Dignity in the Dock

The United Nations uses it: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”).

Doctors use it: “A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity” (“Code of Ethics,” American Medical Association).


Hillary Rodham Clinton also uses it: “Let’s keep fighting for opportunity and dignity...freedom and equality... full participation” (address to the Women in the World summit, April 5).

Dignity. Until recently, it appeared to be a self-evident good. Indeed, it seemed a pre-eminent good, the cornerstone of human rights. But an odd war against dignity has broken out in American philosophy.

The opening salvo occurred in 2003, when Ruth Macklin published “Dignity Is a Useless Concept” in The British Medical Journal. Macklin argues that the foggy concept of dignity could easily be replaced by clearer terms, like patient autonomy. Appeals to dignity. she says, are simply pious appeals to a void.

In 2008 Steven Pinker published “The Stupidity of Dignity” in The New Republic. For Pinker, dignity is not only an empty concept; it is a dangerous one. It is used to condemn scientific innovations that otherwise might benefit suffering humanity. And it arrives with heavy theological baggage, since it smuggles the religious conviction that we are made in God’s image into philosophical analysis and attempts to ram its religiously flavored moral censures into civil law.

What occasioned the attack on the concept of dignity? It began as a reaction to two reports published by the President’s Council on Bioethics: “Human Cloning and Human Dignity” (2003) and “Human Dignity and Bioethics” (2008). In the name of human dignity, the council criticized several new biomedical technologies: human cloning, in vitro fertilization and genetic engineering. Macklin condemned the vagueness of the concept; Pinker condemned its theological provenance.

Pinker even detected a bit of a papist plot in this defense of dignity. There was an ominous parallel between the reports’ use of the idea of dignity and the concept’s ubiquitous presence in Catholic moral theory. “It’s not surprising that ‘dignity’ is a recurring theme in Catholic doctrine. The word appears more than 100 times in the 1997 edition of the Catechism and is a leitmotif in the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on biomedicine.”

Behind the semantic dustup lies a substantive conflict. For the Council on Bioethics, human dignity functions as a stop sign against the medical practices Macklin and Pinker prize. In the council’s perspective, the patient’s freedom is less absolute than Macklin would wish it to be. Physician-assisted suicide would be banned. Against Pinker’s ethics of social utility, the council criticizes embryonic stem cell research regardless of its possible health benefits. The effort to expunge human dignity from our ethical debates is an effort to limit those debates more narrowly to questions of individual desire and material social benefit. Questions about life itself become secondary.

The critics of human dignity rightly argue that its definition is elusive. But this is because of the concept’s richness, not its poverty. As Ludwig von Wittgenstein argues, complex concepts must often be elucidated by the family resemblances among their various meanings. Dignity is about intrinsic worth, rationality, voluntariness and the capacity to love. It is why we do not lie to each other and why we apologize in shame when we do. The Renaissance bards wrote odes to it. It is more than respect for persons; it is the veiled reason why we are driven to respect human beings as persons. It is why our uncle’s funeral is different from the burial of our favorite cat. Dignity lurks behind Shakespeare’s enraged Lear, Debussy’s wistful nocturnes and Picasso’s melancholy clowns in blue. We can neither see nor hear it. We just know it is there. Emmanuel Lévinas suggests that respect for dignity is our instinctive reverence before the human face.

As the critics of human dignity claim, the concept has eroded over the decades. Performing in a thousand manifestos and sermons, human dignity has become a rusted cliché. But it is precisely such clichés that mark the difference between civilization and its counterfeit.

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