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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Myth of Human Dignity

[This was first published on the Betterhumans website and later republished by IEET.]

Despite what some bioethicists say, our DNA doesn’t hold our moral worth.

In 1997, when the creation of Dolly was announced in the pages of Nature, many of the early responses expressed outrage that the cloning of human beings in a similar way would “violate human dignity.” Similar claims are frequently made about embryonic stem cell research or, indeed, any kind of research that involves the destruction of human embryos. Claims about the violation of human dignity are the stock in trade of politicians, bioethicists, clergymen, newspaper columnists and many others who wish to argue that such-and-such technology must be stopped.

However, it is often not clear what this argument amounts to. If human dignity is “violated,” the means by which it happens often seem obscure. How, exactly, would my dignity be violated if I made a free, well-informed decision to clone myself? Worse, it is difficult even to find a cogent and agreed upon definition of what “human dignity” is.

If we cut through the verbiage, it eventually becomes clear that what is being relied upon is the idea that human beings, as such, are especially worthy of moral respect and consideration. In this context, “dignity” is best understood as “moral worth”; accordingly, the expression “human dignity” refers to a special moral worth that is supposed to attach to us simply because we are human.

But while you wouldn’t know it from many bioethical debates, “human dignity” is a flawed ethical concept—one that we should stop relying upon for making decisions.

The concept of respect

The related concepts of moral worth and moral respect may not be much easier to clarify than that of human dignity, but this cluster of ideas can be better understood if we start with the concept of respect.

Taken at its broadest, to respect something or someone, X, means perceiving X as a constraint on our ability to act self-interestedly, or just according to whim. In other words, if we respect X, we must take X into account before we act. The ways in which we do so need not be moral, at least not in any narrow sense, but there will be something about X that should give us pause.

This might involve no more than exercising prudence. For example, I can be said to respect something inanimate, such as a powerful storm, or even something abstract, such as the storm’s power. My respect for the storm and its power will lead me to think twice before I go driving in the high winds—let alone putting out to sea in mountainous waves.

If I am foolish enough to go out in the storm, my failing is not essentially a moral one, though there may be an element of that if I take others with me, putting them at risk. Even if the direct risk is only to myself, others may love me or depend on me, and I am thus putting their happiness and welfare on the line, as well as my own. Still, in this example, my reasons for respecting the storm are basically prudential rather than moral.

Some other dictionary meanings of “respect” are much narrower than this broad idea of taking something into account. For example, respect can involve attitudes of deference, admiration, esteem or even reverence, for particular individuals. Still, it is clear that we need not feel this kind of respect for every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. On the contrary, some people don’t seem to deserve any particular admiration—certainly not our reverence. Some actually strike us as quite contemptible.

And yet, we treat our fellow human beings—even the contemptible ones—as morally constraining our ability to act selfishly or thoughtlessly. We can’t, in other words, just do what we like to other people; we must give their separate interests at least some regard. In this sense, they are all worthy of our respect.

Why respect other people?

So far, so good. It seems that we are morally obliged to respect other people, even if we don’t esteem them all as individuals. This comes to the same thing as saying they have moral worth, or possess dignity. But if we are asked how it is that other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us—exactly why people merit moral respect—we don’t advance the argument if we reply that it is because they possess the property of human dignity.

Once we understand how all these concepts relate to each other, we can see that this is no more helpful than being asked why oil burns and replying that it is because oil possesses the property of flammability.

Our reason for responding to other humans as beings whom we cannot treat just as we want, without regard for their interests, is that they possess a rich set of intrinsic and social characteristics that we feel we cannot ignore. The intrinsic characteristics at issue include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience and simply the shared knowledge and burden of mortality (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

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.

Respecting nonhumans

If we think about nonhuman animals, we quickly realize that the species we have encountered to date possess only some of the characteristics that I’ve listed. However, animals do possess sentience, to varying degrees. Some appear capable of suffering in ways that go beyond physical pain. Some possess quite high levels of intelligence, and they are able to bond with us socially. All of these characteristics of animals may be enough (at least in particular cases) to make us feel we owe them considerable respect—moral respect, not the merely prudential kind that makes us avoid getting into unarmed combat with a rhinoceros or a tiger.

If we think about this seriously, some of us may feel compelled to vegetarianism. For the rest of us, it seems that an appropriate response to nonhuman animals is to at least kill them with the minimum of cruelty. At the very least, we should ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering. All of this discussion suggests that nonhuman animals possess some dignity, understood as moral worth.

What about inanimate things? These, too, may sometimes constrain our actions, if only because harming them might harm other human beings or other sentient animals. (I set aside the tricky question of whether inanimate things can ever have interests of their own.) Even some individual trees, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value. To destroy or harm them would be reprehensible. The same can apply to works of art, to certain landscapes or seascapes and even to some complex and valuable machines.

By this point, it seems that we must show some moral respect not only to other human beings, but also to many other beings and things.

What if we encountered another species as intelligent as ourselves? We can, of course, imagine circumstances in which it would be rational to treat any such beings as our enemies—for example, if they were warlike and showed a low regard for our moral worth. But could we just treat them however we wanted? Would we be entitled to torture them? What if, like us, they felt terrible psychological suffering when their young ones died? Could we just slaughter their young anyway?
Our ability to bond socially with these other creatures—or their ability to bond with us—might be very relevant to how we would treat them. Likewise for their possession of characteristics such as sentience, self-consciousness and the capacity for deep emotional experiences. By comparison, the fact that they would not have human DNA seems of little relevance.

At this point, we can conclude that being human is not a necessary condition for having moral worth.

At least in principle, it is not even a necessary condition for having moral worth to the same degree as human adults and children.

Nor, I argue, is it a sufficient condition.

The moral worth of embryos

A human zygote or embryo is biologically of the species Homo sapiens, as I am, and as I can assume all my readers are. Does that give a zygote, or an early embryo, the same moral worth as an adult human being or a human child?

No. An early embryo is a tiny blob of cells that bears no resemblance to an adult or infant human being, except insofar as its DNA contains certain species-specific sequences of base pairs of nucleotides. An early embryo lacks such characteristics as sentience, awareness or rationality, or any of the other psychological or social characteristics that give adult or infant human beings their moral worth.

Nor is it a good argument to suggest that an embryo has the potential to develop these characteristics if it grows into a fully formed human being. The short answer is that the potential to develop morally significant characteristics is just not the same as actually having those characteristics right now. (But there is more to be said here; I have discussed this in comprehensive detail in my article “The Supposed Rights of the Fetus.”)

This leaves open the possibility that some abortions—for frivolous reasons or at an unnecessarily late stage—might turn out to be morally wrong. As for infanticide, I cannot put the point more plainly than Francis Fukuyama (in his Our Posthuman Future), who states that, “It is the violation of the natural and very powerful bonding that takes place between parent and infant.that makes infanticide such a heinous crime in most societies.” However, invoking the supposed human dignity of a zygote or an early embryo borders on irrationality or superstition.

DNA isn’t a deciding factor

It is plain that the moral worth of human beings, other animals and inanimate things is not dependent on the presence or absence of human DNA. The presence of human DNA is neither necessary nor sufficient to bestow moral worth. Instead, there are many other characteristics that strike us when we consider how we may (ethically speaking) treat someone or something.

There is, of course, something attractive and true in the idea that we humans all have great moral worth, despite our individual differences. This idea can be invoked to argue, for example, that people of all racial or ancestral backgrounds should be treated equally under the law and, moreover, with kindness and consideration. After the horrors committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and similar horrors that have continued since in many parts of the world, it is surely worth making the point—as strongly as possible—that we are all very similar under the skin.

If the phrase “human dignity” helps us keep this in mind, perhaps it can be retained as shorthand to refer to the moral worth of all adult or infant human beings, irrespective of race or ancestry.

However, 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.

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