A Splendidly Undignified Hatchet Job
By Bryan Caplan
If you appreciate a good hatchet job, don’t miss Steven Pinker’s dissection of bioethicist Leon Kass:
Kass… came to prominence in the 1970s with his moralistic condemnation of in vitro fertilization, then popularly known as “test-tube babies.” As soon as the procedure became feasible, the country swiftly left Kass behind, and, for most people today, it is an ethical no-brainer. That did not stop Kass from subsequently assailing a broad swath of other medical practices as ethically troubling, including organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants, even the dissection of cadavers.
If you prefer substance to well-deserved ridicule, here’s the highlight:
The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the 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. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.
I’d rather say that respecting others’ rights is a necessary part of treating them with dignity. But Pinker’s basic message is sound: The future development to fear is coercion, not technology.