Friday, March 28, 2008

Human Cloning and Human Dignity

The President's Council on Bioethics has issued it's recommendations on cloning. The majority recommendation is a ban on cloning for human reproduction and a four-year moratorium on cloning for medical research. The moral basis for the recommendations rests on a concept of "dignity" as defined by Christian theology.

Steven Pinker, responding to the Council report, points out that 12 of the 23 contributors are from organizations with Christian mandates (almost entirely Catholic) and four of the remaining 11 advocate a greater role for religion in public life. Pinker states:

It's also conspicuous that the essayists did not include a single scientist, this on a topic inspired by scientific advances. The essayists did not include any empirical scholar who studies the facts of human life—no psychologist, no social scientist, no historian, and hence, no one who could enlighten us on the psychological basis of ascriptions of dignity or how standards of dignity vary across cultures and historical periods.
On the subject of dignity, Pinker says that our "squishy" concept of dignity is relative, fungible and in some cases, morally undesirable:

[M]edical procedures necessarily subjects us to all kinds of indignities. Everyone in this room has—or I assume—undergone a rectal examination. Many people have undergone pelvic examinations. Those of us over 50 have undergone colonoscopies. Needless to say, these are deeply undignified, and that's fine because we sacrifice dignity for other goods in life.

The third point is that dignity can be a bad thing, and Prof. Elshtain asked can any good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity, and the answer is an unambiguous yes. For example, any third-world tinhorn dictator, bemedaled, sashed, epauletted, strutting on his reviewing platform solemnly reviewing the goose-stepping soldiers parading in front of him, is an epitome of human dignity. That is not necessarily a good thing.

Political repression works by preserving a kind of dignity. Those who ridicule or satirize or even criticize their political leaders are subject to imprison, torture, or death, justified in many cases by their assault on the dignity of the state or the leader. Religious fanaticism is driven by an attempt to safeguard dignity, most appallingly in the recent story in Sudan where a British schoolteacher was imprisoned and threatened with death by an angry mob because she allowed her first-grade class to name a teddy bear Mohammed . Likewise, the fatwah against Salman Rushdie , the death threats against the publishers of the Danish cartoons on Mohammed , were all justified by their assault on the dignity of religion.

...Indeed, I would say that a foundation of democracies is that the right to dignity is extremely limited. We enshrine a right to make fun of our political leaders. You can turn on the TV set any night at 11:35 and watch Leno and Letterman and Jon Stewart reduce the dignity of our political candidates and leaders, and that is a good thing. [more...]

Steven Pinker discusses his testimony on the most recent podcast of Freethought Radio [MP3].

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