The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Affronts to human dignity
Tom Smith

Steven Pinker's provocative screed against "conservative bioethics" has got me thinking, though perhaps not in a very serious way. (hat tip to our own Professor Rappaport.) Pinker damagingly quotes Leon Kass on one affront to human dignity:

Worst of all [Kass writes] from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. ... Eating on the street--even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat--displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

Some people are really weird about eating.  One of my best friends at Oxford would have sex with anything that moved, but would not endure my descriptions of escargot in a butter and garlic sauce, which he regarded as obscene.  Not the snails either, but all that butter. Don't ask me.  Melted butter may be indulgent, but it's a lot less icky in my view than sex with the usual representative of the minor nobility.

But that is not my point.  My point rather is that as long as we are listing things that are inconsistent with human dignity, let us get a few other more important affronts than ice cream cone licking on the list.  I intend to be candid here, so I advise the easily offended to stop reading and go back to your linguine in clam sauce (another offender) right now. 

So then, to begin, Jack Nicholson running around without his shirt on is inconsistent with human dignity, as is showing one's manboobs generally.  An ethical system that gives us some sort of argument to prohibit this sort of thing has something to be said for it, and this has to be weighed against Pinker's criticisms.  Indeed, rare are the occasions when men should go around without their shirts on.  If a man is buff, he is showing off, and if he isn't, he is affronting human dignity.  Just by going to a place such as St. Bart's, you are taking risks with human dignity.  Many years ago, when as an associate at a big law firm I thought I was making a lot of money, LWJ and I went to St. Bart's, a French island in the Caribbean  where French people and some deluded Americans indulge in nude bathing.  There were affronts to human dignity everywhere one turned practically.  For example, old and presumably rich French men with their young and beautiful girlfriends, both on the beach, and both as naked as the considerably separate days on which they were born, and one of them affronting human dignity for all he was worth, which I hope for her sake was a lot.  The wine there is really good though.

Many tattoos are affronts to human dignity. 

I consider the goatee very often an affront to human dignity, especially if combined with a pickup truck.  If you drive a pickup, please do not sport a goatee. Tattoos, goatees and pickup trucks together are a dangerous combination and almost certainly immoral.

Yammering vacantly on your cellphone within the hearing of others or while driving is an affront to human dignity.  Locutions such as "I saw her at the mall and she was like so totally cute" are an affront to human dignity, especially if spoken on a cell phone.

I don't see what the big deal is with cats.  Cats have feline dignity.  I think the way they eat is fine.  Kass needs to rethink his position on how cats eat.

Nearly everything gangsta is an affront to human dignity.  Recently my teenage boys and I ate at an In N Out burger in a poorer section of San Diego.  Some young gentlemen seated next to us were affecting a gangsta style of dress and conversation.  I asked my sons "So would you say those guys are 'gansta'?"  "Don't say that!" they hissed at me. "What, 'gansta'?" I said.  More wincing and hissing.  "Yes, that!"  I was having so much fun I could barely stand it.    If you want to see a real gansta and get some really good food, check out Pete's BBQ on Sports Arena.  People of every sort eat there because the food is so good.  Do not make fun of the ganstas at Pete Phil's BBQ, or you may find your human dignity being affronted.  Gangstas have human dignity and you want to make sure you respect it.  And their ho's too.

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Comments

I've been looking and looking, but I can't find a word to disagree with here!
Thanks for the laugh.
j

Posted by: Joe | May 29, 2008 5:10:11 AM

Do you mean Phil's BBQ?

That place is an affront to human dignity! When the wind is out of the west, you can smell it while waiting for custom cuts at the Dixieline mill a mile away. A south wind carries the aroma over South Shored Boat Ramp and all the way to Fiesta Islan, a north wind to Dusty Rhodes Dog Park.

Well, okay, it's a good smell. A damn good smell. So it may not be an affront to human dignity, but it's an affront to my attempt to lose those last 10 extra pounds. Still, the way Phil's food is eaten (without utensils, with BBQ sauce all over one's hands, face, and table) isn't particularly civilized.

Oh, and if you want to go to a legitimate bar where there is similar diversity, and where people feel comfortable bringing small children, check out Kristy's MVP on Midway. They serve good food, and some tables have LCD screens with their own channel selectors -- great place to watch the games, as in several games all at once. Now that may be an affront to human dignity. Or not.

Posted by: Barry | May 29, 2008 5:59:56 AM

I met Kass about 15 tears ago, before he was famous. He was (is, I suppose) a hard core Straussian. He apparently truly believes that there is hidden (Esoteric or Mystery) knowledge available only to true cogniscenti or duly admitted acolytes (of which he is, of course, one) located in the exact middle paragraph of the middle page of important books. Not only that, but the key to understanding this secret knowledge is the exact middle word of the middle sentence of that paragraph. Of course one also has to be truly elite intellectually to either become a member of the Mystery or to understand it.

He was apparently also pretty much devoid of any sense of humor. I'd call him a typical "stiff-necked Baptist" [i.e., absolutely convinced of his own rightness, assured entry to Heaven and your descent into Hades, and his own infallible understanding of God's will] were he not Jewish. He's sort of the Jewish Jimmy Carter without the hammer

He was interesting to be around, but not really someone I'd want to go to the ballgame with, nor have in charge of any policy.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | May 29, 2008 7:00:53 AM

Kass is offended when he sees us eat ice cream and obviously wants us banished from public view. Obama says we can't eat all we want or be as warm as we want because other nations don't like it. Why are liberals so puritanical? Whey are they constantly trying to take away so many simple pleasures?

Posted by: DJ | May 29, 2008 7:37:29 AM

"Eating on the street--even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat--displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. ... Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. ... This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior."

Next time I see the men repairing our roads or watermains, or construction workers building our homes, or firefighters keeping a brush fire out of my community, taking their lunch break I'll be sure and stop to tell them what an affront to human dignity they are. That Pinker even finds this worth quoting undercuts his entire argument for me.

Posted by: richard mcenroe | May 29, 2008 7:43:41 AM

"If a man is buff, he is showing off, and if he isn't, he is affronting human dignity. Just by going to a place such as St. Bart's, you are taking risks with human dignity. "

Bring on the man-burkas!

Posted by: richard mcenroe | May 29, 2008 7:45:26 AM

I do mean Phil's and I'm sure you can smell it from the Dixieline. One impressive thing about the place is that they managed to scale up from their old place in Mission Hills without losing any quality, that I can tell. They dish out a huge volume of BBQ. They draw a large crowd in more ways than one.

Posted by: Tom Smith | May 29, 2008 3:31:55 PM

Kass's eating-in-public thing is weird, true, but I'd bet dollars to donuts (eaten in public, natch) that Jorg ain't ever read a thing Kass has written. Maybe he's hiding all that esoteric knowledge behind super-secret codes that only the guys with decoder rings can decipher, but most of what I've read is just philosophical reflection on some pretty interesting and important topics.

As for BBQ, I just can't believe San Diego has some of the really good stuff. I may just have to make a trip next winter...

Posted by: Michael Simpson | May 29, 2008 8:15:00 PM

Kass' comment about eating in the street is an elaboration on a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 40B. Here's the original, for those who can read it:

ת"ר האוכל בשוק הרי זה דומה לכלב

Posted by: Scott | May 31, 2008 9:36:21 PM

huamn dignity is not a joke ... we must preserve it!

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