The Importance of Dignity: A Reply to Steven Pinker

Christopher Kaczor
January 31, 2012
Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

From its ancient Stoic origins to its modern Kantian formulations, human dignity is an important concept for sound ethical thinking. We must distinguish dignity as attributed, dignity as intrinsic worth, and dignity as flourishing.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, is well known for his 2008 article in the New Republic titled "The Stupidity of Dignity." The President's Council on Bioethics, in its Human Dignity and Bioethics, had underscored the importance of dignity in contemporary ethical discussion, and Pinker wanted to reject it wholesale. Pinker criticizes the use of dignity for a variety of reasons and holds that we should replace "dignity" with "autonomy" in bioethics discussions. His arguments still enjoy great purchase in our intellectual culture today, but they are fallacious and inconsistent in a variety of ways. And it is important for us to see how they fail and to understand why dignity matters.

So, what argument does Pinker give against making use of dignity in discussing issues of bioethics? He writes,

First, dignity is relative. One doesn't have to be a scientific or moral relativist to notice that ascriptions of dignity vary radically with the time, place, and beholder. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. We chuckle at the photographs of Victorians in starched collars and wool suits hiking in the woods on a sweltering day, or at the Brahmins and patriarchs of countless societies who consider it beneath their dignity to pick up a dish or play with a child.

Pinker fails to realize that autonomy is also relative. Kant, the originator of the contemporary emphasis on autonomy, considered it always contrary to autonomy, the self-given universal law of practical reason, to commit suicide or to have sexual activity of any kind outside of a marriage between one man and one woman. Contemporary advocates of using autonomy as the basis for ethics reject these positions with scorn. Now autonomy is used to attempt to justify physician-assisted suicide as well as freedom of "sexual expression." So, if dignity cannot be used in bioethics because it has been understood in various ways over the ages, this standard likewise excludes appealing to autonomy in bioethical disputes.

Second, Pinker notes that dignity is fungible:

The [President's] Council and [the] Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread-eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified.

But Pinker's premise also renders autonomy problematic, since autonomy too is fungible. Soldiers give up autonomy when they enlist for military service. Employees give up autonomy when they sign contracts agreeing to perform certain services and refrain from doing other activities that constitute a conflict of interest. Police officers, FBI agents, and politicians relinquish autonomy when they swear to enforce the laws of our nation. Lawyers and psychologists give up autonomy in speech in preserving client or patient confidentiality. Do the actions of these people reveal that autonomy is a trivial value, well worth trading off for money, public order, confidentiality, the good of raising children, or health?

Third, Pinker argues that dignity can be harmful. He writes,

In her comments on the Dignity volume, Jean Bethke Elshtain rhetorically asked, "Has anything good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity?" The answer is an emphatic "yes." Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader's conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.

However, it is even more obvious that autonomy can be harmful. Consider the case of Desmond Hatchett who, before the age of thirty, exercised his sexual autonomy by fathering twenty-one children with eleven different women. Exercising her reproductive autonomy in similarly irresponsible fashion, Nadya Suleman, unemployed and unmarried, used in vitro fertilization to add eight more babies to join her other six young children at home. Drug abusers exercise their autonomy in harming themselves physically and mentally, often to the point where they become a drain on society. Politicians regularly exercise their autonomy in such a way as to cause unreasonable taxes, unfair laws, and unjust wars for their own political gain. Indeed, misuse of autonomy causes more harm, arguably much more harm, than misuse of dignity.

A fourth and unoriginal argument from Pinker for abandoning dignity echoes Ruth Macklin, who highlights the ambiguous ways in which the term "dignity" has been used in bioethics. The ambiguity of the term is an important issue that deserves serious consideration, something that Pinker himself fails to offer. He also fails to notice that "autonomy" is used in a variety of ways, so the difficulty of ambiguous terms is not unique to the term "dignity." Does "autonomy" mean anything actually desired by the agent, even if the agent is brainwashed or under the influence of drugs? Does autonomy mean "informed consent" (which itself is a term used in various ways)? Does autonomy means rational, self-given law, so that an irrational request cannot be considered autonomous? Indeed, there is no term that cannot be used ambiguously. Admittedly, "dignity," in the contemporary discussion, is even more prone to ambiguous usage than "autonomy," but this is hardly ground for dismissing it entirely or for prejudicially abandoning attempts at disambiguation.

Disambiguation of the term dignity is done quite well by Daniel P. Sulmasy, in the very book Pinker criticizes. Sulmasy distinguishes dignity as attributed, dignity as intrinsic worth, and dignity as flourishing. Dignity as attributed is the worth human beings confer on others or on themselves. Attributed dignity comes in degrees and is at issue in some of the examples raised by Pinker in his argument that dignity can be harmful. Dignity as intrinsic worth is understood by Sulmasy as "the value that human beings have simply by virtue of the fact that they are human beings" rather than in virtue of performance, health, wealth, location, or social status. Dignity as flourishing is understood as the excellence of a human life consistent with, and expressive of, intrinsic dignity.

This simple disambiguation removes the alleged contradictions seen by Pinker. Slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take away someone's dignity as flourishing. Nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his intrinsic dignity away. Dignity as attributed reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. Everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has intrinsic dignity in full measure, but not dignity as flourishing or as attributed.

Even if we can successfully disambiguate the term, why is dignity important? The concept of dignity does a better job than autonomy in describing and accounting for the intrinsic value of every human being. We are valuable not simply because of our choices, and still less do we have value only while we are exercising our autonomy. We have value even when we are not choosing or cannot choose. In his 2009 Tanner Lectures at UC Berkeley, "Dignity, Rank, and Rights," Jeremy Waldron pointed out that in ancient times dignity was accorded in particular to persons regarded as royalty or nobility. Noble persons were accorded rights, privileges, and immunities that accorded with their elevated rank. Contemporary society at its best does not reduce the noble but elevates the commoner, making every single human person equal in rank to the Duke or Lady. Although these ideals are often imperfectly realized in our society, still Waldron has a point when he writes, "we are not like a society which has eschewed all talk of caste; we are like a caste society with just one caste (and a very high caste at that): every man a Brahmin. Every man a duke, every woman a queen, everyone entitled to the sort of deference and consideration, everyone's person and body sacrosanct, in the way that nobles were entitled to deference or in the way that an assault upon the body or the person of a king was regarded as a sacrilege." The term dignity better captures than most, if not all, other terms the elevated status of the human person.

Do we have any reason for ascribing to all human beings such intrinsic dignity? In an earlier essay, I suggested that there are a number of ways to argue for the proposition that all human beings are endowed with intrinsic dignity and certain inalienable rights. The first is that our dignity should be based on who we are, the kind of being that we are, rather than on how we are functioning in the moment. Dignity should be based on our membership in the human family, rather than on any particular performative activity in which we could engage. Our functioning, whether it be understood in terms of our ability to experience pleasure and pain, or our consciousness, or our intelligence, comes in many degrees. If we think that our value as persons is based on a degreed characteristic, an accident in terms of Aristotelian metaphysics, then we cannot secure equal basic dignity and equal basic rights for all persons. We should therefore base our fundamental ethical judgments on the substantial identity of who we are rather than on any accidental degreed quality. Since all human beings are endowed with the same nature, members of the same kind - homo sapiens - they all share equally basic rights and dignity.