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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Udo Schuklenk on human dignity

Udo Schuklenk is on a roll this week. Here's a brilliant post on the dubious concept of human dignity.

I've written about this issue previously, concluding:

... our moral worth does not reside in the fact of our Homo sapiens DNA. For this reason, it makes no sense to argue about bioethical issues, such as cloning and stem cell research, on the basis that there is a specific human dignity. The concept of human dignity is a blunt tool for any careful analysis of those issues. It is a tool that we should discard.

The real issue is about what reasons we have for showing certain kinds of respect or consideration when we deal with other people (and with creatures or things that are not people). When we ask that question, it will yield a more subtle and helpful analysis than we can get by throwing around vague, quasi-religious expressions such as "human dignity". If we are asked what it is about human beings that demands our respect or moral consideration, it gets us nowhere to reply that they have the property of human dignity. We may as well claim that dry wood burns because it is inflammable.

Our reasons for regarding other humans as beings whom we cannot treat just as we want, without regard for their interests, relate to the fact that they possess a rich set of intrinsic and social characteristics that we feel we cannot ignore (notice the Humean element of this analysis: it is a mixture of facts about them and how we respond, psychologically, to such facts). The intrinsic characteristics at issue include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, and so on.

Babies and children don’t possess all of those characteristics, at least not to the same degree as adults, but they possess others that compel us to have regard to their interests. Indeed, they strike us as uniquely appropriate subjects of our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. As do adults, they also have their place in our societies, a very important one, since all societies see children as their hope for the future: no society would last for long if its members thought or felt otherwise. When we look at the world of non-human things, the very fact that other animals can suffer seems to demand some consideration or - in a broad sense - respect from us. But we do not have the same reasons to treat all of these different kinds of beings with various kinds of consideration and/or respect, and we do not actually respond to them in the same way. For example, we grant adult citizens political rights (such as the right to vote) that we don't accord babies. We provide babies with certain paternalistic protections that would be offensive if applied to competent adults.

Udo and I don't always agree about everything (strangely enough!), but we seem to agree that the concept of human dignity is pretty much a myth. At best, it can be shorthand for more defensible ideas.

I especially commend this part of Udo's discussion - I wish every UN apparatchik would read it and take it to heart:

The German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant initially understood respect for someone's dignity really as respect for a rational, autonomous agent. In that sense, dignity is kind of a short for respect for autonomous persons. That probably is a sensible thing. All other things being equal, we should be respectful of at least the self-regarding actions autonomous beings wish to undertake. May be that is what we should be saying, however. Of course, since then religious folks and invariably the UN have stepped in with a deluge of dignity here and dignity there declarations and statements that resulted into dignity being reduced to a campaign tool for everything and nothing at all. Christianity, for instance, quickly removed the Kantian criteria of reason and rationality and agitated for embryos' dignity, and human rights related claims derived from those. In case of doubt the supposedly necessary respect for these embryos' alleged dignity was used to override women's interest in controlling what's happening with their bodies. The UN has declared, for no good ethical reason at all, that reproductive human cloning is dignity violating. This emperor certainly is naked! Human dignity, warm and fuzzy as it may sound, is a useless tool for advancing arguments on any of the relevant fronts in bioethics. This insight is true regardless of the substantive stance that you'd take on any of these controversial issues, by the way. Dignity really is just a rhetorical tool as opposed to a serious conceptual means to advance discussions on these issues.

Udo's piece concludes:

Today we are probably well advised, should we face the need to make a snap-decision, to reject dignity related claims unless these claims have another rationale attached to them that is based on some other framework. If anything, you'd probably right if you assumed that more often than not human dignity is deployed as a means of preventing people from making self-regarding choices.

Well said!

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