Ethics. Research. Community.

Starting the new year with dignity -- or not

The corks from the New Year's celebrations have hardly even been swept up, and already we have the first ugly bioethics conflict of the new decade. It about the concept of dignity, and more specifically whether the concept is coherent and useful in tackling bioethical problems. In 2003, Ruth Macklin wrote a paper in the British Medical Journal with the unambiguous title, "Dignity is a useless concept." But the concept of dignity has not made a dignified exit from the bioethics scene in the meantime. To the contrary, there have been a number of scholarly attempts to demonstrate its importance and usefulness, UNESCO's contribution to bioethics (Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights) in 2005 gave the concept of dignity a pride of place, and there are a number of bioethics-related blogs that clutch onto the concept of dignity as though their lives (and ours) literally depended on it.

The most important of them, I think, are the arguments against the second meaning of dignity: inherent moral worth. This is probably the most popular of the four meanings that Cochrane discusses, with the Kantian concept of dignity running a close second, at least in philosophical circles. One problem with the idea of 'inherent moral worth' is that it is very difficult to articulate what this means independently of descriptions of how we think that persons ought to be treated. This means that the analysis tends to be circular, and leads to the question: why bother talking about inherent moral worth, why not concentrate on the ways people ought to be treated, and why they should be treated that way? If you say "They ought to be treated that way, because they have intrinsic moral worth", you have gotten nowhere. As Cochrane points out, one way out of the circularity is to say that humans have intrinsic moral worth -- not just because we are apt to regard them in certain ways -- but because God has given us dignity/inherent moral worth. It is an objective, inalienable property of us, written in by the Creator. Of course, if you don't believe in God, or the kind of God who does this sort of thing, then this concept falls flat. But even if you do believe in that sort of God, it may fall flat anyway: dignity in this sense can be invoked to, for example, ethically defend or object to cases of assisted suicide....