That Human Dignity Thing

"Human dignity" is an amorphous, poorly defined concept. It is held up by anti-research advocates - such as Leon Kass or Francis Fukuyama - as a valuable and irreplaceable commodity that is destroyed by such things as extending the healthy human life span or assisted reproduction technologies. Needless to say, this is all nonsense. "Human dignity" seems to be some form of shorthand for "things the way they are and the way I am comfortable with" for these folks.

Fortunately, sharp forward-looking philosophers like Russell Blackford exist. He does a good job of dissecting flawed human dignity claims in an article posted today at Betterhumans.

Claims about the violation of human dignity are the stock in trade of politicians, bioethicists, clergymen, newspaper columnists and many others who wish to argue that such-and-such technology must be stopped.

However, it is often not clear what this argument amounts to. If human dignity is "violated," the means by which it happens often seem obscure. How, exactly, would my dignity be violated if I made a free, well-informed decision to clone myself? Worse, it is difficult even to find a cogent and agreed upon definition of what "human dignity" is.

If we cut through the verbiage, it eventually becomes clear that what is being relied upon is the idea that human beings, as such, are especially worthy of moral respect and consideration. In this context, "dignity" is best understood as "moral worth"; accordingly, the expression "human dignity" refers to a special moral worth that is supposed to attach to us simply because we are human.

But while you wouldn't know it from many bioethical debates, "human dignity" is a flawed ethical concept - one that we should stop relying upon for making decisions.

It's a very good piece, well worth your time and consideration. His comments on embryonic rights are worth following up on:

A human zygote or embryo is biologically of the species Homo sapiens, as I am, and as I can assume all my readers are. Does that give a zygote, or an early embryo, the same moral worth as an adult human being or a human child?

No. An early embryo is a tiny blob of cells that bears no resemblance to an adult or infant human being, except insofar as its DNA contains certain species-specific sequences of base pairs of nucleotides. An early embryo lacks such characteristics as sentience, awareness or rationality, or any of the other psychological or social characteristics that give adult or infant human beings their moral worth.

Nor is it a good argument to suggest that an embryo has the potential to develop these characteristics if it grows into a fully formed human being. The short answer is that the potential to develop morally significant characteristics is just not the same as actually having those characteristics right now. (But there is more to be said here; I have discussed this in comprehensive detail in my article "The Supposed Rights of the Fetus.")

This leaves open the possibility that some abortions - for frivolous reasons or at an unnecessarily late stage - might turn out to be morally wrong. As for infanticide, I cannot put the point more plainly than Francis Fukuyama (in his Our Posthuman Future), who states that, "It is the violation of the natural and very powerful bonding that takes place between parent and infant.that makes infanticide such a heinous crime in most societies." However, invoking the supposed human dignity of a zygote or an early embryo borders on irrationality or superstition.

Exactly. With regard to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, pressure groups and politicians currently place the value of small collections of unthinking, unfeeling tissue ahead of the death and suffering of tens of millions of people every year. This is simply irrational, and those of us who want to see a longer, healthier future must make our voices heard as well.


Blackford's article is well worth the read certainly and I agree completely with, I'm surprised, everything he has to say.

To me the level of respect an entity commands is tied with not only the level of self-awareness and capacity to suffer, but also the ability of that entity to either do myself damage or benefit.

With this criteria in mind, a cluster of cells cannot possibly command the same respect as a fully formed being. An individual in concept is not equal to an individual in reality in my opinion.

This opinion is all fine and well and the essay was excellent, except for the glaring omission of the unique quality of humans which Kass seems to include in his perspective. Kass believes in the concept of the enigmatic human soul. Against the concept of the soul, for the dogmatic believer, all of the rational reality based arguments put forward by Blackford contend in vain.

But is this perspective truly held universally by the religious? Research says it is not. It seems only Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, and United Methodists are among the Christian sects who 'officially' deplore the idea of therapeutic cloning while others support some forms of embryonic stem cell research.

Michael Fitzgerald in his article "What Would Jesus Do?" written for Acumen Journal says it best for me when points out

"...Jesus put healing above the strictures of his society. Indeed, his gift is what sets him on the path to crucifixion. All four Gospesl show that Jesus publicly and deliberately healed on the Sabbath in direct and open violation of Jewish law..."

Although not religious by any means, if I was, utilizing stem cells from zygotes to heal millions that would otherwise be destined for the drain, sounds like something Jesus would welcome and just maybe I could convince myself that relieving some of the most incredible suffering of my fellows with the tools of technology would be an appropriate use of my god given intelligence.

Posted by: Kevin Perrott at April 16th, 2004 10:03 PM

You can find a well defined notion of human dignity: Kantian deontology.

Kant says we have dignity due to our ability to reason, and our possesion of free will.
Violation of our dignity is this, treating a person merely as a means to an end.

Kant is not perfect (but then no moral theory is), but he has a very well defined notion of human dignity and how it can be violated.

Cloning in Katian ethics is not immoral, for it is not treating yourself or the clone merely as a means to an end.

Embryo's do not have rights because they lack free will and the ability to reason, again a clear answer from Kantian ethics.

Posted by: Thomas Anderson at July 12th, 2006 10:46 PM
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