Archive for the ‘Council on Bioethics’ Category

Fighting over the President’s Council on Bioethics (and human "dignity") – is Steven Pinker wrong?

May 26th, 2008 5 comments

[Update below.]

When government is involved in making decisions about the use of tax dollars or regulatory power to favor or hinder particular activities, it is not surprising that political struggles often ensue between groups that wish to obtain a policy outcome that maximizes their particular interests.  It is also not surprising that one side or the other (or both) side may be so caught up in the righteousness of its position that it fails not merely to recognize the legitimacy of other views competing for a piece of the governmentally-dispensed pie, but also fails even to perceive the underlying dynamics of competition to steer government in the direction one favors.

This unfortunate dynamic can now be seen in an spat between Steven Pinker (Harvard psychologist and author of best-selling books on language, cognition and evolutionary biology) and defenders of the President’s Council on Bioethics with respect to a series of essays recently published by the Council on Human Dignity and Bioethics

Pinker takes issue with the President’s Council via an essay entitled “The Stupidity of Dignity” in The New Republic, while a former executive director of the President’s Council, Yuval Levin (a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine) has published a rejoinder entitled “Indignity and Bioethics; Steven Pinker discovers the human-dignity cabal” in the National Review Online (Levin’s essay being admirably packed with links to a number of relevant references).  What I find most interesting – and sad – about the spat is the degree to which Pinker and Levin (as a proxy for the members of the Council), manage to talk past each other.

While the Council’s report, and both Pinker’s and Levin’s essays make interesting points about the concept of “dignity”, it’s a shame that these two very intelligent men both fall into the trap of demonizing their opponents and cannot see that their own heated intemperance is fuelled by the dynamic of struggle for control over what GOVERNMENT does.  One can share BOTH Pinker’s concern that the government should not further interfere with private biomedical research and the choices of individuals, AND be concerned that the government should not be subsidizing various research practices that make one uneasy.  The key, clearly, is to minimize the heavy hand of the state.

The focus of Pinker’s essay is on questioning the validity of government action pertaining to “bioethics” and the implicit role of the Council, in which he sees such an alarming and authoritarian religious streak that he refers to the authors of  the Council’s essay as “theocons“.  Pinker argues that the Council has stacked the deck of its report in favor of religious viewpoints, and seems to believe that the focus of the Council on “dignity” is a Trojan horse to (1) sidestep the traditional bioethical principle of “personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another”, in order to (2) enable the assertion of greater governmental control over the promises of onrushing biomedical advances, which “could make millions of people better off and no one worse off.” 

But Pinker fails to note that the government is in fact providing significant funding for biomedical research, and that others have a legitimate interest in discussing the parameters of government-funded research.

Pinker makes the following statements:

  • The report does not, the editors admit, settle the question of what dignity is or how it should guide our policies. It does, however, reveal a great deal about the approach to bioethics represented by the Council. And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing.
  • Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.
  • The concept of dignity is natural ground on which to build an obstructionist bioethics. An alleged breach of dignity provides a way for third parties to pass judgment on actions that are knowingly and willingly chosen by the affected individuals. It thus offers a moralistic justification for expanded government regulation of science, medicine, and private life.
  • A free society disempowers the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens. Democratic governments allow satirists to poke fun at their leaders, institutions, and social mores. And they abjure any mandate to define “some vision of ‘the good life'” or the “dignity of using [freedom] well” (two quotes from the Council’s volume). The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and “American Idol” would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police. This trade-off is very much in America’s DNA and is one of its great contributions to civilization: my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.
  • Could there be cases in which a voluntary relinquishing of dignity leads to callousness in onlookers and harm to third parties–what economists call negative externalities? In theory, yes. Perhaps if people allowed their corpses to be publicly desecrated, it would encourage violence against the bodies of the living. Perhaps the sport of dwarf-tossing encourages people to mistreat all dwarves. Perhaps violent pornography encourages violence against women. But, for such hypotheses to justify restrictive laws, they need empirical support. In one’s imagination, anything can lead to anything else: Allowing people to skip church can lead to indolence; letting women drive can lead to sexual licentiousness. In a free society, one cannot empower the government to outlaw any behavior that offends someone just because the offendee can pull a hypothetical future injury out of the air.
  • The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using “dignity” to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy.
  • A major sin of theocon bioethics is exactly the one that it sees in biomedical research: overweening hubris. In every age, prophets foresee dystopias that never materialize, while failing to anticipate the real revolutions. Had there been a President’s Council on Cyberethics in the 1960s, no doubt it would have decried the threat of the Internet, since it would inexorably lead to 1984, or to computers “taking over” like HAL in 2001. Conservative bioethicists presume to soothsay the outcome of the quintessentially unpredictable endeavor called scientific research. And they would stage-manage the kinds of social change that, in a free society, only emerge as hundreds of millions of people weigh the costs and benefits of new developments for themselves, adjusting their mores and dealing with specific harms as they arise, as they did with in vitro fertilization and the Internet.

Pinker puts his concerns more bluntly in testimony he provided directly to the Council on March 6, 2008:

  • I think the volume has been steered in particular directions by a steep over-representation of certain viewpoints and methods and outright exclusion of important contrary viewpoints.
  • Now, here’s where the plot thickens.  A number of biomedical advances raise the possibility of opportunities that can reduce suffering, promote human flourishing, harm no sentient being, are freely and knowingly chosen, yet they elicit disquiet in third parties.  There are numerous examples brought up in the volume:  drugs that enhance cognitive functioning, anti-aging research that promises to extend the human lifespan, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, somatic cell nuclear transfer, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies, cloning, a market in organs for donation, and many others.
  • And it’s no secret that many members of the Council are viscerally repelled by these prospects but realize that they can’t rule them out with the consensus ethics of autonomy, human rights, or respect for persons.  Hence, we have the appeal to dignity.  The problem, of course, is that, for one thing, dignity is, as just about all the essays acknowledge, a squishy concept.  It has much of its basis in religious doctrine.  And for these two reasons, it has not provided the kind of consensus definition of the kind that would be necessary in a democracy.
  • I see the current volume as designed to put dignity on a firmer conceptual basis and therefore provide the grounds for regulating or banning these disquieting practices.  This, I believe, is the ultimate goal of the President’s Council, and it’s why I think there was a thumb on the scale in choosing the authorship of the reports. 

In response, Levin addresses – with a bit of overstatement and rhetorical excess of his own – what he sees as unfair and unjustified hysteria and personal attacks by Pinker, but Levin fails to address the meat of Pinker’s suspicions about the aims of the Council (or of the President in establishing it) and his arguments about the legitimate role of government in regulating biomedical research and activity:

  • The volume has so far drawn a modest response from bioethicists and others, some applauding the effort to lay out the range of opinions, and some bemoaning the lack of agreement on so seemingly basic a concept. But this week, in the latest issue of The New Republic, the volume has also elicited a bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol from an academic celebrity.
  • Pinker’s essay is a striking exhibit of a set of attitudes toward religion and the West’s moral tradition that has become surprisingly common among America’s intellectual elite. It is a mix of fear, suspicion, and disgust that has a lot to do, for instance, with the Left’s intense paranoia about the Bush administration, and with the peculiar notion that American conservatives have declared a “war on science”; and it involves more generally an inclination to reject any idea drawn in any way from a religiously inspired tradition — which unfortunately includes just about everything in the humanities.
  • These elements are all powerfully evident in Pinker’s screed. After briefly introducing the subject, his essay manages almost entirely to ignore the substance of the volume under consideration (taking up no particular essay in the book, for instance) and addresses itself instead to what the author imagines is a sinister Catholic conspiracy to subject the nation to a papist theology of death.
  • With deep alarm Pinker informs his readers that some of the contributors to the volume make their living at such “Christian institutions” as Georgetown University and that some of the essays even mention the Bible, which leads him to conclude that the work of the bioethics council, in this book and in general, “springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.”
  • This is, to begin with, patent nonsense. Even a cursory review of the council’s reports and deliberations will demonstrate it has spent significantly less time than even its Clinton administration predecessor considering any explicitly religious views or discussing religious issues, and has in no way sought to ground any positions, arguments, or recommendations in religion.
  • He rushes on to paint the bioethics council as a committee of pious executioners, arguing that “this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing,” and asserting without basis that the council (which, more than all of its predecessors in previous administrations, was designed to provide a diversity of opinion and not merely support for the positions of the president who appointed it) was “packed” with “conservative scholars and pundits, advocates of religious (particularly Catholic) principles in the public sphere, and writers with a paper trail of skittishness toward biomedical advances, together with a smattering of scientists (mostly with a reputation for being religious or politically conservative).” Pinker might have examined the record of the council’s discussions (including its devastating grilling of him in 2003, which may help explain some of his vehemence), its reports, and the backgrounds of its members, especially the scientist members, for a sense of how absurdly misinformed is this diatribe.
  • It would be hard to answer the bioethics council’s thoughtful and varied collection with a less appropriate rejoinder than Pinker’s insulting, ill-informed, and anti-intellectual tirade. He misrepresents the most elementary facts about the council’s work and intentions, repeating baseless charges and engaging in crude character assassination; and his assertion that the council is intolerant of dissenting opinion is belied by the fact that his rant is based on remarks he actually delivered at a council meeting, by invitation. His fears of a religious, and especially a Catholic, plot to overthrow democracy are absurd. And his insistence on filtering out of American life any hint of religious influence is badly misguided.
  • Even if dignity remains difficult to define, undignified public discourse is easy to discern, and Pinker has offered an obvious example.

[Update:  example of how discussion over Pinker’s essay totally misses the main point – the question not about dignity per se but the GOVERNMENT’s role in protecting/enforcing dignity – can be found at here:; and]