Wednesday, 12 August 2020

A Brief Comment on Dignity

by Simon Smith

Without wishing to be facetious or obtuse, it seems there may be a factual error in Macklin's view of the concept 'dignity', discussed last time by Dr B. last time as being 'vague' and 'imprecise': viz. 

Dignity, n.
The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence.
"dignity, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, Accessed 11 July 2020.

This, nota bene, is only the first of 8 definitions. Further, this being the OED, those 'mystery-shrouded' origins are laid out quite clearly, should anyone care to investigate them. 

Just a thought. 

Sunday, 9 August 2020


by James Beauregard

My first attendance at the International Conference on Persons was in August of 2013, held at the University of Lund, Sweden.  While I had been reading personalism for some time, it was the first opportunity I had had to gather with a group of dedicated personalist philosophers, allowing me to experience personalism as it was happening – as papers were presented, as ideas were being shared, as new ideas were being formed. Belying the comment of a Swedish co-worker at the time, who told me that “All Swedish food is grey,” I also discovered more variety, in colour and flavour than that statement would have led me to believe. I also inadvertently discovered that there are some very good Italian restaurants in southern Sweden – who knew? Many personalist conversations were conducted over red sauce that week. That Italian food proved so congenial to personalist discussion was not the least of the reasons that I organized the dinner for the Boston International Conference on Persons in the city’s Italian section, the “North End.”

But, back to Sweden - I remember Randy Auxier’s introduction to the conference on the first day.  In those introductory remarks he made it a point to mention the notion of human dignity “something personalists profess to care about.” In a sense, this set the tone for the week for me – thanks Randy! – and more recently has led me to consider human dignity more carefully, and in a more organized fashion. 

In much of the world, both East and West, the concept of dignity has fallen on hard times.  In some places, dignity talk is ignored or banished, in others attacked, in still others devalued or ridiculed, and still, in some places, recognized and affirmed.

How did we come to this situation in a relatively short span of time?  In the years after the Second World War we saw the promulgation of some of the greatest documents on human dignity and human rights that the world has known – the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights being a flagship example and in inspiration for many other documents that would follow.  

Jump ahead with me from 1948 to 2003, when the American bioethicist Ruth Macklin published a brief editorial in the BMJ called “Dignity is a useless concept.”[1] She concluded her essay with the statement, “Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content.”[2]  For Macklin, the origins of the concept of dignity are obscure, shrouded in “mystery” and she deemed the concept of dignity incoherent due to its vagueness imprecision, to the point where it could invoked by multiple sides in debates on life issues.[3] She argued further that dignity had been drawn into bioethical debate as a substitute term for autonomy and “respect for persons,”  terms she found more specific and useful.[4] Noting the lack of a concrete working definition of dignity in various bioethical and international rights documents, she stated that “In the absence of criteria that can enable us to know just when dignity is violated, the concept remains hopelessly vague.”[5] A final criticism of dignity was addressed to its origins in religious sources, “especially, but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings,”  that have “crept into the secular literature in medical ethics.”[6] Because of this, the aetiology of the concept of dignity, in her view, remained “a mystery.”[7]

There is much to ponder here. Is dignity still a useful concept, and if so, in what contexts?  How should it come into play?  What are the consequences of including dignity in public conversation and what are the consequences of its absence? Macklin’s views have not going unchallenged, and there is a literature since 2003 in direct response to her shot across the bow, as well as a continuation of dignity more generally that we will also consider.

Macklin’s comments may seem damning – vagueness, incoherence.  The concept of dignity has been employed on both sides of the assisted sides debate – the dignity of the human person defended against assisted suicide on the one hand, and death with dignity on the other.  But the problem runs deeper than the issue of language and of definition.  What is at stake is human persons, and not least our very understanding of who is a person, what constitutes personhood.  When we speak of dignity, either to support it or criticize it, we are speaking at some level of the dignity of persons. 

What I am writing here is the beginning of an investigation – an investigation of dignity, which is something that, as Randy said back in 2013, is something that should receive the attention of personalist philosophers and theologians.  To do this, this blog begins a series of reflections on human dignity that will look at the context and history of the notion of dignity to create a context, and that will then look at dignity in its contemporary context, which presents multiple perspectives, some in favour of recognizing dignity, some against it. I will be asking the question of dignity, and as a precursor, the question of persons, to whom dignity is ascribed or denied, or removed from the conversation altogether. In the next instalment, the long history of the concept of dignity will be our starting point.

[1] Ruth Macklin, “Dignity is a useless concept,” BMJ, 327 (20-27 December 2003): 1419-1420.

[2] Ibid., 1420.

[3] Macklin specifically mentions the California Natural Death Act in 1976 in the debate on death with dignity, 1419.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 1420.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

On Determinism

by Simon Smith

Marking season has come and gone, and with it my chance to

mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race…[1]

As seasons go (or come) it’s been unusual, what with the global plague and such. This year, I was marking essays in applied philosophy, some significantly better, I’d say, than the usual emetical exam scripts. Their authors had taken the time, or some time, to reflect upon their chosen topics with no little care. The essays were fairly interesting, more so than the usual boked up remembrances of Descartes or Nietzsche, being as they were an attempt to apply new-born philosophical acumen to some ‘non-philosophical’ material: a book, a film, song lyrics, etc. A refreshing change to merely reading about philosophy, which is largely what academic philosophy seems to be about these days.

The standard of English was better, too, than many a professionally produced paper I’ve encountered lately; depressingly so. It surprises me that a profession which stakes its credibility on clarity of thought appears to have so little concern with basic grammar, punctuation, and, quite often, spelling.

Agonising Christ, wouldn’t it give you a heartburn on your arse?[2]

It would, oh it would.

A common theme of this year’s essays was that ol’ black magic called Determinism. Students attacked it vigorously and from a variety of angles; most concluded that Free Will is an illusion while Determinism is the very Hymenoptera’s patella. Curiously, hardly any of them seemed remotely perturbed by this. Coming apocalypse notwithstanding, they have their lives ahead of them and yet they cheerfully accept the idea that they are merely vibrations in the universal web of causal interaction and interpenetration; they accept that their lives, being consequent on physical causes, are also meaningless. Do these nascent Socrates and Socratesses feel the physical and metaphysical weight of a universe pressing down upon them already, I wonder. Has the sudden swell and flood of coughing death impressed upon them the sheer futility of all human endeavour? Perhaps; gloomy little buggers. Or maybe they’ve drunk too deep of the usual old rationalist toot without really thinking about it.

‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land…[3]

One common assumption seems to be that Determinism is somehow scientific, or at least supported by scientific thought, whereas the belief in Free Will is a conjuration of folk psychology. Hardly a fair assessment. Both Determinism and Free Will purport to say something, not just about my experience of the universe, but about how the universe really is. As such, they are both metaphysical positions.

The temptation to align metaphysics with science cannot be denied, however. Clearly, there is nought but causal order to the universe, chain-link of events from one end to the other without pause or pass. All else within its measured span is prefigured, as it were; why should human action be an exception? That tightly woven skein is, after all, the necessary ground of all my actions; without it, what could I do? ‘Nothing at all,’ replies the Determinist, ‘as you well know.’

Then we’re agreed: the dragon wing of Determinism, o’erspreads my actions in their entirety. Such is the verdict of a scientifically informed metaphysic; and the physical sciences should know, after all, since cause and effect are meat and drink to them. Nothing that falls within the purview of scientific investigation could ever occur without its prior cause.

That such a purview surveys the entirety of creation is, of course a moot point. Doubtless, there are modes of exploration and investigation which require something a little bit more sophisticated than cosmic clockwork to make them go. The social and historical sciences might be two.

But this is a path well-trodden indeed. Stepping off it, one might note, instead, that this allegedly ‘informed metaphysic’ might not be as well-informed as it thinks. This picture of a universe woven in cause and effect, handed down from Aristotle to Newton and thence to the modern-day Determinist, is rather out of date. That antediluvian physical theory was shown to be metaphysically useless a hundred years ago. Once modern science flipped the relativistic switch, Farrer, Whitehead, and Bergson were more than ready to reshape metaphysics in Einstein’s energetic mould. Thanks to them, we now live in a Gershwinian universe: it’s got rhythm.[4]

It’s common knowledge in the world beyond philosophy that quantum mechanics – a fundamental theory in the physical sciences – does not strictly abide by those old-fashioned rules. Rather, it maps their disruption. Down below the subatomic level, where stuff and substance no longer matter, it seems that photons and the like just can’t make up their minds what they’re up to. The fact that what happens on the quantum level does nothing to falsify the higher-level mapping of causal relations is irrelevant, for all such talk concerns the efficacy of calculations, not of what is or is not real: it’s maths, not metaphysics. The fact remains, when quantum mechanics get to work with their sub-atomic socket sets, the rules of classical causality no longer seem to apply. Apparently, then, the sciences to which Determinists appeal are quite prepared to consider the possibility that Newton’s physical theory does not operate successfully in every possible or conceivable case. If scientists can do this, why not philosophers. In short if quantum theory tells a different story, it is surely not beyond the bounds of possibility that human action could do likewise.

All of which may or may not be interesting, but it is rather beside the most curious point of the whole Determinist case, which is talk of causal necessity. Just what, one might fairly wonder, does that mean? Necessity, after all, is logico-linguistic: it concerns the ways in which we talk and the relations between the propositions we use in doing so. The most common examples of necessary truths, as every schoolboy knows, are tautologies; for example, either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow. Logically speaking, this proposition is necessarily true. Anyone who has ever been to old Ireland will know that, as a matter of fact, it’s a load of bollóga. In the heaving metropolitan hub that is Knobber, simultaneous rain and not-rain is both normal and perpetual. It is, I’m told, what’s known as a ‘soft day.’

Therein lies the rub. Logical concepts such as ‘necessity’ apply very well to propositions, but they have no real purchase on the world and our encounters with it. The world of experience and experiment, that is, the world that is known and knowable, operates within a framework of probability, not necessity. So much we know: the successful performance of an experiment, whether in the laboratory, the kitchen, or the bedroom does not guarantee the same results next time. The hundredth successful performance might give you considerable confidence in the results, but it cannot necessitate them.

That, by the way, is what Friedrich Waismann called the ‘open-endedness’ of description.[5]

Of course, the proposition ‘every effect has a cause’ may be necessarily true, but that’s only because the concept ‘effect’ entails the concept ‘cause’. Whether, as a matter of fact, of experience, every state of affairs really is caused by some other is another question entirely. Necessity in a proposition does not equate to necessity in fact.

Oil and water, then: necessity and causality don’t mix. Any ‘knowledge’ gained from causal necessity would be simultaneously a priori and a posteriori. If we’re going to insist that there’s no room to swing Schrodinger’s cat in this universe – all available space being positively heaving with Newton’s balls – then what we have on our hands is a good old-fashioned necessitarian metaphysic. One might almost imagine that Determinism is just an attempt to secularise an old-world theology, which itself was an attempt to legitimise and impose an old-world, authoritarian political philosophy. The schoolmen taught that misfortune was a divine judgment: poverty, sickness, disability, etc. were the wages of sin.[6] Secular Determinism is more enlightened, naturally. Too embarrassed to talk about sin or God directly, we say inequality is natural; poverty, sickness, and disability – isn’t that just how the universe goes? How grand, if you happen to be in the universe’s good books; an unnecessary cricket bat to the plums for everyone else.

All this is, of course, only half the story, as well we know. And we know the other half very well too; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t know anything at all.[7] That’s not to say we’re absolutely free. We aren’t ‘swimming in a perfectly featureless medium;’ we’re ‘walking the earth among all sorts of obstacles’ without which we wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.[8] More importantly, we’re walking the earth among all sorts of people without whom we wouldn’t be able to do anything at all because we wouldn’t be anything at all.[9] Ah yes, but that heralds ideas like duty and responsibility, the ‘claimingness’ of others, the demand for action. In the end, however, isn’t it just easier to hunker down beneath the comforting fatalism of Determinism and pretend that we’re merely cogwheels in the cosmic clockwork?

‘Shite and onions!’[10] Them that ‘hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me’[11] or anybody else it seems always miss the real point of human existence. In the end, that is, we’re not condemned to behave as though we’re free while knowing our every thought and action is ordered by the turning of wheels and the depression of levers. We’re condemned to be free while knowing, in reality, it makes damn all difference one way or the other.[12] 

[4] Gershwin, George. ‘I’ve Got Rhythm.’ For the rest, see Farrer’s Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967); Whitehead's Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffen and Donald W. Sherbourne(New York: Free Press, 1978) as good examples. 

[5] See Friedrich Waismann, ‘Verifiability’ in The Theory of Meaning ed. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: OUP, 1982) and ‘The Resources of Language’ in The Importance of Language edited by Max Black. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962).

[6] See Parts 3 and 4 of Hamblet, Wendy C. Punishment and Shame. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011.

[7] See Hampshire, Stuart. Thought and Action. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 49-50.

[8] Farrer, Austin Marsden. Finite and Infinite. (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959) , 233.

[9] See Farrer, Austin Marsden. The Freedom of the Will. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 300: ‘thank heaven I have not to meditate in vacuo on what to make of myself…. Thank heaven I have this lecture to write and beyond that, my pupils to see to; and ah, beyond that, if I dare to look, there is Lazarus on the doorstep covered with sores.’

[12] Everybody knows this quotation, but just in case, it can be found in Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ at the Marxists Internet Archive.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Inscriptions Vol. 3, No. 2


journal for contemporary thinking on 
art, philosophy and psycho-analysis

Inscriptions, an international peer-reviewed journal that publishes contemporary thinking on art, philosophy and psycho-analysis, vol. 3, no. 2, is available Open Access at

Power in a time of pandemic

Among our key questions in this open issue is the relation between the subject and power: what is the substance and appearance of the sovereign, what is the domain and limits of state power, and what are the effects of governance in the time of a health scare. Two short texts by Giorgio Agamben show how a religion of science became a tool to administer an exceptional governmentality under the pandemic. This issue features contributions by Leopold Haas, Christopher Norris, Mehdi Parsa, Lukas Reimann, Philippe Stamenkovic, and Regina Surber.

- Table of contents:
- Get a beautifully printed softbound copy (84 pp; USD 9.95):
- To subscribe to the print-edition of Inscriptions contact our publisher at

Call for Paper: Ethics and Artifical Life

Deadline for proposals: 15 September 2020. Full manuscripts due 15 October 2020.

Ethics, the question of how to live right and well, has been one of philosophy’s key concerns from its beginnings. In the thought of Wolfgang Schirmacher the ethical life is connected to artifice: subjected to the event of technology we recognise our ethical being in mediated form, and it is through reflecting on this our present condition that we can begin regain our composition as ethical subjects.

For our volume 4, n1, Inscriptions, a journal for contemporary thinking on art, philosophy and psycho-analysis, seeks essays that reflect on, interrogate, and bring new perspectives to the notion of artificial life and ethical living in general. Key questions include:

· How must I compose myself in order to live a good, satisfying life?

· What is the good life, and what values are relevant to us in our present time?

· How has the figure of the subject been challenged by our technological order, and how may we begin to ethically reassess our present condition?

Please submit a brief proposal (of up to 300 words) or full-length manuscript (of up to 5000 words) through our online platform. Proposals receive a preliminary assessment. All scholarship published by Inscriptions undergo double-blind peer review. We also accept book reviews, commentaries, and short interventions of up to 1500 words.

Open Access, no APCs

Access to content in this journal remains open on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge. For this upcoming issue we will not charge authors for submission or publication.

Inscriptions is published online and in print, and is indexed by, among others, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Our authors include Wolfgang Schirmacher, Siobhan Doyle, Christopher Norris, and Jørgen Veisland.

Our issues are archived electronically and in print by Norway's National Library.

Recent Issues

· Inscriptions 3, no. 2: Power in a time of pandemic, July 2020

· Inscriptions 3, no. 1: Outsourced!, January 2020

· Inscriptions 2, no. 2: Kierkegaard, July 2019

· Inscriptions 2, no. 1: The Global Unconscious, January 2019

· Inscriptions 1, no. 1-2: Consecrations, July 2018

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions