Book Review: Technicians of Human Dignity: Bodies, Souls, and the Making of Intrinsic Worth

Technicians of Human Dignity: Bodies, Souls, and the Making of Intrinsic Worth. Gaymon Bennett, New York: Fordham University Press, 2015, 316 pp.

In Technicians of Human Dignity, Gaymon Bennett presents an analysis of “the politics of intrinsic worth” in what might be considered second-generation Foucauldian terms. Neither a genealogy nor a history of the present but rather an anthropology or analytic of the contemporary, the book renders human dignity as an object of the anthropology of ethics. Bennett’s purpose is not to decide on the notion’s viability or adjudicate between those who would denounce it and those who advance its rectitude. Rather, he endeavors “to make sense of how these inconsistencies and blockages have become defining characteristics” (p. 18) of the discourses that surround the term.

As such, in each of his three venues—the Vatican (or, more precisely, the theological discourses surrounding Vatican II); the United Nations (and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights), and U.S. bioethics (and the President’s Council on Bioethics under Leon Kass)—the conceptual utility of human dignity is taken as a self-evident and undeniable feature of each of these discourses and their associated fields.

The first of these venues is used to detail what Bennett calls the archonic conception of dignity. Archonic concepts play a primordial role with respect to certain conceptions, kinds, or ways of being human. Although it is not entirely lost, the notion of the archonic collapses the distinction between the normative and the descriptive when it comes to various conceptions of understanding of human being, particularly contemporary theological conceptions. It indicates that human dignity does not derive from any other human capability or feature of our being but is, instead, “self-grounding and self-justifying” (p. 11). Furthermore, it reflects an often-expressed concern about human dignity: There is a lack of clarity about its conceptual content, meaning that it can be used to justify a diverse range of (potentially incompatible) positions and perspectives.

In the chapters on the UN and the Declaration on Human Rights, Bennett shows how the role dignity played in this context relies on it being taken as an archonic idea. However, although this is crucial to its success, it remains a largely implicit and politically expedient feature, the value of which the protagonists are uncertain. A similar point can be made about the way dignity was allowed to function in the Kass-led President’s Council on Bioethics. However, in contrast to the UN, here the archonic notion of dignity seems to undermine the contribution made by the President’s Council under Kass, a point discussed further below.

While he does not talk in such terms, Bennett’s analysis puts one in mind of Wittgenstein’s view that our quests for justification or explanation is often exhausted when we encounter the bedrock of an argument. Dignity is, we might say, the point at which our intellectual exertions must cease as our spade is turned and our excavation of morality’s basis can continue no longer. However, under an archonic understand of the term, dignity cannot be taken as a conceptual foundation for ethical analysis—at least not in the way that one would normally (or philosophically) understand such an idea.

As a primordial element in human moral discourses, dignity is not something that can be (explicitly) configured, instead it is a figure that emerges within and through our ethical discourse; its nature or content is given through and in relation to its surroundings and the effect is has on them. Thus, in the Declaration on Human Rights, dignity is not taken as something that prescribes what states must do or even what they must not do, at least not explicitly. Instead, taken as a given without substantive definition, dignity offers a moral mandate and, when placed in a “mutually formative and constraining relation” with substantive rights, it “defines what it means to be human, politically speaking” (p. 142). Dignity is therefore essential to the contemporary making of intrinsic worth and something that quickly takes on operational meaning as a result of being placed in relation to rights that have a specifically human nature, component, or dimension.

Of course, there are plenty on both sides of the dignity debate who demure from this view and either seek the notion’s elimination or seek to ground it in something other than itself. Indeed, this would seem to be the basic dynamic of the way bioethicists have tended to dispute the term. There are those who consider dignity to be a useless concept and reject the idea that something can be self-grounding and self-justifying. And there are those who embrace it and, in the face of often robust criticisms, continue to make use of it. Bennett characterizes the difference between those who are for and against the use of dignity in bioethics as operating with, respectively, an ethos of “tradition” and “modernity” (p. 169). This should not be taken as support for the view that participants in the debate are simple partisans. Rather, one should acknowledge that modernity or “the ethos of the modern” is not beyond or without history but, instead, a way of orientating oneself to it and to history or tradition more generally.

Furthermore, and as indicated by the notion of it having a characteristic ethos, modernity is—or at least has—its own history and tradition(s), and the same can be said of applied (bio)ethics as an (or the) ethics of modernity. Interestingly, while the archonic view of human dignity cannot be cast as an inherited or traditional concept, it is rooted in the arcana of theological debate. Not only does it go against classical formulations of dignity (p. 11), but it also results from a specific set of theological concerns about the role of the church and its relation to the modern world (p. 73). Thus, the way dignity was taken up when Leon Kass led the President’s Council on Bioethics does not, as many mainstream bioethicists seem to think, represent the resurgence of traditional morality over modernity and applied (bio)ethics but rather a particular and distinctive kind of, or approach to, modernity.

Nevertheless, it is clear that sustaining this approach to modernity is not easy. In his discussion of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Bennett shows the intellectual complexity, if not outright contortions, required to maintain a bioethics informed by dignity as an archonic idea. Furthermore, not only did Leon Kass’s successor, Edmund Pellegrino, set out to examine and specify human dignity in more detail—and, in so doing, implicitly rejected the idea of dignity as archonic—he did so almost immediately after being appointed. It seems, then, that an archonic notion of dignity is acceptable in—or can be successfully figured by—theological discourses and the politics of international law, the UN, and human rights declarations, but is a far less fruitful strategy when it comes to bioethics. The pertinent difference would seem to be the proximity of substantive ethical issues of the kind bioethics seeks to address. This means that dignity cannot merely figure in such ethical discourses; rather it needs to play an active role, meaning it must contribute to—i.e., configure—the outcome of the ethical deliberations it informs. While this conclusion might go further than Bennett himself may be prepared to go, it provides a useful explanation for why dignity can do so much and yet so little in modernity’s ethical milieus.

Technicians of Human Dignity is a sophisticated analysis of the politics of intrinsic worth and human dignity. However, as this review indicates, it is not an easy text. Those conducting research on the topic of dignity or the anthropology of ethics will find the book interesting, and it might be worth reading for those whose teaching covers human dignity so that they can come to grips with dignity as an archonic concept or figure. It is, however, unlikely that the book will be suitable for course reading lists.

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