May 17, 2008

A bioethical thought experiment for Steven Pinker

Imagine a pair of people, the first of whom is, by any standard you could want to pick, better than the second?not an unimaginable scenario.  In such a case, most people wouldn’t have a problem saying, “If B became as smart as A, or as kind, or as pretty, or as industrious, etc., it would be a good development”; on the other hand, few would go so far as to say that it would be better for B to become A.  Self-improvement is, in some literal sense, a betrayal of who-I-am-right-now, but it doesn’t offend our belief in the inherent worth of every human person.  Saying that we would prefer a world in which there were two A’s rather than an A and a B, on the other hand, does.

Pinker seems to think that bioethical “dignity” talk is just a cover for “skittishness toward biomedical advances.”  He’s right that the Yuck Factor is certainly a big part of it, but if “Become someone better, but don’t become someone else” is a maxim?admittedly a slippery one?that we’re willing to apply to individual people, why not apply it to the human race?

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