Dignity is stupid. At least that’s what renowned Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker claimed in a piece he published over seven years ago in The New Republic. Smartly titled, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” Professor Pinker argued that the notion of human dignity espoused by certain philosophers, theologians, and bioethicists is such a “squishy, subjective notion” that it can do no actual intellectual work in our ethical judgments. All that we really need is the principle of 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.”
As I noted on this page last year, and have argued more extensively elsewhere, Professor Pinker underestimates the explanatory power of “human dignity,” for we can easily envision cases in which people autonomously choose for themselves undignified forms of life, such as being the world’s best prostitute, purposely not taking care of one’s aged parents when one is capable of doing so, or bartering one’s kidney in exchange for an endless lifetime supply of video games.
But to say that one can autonomously treat oneself in an undignified manner is not to say that one has lost one’s dignity when the choice is actualized. Rather, it means that there is something true about ourselves as human persons – something intrinsic to our nature – that can never be eradicated no matter how badly we have been dehumanized, whether by others or ourselves.
This was Justice Clarence Thomas’ point in his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” If you can summon the imagination to look past the consequences of sin, both original and earned, you will see that there is, in each of us, a glimmer of the divine, which in Christian theology is called the imago dei, the image of God.
The end of the modern project, however, as exemplified by Professor Pinker’s insistence that notions such as dignity are unreal since they cannot be brought under the authority of, or mastered by, the hard sciences, is to eradicate from both our cultural memory and our present practices anything that remotely smacks of the transcendent. But is it really possible to live this way? Can the problems and struggles arising from the search for meaning, purpose, and virtue be grasped or adequately confronted with methods and tools best suited for measuring and quantifying physical reality? As Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si’, “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass.”
For this reason, it is not surprising that Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, appeals to transcendence, dignity, and sacredness: “From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm.”
But when this distinctively religious language in employed in other legal contexts, it is virtually always assailed as inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution’s commitment to “the separation of church and state” or government neutrality on matters involving the meaning of human life.
Here is, for example, the same Justice Kennedy in his opinion in Lee v. Weisman (1992): “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State.” And again, in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”
One could respond that these cases were decided over two decades ago, and perhaps Justice Kennedy, as he has become more aware of his own mortality, has grown more receptive to the idea that a just regime cannot only not rid itself of transcendence, dignity, and sacredness, but that it actually requires them to be fully embedded in its self understanding. One can only hope.
For hanging in the balance is not only the sacredness of the lives of unborn children – whose organs, we’ve recently learned, are valuable commodities on the biotech customer menu – but also the nobility and dignity of business owners, ministers, and the boards of religious schools, universities, hospitals, and adoption agencies whose understanding of the meaning “of the mystery of human life” requires that their beliefs about the sacred bond of marriage not be “formed under compulsion of the State.”
Now that dignity is no longer stupid, we should settle for nothing less.