Ideology, via Toothbrush Debates

by Sebastian Benthall

My friend Eli Braun recently made a gem of a post to Toothbrush Debates about the use of the concept of dignity in bioethics circles.

Via another bioethics center, I was just invited to a conference on “human dignity and bioethics.” I showed the invitation to a professor at my own bioethics center and asked: “Jesus! Why are these people so obsessed with human dignity?”

“I know,” he replied, “it’s such a clear and unambiguous concept. Why don’t we just define it in law and make everyone observe it?”

A central interest of mine is the role of rational discourse in politics, and especially how technology can assist it. The ideal is that if people just talk things out and provide each other with their reasons for holding various positions, then they can just arrive at consensus and achieve deliberative democracy.

When I talk to people about this, a natural place where conversation flows is, “Well, what happens if people just fundamentally disagree? You know, in their axioms.” It feels like the “dignity” question Eli points is one of deep sticking points.

Are these foundational stones of people’s world views really so immovable? Philosophically, I tend to think not. But sometimes I’m afraid that I’m wrong. If then, then what use is there for politics at all, except as an engine for coercion and war?