Tuesday, April 28

The Blur of Dignity (Response to Justin…)

Justin, I liked your layman’s definition of ‘human dignity’, particularly the notion of their intrinsic value. I’ve thought a lot about this issue because the question of post-human dignity looms at every end of this debate, and the dreaded post-human state is purely speculative. So we all have this intrinsic value that holds our dignity, human status, etc. but why does it seem so easy to lose? There seems to be a blurring of two separate definitions of dignity. Of course the sense that you are referring to as an intrinsic, state of “being human” sense of dignity; and then the sense relating to behavior, respect, and self-worth. Perhaps there is an assumption that we all have dignity regardless of our behavior. I know this is beginning to blend with definitions of integrity but I would argue that this second notion of dignity is just as easily compromised as ones integrity. Here is the problem I have when discussing the post-human, there ought to be (if there isn’t already) a precise conception of intrinsic dignity. If this intrinsic dignity could be compromised by altering the human state, then what other external (or internal?) factors could also compromise it? This was always where Leon Kass lost me in his argument. He argued for the potential post-human threat to human dignity but never really offered a concrete sense of this type of dignity. The lack of definitive explanation has always led me to believe Kass arguing for some type of theistic soul. I found this seemingly implicit axiom very frustrating, not to mention the nauseatingly frequent invocations of Aldous Huxley’s book, Brave New World.

I also don’t think dignity is relating to something as trivial as laws, culture, or “someone arm”, as Justin clearly pointed out, but I do question the dignity of someone with severely diminished mental function. Not in the sense that just because you lack mental abilities you cannot have dignity, but at what point does mental deterioration start affecting dignity? If your deteriorated mental state left you insane and you felt the perpetual overwhelming urge to run naked through public throwing feces at passersby, then your dignity would definitely be in question. Though this would be in the second sense of dignity mentioned above and not the first, right? Again the terms are blurring between the intrinsic sense of dignity and the dignity that we all have as self-respecting adults. The problems I refer to as the “blurring” may only exist as problems for me because of my own engrained perceptions.

Kass’s direction does seem to be moving into the immaterial realm which now resembles the tenets of essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that biological species hold essences or properties that constitute what it is to exist as that species. This is most commonly seen as a type of alternative species concept within the philosophy of biology. So if Kass is saying that our intrinsic dignity (i.e.) ‘what it means to be human’ is defined by this unidentified characteristic, then I take Kass to be an essentialist. I won’t go into the problems with essentialism here, but Kass will have to rise to an unprecedented level if he wants to beat this challenge.

One other point I would like to make is that it’s not clear that living an enhanced state would affect human dignity. Of course if we construe the post-human to the over-enhanced abomination like state of The Borg from Star Trek, then it’s easy to focus on the negative. I wonder if those who have experienced organ transplants, prosthetics, or other types of treatments feel as though they have lost something integral with their sense of self. This may provide a little insight into what the post-human state may look like on a very rudimentary level.

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