Saturday, December 12, 2009

Human "Dignity" a Useless Concept?

Ever since bioethicist Ruth Macklin published her famous BMJ article, "Dignity is a Useless Concept", the notion that human dignity is a cornerstone of bioethics has been under attack. Now the leading journal Bioethics, which favours articles of a utilitarian bent, has published another broadside. Alasdair Cochrane, of the London School of Economics, calls for an "undignified bioethics".
As usual with such articles, he reviews four common arguments for human dignity in his refutation: "dignity as virtuous behaviour; dignity as inherent moral worth; Kantian dignity; and dignity as species integrity." Cochrane's own assumptions are not completely clear, but he seems to be a thorough-going utilitarian. For him, the possession of interests is sufficient to warrant recognition of moral status and well-being is sufficient for a flourishing life. This is an approach popular with animal rights activists, and, indeed, Dr Cochrane is working on two books on animal rights.

Concepts, because they are immaterial, are notoriously hard to define, as first year philosophy students see in reading Aristole and Plato on justice, truth, beauty and so on. But Cochrane makes the job even harder by ignoring metaphysics, or considerations about reality which transcends materiality. For instance, he discusses briefly the famous first article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity". "But why are they?" he asks. "When we start looking at particular characteristics that might ground dignity - language-use, moral action, sociality, sentience, self-consciousness, and so on - we soon see that none of these qualities are in fact possessed by each and every human. We are therefore left wondering why all human beings actually do possess dignity."

Tellingly, Cochrane omits rationality, which is the key feature of homo sapiens, the Aristotelian man. Hence, only religion is left as a foundation for a sense that people have something which transcends physical characteristics. And since religious faith is beyond rational discussion, it fails to support "human dignity" as a useful concept.

Human dignity is so much a part of everyday discourse, as well as a prominent feature in many countries's constitutions, that it is hard to imagine a world without it. Dr Cochrane calls for its abolition anyway: "Just because an ethical term is popular does not mean that we are under an obligation to keep it... if concepts are flawed and unhelpful, it is the job of scholars to push that they be rejected. In the case of dignity in bioethical discourse, I take the latter view. As such, I urge for an undignified bioethics.
Source:  Bioethics, Nov 30
I agree with Dr. Cochrane that "religious faith" fails to support human dignity as a useful concept.  What does support it is the FACT that Jesus lived on earth, died and rose again, and was attended before and after his earthly life with all the signs that he was the Son of God who became human - God deep in the flesh, real God from real God, yet fully human.  Our dignity is based on this and this alone: that the Creator of all things deemed to be one of us, and in so doing gave us the dignity of the Godhead.

No comments: