Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Noble, the Dignified, and the just plain Autonomous

Tocqueville presents America as replacing Aristocratic Nobility with Democratic Dignity. James Poulos, Founding Editor of Postmodern Conservative, thinks its time for Nobility to make a comeback.

In this Bloggingheads episode, Poulos discusses how Conservatives make their case against many forms of biotechnology on the grounds of Human Dignity. He says the argument works well when it comes to designer babies, but loses steam when it comes to sexual morality. Nobility, he thinks, would be a better substitute. Poulos explains Miley Cyrus’ behavior last fall as being base and thus simply beneath her. This argument, he asserts, should be able to avoid the usual “Who are you to say…” yada-yada. It isn’t clear this is so as his interlocutor is unable to see a difference between Nobility and Dignity arguments. I’ll return to this point.

Poulos makes the argument for a switch again when it comes to the family. Conservatives, especially Christians, have been making arguments based on natural law (Dignity’s backdrop) when they should base it on “aristocratic nobility: pride in the unity of bloodline and virtu.” “Family identity and family accomplishment” should provide the standard for individual behavior.

Thus, Poulos, and Tocqueville for that matter, present Nobility and Dignity as butting heads. Yet is interesting to see Peter Lawler, who also blogs at Postmodern Conservative, portraying them as kin:
“It was with such Greek reflections in mind that the Roman word dignitas took on a basically aristocratic connotation. Dignity is a worthiness or virtue that must be earned, and the dignified man is someone exceptional who attains distinction by his inner strength of character. Dignitas is a self-contained serenity, a kind of solid immobility that cannot be affected by worldly fortunes. For the Stoics, and especially for Cicero, dignity is democratic in the sense that it does not depend on social status; it is within reach of everyone from the slave (Epictetus) to the emperor (Marcus Aurelius). Dignity refers to the rational life possible for us all, but it is really characteristic only of the rare human being who is genuinely devoted to living according to reason.”
It might be that Poulos is not against Dignity per say, but the simply the Christian or Democratic understanding of it. Tocqueville believed Christianity set up Democracy and were linked an in opposition to Pagan Aristocracy:
“All the great writers of antiquity belonged to the aristocracy of masters, or at least they saw that aristocracy established and uncontested before their eyes. Their mind, after it had expanded itself in several directions, was barred from further progress in this one; and the advent of Jesus Christ upon earth was required to teach that all the members of the human race are by nature equal and alike.”
Whether it is Classical Nobility or Christian Dignity, POMO Cons of all stripes do not want to see Cultural Libertarian’s ‘Autonomy’ crowned King. Stephen Pinker, who Lawler is responding to in the article cited above, says “informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice.” Bedrock? More like shifting sand. But moving on…

This common cause between Classical and Christian concerns can be found in the President’s Council for Bioethics which was disbanded by Obama last fall. Lawler points out the different nuances of the two approaches. The Classical concern is with “living well in the acceptance of necessity” or what I would call the ‘life within limits’ approach. A life well lived is one which operates within boundaries, which is why the Classical thinker also aligns with the Christian in the broader Culture Wars. The Christian is more interested with the “denial of equal treatment to the disabled or otherwise “unfit,” murderous eugenics, abortion, and the scientific destruction of human embryos.” Any of these actions are considered intrinsically evil, regardless of its frequency or circumstance.

Lawler says the two views are the “egalitarian and inegalitarian dimensions” of Human Dignity. I would add the Christian is concerned with individual acts while the Classical thinker is interested in life as a whole. The difference emerges because Divine Revelation brings into focus what appears blurry to unaided Reason. Revelation, like Death it seems, has a way of concentrating the mind.

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