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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, January 04, 2010

Udo Schuklenk on human dignity again

Here is Udo's latest take on the nebulous concept of "human dignity" - a concept that I consider to be essentially a myth, at best a false rationalisation of other, more specific and genuine values.

Udo is seeking feedback, so feel free to give him some. As far as I'm concerned, he is on the right track. There is no special moral "dignity" or "worth" that goes with being human, i.e. the species Homo sapiens (as opposed to having such characteristics as sentience, personhood, vulnerability to disappointment and psychological suffering, and so on). That's not to deny the possibility of some acceptable degree of speciesism: if, for example, we just do value the continuation of our species, not as a means to some other end but as an end in itself, then it is rational for us to develop social norms that might achieve this. Thus, in a Battlestar Galactica situation, where our species is almost extinct after a terrible attack by powerful and malevolent Cylons, strongly pro-natalist social norms might be rationally justified in a way that they are not in actual societies where the rational imperative is more to retard population growth.

Surely, though, the preservation of Homo sapiens is not all that we value, or even a very important source of our morality. For example, we value the amelioration of suffering for all sentient living things, regardless of species - don't we?

Indeed, imagine that there are other species of intelligent lifeforms with which we are capable of social interaction, and that we and they have collaborated to establish thriving multi-species societies. If some loyalties (e.g. to a philosophical tradition, or an artistic practice) crossed the species boundaries, why would anyone necessarily think the preservation of one or another species more important than the preservation of something else that she is loyal to? In that context, what would be so great about the preservation of something that happens to have a certain sort of DNA? Mightn't it be more important to preserve the tradition of Vogon poetry? Okay, bad example - but you get the idea.

The concept of human dignity has some useful work to do if it is (no more than) a sort of code for the idea that human beings of all so-called "races" (a very dubious biological concept) are really very similar, and have very similar moral claims to our kindness and consideration. Yes, "human dignity" is a good, because familiar, phrase to signal our repudiation of Nazism and all kinds of racism. But once attempts are made to use it as a more precise moral concept, within an ethical system, it becomes a false rationalisation of our morality. It can then lead to absurd results, such as the idea that the destruction of a human embryo, or even a zygote, is of similar moral significance to the murder of a fully-formed human child or adult who has hopes, fears, physical and psychological sensitivities, and everything else that goes with personhood. Used as it is by conservative moralists of various kinds, "human dignity" is a concept that we'd be better off without; the sooner that particular meme is expunged from our systems of formal ethics, the happier I'll be.


David Leyden said...

I think a more plausible example might be the boundaries of our species being broken by genetic engineering. It might be possible to engineer a sentient biological entity (can I call it SBE) I think it will happen sooner than us creating a sentient AI or encountering aliens.

The characteristics of sentience, personhood, etc. will perhaps turn out to be a little blurry as well. Homo-sapiens are perhaps the most intelligent but I don't think we are unique amongst mammals in being vulnerable to disappointment and psychological suffering.

Anonymous said...

"human dignity" - a concept that I consider to be essentially a myth

Well done professor, you've come up with a motto for the Culture of Death.

You all really need to read Tom Wolfe's brilliant and frightening essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died".

Russell Blackford said...


Eamon Knight said...

Ironically, I find anonymous trolls to display less outward "dignity" than folks who sign their name. An identifier (even a 'nym, like I use) creates a persona both distinct from other commenters, and traceable across different venues.

Oh, and "Culture of Death" is just another stupid abstraction created by the moralists for propaganda purposes -- it has even less content than "human dignity".

Russell Blackford said...

The people who talk about a culture of death are usually promoting a culture of misery.

MosesZD said...

Well done professor, you've come up with a motto for the Culture of Death.

I find almost all of the people who fling this particular charge support the worst excess of the human race. For instance, I find close to unanimous support of the "War on Terrorism," (including torture) and with little reservation or criticism.

Even though our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice) have likely lead to well over a million deaths. Not only from direct combat, so-called "collateral damage," but from the destruction of infra-structure which leads to huge numbers of deaths from disease, lack of medical care, lack of food, live of other amenities of civilization.

Seriously, how can ANYONE be 'pro-life' and support any kind of war. Yet they almost universally do...

I also find they're very supporting of domestic terrorists that support their anti-abortion ideology (Rudolph). And, not only that, but they also routinely support the death penalty.

Nothing is, in my eyes, more ironic than some idiot talking about the "Culture of Death" and supporting the death penalty with the other hand. Especially as it is a pointless punishment from perspective of societies safety.

Even worse, most of these clowns are "holy rollers" who fail to notice that God doesn't give a shit about the fetus. Seriously, we all know the "eye for an eye" quote.

But what the religiotard doesn't understand is that the example given in Exodus specifically refers to a forced-miscarriage through violence. Exodus tells us that there is a mere fine for killing the fetus. HOWEVER, the injuries to the WOMAN are to be paid back "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Further, back in the time of Jesus abortion and infanticide were common. Yet there is no prohibition of those common practices.

And, no, the mistranslation of "Thou Shalt Not MURDER" to "Thou Shalt Not Kill" doesn't swing it. The bible is full of positive examples where KILLING is sanctioned. And is silent on many others, including the killing of non-Jews which was perfectly acceptable.

Oh, and the scripture: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot..."

The further injury is, of course, to the woman. Not the miscarried fetus.

No matter how many times the relgiotards lie about it...

Anonymous said...

"The people who talk about a culture of death are usually promoting a culture of misery."

You'll be happy to know that I see nothing wrong with birth control, am in favor of womens rights and gay dignity (my sister is a lesbian), and am against aggressive wars that violate the concept of a "just war", and anti-death penalty. Furthermore I am environmentalist and environmental engineer whose career has been spent protecting the Earth's ecology by cleaning up hazwaste, preserving habitats and promoting green energy solutions.

Now having said that I must say I am surprised at how quickly you all went full bigot on me and assumed that anyone who believed in human dignity must be some sort of mouth breathing, trailer park, white trash retard. Your responses are no different than someone claiming that Blacks are lazy, Jews are greedy, and the Irish are drunks.


Wow, what a brilliant argument. You must be some sort of professor or philosopher or something. Well if that is all you are capable of I'll just have to work with your limited intellect as best I can.

So to some it up, atheism inevitably leads to the destruction of the concept of human dignity, the denial of objective standards of morality and decency, and the insistence that Existence has no purpose and is completely pointless and meaningless.

IOW, atheism = nihilism.

Richard Wein said...

I think it is reasonable to talk about human dignity, if correctly understood. To me dignity is primarily a matter of how we see ourselves. It's a property in the same broad category as self-respect and pride. Such feelings (and the expression of them) are important to people, and I take the view that people should not be unreasonably deprived of them. In that sense I recognise the value of human dignity.

But this doesn't seem to be what people mean when they make arguments from human dignity. Those people tend to treat human dignity as something external, something that a human can have without being affected by it. That then enables them to claim that even embryos have it. I don't accept that such a property actually exists, but...

I think it would be a mistake to entirely deny that people have a genuine sense of such a property and value it. Consider the case of someone caring for a coma patient. The caregiver is likely to keep the patient clean and tidy, and not just for the sake of health or for the benefit of on-lookers. I think the caregiver may well have a genuine concern for what s/he would refer to as the dignity of the patient, even though the patient is completely unaware of their own dignity. You might explain this as the caregiver projecting onto the patient their own sense of how they would feel if they were in the patient's place but conscious. But that doesn't make the sense any less real. I haven't been in that situation, but I can imagine that I too would have such a sense and act on it, even though at an intellectual level I don't believe that dignity of this sort is meaningful.

However, I think situations like this are limited, and they don't get extended to embryos, for obious reasons: it's difficult to project one's feelings onto an embryo (at least an early one). Moreover, it's clear that, for all their words, pro-lifers are not genuinely concerned with the dignity of early embryos. About 40% of embryos (IIRC) are spontaneously aborted in the first week of pregnancy, but pro-lifers show little concern for the dignity of those. Their claims of human dignity for embryos are, as you say, just rationalisations, and not genuinely felt values.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I was wondering why pro-lifers appeal to the concept of human dignity and not to human rights. If embryos are humans (as pro-lifers claim) why not just appeal to their human rights? But I just took a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

So the Charter specifically confers dignity and rights from birth. That's presumably why pro-lifers feel the need to appeal to another principle. And it makes me suspicious that the term "human dignity" was invented for this purpose.

Richard Wein said...

P.P.S. I just took a look at the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights:

Art 1. Human Dignity


Human Dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.

Legal Explanations

The dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental right in itself but constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights...

Ugh. The first part of the last sentence is OK, as I interpret it as conferring a right to the sort of treatment I referred to in the first paragraph of my first post. But I detest the second part.

Anonymous said...

Now having said that I must say I am surprised at how quickly you all went full bigot on me and assumed that anyone who believed in human dignity must be some sort of mouth breathing, trailer park, white trash retard.

Did it occur to you that the way you were responded to was a result of the brain dead way you chipped in and sniped at the author the first place? If you want to make any headway, perhaps you could define how you use the term "human dignity", and why you consider it a valid concept. That is generally more conducive to argument than trolling or flashing credentials. Or arguing by assertion.


Why is nihilism always assumed to be a negative? If there is no source for morality or meaning, so what? Can't we, as sentient, generally intelligent beings, hash acceptable paramaters, goals, and meanings by ourselves? Your type comes across as children needing daddy to define and provide their wants, needs, and acceptable activities for them.

Eamon Knight said...

Oh hell, now we've got two Anonyomous commenters. But, thanks Anon #2, for saying pretty much what I wanted to, and thus saving me the trouble.

Paul said...

<--- Anon2, I didn't notice there was a login-free comment option here. Mea culpa. Don't want you to have to deal with 2 Anons.