Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pinker and his Dignity

Steven Pinker is a figure that, as an aspiring Linguist, I'm trained to scoff at as "pop linguistics." But on actual reading I typically find him invaluable. So it is with this recent essay on the moral concept of dignity of his in The New Republic, a nice expose of the use by the religious right of a slippery concept to advance their political agenda.

The basic point is this: there is nothing essential that "dignity" buys us as a legal concept that "autonomy" hadn't given us already. But where "autonomy" is a relatively stable concept - most rational people can agree, or at least hold enlightened discussion about, where it begins and ends - "dignity" is largely in the eye of the beholder. In that sense, it's a stand-in for whatever moral prejudices its advocate already holds, not really a pointer to independent moral truths. The best line in the essay is this one:

In one's imagination, anything can lead to anything else: Allowing people to skip church can lead to indolence; letting women drive can lead to sexual licentiousness. In a free society, one cannot empower the government to outlaw any behavior that offends someone just because the offendee can pull a hypothetical future injury out of the air.

Quite right.

That said, Pinker's argument suffers in a predictable way: since dignity is a proxy for autonomy, it is unsurprising that many of the objections he raises against using dignity as a legal standard can also be raised against autonomy. Specifically - when he says that dignity is fungible and sometimes harmful, one could, it seems, make the same case about autonomy. To the first point he argues that while religious types tend to treat dignity as sacred, ordinary people frequently voluntarily suffer indignities for other gain. Well, fair enough, but the same is surely true of autonomy. Pinker cites "having sex" as "undignified," but surely entering into a marriage is a surrender of autonomy? Likewise, getting anesthetized for surgery and having one's insides played with is surely undignified - and it involves a surrender of autonomy. Etc. etc. If dignity is fungible, then so is autonomy, and no advocate of autonomy as a legal principle should be disparaging dignity on these grounds, therefore.

And so it is with harm. Pinker notes that preserving dignity for some people is actually harmful to society. Some of his examples are silly, but others resonate with me: "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." Quite right. But Pinker's failing to make an important distinction here: the religious types are typically talking about violations of one's "right" (they think of it as a right) to dignity, not imposition of dignity (indeed, they would no doubt say that "real" dignity cannot be imposed with a required dress code, that this is a misunderstanding of the concept, etc.). So they're off the hook with regard to Pinker's Maoist China and Taliban examples. As to the others, one's at pains to see how the calculus here is different from that of any balancing act involving conflicts of autonomy. My right to bodily integrity supercedes a murderer's autonomy in deciding to kill me. He violates my autonomy if he succeeds in killing me, and the state violates his by proscribing murder. There's a conflict, and society resolves it in favor of the victim. A legal system necessarily involves such tradeoffs. My rights end where yours begin, etc. It would be silly to say that only those things which never have to be balanced and are never the cause of conflict are the proper subject of law! It's exactly backward, in fact: law exists because their fundamental rights and interests put people in conflict. In the Salman Rushdie example, then, the issue isn't really that dignity is an unworkable concept, but rather that we in the west rate freedom of speech higher. And I will certainly be the first to agree that it should be rated higher - and for exactly the reason that Pinker gave earlier: because "dignity" is a subjective, socially conditioned and emotional concept, and we can't run a society on whim. The point is simply that Pinker should have stuck with that approach rather than trying to malign dignity because preserving it can, in extreme circumstances, cause harm. Preserving autonomy can also cause harm, but what of it? The point, again, is not that anything that, left unchecked, can be harmful is inadmissible as a legal principle, it's that things which are subjective and emotional should not be admissible as legal principles. We can't make laws based on people's "feelings," and THIS is the reason we should reject dignity as a principle.

So Pinker's essay should be about a third shorter than it is. Aside from that third, however, I find it convincing.