In 2008 Steven Pinker, a professor of Psychology at Harvard, wrote about The Stupidity of Dignity. Pinker was angry that the President's Council on Bioethics had called for caution in approaching certain avenues of medical innovation because they might constitute an assault on human dignity. Besides venting his anti-Christian bias (and, to be fair, he does pull out a rather ridiculous statement by Leon Kass on the slippery slope posed by those who lick ice cream cones in public, though opposition to ice cream licking is not generally considered to be founded in theology), Pinker uses his platform to ridicule the concept of dignity and posit that autonomy ought to trump dignity in any bioethics discussion.
Why am I bringing up an article from 2008? I never read it at the time, but I did just read Christopher Kaczor's recent response to Pinker at Public Discourse. Kaczor takes on several of Pinker's statements about autonomy and answers them intelligently, but what struck me particularly was that he never fully addressed Pinker's mistaken concept of dignity.
Dignity is a phenomenon of human perception. Certain signals from the world trigger an attribution in the mind of a perceiver. Just as converging lines in a drawing are a cue for the perception of depth, and differences in loudness between the two ears cue us to the position of a sound, certain features in another human being trigger ascriptions of worth. These features include signs of composure, cleanliness, maturity, attractiveness, and control of the body. The perception of dignity in turn elicits a response in the perceiver. Just as the smell of baking bread triggers a desire to eat it, and the sight of a baby's face triggers a desire to protect it, the appearance of dignity triggers a desire to esteem and respect the dignified person.
This explains why dignity is morally significant: We should not ignore a phenomenon that causes one person to respect the rights and interests of another. But it also explains why dignity is relative, fungible, and often harmful. Dignity is skin-deep: it's the sizzle, not the steak; the cover, not the book. What ultimately matters is respect for the person, not the perceptual signals that typically trigger it. Indeed, the gap between perception and reality makes us vulnerable to dignity illusions. We may be impressed by signs of dignity without underlying merit, as in the tin-pot dictator, and fail to recognize merit in a person who has been stripped of the signs of dignity, such as a pauper or refugee.
So, despite the best efforts of the contributors, the concept of dignity remains a mess. The reason, I think, is that dignity has three features that undermine any possibility of using it as a foundation for bioethics.
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. Thorstein Veblen wrote of a French king who considered it beneath his dignity to move his throne back from the fireplace, and one night roasted to death when his attendant failed to show up. Kass finds other people licking an ice-cream cone to be shamefully undignified; I have no problem with it.
Second, dignity is fungible. The Council and 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. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety.
Third, dignity can be harmful. 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.
Having a body necessitates a certain awkwardness at time. Yes, it's awkward to get out of a small car. Sex is incredibly awkward when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, or when the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. I have a pressing sinus headache today, which dulls all my reflexes and makes me feel unbelievably stupid today. Any of these examples can cause a person to look or act ridiculous (though in my current state of la tete lourde, I'm inclined to think that a sinus affliction is the most bizarre of the three). But none of them negates a person's dignity, which is (according to the Catholic thought that Pinker finds so jejeune) a worth that is intrinsic to humans, not something that can be peeled on or off or which alters according the whims of the perceiver.