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									Vol. 26:2 summer 2010                                                                    	

dignity neVer been photographed:
sCientifiC materialism, enlightenment
liberalism, and steVen pinKer

Sick	man	lookin’	for	the	doctor’s	cure	
Lookin’	at	his	hands	for	the	lines	that	were	
And	into	every	masterpiece	of	literature	
for	dignity…
Someone	showed	me	a	picture	and	I	just	laughed	
Dignity	never	been	photographed	
I	went	into	the	red,	went	into	the	black	
Into	the	valley	of	dry	bone	dreams
So	many	roads,	so	much	at	stake	
So	many	dead	ends,	I’m	at	the	edge	of	the	lake	
Sometimes	I	wonder	what	it’s	gonna	take	
To	find	dignity
- Bob Dylan, from the song, “Dignity.”  1991 Special Rider Music-

In March 2008, the President’s Council on Bioethics published a volume entitled, Human	
Dignity	and	Bioethics.1 It consists of essays penned by council members as well as other
scholars and practitioners invited to contribute. As one would guess, the idea of human
dignity and what it means for bioethics, both in theory and in practice, is the theme
that dominates each of the works contributed to this impressive volume. But for those
who have been following or participating in the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary
world of secular bioethics during the past fifteen or twenty years, the insertion of the
idea of “human dignity,” or even the word “dignity,” as the anthropological foundation
of bioethics is highly unusual. Much of the cutting edge literature in bioethics,
with few exceptions, tends to employ the language of modern political theory and
contemporary analytic political philosophy and jurisprudence. So, for example, one
finds in these cutting-edge works discussions about the meaning and implementation
of the principles of autonomy, justice, nonmaleficence, and beneficence, as well as calls
for the application of these principles to what constitutes physician neutrality, informed
consent, and patients’ rights. This project often goes by the name	principlism. There is,
of course, much that this project has contributed to the study and practice of bioethics.
For each principle and its application has a long and noble pedigree about which many
of us hold a variety of opinions. But what distinguishes principlism from the concept
of “human dignity,” and what makes this central concern of the council’s volume so
astounding, is that advocates of principlism typically intend for it to be a means by which
a physician, ethics committee, nurse practitioner, general counsel, etc., need	not delve      93
     ethiCs & mediCine

     into the metaphysical question for which “human dignity” is offered as a partial answer,
     namely, “Who and what are we, and can we know it?”2
          To put it another way, if bioethics commits itself to the idea that “human dignity”
     is essential to its practice, as the President’s Council suggests, it follows that bioethics
     must embrace a philosophy of the human person, a philosophical anthropology, if you
     will, that can provide substantive content to the notion of “human dignity.” But such a
     suggestion seems to run counter to two ideas that are dominant in the secular academy:
     (1) Enlightenment Liberalism, and (2) Scientific Materialism.
          Enlightenment	Liberalism is, roughly, the view that a state that aspires to justice and
     fairness ought not to embrace one view of the human person as the correct view because
     to do so would be to violate the principles essential to libe
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