MINNEAPOLIS (JG) – The annual conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) is taking place here in Minneapolis. This is the big conference for the major bioethics organization in the country, and this is my first time attending.
The conference began yesterday with concurrent paper sessions, one of which was entitled “Dignity and Enhancement.” Having some acquaintance with both of these topics through my association with CBHD, I looked forward to hearing the speakers.
Four people presented papers. One discussed competing concepts of human dignity. She was willing to accept the existence of something called dignity, but couldn’t see how the concept gave any practical moral direction; the idea that “I should work to preserve another’s dignity because I want mine to be preserved” was not convincing for her. Another presenter, speaking on neuroenhancement, argued that tools are extensions of our minds; so if we’re OK with enhancing and and improving tools like, say, smartphones, which are the external machinery of our minds, then we should have no problem with taking medication like Ritalin to enhance and improve our brains, which are the internal machinery of our minds. (He kept putting up a slide that equated an iPhone with a Ritalin tablet.) In fact, it might be an affront to human dignity to prevent or limit opportunities for neuroenhancement. Yet another presenter, addressing the question of whether or not human dignity is an essential principle of bioethics, was willing to allow that the concept of human dignity isn’t entirely useless, which I was glad to hear; but then she asserted that it is actually a way of “sneaking religious assumptions into a secular-sounding word,” and she left very little doubt regarding how she felt about sneaky religionists infiltrating an obviously secular field like bioethics. She agreed with a member of the audience who stated that the problem with dignity isn’t that it’s a sneaky religious term but that it is a manifestation of “human exceptionalism” (the belief that humans have a special status compared to animals).
I learned a lot in this 90-minute introduction to the cutting edge of contemporary bioethics. I learned how tenuous in some quarters of the academy are the concepts that undergird respect for and protection of humans. I learned how important it is to sit back and listen and understand what those who hold opposing views actually believe (one of the presenters seemed very adept at misrepresenting views opposed to hers; we must be careful not to do the same thing). I was impressed again with the critical need for Christians and the Church to engage the culture at all levels on these topics.
As we got up to leave, a friend from CBHD who has attended these conferences before — and had previously hinted at what I could expect — leaned over and said, with a chuckle and more than a hint of irony, “Welcome to ASBH!”
An eye-opening welcome, indeed.