by Jim Beauregard
So far, no one has advanced definition of human dignity that has been universally accepted. It is a concept that has existed since the ancient world, and while the content of the concept has changed over the centuries, it has been looked to again and again in defence of human rights and as an aspect of understanding who persons are.
Human dignity is concept that is reached frequently in the domain of bioethics, and here the concept is contentious as well. Much of the criticism of the concept of dignity in contemporary bioethics traces its root to a brief 2003 piece by Ruth Macklin in the British Medical Journal titled “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that respect would be a better term, including respect for persons and for individual autonomy. The debate continues.
This blog opens a personalistic dialogue between myself and Simon Smith on the concept of dignity and what place it might have and personal was thinking. As such, the concept touches on many areas including the nature of persons, medical ethics, public policy, international relations, war, etc. As will become evident in this conversation, Simon and I come from different personalist backgrounds, he from the traditions of British personalism, particularly the work of Austin Farrar, and I from the European tradition of personalism, looking to the work of philosophers such as Juan Manuel Burgos, Emmanuel Mounier and Karol Wojtyla. Each of the philosophers I’ve mentioned bring something unique to discussions about human dignity.
We’ll see what happens.
To begin with, I would pose a question – can dignity be defined? This is related to the question, “Can persons be defined?” Many personalists of my acquaintance would argue that persons can be not defined, but rather described, as there is an aspect of their nature that is open-ended. To create a definition is to close the circle, to say, “This and nothing but this.” Human possibility stubbornly resists such limitations. This is captured in the title of Robert Spaemann’s book, Persons: The Difference Between Someone and Something. The personalist turn is a turn from thing to person, a turn from “what” to “who”.
The 20th century raised questions of human dignity more acutely than perhaps it had ever been raised before. It was a century of two World Wars, a century of genocide, beginning in Armenia during World War I. After the Second World War, the United Nations was founded and one of their early documents was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Notably, the personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain had a role in the formation of that document. The common denominator in the numerous documents that have been produced over the course of the 20th Century is that dignity is assumed but not defined. One might say, it is recognized and included in these documents while concerns about definitional description are left to a later date. This is a test really, I think, of personalist attention, particularly in light of the world that appears to be listing towards the right wing politics of exclusion, a phenomenon which of essence argues that some people count more than others.
What, then, is the state of human dignity today? I will close out this post with reference to David H. Calhoun’s useful chapter, “Human Exceptionalism and the Imago Dei” in Human Dignity in Bioethics: From Worldviews to the Public Square (Stephen Dilley and Nathan J. Palpant, Eds. New York: Routledge, 2013). He examines the concept of human dignity over the past 150 years and suggests that there are six traditions touching on human dignity that have emerged since the time of Kant: Adapters, Debunkers, Saboteurs, Caretakers and Restorers.
Adapters: John Stuart Mill and William James are included in this category, who used the language of dignity in their work. James referred to dignity in The Varieties of Religious Experience, contrasting various religious traditions, some life-giving and some more constrictive.
Debunkers: under this heading Calhoun places those who have attacked the concept of dignity directly, asserting that the concept is incoherent, too broad to be useful etc. Also, included in this category would be Freud and B. F. Skinner, who thought dignity an unscientific notion, not operationalizable (more on this later).
Saboteurs: in bed with the debunkers of the saboteurs who indirectly supplant concepts of dignity through a re-visioning of anthropology. Darwin’s work would be an example of this, or perhaps more specifically, the use that has been made of it. Operating in John Macmurray’s Fields of the mechanical and the organic, human dignity can have no foundation. Darwin’s work called into question the very concept of human distinctiveness, and with it, the concept of dignity.
Cautionary prophets: this group emerged as a reaction to the Saboteurs and also in response to the general breakdown of trust in social institutions during the 20th century, particularly in the wake of the First World War. It includes, but is not exhausted by, the existentialist tradition, growing from the work of Heidegger and Sartre. Heidegger played an important role in discussion of dignity by raising the issue in the context of technology.
Caretakers: the long tradition of dignity expressed in religious tradition and in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant did not meet its demise in the modern world, though it has come under heavy criticism. This group includes some famous individuals, some of them operating consciously out of personals tradition: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope John Paul II (Wojtyła).
Restorers: Calhoun sites this group is those who have acted on the concept of human dignity, rather than working in a more academic setting to define and describe it. These individuals work in the context of international relations, law, bioethics and direct patient care, and the vision is embodied in such documents as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Declaration, the Belmont Report and others.
Simon and I will be having a back-and-forth about this topic in the months ahead – you too are invited to join the conversation.