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James Martin, S.J.May 14, 2008
In the latest issue of The New Republic, an article by Steven Pinker, the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, attacks the concept of "human dignity," one of the central ideas of Catholic social teaching, indeed of contemporary Catholic moral theology. His point seems to be that "dignity" is not only a slippery concept, but intellectually dishonest. This was one of those articles (rare in TNR) that was supposed to elucidate some element of Catholicism that was so lacking in any understanding of Catholic theology that it was hard to finish. His article is called "The Stupidity of Dignity." You can find it:here As an example, here’s one of Mr. Pinker’s main objections. Note the way he uses the term "dignity." .....Second, dignity is fungible. The Council [The President’s Council on Bioethics] and [the] Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread- eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety...... But voluntary relinquishments of dignity are not the point. Involuntary ones are. The fetus does not voluntarily choose to relinquish life. The worker in the developing world is not voluntarily denied a living wage. The child living in a slum does not voluntarily choose hunger. The handicapped person does not voluntarily choose to be discriminated against. The nursing-home patient does not voluntarily choose to be treated inhumanely. The torture victim does not voluntarily choose physical agony. The victim of genocide does not voluntarily choose death. This is quite different from getting out of a small car. In Catholic social teaching, human dignity has little to do with occasionally looking "undignified" or "silly." It is about the inviolable value and worth of every human being, who is created by God. But this foundational concept in human rights is not something that appeals simply to Catholics, or Christians, or even simply to believers. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, "Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations. At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity." To his credit, Mr. Pinker says that those who use the concept may not always be expressing the teaching in its fullness. Nonetheless, his article betrays a misunderstanding of understanding of the concept itself, and of its use in the world of Christian morality. You want to say to the writer: Let me get this straight, you’re against the dignity of the human person? Moral theologians, please weigh in. James Martin, SJ
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16 years 1 month ago
I agree that the review wasn't that great. He seemed to imply that simply because many of the contributors were Catholic, that was enough to discount the concept. Still, I wonder if the fuzziness was entirely his fault. I have not read the text he's reviewing, but if Leon Kass really did write that ridiculous passage on the need for eating ice cream cones in private, it seems that the reviewer is not the only one who misunderstands what the Church means by dignity. In addition, the reality is that the concept is very hard to define, especially when one wants to use it as a criteria in decision making. Fr. Martin discusses it as primarily being about involuntary loss of dignity. Yet this isn't really true. Many would use the argument that people have inherent dignity to argue against doctor-assisted suicide, even when the patient voluntarily ''gives up'' that dignity if they request it (and I'm not defending the practice, simply citing it). Also--and I could be wrong on this--but I seem to recall that one of the arguments used by the Church against same-sex unions and sexual acts is that they violate the dignity of the person. I suspect there are many gay men and lesbians who would disagree vehemently. Anyway, just some random thoughts. Thanks so much for the post though, Fr. Martin, I was rather riled by the review as well!
16 years 1 month ago
Good job Fr. James, don't let the likes of the Pinkers of the world off the hook! But here is a simple FYI for your reference: my friends with disabilities, by the way they and only they can call themselves "crips", feel insulted when they are referred to as "handicapped." You are correct in that they are often challenged to maintain their "dignity" in a world that prefers to accept them. Thanks for your "voice."
16 years 1 month ago
Correction: My earlier post should have mentioned Jason Rosenhouse instead of Ed Brayton.

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