Pinker On Dignity

Steven Pinker's assault on the President's Council on Bioethics and its recently-released of batch of essays is just as shoddy and bizarre as Yuval Levin says it is. What's most striking to me about the Pinker piece, though, is something I've observed in a lot in the contributions from his side of the bioethics debate during the Bush years - namely, the tendency to write in a tone so shrill and apocalyptic that if you'd just landed in the United States and had only the Pinkers of the world to guide you, you'd think that the advocates of an anything-goes approach to contentious issues like, say, aborting the unfit or embryo-destructive research were an oppressed and embattled minority, bravely speaking out against a tyrannical legal regime that forbids any sort of research that doesn't pass master with Leon Kass and his Catholic cronies. In reality, of course, Pinker's preferred public-policy landscape - in which short of preventing mad scientists from operating on handcuffed, screaming subjects, the law takes an essentially laissez-faire attitude toward the frontiers of biomedical research, leaving the thornier questions to be resolved, as Pinker puts it, by letting "millions of people weigh the costs and benefits of new developments for themselves" - is more or less the approach that America has been taking ever since the Sixties, with occasional moratoria and/or extremely modest restrictions on federal funding the most that bioconservatives have been able to hope for.

Now, given Pinker's premises - he suggests in his conclusion that any restriction on scientific research amounts to mass murder, because "even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos, millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die" - I suppose that constant alarmism about the theocon menace makes a certain sense. But when you're on the other side of the debate, as I tend to be, it's a little odd to watch one of your opponents work himself into paroxysms of hysteria when a (powerless and relatively obscure) Presidential Commission dares to suggest that it might be worth merely having a discussion whose premises don't mesh precisely with the Pinker worldview.