Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

Last year Steven Pinker wrote a fantastic article on bioethics that somehow had escaped my notice until a commenter recently brought it to my attention: The Stupidity of Dignity.

The point of his essay is not, as one might fear, that human beings lack an inherent dignity or moral importance. It’s that the term “dignity” has been so constantly abused that it has become almost worthless in moral debates. It’s incoherently defined, capable of having nearly any property, even contradictory ones. And it’s all too often used simply as a proxy for the philosopher’s or theologian’s subjective dislike of some behavior or idea.

Here’s the key point of the article:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy–the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

The rest of Pinker’s article basically argues that despite an entire volume full of responses to Macklin’s challenge, the mostly conservative and religious Presidential Council on Bioethics have failed to answer it. In some cases, as with the notorious Leon Kass, they did worse than fail, exposing bizarre theocratic preoccupations that celebrate death and bemoan liberty in life.

A tour de force. Anyone know of any good responses to, or critiques of, this piece from conservative critics?


13 Responses to Human Dignity: An Ethically Useless Concept

  1. Sure, the concept of dignity is poorly defined, but the concept of autonomy is even more impoverished: many people we acknowledge as human are unable to choose independently. Check out this discussion:

    For the record, you didn’t miss Pinker’s piece last year: it is from this May, not last May. Yes, TNR, like many periodicals, publishes in advance of its official dates.


  2. Leroy Glinchy says:

    The whole notion of “objectivity” is what turned me off to science in the first place. There was an assumption that things that could be measured were real and everything else was relegated to “anecdotal” and “subjective”.

    But I live in a subjective world! What I experience is more important to me than a bunch of dry numbers and graphs. The ideas that speak to me the most are “squishy concepts”.

    Also, I have noticed that the people who think that they are objective all the time are just fooling themselves. We are all subjective. Hell, the ideals in science are just someone’s opinion.

    I have learned more about my own mind by paying attention to my subjective (there’s that word again) experience than by reading a neuroanatomy textbook. Focusing on the subjective was what got me over my depression not looking at objective facts that were observed in the illness.

    I feel that if science would somehow embrace the subjective, they could learn a lot about the mind. Until then the study the mind pretending that they don’t have one.

    Forget machines and data. Use your own senses and personal judgement.

    • John says:

      Wallowing like a fattened pig on your ignoranace of the world and deciding you like better the slaughterhouse than the forest is sure to be a lesson I will remember

  3. Bad says:

    I’m not entirely sure how your comment relates to the post, but as far as it goes, I think you are making an error in your critique of science. Science doesn’t deny that people have subjective values and experiences, nor does it pretend to have all the answers on how certain things, like depression feel and play out in the mind.

    The issue is whether or not particular claims about the way the world is are true or not: THAT is what science is useful for, and perhaps better equipped than any other methodology. It’s not about machines or data per se: it’s about an ethic of of trying to reduce the error and mistakes we all make in our judgment by forcing us to look at, and work with, the evidence.

    But for the benefit of the doubt, what would science “embracing the subjective” mean to you, in literal terms. How would science work in that case? What would it do and how would it proceed to separate truth from mistake and misunderstanding?

  4. Bad says:

    Lawrence Gage: but the concept of autonomy is even more impoverished: many people we acknowledge as human are unable to choose independently.

    I can’t agree on this one. There are cases in which we can’t… and don’t! expect individuals to be able to choose independently. But that doesn’t mean the principle is is not a useful guide and ideal for legal norms, in a way that dignity is not. Autonomy as an end recognizes that people may have different goals and senses about what is important in their lives, and we should always seek to accommodate these ends as best we can and as best we can determine what they might be (for instance, for those that temporarily or at the end of life lose their mental capacity, we have things like living wills, chosen guardians, the importance of respecting previously established wishes. For those that are infants or otherwise unable to have expressed hopes, we can seek to provide and protect the basic common human needs until we know better. It doesn’t immediately answer every question without some thought and debate, but it’s a hell of lot better than a word which basically means nothing more than “we should treat human beings as I personally decide I like best at this moment”).

    Furthermore, autonomy is already well proven and workable: bodies of norms like informed consent in medicine, as Macklin notes, play all the sorts of functional roles that “dignity” cannot.

    You go grotesquely wrong in your response on several points, but I suppose it’d be better to comment there on those issue than there, where just the issue of autonomy is under discussion.

  5. Answer me this: should a person be free to give away his autonomy? For example, should I be free to sell myself into slavery or to volunteer my body to a cannibal for his dinner?

    Why or why not?


  6. Bad says:

    I’m not sure the concept of giving away autonomy makes any sense as described: it’s like saying that a person wants something other than they want. How would slavery even work on any ongoing basis under a general legal and ethical framework that respected personal autonomy as an important value? You could, for money, or just because you felt like it, decide to do whatever someone tells you to do. This is, in fact, what’s known as a “job.” But since you can at any time decide that you don’t want to do that anymore, there’s nothing permanently enforceable, making slavery as a concept of actual “against your will at any point” ownership impossible.

    I’m not sure where volunteering your body to a cannibal for dinner plays into anything: you’d have to be more detailed with the example. Does it involve someone committing murder (which we all hold to be ethically wrong for far more reasons than just respect for personal autonomy), or merely consuming your body after you’re dead with your permission? While gross, I’m not sure what beyond social mores really stands up as ethically wrong about the latter.

  7. As far as cannibalism is concerned, I’m thinking in particular of the German case (google “Meiwes”). But addressing your question, perhaps you can tell me what’s wrong with someone killing a person with his consent? To simplify discussion, the person being killed is perfectly healthy. Is such an act wrong? Why or why not?

    Further what if a person simply wanted to be rid of a limb (whether or not for consumption by another person). This is in fact a real psychological condition called apotemnophilia. Is that a legitimate desire that society should gratify?

    With regard to slavery, my question is whether society should provide for the wishes of those who for whatever reason (money, fatique, lust? doesn’t matter) no longer desire to be autonomous, to govern themselves. In other words people who at one point in time dire the autonomy to dispense with their autonomy from then on.

    Of course slavery is a social institution. It would be meaningless without a societal understanding that the slave is property of his master. It’s not a commitment that one takes up or drops at will. Once one is a slave in a society that accepts that institution, society enforces that status. My question is whether society should accept such an arrangement for those who enter it willingly. It sounds like your answer is no. But why not? Why shouldn’t we respect people’s autonomy in this way?


  8. Bad says:

    To simplify discussion, the person being killed is perfectly healthy. Is such an act wrong? Why or why not?

    Unless you want to insist that the only workable means of justification against murder, and in this case facilitated suicide, is the concept of “dignity” I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. If you are making that latter point, then several millenia of alternative moral philosophy that got on just fine without “dignity” as a concept seem to weigh against you. In any case, a moral duty not to impinge on someone else without their consent does not include a requirement to ignore all other moral harm and kill them.

    Or are you operating under the assumption that personal autonomy is the ONLY good we should care about? Isn’t that precisely the mistake Pinker is calling to account as making the application of dignity practically useless: that despite being held out as an ultimate trump in many cases over other goods and values, it seems wholly inconsistent on this point (sometimes inviolable, sometimes in desperate peril, sometimes trumps everything, sometimes is trivial). I haven’t, and Pinker hasn’t, and Macklin hasn’t, made any similar declaration about autonomy being comprehensive of all human good, or trumping all human concerns or cases. We do think, and often with good reason, that things like apotemnophilia are best classified as illness, not autonomy: not least of which being that many sufferers are distressed themselves at their condition.

    Why shouldn’t we respect people’s autonomy in this way?

    You seem to think that you can both concede my point and deny it at the same time. A society that holds personal autonomy as a major value cannot provide a long-term enforcement of slavery against someone’s will to no longer carry out the wishes of the person they once decided to “enslave” themselves to. If you run off and find a society that does not respect personal autonomy on any sort of ongoing basis, I’m not sure what you think you’ve demonstrated. You might as well run off and find a society that does not respect dignity. So what?

    And in fact, this issue is actually a fairly common thing in our society in the particular section of the sex subculture known as BDSM. All sorts of elaborate rituals and safe words and illusions are drawn up to simulate slavery and control, but ultimately with the recognition that its enforcement is only a temporary, consensual and mutual illusion. While I find the whole thing sort of goofy, I can’t think of a serious reason why its particularly immoral, though certainly some might find it undignified.

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