Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Yesterday I appeared on a panel organized by the President's Council on Bioethics and held on the campus of Georgetown University. The panel was assembled to discuss a new publication by the Council, entitled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The report is a first rate collection of essays by top thinkers in the field of bioethics, including Robert George, Peter Lawler and Gil Meilander.

I had some of the following to say about the volume:

Let me address the most contentious issue contained in the volume – the claim that dignity is a religiously-based concept, and hence not justifiable in a secular liberal democracy because of its basis in faith – that is, unreasoned belief. This is a view that is advanced by Daniel Dennett, who argues that claims to human dignity are a “holy myth,” that “science has banished the soul as firmly as it has banished mermaids, unicorns, and perpetual motion machines.” It is the view expressed in a recent council meeting about this report by Steven Pinker, who finds many of the discussions of the religious basis of the idea of dignity explored in this book “to be highly tendentious. They would be extraordinary in just about any other government forum. If they ever served as the basis of legislation, they would almost certainly violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.” It is a view aggressively stated by Patricia Churchland, who argued in the report that “we have much more to fear from the moral dogmatist who brandishes his unshakeable certainty about what God supposedly wants and intends concerning human dignity than from the calmly tolerant person who will listen to others.”

At the heart of the criticisms of these respective science and technology enthusiasts – those who find the concept of dignity to be wanting and either seek its replacement or rejection – is the belief that the benefits of science for the relief of the human estate are incontrovertible and cannot be gainsaid. Adherence to a Biblical conception of dignity – one that would urge caution to the aggressive application of biomedical interventions in a host of areas – is seen as antiquated and unjustified belief. Churchland summarily argues that “as the benefits of technology become plain, it becomes more and more difficult to convince large numbers of people that enduring the misery of disease is morally superior to enjoying the benefits of health.” In their own respective ways, each of these thinkers admirably and genuinely maintains that through biotechnology the misery of humankind can be relieved in a host of ways, an end that is seen by Nick Bostrom as an actual overall increase in human dignity.

However, in each of these essays a curious feature emerges: each of these thinkers is positive, without doubt or misgiving, without second thought or reservation, that the expansion of biotechnology to human life will result in positive goods. Take, for instance, the chapter by Daniel Dennett, whose title alone gives every appearance of recognizing that science can pose a threat to human dignity: “How to Protect Human Dignity from Science.” He begins by differentiating threats we can know from and about the physical environment- the example he gives is global warming – from threats that would undermine our belief environment. He does not scoff at the very real danger that threats to our belief environment can pose: for instance (in a timely example), he notes that a currency can become worthless when people cease to believe that it represents value. Such loss of belief, he suggests, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy “whether they are right or wrong” (43). That is, even when wrong objectively in their belief that a sound currency has become worthless, that currency will nevertheless become as worthless as if it had objectively lost its value. At this very moment in his argument, Dennett alludes to the fear that “if we pursue our current scientific and technological exploration of the boundaries of human life … we will soon find ourselves in a deteriorating situation where people – rightly or wrongly – start jumping to conclusions about the non-sanctity of life…” (43-4). Dennett summarizes this fear as wholly irrational: “faced with that dire prospect, it becomes tempting indeed to think of promulgating a holy lie, a myth that will carry us along for long enough to shore up our flagging confidence until we can restore ‘law and order.’” (44).

This is a curious conclusion by Dennett’s own assumptions. Whether there is an objective thing such as dignity or not, some people believe in such a thing and invoke it against certain biotechnological explorations out of fear that it will be violated and human life will cease to be accorded inherent value. Even by the terms of Dennett’s own argument, one would at least conclude that one would need to proceed carefully in such an environment, recognizing that – as he himself states – “in some regards belief environment is more important and more fragile” than even the physical environment (43). Rather than suggesting that this particular belief environment might be as fragile as a monetary system, he proclaims with certainty that there are certain features of humans that he regards as incontrovertibly the source of our belief in human dignity, features which accord us with special status that does not have to be justified in terms of religious belief. They are “language, and art, and music, and religion, and humor, and the ability to plan projects that take centuries to unfold,” among other qualities unique to humanity. Curiously, having noted that religion is one of the things that makes us unique, he would reject our inheritance of that tradition as “holy myth” – even at the risk of undermining a certain belief, whether held “rightly or wrongly.” In short, Dennett is remarkably self-certain that belief in human dignity that factually has its roots in a lengthy religious tradition has no bearing on actual human dignity – outright contradicting his purported concern for the fragility of belief systems.

Moreover, Dennett is unwilling to entertain the possibility that we humans might act in self-destructive ways even in the face of doubts or concerns for unintended consequences. He suggests that we have sure knowledge of technological activities that would compromise the human good. Yet, his very example drawn from the “physical environment – namely, global warming – suggests otherwise. Global warming has come to pass because we inventive humans devised ways to extract and exploit highly concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, thereby releasing carbon molecules that had been previously sequestered through natural processes for millions of years. At the very outset of the industrial revolution, when human self-confidence about its own technological mastery of the physical world was certainly as high as Dennett’s about our capacity to “technologically exploit [the complexities of human life] in entirely novel ways” (40), there was little question by progressive minded people and technologists that burning fossil fuels was the path to human happiness. Yet, what are we to make then the warnings of Svante Arrhenius, who in the late 19th-century concluded from measurements of infrared radiation from the full moon that humanity was increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the air, and predicted that the average global temperature would rise as much as 9 degrees if the amount of carbon dioxide in the air doubled from its pre-industrial levels? Would Dennett conclude that we ought not to have burned those fossil fuels – that we should have stopped human scientific and technological progress right in its tracks? Would he argue that the burning of fossil fuels in spite of these warnings – as he suggests is true of biotechnology – is an instance we can assert our “faith in science” based upon “the proven record of scientific success?” (41). Or, can it be that we exploited this technology in spite of dangers that some suspected might occur because it served our comfort, self-satisfaction, accorded with our tendency toward short-term thinking, and reflected an unwarranted confidence that any negative consequences could be managed by more science? Ought we be any less suspicious of our motives when thinking of relieving our bodily discomforts, pains, imperfections, even at the cost of potentially exploiting other human beings or undermining our inherited notions of human dignity, as we were over 100 years ago when our forbears blithely ignored the empirical evidence of an eventual Nobel prize winning scientist?

The unquestioned self-confidence over uncontestable benefits of science and our unerring ability to recognize any dangers is even more confidently and contentiously stated by Patricia Churchland in her essay “Human Dignity from a Neurological Perspective.” Churchland resorts to several historical examples of religious-based opposition to scientific advances that she suggests categorically reveal the baselessness of any objections to scientific progress in the biomedical realm. The examples she provides are first, opposition to vaccination of the small pox disease – 18th and 19th century objections to which she compares to contemporary opposition to universal dissemination of the HPV vaccine; second, opposition to anesthesia as a method of relieving pain during childbirth; and third, contemporary opposition to stem cell research. Such objections she regards as evidence of “moral certitude” that stymies “the compromises and negotiations of fair-minded, sensible people.”

But how fair-minded is it, in the first instance, to compare opposition to HPV vaccinations to earlier opposition to smallpox vaccinations? There is the suggestion that the diseases are self-evidently comparable, without acknowledgement that the opposition to universal HPV vaccination is not born of irrational superstition, but the fear of societal condoning of multiple sex partners among its young women. This is one instance of the inability to credit minimal reasonableness to the claims of the opposition, an inability that is more deeply evinced in particular by the choice of examples. Lost is some of the context of the 19th-century, in which religious believers of various stripes opposed the forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, proposals of State-sponsored euthanasia, and culminated in the 20th century with the experimentation by Nazis upon unwilling human subjects. In retrospect there were undoubtedly times when opposition to certain procedures was not justified, just as, in retrospect, we would regard opposition as praiseworthy and in the right. Yet, in positing that technological innovation is always beneficial and religious belief always constitutes irrational belief, one is forced to conclude that it is Churchland who evinces the highest degree of dogmatism and evinces little of the “fair-minded sensibleness” that she otherwise lauds.

What I see in the essays by a number of the other authors in this volume who defend a notion of human dignity that would at the very least force us to question whether the benefits of biotechnology are as without cost as some suppose, is a far greater sense of humility about ascertaining the right or appropriate application of these new technologies upon human beings. I detect no anti-scientism among these more cautious authors, but concerns that certain technologies may lead to utilitarian calculations, an increased disregard for generational obligations and duties, or a host of slippery slopes, such as the fear that unlimited enhancement would lead to a society that pursues “designer-babies” and makes successive generations obsolete or would lead to the differentiation of the species into classes; the concern that “euthanasia” would lead to the active encouragement of killing of elderly people who young and autonomous persons regard as burdensome and no longer flourishing; or the trepidation that cloning will be pursued for the ends of organ harvesting or “replacement” parts. None of these fears could be regarded by a “fair-minded and sensible” person as without grounds, and only a person without doubts, without concerns for unintended consequences, lacking an even-handed regard for a mixed historical record – a person that one might even call dogmatic – could think otherwise.

1 comment:

Russell Arben Fox said...

Patrick, thanks for this meaty, thoughtful response to Dennett, et al. I just received my copy of Human Dignity and Bioethics yesterday (thanks for the heads up about the book, by the way!), and I'm anxious to dig into it.