cells and tissue for other humans (the English have a nice phrase for this—“savior siblings”); the freedom to kill the sick by removing nutrition and hydration from them; and the medical killing of those who seek and consent to it. Dignity-talkers are likely to oppose these public-policy positions. Autonomy-talk, therefore, provides what dignity-talk prevents: To replace the latter with the former yields, on the dominant present understanding, real difference. Pinker knows this. It’s just that he’d like to avoid arguing about it.

Of course, autonomy-talkers will not ordinarily describe what they advocate in the terms I’ve just used. That fact provides more evidence, if any is needed, that there is no transparency in these matters: How you prefer to describe these public-policy questions is inevitably deeply articulated with what you think human beings are, and are for. There is a real debate to be had—and it is being had; the volume to which Pinker objects is a contribution to it—between advocates of different understandings of these matters. It is to Pinker’s discredit to attempt an end run around these debates by excluding some positions on them as inappropriate to a modern democracy. To do that is obscurantist.

The deep question here is not that of transparency or religion or democracy or freedom. It begins, rather, with a need to find out what autonomy-talk and dignity-talk dispose us to think and advocate. The short answer is that autonomy-talkers such as Pinker are likely to think of worth principally in terms of capacity and thus to draw small the circle of those understood to be human and thereby in principle exempt from deliberate killing or damage. Dignity-talkers, Catholic or not, are likely to think of worth principally in terms of gift and thus to draw that same circle large. The quantity of blood shed differs significantly.

From there, we need to consider a question of truth. Are we humans better characterized as autonomous or as dignified? An equally short answer to this is that autonomy-talk scants, sometimes to the point of ignoring, our dependence on others: All that each of us has—every capacity, every skill, the fact that we are and continue to be—is due to the generosity of others. Autonomy-talk, to the extent that it denies this, says something false. Dignity-talk, to the extent that it affirms this, says something true.

There is a further incoherence in Pinker’s argument. He objects to the “overweening hubris” and soothsaying tendencies of many of the writers in Human Dignity. They predict dystopias with excessive confidence, he says, and a look at past predictions shows that we ought not take present ones seriously. He is right about prediction on matters such as this: We can’t do it, and we shouldn’t try. But then Pinker indulges it: If we use legislation to delay “biomedical progress” by only a decade, he writes, then “millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die.” It’s touching that Pinker has such confidence in his own predictive capacities, but it’s troubling that he does not see that his strictures on prediction apply to his own. If those who think that Brave New World is about to come true are soothsayers, then why aren’t those who think that stem-cell research will cure millions within a decade soothsayers, too?

Pinker has an odd imaginative disability. He seems to think that novels like Brave New World are principally of no value as predictions of the future, and so he makes a great deal, negatively, of his opponents’ appeals to them. But a better view is that novels like Huxley’s engage the imagination, permitting us, sometimes, to see more deeply into what is implied by an apparently innocuous proposal than would a position paper.

It is perhaps not surprising that some of the greatest novelists now writing in English are treating Huxley’s topic again, and in ways that do engage the imagination deeply. I commend to Steven Pinker’s attention, for the nourishing of his apparently undeveloped imaginative capacity, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). There’s more suggestive wisdom about many issues in bioethics to be found in these books than in Pinker’s “The Stupidity of Dignity” or even in the pages of Human Dignity and Bioethics.

Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.