Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the Presidents Council on Bioethics

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Established on November 28, , by Executive Order , the Council was directed to "advise the President on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedical science and technology ". The members of the council were appointed directly by the President; the President also chose the chairperson of the Council last appointed Chair was Edmund D.

Council members, totaling no more than 18, were appointed for a two-year term , after which time they could be reappointed by the President. Individuals appointed could not be officers or employees of the federal government. Executive Order was renewed in , and again in In June , President Barack Obama 's administration informed members of the Council that their services were no longer needed.

Executive Order of November 24, superseded the previous council by establishing the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. James W. Wagner , the president of Emory University, was appointed vice chairperson. Critics have questioned the motives and goals of the PCBE. Elizabeth Blackburn , who was dismissed from the Commission, co-authored an article, citing examples published by other members, suggesting that it was set up to justify President Bush's positions on stem cell research and abortion, writing " Bioethicist Leslie A.

Meltzer accused the Council of wrapping "political and religious agendas in the guise of dignity," and described them as largely Christian-affiliated neoconservatives; philosophers and political scientists rather than bench scientists. Meltzer said that Council members mischaracterized the positions of their opponents and used invective rather than addressing the merits of the arguments. The response to President Obama's decision to disband the Council drew both criticism and praise.

Colleen Carroll Campbell , a former speechwriter for President Bush and a member of the conservative advocacy group Ethics and Public Policy Center predicted that "Obama's desire to see his policies backed by expert 'consensus' more likely will be realized with a new commission composed of like-minded political liberals steeped in utilitarianism than with the brainy, diverse and unpredictable crew that populated the now-defunct council. Appel of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital wrote that "the panel itself, far from being an incubator of intellectual ferment, had evolved into a publicly funded right-wing think tank with a handful of token moderates for window dressing" and argued that "Obama was wise to scrap the entire panel and to start over.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Edmund D. Pellegrino , M. Rebecca S. Dresser, J. Daniel W. Foster , M. Michael S. Gazzaniga , Ph. Robert P. George , J. Phil Alfonso Gomez-Lobo , Dr. Council members—of which I am one—considered the volume a Socratic invitation to inquiry: nothing more, and nothing less. The best-selling Harvard sociobiological psychologist Steven Pinker saw a lot more.

So it is not so much that dignity is stupid; rather, it is worse than useless—it is an instrument of tyranny. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether our views of dignity, equality, and liberty depend on religious premises, and reasonable men—including reasonable scientists—disagree on the answer. It has no special significance in the Scriptures and not much history as a theological concept. Only in the twentieth century did moral theologians begin to use it when addressing issues such as abortion, religious liberty, and economic justice.

What’s Human Dignity Got to Do With Bioethics?

Aristotle also writes that nobility—what we would now likely call dignity—shines forth in even the most unfortunate circumstances. My nobility or dignity is more my own than is my happiness, which depends on forces beyond my control.

It was with such Greek reflections in mind that the Roman word dignitas took on a basically aristocratic connotation. Dignity is a worthiness or virtue that must be earned, and the dignified man is someone exceptional who attains distinction by his inner strength of character. Dignitas is a self-contained serenity, a kind of solid immobility that cannot be affected by worldly fortunes. For the Stoics, and especially for Cicero, dignity is democratic in the sense that it does not depend on social status; it is within reach of everyone from the slave Epictetus to the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Dignity refers to the rational life possible for us all, but it is really characteristic only of the rare human being who is genuinely devoted to living according to reason. Dignity, the contemporary Stoic novelist Tom Wolfe shows in A Man in Full , 6 can shine through even in the life of a maximum-security prisoner who seems to have been deprived of every human good. He shows us that our sociobiologists and neuroscientists have something to learn from what we might call Stoic science.

The early modern philosophers—following, in a certain way, St. They contended instead that it is undignified to allow oneself to be a plaything of fortune—of forces and to people beyond your control. There is nothing genuinely dignified in Stoic self-deception about our real bodily dependence.

Human beings are stuck with being concerned, most of all, with keeping their fragile bodies alive. So there is something dignified in facing up to that truth and doing something about it—acting with freedom and intelligence to make yourself more secure. We have every right to work to become as dignified as we can be, but we do not have an equal right to dignity.

Hobbes is for equal rights, but equal dignity is impossible. There is a lot to be said for ranking people—determining their excellence or importance—according to their productivity. Vain illusions which generate the idleness that comes with inward serenity are dispelled. There is, we learn, no invisible realm of freedom, no impregnable Stoic fortress, into which we can securely retreat. It is undeniable progress to stop ranking people according to their social class, gender, race, religion, and so forth.

Productivity is the most visible and surest foundation for a meritocracy—which is why Americans today are having more trouble than ever finding a higher standard than productivity to determine their dignity. Even with the economic downturn, Americans are wealthier and freer than ever, but their dignity seems to depend on being useful and pleasing to others. Transhumanists, Charles Rubin explains in his contribution to the Council volume, highlight through exaggeration another reason why it might make sense to identify our dignity with productivity: namely, our powerful inventions.

Our present existence is most undignified. We are, as Agent Smith says in The Matrix , a kind of virus or cancer plaguing nature. We are the only animal that cannot achieve equilibrium with its natural environment.

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Nature itself is an accidental, impersonal process, and we, in our freedom, are accidental exceptions to every natural rule. Surely it is undignified for us meekly to accept what nature imposes on us. We—the free, technological beings—can transform nature with our desire for individual security and significance in mind. We display our dignity by imposing our will on nature to create a world where we can live as dignified beings—or not, as miserably self-conscious and utterly precarious accidents.

We can free ourselves from our all-too-human or natural limitations; we can bring our bodies under our rational and willful control. Dignity is displayed in the freedom that produces the rational control allowing us to give orders to nature, including to our own bodies. The point of human freedom is to devote yourself to an endless and ultimately futile effort to make yourself into something else.

Kant attempted to counter that misanthropy with the other characteristically modern view of dignity. But he disagrees that our dignity depends on our technological transformation of nature. Each of us is already free and dignified, because what we think and do, insofar as we are human, is not determined by impersonal natural forces. We are free to treat other dignified persons as persons—not merely as impersonal means to achieve our personal goals.

Anyone who reduces dignity to productivity turns other human beings into exploitable resources. The dignified being does not have a price, and we are all, as free and rational persons, capable of acting with our equal dignity in mind. Leon Kass, in his own contribution to the Council volume, explains that Kant actually joins the transhumanists in opposing dignity to the way human beings actually are. For Kant, we are dignified insofar as we are free from the limitations of our embodiment. This means that Kant is the source of a kind of humanitarianism that reduces dignity to personal autonomy.

For Kant, the person is fundamentally distinct from the human animal —the whole biological being—whom we actually know and love.

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Americans will be free to display their dignity through productivity, but that will be their private affair. We might therefore conclude that our political community is sufficiently formed by our common devotion to equal rights, and that our necessarily unequal dignity should remain a merely private concern.

This new belief arose from what was learned in the experiences of the twentieth century—and the twenty-first. What the totalitarian regimes did was much worse than violating rights. The Nazis engaged in murderous eugenics on a massive scale, intent to extinguish whole classes of human beings and to reduce us all to less than who we really are.

The Communists wanted to eliminate the very possibility of experiencing the dignity of living in light of the truth. Their goal was to have the historical lie of ideology replace who we really are and what we can really know. Through their courageous and truthful thought and action, great anticommunist dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel gave evidence of human dignity in the face of the ideological lie; their achievement is trivialized if one says they were merely defending their rights.

Anyone who mistakenly identifies dignity with bare productivity or abstract autonomy cannot really see the natural, spiritual greatness of men and women ready to sacrifice everything to defend who we really are. In the twenty-first century, biotechnology promises to provide us with the means of changing our nature to maximize our comfort, security, and happiness.

Our dignity—as Solzhenitsyn showed us—might be a natural gift, and so we can say that historical efforts at ideological depersonalization were defeated by the indestructible greatness of who we are. After all, Hobbes and Locke were clear enough that we should do what we can to change our natural condition with our comfort, security, and individual freedom in mind. They cannot tell us why a professor, for example, has a right to resist taking a mood brightener to improve his teaching evaluations and enhance his research productivity, or why it is undignified to believe moods are just collections of chemicals in the brain rather than indispensable, natural clues to who we really are.

So it is little wonder that the defense of human dignity started to rise to prominence after the Second World War—in, for example, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These documents do not claim to depend on any clear consensus about why we have dignity or rights, but they sprang from a new awareness that rights are insecure without some deeper notion of dignity.

Human dignity also became a special concern of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe and was the foundation for religious liberty in the Second Vatican Council. We are dignified, the Vatican Council document said, because we are open to the truth about God and the human good. The Catholic emphasis came to be on the natural dignity of the whole human person—in opposition to the modern view that our dignity resides only in our autonomy.

Christian thinkers generally began to distinguish between dignity and the illusions of autonomy. Secular or Kantian thinkers either identified dignity with autonomy completely or else stopped speaking of dignity at all, because it had come to mean something other than autonomy.

The Human Dignity Conspiracy

But our scientists actually tend to say that there is no reality that corresponds to either autonomy or dignity. In their view, both ideas are based upon illusions about our moral freedom. When Leon Kass wrote Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity , 12 he was dissenting, as a scientist, from the scientific denial of dignity. He was reflecting on what he could see with his own eyes about the unique place human beings have in nature. The Christian thinkers and Kass agree that we have dignity, and that dignity is more than our productivity or autonomy.

But their concerns about dignity differ, at least in emphasis. Actually, not all the writers in this category are Christian, and many of them show with considerable credibility that theirs is the genuinely scientific view. The special concern of Kass and others like him is that modern biotechnology will destroy the social conditions and natural capabilities that make a dignified human life possible—a concern more classical than Christian. They hold that a large part of human dignity is living well in the acceptance of necessity, and not in the undignified effort to throw every resource into fending off death, eradicating every form of human suffering, and creating for oneself an absolutely secure environment. The dignified flourishing of human beings is based on using our natural gifts well—not in replacing natural meritocracy with techno-equality.

We assault our dignity, for example, when we chemically alter our memories and moods to make ourselves happy and proud without enduring relationships or any real accomplishments. In a certain way, Kass writes to defend the natural inequality of human dignity; he writes to fend off the degradation that would make absolute equality all too real.

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It is perfectly possible to be alive to the concerns of both groups, and to see that human dignity, in truth, has its egalitarian and inegalitarian dimensions. The thoughtful evolutionary scientist Daniel Dennett, in his very positive contribution to the Council volume, says that human beings are different enough from the other animals to need morality, and he adds, contrary to Pinker, that we even need confidence in our equal dignity.

He agrees with Pinker that claims for dignity have been basically Christian, and that these claims have been refuted by the scientific discovery that everything we think and do has a material cause.