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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fukuyama on human dignity, revisited

I first posted this back in November 2006. I thought it was worth digging out again without too much editorialising about it, given that the President's Council on Bioethics (of which Francis Fukuyama has been a mainstay) has recently put out a huge report on the subject of human dignity. The report is (seemingly) an elaborate attempt to defend the concept.

My readers are likely to be more familiar with a current New Republic article by Steven Pinker, vigorously slamming the report. If you haven't yet read it, its title, "The Stupidity of Dignity", will give you an accurate idea of Pinker's tone.

Both the Council's report and Pinker's article in response will be worth discussion in their own right, but it may be some time before I have a chance to read the former. As to the latter, I think that Pinker's dismissal of "dignity" is totally justified.

I argue below (in the 2006 post) that there is no such thing as human dignity in the sense that Fukuyama and his pals need to get their bio-Luddite moral arguments off the ground. Of course, the word "dignity" does have an ordinary, perfectly familiar meaning, and what we call "dignity" is often observed: e.g., we speak of the "dignity" of people who maintain a certain composure in trying circumstances. It is a certain quality of bearing and attitude that strikes us as somehow noble, or resistant to humiliation, or well, "dignified". There is a sense of proper - not foolish or excessive, or offensive - pride.

In that sense, dignity is a good characteristic to have and display, and it is deplorable when we strip it from people. But that is something rather different. In the greatly-inflated sense that Fukuyama and others want, "human dignity" does not exist.

As I re-read and ponder Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future, I'm struck once more at how the workings of a powerful intellect end up producing lame conclusions on matters of policy.

Fukuyama's quest is to defend the idea that we all possess human dignity: some unique property that entitles each of us, equally, to a special moral respect that does not apply to the rest of creation. What, however, could such a mysterious property actually be? It could come from God, perhaps, if we share in some supernatural divine spark with our Creator, but that answer will not cut much ice in secular societies like Australia, or among secular people in a largely religious, but still pluralist, society like the US. No, Fukuyama needs a secular foundation for human dignity, but this is hard to find.

Indeed, the quest seems to be hopeless; I claim that there simply is no such thing as human dignity.

However, let's see what Fukuyama does with the problem. He thinks that what gives us our special moral worth is the fact that we are complex wholes with a range of capacities that exceed anything found among non-human animals - capacities relating to rationality, moral choice, sociability, sentience, consciousness, language, and so on. This is a richer range of elements than we see in the notion of Lockean personhood, with its emphasis on reason and self-consciousness, including a consciousness of ourselves as existing in time.

For myself, I want to argue that Lockean personhood is important, not because it grounds some mysterious quality of human dignity but because it is a necessary condition for anything to be vulnerable to certain kinds of harms to their interests. That vulnerability provides one basis for giving moral consideration to beings that possess it. Accordingly, if some non-human animals possess Lockean personhood they are at least good candidates for greater consideration than other animals that are sentient but not persons. What sort of consideration we feel we should give something will not depend merely on whether or not it gets over the threshold of Lockean personhood - it will depend on many other things, including the full range of its actual properties and vulnerabilities. But Lockean personhood is going to be a very important concept within any plausible moral system.

I'm not opposed to Fukuyama providing a richer range of elements - some of these may be important, though not for the reasons that he appears to think. One good reason is that they may create new vulnerabilities. For example, a person with a moral sense may be vulnerable to being torn apart psychologically in ways that may not apply to all Lockean persons. That may influence how we should treat such a person - for example, we can think of horribly cruel choices that people can be confronted with in which they are coerced or manipulated to act against their deepest moral beliefs. That is a vulnerability that a human being might have but which might not apply (though I don't totally rule it out) to any non-human animals that we know of, even if they are Lockean persons.

As far as I can see, Fukuyama does not make this point - or anything like it. Instead, he seems to see some objective moral value in the complex range of human capacities, without needing to invoke the vulnerabilities that these capabilities lead to. In particular, he places a great deal of emphasis on the value of the full range of human emotions - he will be suspicious of any technology that reduces that emotional range.

This way of looking at things creates all sorts of problems. The most obvious, as Fukuyama realises, is that it is not a theory of equal human dignity, since these capacities are present in human beings to varying degrees and of course some of them are deficient (or altogether missing) in some human beings - e.g. very young children and people suffering intellectual disability or dementia. It is no good saying, as Fukuyama wants to do, that it is impractical to make discriminations because it is actually all too easy to make them with some degree of accuracy, at least in respect of such things as reasoning ability, linguistic skills, and moral virtue. We doubtless do value all these things that Fukuyama refers to, but they don't confer a mysterious human dignity (indeed, we would value them in some new species that might turn up) and they certainly cannot underwrite equal human dignity.

It gets worse. Such criteria are no more able than criteria to do with sentience, or to do with Lockean personhood, to explain why any moral worth should attach to an early embryo, or why, as Fukuyama argues, we should heavily regulate embryo research. Fukuyama realises this, of course, and he has to fall back on notions of potentiality to develop into a being with the necessary attributes for human dignity. But this immediately raises all the same problems that accompany the claim that an embyro is a (merely) potential Lockean person. Potential to be morally considerable at some later time does not give any basis for moral considerability now.

Furthermore, the theory has no bite if it is meant to be used to oppose human reproductive cloning, as no one proposes that we use cloning to create children with less than the normal human capacities and complexity. The theory might be helpful in ruling out some kinds of genetic engineering, but again no one much wants to engineer children who are less capable and complex than normal children. The aim is more likely to be to produce greater than normal complexity and capacities of the kinds that Fukuyama values so much.

In short, the theory has shortcomings as a theory of (equal) human dignity. Worse, even if it could otherwise be made to work it would not take Fukuyama to the sorts of policy positions that he finds attractive.

There is much to admire in Fukuyama's writings. He is often clear-headed, and he certainly writes with considerable surface lucidity (any confusion and unclarity is largely hidden below the easily-readable prose). But he appears to be committed to moral beliefs and policy prescriptions that simply don't follow from his philosophical arguments, with the result that Our Posthuman Future often seems to be one giant non sequitur. It is worth reading for its clear-headed discussion of why it makes sense to believe in something like "human nature", and why it is difficult to move from there to belief in "human dignity". The conclusions, however, are a squib. Fukuyama should have concluded that there is no property of human dignity, whatever has been thought in the past, and that our moral and legal norms must be justified (to the extent that they can be at all) on some radically different basis


Bad said...

Excellent stuff. I've chimed in with my own discussion of one of the Council's Essays. The concept of "vulnerability" int he sense you use it is something I need to think more about.

Blake Stacey said...

This has nothing in particular to do with Fukuyama or "human dignity", but linking back to November 2006 sent me on a weird nostalgia trip. Remember when Wikipedia's piece on "Transhumanism" became a Featured Article? And how about the time we all realized we were bored with the anti-Dawkins backlash? Isn't it just amazing to see how much the world has changed since that day! So many memories. . . .

Blake Stacey said...

In response to this:

The theory might be helpful in ruling out some kinds of genetic engineering, but again no one much wants to engineer children who are less capable and complex than normal children.

I couldn't help but think of this:

It will not be possible to apply exactly the same teaching process to the machine as to a normal child. It will not, for instance, be provided with legs, so that it could not be asked to go out and fill the coal scuttle. Possibly it might not have eyes. But however well these deficiencies might be overcome by clever engineering, one could not send the creature to school with out the other children making excessive fun of it.

Alan Turing

And this:

If you want to know why Turing is such a hero of mine (besides his invention of the Turing machine, his role in winning World War II, and so on), the second passage above contains the answer. Let others debate whether a robotic child would have "qualia" or "aboutness" — Turing is worried that the other kids would make fun of it at school.

Scott Aaronson

Anonymous said...

I think freedom is a prerequisite to dignity. "An unexamined life is not worth living." With freedom one then has the option to learn and earn dignity. I don't think dignity is definable because there is no absolute standard for moral rightness and I don't think whether or not one eats chicken with your fingers is a matter of dignity. I enjoyed reading the various comments.

Russell Blackford said...

I look forward to the return of summer when I can lick an ice cream or two in the cause of liberty.

Love the quote from Turing.

Anonymous said...

Since this thread is rather slow, I hope it is ok if I sneak in an off topic post. The Maasai were mentioned in "Same-sex marriages today, polygamous marriages tomorrow?" but that thread is too active. "Ivory: A Legend of Past and Future" by Mike Resnick, is a real page-turner! My view may be a little biased because the hero is an expert researcher who has a computer that is smart, but not too smart. ;-) It does involve dying with dignity and the calls of duty.