Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Indignity of Ice Cream Cones

AP Photo by Charles Dharapak

Jason Rosenhouse of EvolutionBlog linked to an article by Steven Pinker in The New Republic:
The Stupidity of Dignity

Conservative bioethics' latest, most dangerous ploy.

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation...

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. ... Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.
Although the Council includes two heavy hitters of neuroscience...

Floyd E. Bloom, M.D.
Professor Emeritus in the Molecular and Integrative Neurosciences at The Scripps Research Institute, and the founding CEO and board chairman of Neurome, Inc.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D.
Director of Sage Center for the Study of Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara.

...and the report includes articles by atheist neurophilosophers Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett, and (even more surprisingly) transhumanist Nick Bostrom, their influence is vastly outweighed by the inclusion of 15 religious conservatives:
Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

The report's oddness begins with its list of contributors. Two (Adam Schulman and Daniel Davis) are Council staffers, and wrote superb introductory pieces. Of the remaining 21, four (Leon R. Kass, David Gelernter, Robert George, and Robert Kraynak) are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life, and another eleven work for Christian institutions (all but two of the institutions Catholic). Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality, but, with three-quarters of the invited contributors having religious entanglements, one gets a sense that the fix is in. A deeper look confirms it.

But why are ice cream cones undignified?? Because that's the view of Leon Kass, the former chair of the Council. As Pinker explains:
Kass has a problem not just with longevity and health but with the modern conception of freedom. There is a "mortal danger," he writes, in the notion "that a person has a right over his body, a right that allows him to do whatever he wants to do with it." He is troubled by cosmetic surgery, by gender reassignment, and by women who postpone motherhood or choose to remain single in their twenties. Sometimes his fixation on dignity takes him right off the deep end:

from: The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature
By Leon Kass, M.D., Ph.D.
Published 1999 (new edition, University of Chicago Press)
original published in 1994, now out of print: (New York: The Free Press)
Kass couldn't even bring himself to say what really bugs him about people eating ice cream cones in public.

Even a book review in Studies in Christian Ethics found Kass's squeamishness to be excessive (Clark, 1996):
Much that he has to say is significant, and even cogent. But it is one thing to draw attention to such neglected topics as the duty of hospitality, or good table manners, and another to spend such energy denouncing minor shifts in public appetites: ’the walking street eater ... is a being led by his appetite ... this doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view’. So eating a hamburger ’on the run’ is really wicked: not - we must presume-because it’s bad food badly cooked, not because its purchase finances bad farming practices, but because it’s too impatient, too ’uncivilised’, because it imposes our ’ingestions and chewings’ on others.
But everyone knows that ice cream cones are all-American...

With ice cream in hand, President George W. Bush departs Manning's Ice Cream and Milk in Clarks Summit, Pa., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse.

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