In my recent post on physician-assisted death, in which I ran the debate through the so-called Rationality Engine, some of you were disappointed that my verdict was not a verdict. My summary was that a person who values human dignity above freedom could rationally be opposed to physician-assisted death, and vice-versa.
A person of faith, for example, might value human dignity higher than freedom because God graced us with the former but mere human laws define our freedoms. One might say a big point of religion is to constrain human freedoms (especially the bad impulses) to preserve human dignity and in that way show respect for one’s creator. I found this reasoning to be sound if you start with the assumption of a creator with a personality that we can understand, and who has needs/requirements that we can fulfill for our own eternal good.
But one need not be religious to find value in human dignity. An economist could easily argue that the world operates better if we assign value to human life. That probably helps to keep us from slipping into cannibalism.
On the other hand, if you value freedom higher than human dignity, you probably think it makes sense to skip some agony toward the end of life and manage your own graceful exit. According to this way of thinking, human dignity is enhanced by the freedom to engineer your own exit.
Personally, I think human dignity is one of the biggest obstacles to happiness, wealth, and success. I often credit my career success with a complete lack of human dignity.
For example, if you take the Dale Carnegie course, as I did, part of the training involves acting silly in front of a crowd in order to release your dignity. Once you realize that your fear of losing face is the only thing making you nervous, you relax and things flow easily. Releasing my dignity has allowed me to make a fortune on the speaking circuit. I have humiliated myself in front of crowds a number of times. That’s how one improves. And my willingness to take that sort of risk is a big part of what puts me in a rare zone, fee-wise.
I often credit the success of Dilbert with my total lack of artistic integrity. I launched the strip as a generic comic about a guy that happened to be an engineer, but for the first year or two I focused on his home life. I was surprised to learn that readers preferred my infrequent workplace jokes to my generic humor, so I turned Dilbert into a workplace comic. Success followed. I treated my art like any other product and gave customers the features they demanded.
To put it bluntly, I traded my artistic pride for a better business model. Readers were glad I did. And that made me happy too. I keep looking for the downside of giving up my artistic ego but I can’t find it. And more generally, every time I give up some dignity (”sell out”) I seem to come out ahead. I see that pattern in other people’s lives as well.
After a lifetime of observation, it seems to me that dignity in all its forms can be one of the most pervasive obstacles to success. I assume that is because human dignity is hard to separate from ego, pride, artistic integrity, fear of failure, and a lot of other obstacles that successful people try to avoid. All of those limiting emotions spring from the idea that you are special.
In the case of physician-assisted dying, for example, a high sense of human dignity could sentence millions of sufferers to a living Hell.
For practical reasons, I believe we should treat each other well, even when no one is watching. Human dignity adds nothing to that world view. Moreover, I have seen ego, dignity, and pride ruin lots of lives. I would go so far as to say that unless you have health issues, or you are unfairly imprisoned, the only thing that can keep you from happiness is an inflated view of your own self-worth.
Sometimes life requires that we take jobs below our station until we learn skills, offer apologies even when we are wronged, suck-up to power when necessary, work long hours when we “deserve” some rest, risk embarrassment in front of witnesses, risk failure and humiliation, and get rejected by the people we hope to love. In that sort of game, the player unburdened with human dignity usually wins.
Human dignity is, to a large degree, what made both of my parents suffer needlessly at the ends of their lives. I’m quite done with that form of magical thinking. And if California lawmakers decide I will not have a legal right to physician-assisted death, should I someday want it, I still have the right to own a gun, and that means I get to choose my exit.
If I find myself in unbearable pain toward the end of my days, and knowing my personality, there is a non-zero chance I will Uber to Sacramento and spray my brains all over the steps of the state capital just to make a point. It won’t be a dignified way to go, but still far better than dying like a sheep because other people believe they are special.
Did you ever want to make a jet engine with your own 3D printer? Me neither, but it impresses the heck out of me that it can be done.
And what could be creepier than a robotic teddy bear that watches you and reacts to your voice commands? Not much. Seriously, I’m drawing a blank here.
And how about a hobby drone that is gas-powered for extra awesomeness? Can it go get gas on its own?
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