Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Sociobiology vs. Dignity

Pinker writes a very lively and smart criticism of the Bioethics Council’s book on dignity. There’s even a lot I agree with, especially his last paragraph. I do think there’s a tendency among some conservative bioethicists to worry too much about the real coming of the Brave New World. But I don’t think that tendency comes from any specifically Cathoic influence, but from the untrue thought that Nietzsche’s "last man" (which like the Brave New World only exists in a book) could become real. Sociobiologists (including even our buddy Darwinian Larry) sometimes have the merit of reminding us of how modest our techno-victories over nature have been and are likely to be. Pinker does seem blind to the fact that the authors in the book with religious influences and even from religious colleges really disagree with each other. His most charmingly naive thought is that the reduction in cruelty and increase in freedom that we find in recent centuries has some evolutionary cause. I even doubt that, when you closely, that you will really see that the amount of cruelty in the world has diminished. AND: Can a sociobiologist really explain the behavior of hyper-liberated individuals in Western Europe and even in our country as good for the future of our species?

Discussions - 10 Comments

Genetically engineered food, bad.
Genetically engineered humans, fine.

Nietsche's hyperbolic anthropology is Locke's taken to its dualistic extremes: you either have the Last Man who is content to passively identify himself with worthless nature or the Superman who is entirely independent of it. Like Locke, it's likely that the trans-humanist element in Nietzsche is more salutary self-delusion than the serious postulation of an ideal to strive towards...also, Nietsche is very perceptive when it comes to the failings of science on these grounds but merely replaces the scientific mastery of nature with individual self-mastery via the will to power.The dignity that attaches to beings who are characterized by both immanence and transcendence really gets lost in modern translation....and one should notice that at the end of the piece Pinker does seem to acknowledge, after calling dignity almost worthless and subordinated to personal autonomy, that it's systematic dismaissal can in fact have very serious consequences

Pinker aside, and Ivan's insight into Locke as well for the moment, what Peter gives us here in his comment is really a version of one of the most valuable lessons I've learned from him. In my Tocqueville-ridden articulation: full-scale mild despotism is impossible. Of course, it is very much sick-making to consider how close we might be able to get to it...I suppose something similar could be said for Huxley's and Nietzsche's nightmares. But strangely, it sometimes seems as if the most dehumanized of the humans of our own day are the ones resigned to our future inevitable dehumanization. Folks, you know, like whoever the editors of Time magazine were during the 90s and the early aughts, who kept telling us how this and that techno-rationalizing or bio-techic development was INEVITABLE, UNSTOPPABLE, etc. I despise people like that...people who spin out depressing sci-fi scenarios of souless modernity, and then prove to be heatedly opposed to any democratic resitance to its ongoing encroachment--they at bottom accept it as inevitable, as the real truth about humans, even if they want to have the romance of at least aesthetically rebelling against it.

And yet, a certain conservative position isn't SO FAR from that sort of pessimism. Those who hold that we would be dehumanized eventually, were it not for the ongoing resistance put up by the likes of those folks working for the BUSH-initiated Bioethics Council, seem to veer pretty close to the view that the dehumanization is inevitable. I.e., given the multi-dimensional and relentless onslaught that is modernity and the demo-think that goes with it, eventually SOME generation of liberty and human-dignity defenders (for the foreseeable future, call them CONSERVATIVES) will screw up and decisively lose. All it takes is to lose several generations, and the trends become irreversible. Then all our nightmares will occur, so imagine away: World Plebicitary "Democracy" by Internet. The U.S. Constitution finally put away, behind a glass case. The Right to Reasonably Equal Genetic Opportunity enacted, as well as the Right to an Up-to-Date Entertainment Pod.

But thankfully, man is made of far tougher and stranger stuff than these two positions, the resigned one, and the "let us go down fighting" conservative one, understand. Again, we must not underestimate how CLOSE we might be capable of getting to the scenarios of ultimate and irreversible dehumanization, but Lawler is right that we cannot get there.

Doesn't history demonstrate the inevitability of humans dehumanizing other humans?

The war between Pinker and Leon Kass would be seen by Hegel as social efficiency vs. Christian morality, the task of the time being to bring about a synthesis of the two.

The problem and the fear on the part of the Christians rests in the fact that Orthodox Christian morality isn't something that grows, in fact people have less and less time for reflection and christianity. On the other hand technology countinues to progress pushing social efficiency to greater heights. Science expands the possibility frontier. It only takes 5000 dues paying academic science fiction types worldwide agreeing with with Max Moore's philosophy of Extropian/Transhumanism to scare the crap out of folks like Ivan K. I don't have to be very bright to watch a movie like Ironman and figure out that some fringe group like the Transhumanists are actively working to make it a reality, or that some conservatives somewhere are cringing. That people are scared and optimistic about different things is a given but people leaving the theater aren't really thinking along the academic lines of Ivan or the Transhumanists, and if they are then like me they are probably just trying to enrich mundane life with some existentialist drama and tension.

Conservative bioethicists are just trying to get people to live thymotically just as all the various interest groups like Gandolf seek to make Hobbits into adventurers. And in this sense I don't mean to degrade the Hobbits or the Hobbesians, but I mean to point out that Gandolf himself is manifold: radical environmentalist, peace-corps, armed forces, christian church, missionary activity, Jehovah's witness, telemarketer, get rich quick schemes involving real estate and gold...any group that seeks to recruit for the Mission of the decade century or cause or opportunity of a lifetime or the Millinium. So while I might end up agreeing with some people that Carl Scott hates, I don't think the jist of it is comming from the real truth about human beings in any simple fashion but from a drastically cheapened but highly efficient and tailored thymoic marketing campaign that is driving people to their senses. You can only hear so many conversion stories, only see so many miracles and mission accomplished and promise keeper conventions and million man marches before you put yourself on the do not call list. Sorry Gandolf but you are fucking with my second breakfast, you scratched an X unto my freshly painted door and your dwarves are breaking all my dishes. You can take your hope audacious or otherwise and shove it. Listen up Cassandra if you think the Iranians are going to nuke us build a bomb shelter, if you think God is bringing a flood build an Ark, if you think Ocean levels are going to rise buy a house in Colorado, if you think Aliens are comming wear a tin hat. If Obama is the end of the world move to Canada. But frankly we are all tired of all the Cassandra/Gandolf's out there selling a thymos on the back of an abstract theory whose concreteness is nowhere in existance. If you build your house on stilts the world can let loose its septic tanks, and at the end of the day when you retire and put on your robes and seek wisdom in Hegel he confirms the view that if you can't warn others because they won't listen then you simply have to make the plays for yourself. So Hegel teaches what Ben Franklin does, and lo and behold we see that diversity in America tends in the long run to drive people into likeminded communities.

"Doesn't history demonstrate the inevitability of humans dehumanizing other humans?" That brings Hobbesian laughter to my understanding of Hegel, which in turn bring Hobbesian laughter to those reading my rants.

One other thing ...

From the article ...

"The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal 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."

That is a pro-life argument, whether Pinker or Macklin realize it or not. A rather Catholic line of thinking, is it not?

I think Carl is right on this---and this really is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn from Peter's work. The fact that we're part immanence and part transcendence seems to mean it's inevitable there will be some tinkering with our natures---or at the least the conditions for the expression of our natures-- but nature itself turns out to be surprisingly recalcitrant to wholesale revision (one of the lessons of Mansfield's Manliness too). So, following Peter, we're stuck with virtue which means stuck with prudence as well---the repudiation of this prudence is an implicit premise of Pinker's argument.

I don't know what is new in chaos theory, but when I was reading about it, one point sent my Christian heart racing. Statistically analyzing chaos, it was found that earthly chaos has boundaries. Chaotic events can only go so far, do so much, last so long and that's it. Back when I was reading, the "why" of the matter was still open to question. My Christian presumption leaped in with my answer.

Isn't it going to be interesting to see the limits to this?

Dale Michaud, the autonomy issue can be played the other way - because a woman is autonomous, the child has no right there, as if it were an invader, an enemy alien. You can repel an invader in any way necessary and be justified. Very intelligent women have told me that their abortions were justified, as when removing a bullet or "like pulling a splinter" or eliminating a virus would be justified as matters of self-defense. Without conferring the dignity of human life to the autonomous life form, anything goes.

How can the unborn both be an enemy invader and nothing more than appendage?

Morever, an enemy invader implicitly means that the 'thing' inside is life.

But, yes, I agree, with abortion anything goes.

Also, only in rape could the 'invader' be truly classified as such.

But, that would be assuming the sperm and the unborn would be the aggressor, the assaulting entity, while the egg would be the victim.

Such convuluted logic goes abortion. And, in my opinion, only happens to make the woman who have them feel better, justify, about their god-like power over another innocent life.

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