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Skyhooks and Tuned Decks and Bloombast (Oh My!)

February 6th, 2007 · 6 Comments

I headed downtown earlier today to see Leon Kass speak at AEI on his favorite topic: Human Dignity. More or less as I expected, Kass is a master of what (in honor of the late Alan Bloom) I’ve decided to call Bloombast: The conservative version of that special gift for conjuring a sense that you are in the presence of Profundity—and, indeed, perhaps even asserting as much repeatedly—without actually making a cogent argument or, indeed, pinning down a solitary clear concept. (See Jacques Derrida for the leftist variant.) I was a bit surprised to find that Kass does, however, give the impression of being a serious and, in a sense, intellectually honest fellow who’s aware of and troubled by the gaps in his arguments. His rhetorical attempts to paper them over seem geared as much to convince himself as others. I was reminded not a little of Nozick’s description of a certain approach to philosophy:

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t get heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed. . . . Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a first shutter speed before something else budges out too noticeably.

One version of this comes in his attempt to pin down his topic in something better than a rough-and-ready Potter Stewart way. For various reasons, Kass is at pains to show that our Dignity, whatever it might be, is not reducible to any number of other familiar moral concerns, such as autonomy, experiential well being, equality, and so on. And given the policy positions he wants to defend, it had better not be: If dignity is, after all, largely either a component or a function of autonomy, you will not get very far interfering with people’s private choices in the name of “dignity” except, perhaps, as a means of rendering their choices more fully informed or reflective. And if it has centrally to do with any experiential or mental properties, we will be hard pressed to see how selling one’s organs or fiddling with stem cells can threaten it. But his efforts here remind me a bit of an example Dan Dennett, in a very different context, likes to offer up: The Tuned Deck.

The idea, briefly, is that a certain magician has managed to confound his professional colleagues with a card trick they can’t decipher. They take measures to rule out one method by which he might be forcing someone to choose his preferred card, or learning what it is once chosen, and find he can still do the trick. They go ahead and do this for every method they know, yet still he pulls it off. Dennett reveals he’s fooled them with the very name of the trick: Not “Tuned” or “Deck” but… “The.” He’s simply using a different method every time, always avoiding the one his colleagues are testing in each performance. So, at least, it might be with dignity, which might not have to do only with autonomy or subjective well-being or any other single candidate, but some combination. You could then run through a series of cases that act as counterexamples to any one as the ground of dignity without really undermining the thought that these features capture everything centrally relevant to dignity.

Take one of his examples of dignity lost, Prof. Immanuel Rath from the old film Der Blaue Engel. As Kass summarizes it, this staid, painfully respectable professor becomes smitten with a cabaret performer, setting off a chain of events that end with him dismissed from his academic position, publicly humiliated and performing as a buffoon in her traveling show. The offense to his dignity here, though, is multifaceted. Just performing as a clown, for instance, is not per se undignified: If this were something he did happily as a hobby on the side (or, for that matter, a vocation), we would not feel the same sense of shame or pity, unless by overreaching and projecting our own sense that we would not happily do so. The indignity here is partly to do with the subjectively agonizing mismatch between Rath’s own self-image and the role he finds himself forced into; partly whatever besotted misapprehensions he may be laboring under (for the singer, we’re told, does not and could not really care for him); partly the sense that his autonomy is in at least one sense compromised, insofar as his first-order infatuation is in conflict with his second-order plans and projects; and so on. I don’t mean to rule out the possibility that there’s some separate value of dignity not reducible to these other factors, but in Kass’ own examples, there seems to be a good deal more potential for reduction than he’s bothered to seriously attempt. Which, again, matters in policy terms because, contra Kass, where that reduction is possible, then simply asking whether a given policy respects people’s considered choices and preferences, and inquiring into its tendency to promote their subjective well-being, may be morally exhaustive after all.

All this is worth bearing in mind when he turn to the attempt to pin down what our dignity does then consist in. The key rhetorical trick Kass employs—and again, I say “trick” without meaning to imply there’s any intent do deceive, only that it’s a kind of gimmick without which the argument doesn’t work—involves splitting the question into one of our “higher” dignity, which he calls the “dignity of human being” (“being” read as “fully flourishing”) and the “lower” dignity of “being human,” which is to say, simply existing as a biological member of homo sapiens. The gimmick, you see, is that he takes these on separately for starters. The moralist concerned with coarse culture, say, will be more attuned to the former, and how it may be diminished without proper cultivation. Another sort of conservative especially outraged by abortion and stem cell research, on the other hand, may feel a little uneasy about this rather aristocratic conception of dignity (for how much of that does an embryo have?), preferring to insist this is a basic and unalterable property we have just as humans. But at the end, with a flourish, Kass will reveal that the pretty he seemed to saw in half is whole and unitary after all.

Now, watch closely for the sleight of hand. Kass runs through a series of conceptions of the “higher” dignity, beginning with the ancient Greek heroic sort, coming by turns to Kant’s ideal, which he critiques (justly enough) as excessively formal, taking as its object some disembodied, noumenal self, when in fact our concrete, human rationality is inextricably bound up with our passions and emotions and so on. There is no “pure reason” unmoored from our moist, hormone-soaked brains. At the same time, though, Kass does say a number of highly plausible things about the higher order mental properties in virtue of which persons might be thought deserving of special moral respect.

On then, to that “lower” dignity. Here—a bit surprisingly, and as Bill Galston pointed out in the Q&A—Kass seems acutely aware of how inadequate are any of the accounts one might try to give of a “dignity” rooted just in some kind of biological humanity. He seems to realize, for instance, how uncompelling is the thought that mere species membership might, of itself, confer any special moral status.

What to do, then? Here, we get a slew of metaphors in service of a spectacular act of Cirque du Soleil isometrics, with biology grounding and supporting the higher mental properties, which in turn reach down to elevate the biology. The circle is squared, the lady made whole: Biological humanity basks in the glow of the higher personhood for which it acts as necessary substrate.

Except, of course, it is just a trick: The lady was never really sawed in half, and no actual miracles occur when she’s made whole. Kass is surely right to insist that we recognize that our morally significant mental capacities are embodied, concrete, supervenient on a biological base. But the false division he ultimately repudiates was rhetorically necessary to his argument: Whatever semblance of plausibility it picks up along the way depends crucially on the initial posit of a dichotomy. The counterfactual assumption is discharged, but Kass has snuck one of its consequents back into the main derivation. Because only by way of that imagined split between base biology and higher cognition does Kass justify talking about human biology in the abstract, about the physical, genetic species as a natural kind. Then, when they’re reunited, he hopes he can skyhook the whole class into the Kingdom of Ends by way of the cognitive capacities we all recognize as morally significant.

Well, but what if he’d bypassed this step? Just gestured at his lovely, uncarved assistant, whole from the get-go? That would be no magic at all. We’d still only be talking about particular individual organisms whose particular physical and biological structure either does or does not support these dignity-conferring mental traits. Individual bodies and brains giving rise to individual minds, not Biological Humanity as the substrate of The Human Mind. No help here for the blastula. And, indeed, not much comfort for the sadly dispensable hair or kidney or ova that are contingently part of any particular res cogitans.

So Kass gets full marks for showmanship. But nobody should feel so wowed they let the doctor take a blade to them offstage. The healing magic won’t work, and it’s a safe bet he won’t even try to treat you with stem cells.

UPDATE: Tim Lee finds Ayn Rand dealing from “The Tuned Deck” as well.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 bajkas // Feb 6, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    No doubt you caught him in a terrible solecism, though I wasn’t quite able to follow. But what’s wrong with dignity again? That dignity is ultimately another name for autonomy?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Feb 6, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Nothing is “wrong” with dignity. But Kass has a debased, sloppy conception of what dignity means. He ends up playing a silly shell game to keep it sufficiently vague and and disconnected from its actual components in order to allow him to stuff a lot of cruel or insane policy preferences into it.

  • 3 rigel // Feb 6, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    he should go read some b.f. skinner (beyond freedom and dignity), which has always appealed to me a lot more than the highfalutin jibberjabber of philosophers like kant (ugh!). at least it makes assertions about the nature of “dignity” that can be more easily translated into behavior, in contrast to this aggregate-subjective-conception-of-what-are-subjective-judgements-to-begin-with.

  • 4 Julian Elson // Feb 6, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    It seems like Kass’s conception of dignity is based on looking down your nose at other people, or at some hypothetical version of yourself, sneering, and saying “I could be doing that, but I’m above that, so I won’t.” In short, it seems like not doing stem cell research is dignified because you could do it and it’s in your interest to do it, but you demonstrate your unique dignity and self-control as a human being by not doing it. This basically seems to be why Kass approves of Jewish dietary law (really: read The Hungry Soul and see if you can come up with a better explanation for it. Also, possibly interesting to you, is one of the more surreal anti-vegetarian arguments I’ve read, in which vegetarianism is analogized to cannibalism).

    It’s a weird, unanchored notion of virtue. It’s like, instead of saying that you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse because that would be hurting and betraying her unless you had some form of open marriage, Kass is saying you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse because by demonstrating you’re a really dignified type who could cheat, but won’t, and dignity itself the end.

  • 5 Reality Man // Feb 7, 2007 at 1:15 am

    Your posts aren’t long enough.

  • 6 theCoach // Feb 7, 2007 at 9:40 am

    “It’s a weird, unanchored notion of virtue.”

    Obviously it is a weird sort of virtue when the concept is considered a platonic ideal, but this seems to describe an awful lot of people’s actual root cause for virtue (think of the Republican party). Virtue, I think, is more like a biological emotion, not unlike fear or disgust — so I would not look for an anchor in logic, but rather in the peciliar nature of human psychology.