The late Jack Kevorkian enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the wider pro-euthanasia movement. Like Australia’s Philip Nitschke, he single-handedly focused national attention on the euthanasia issue. Yet the presence of an eccentric, media-loving “Dr Death” had become an embarrassment to pro-euthanasia groups desperate to be taken seriously on a public policy level. “A lightning rod”, is how Oregon’s Death with Dignity National Centre eulogised Kevorkian:
Firebrand, hero, crazy man, renegade, zealot. No matter how you describe him, Kevorkian got all of us to think about something we never want to face.
Unfortunately, we are well beyond the “think about it” phase of the euthanasia movement’s agenda. These days the movement is all about encouraging, and advocating on behalf of, the public demand for “death with dignity”. Thus we have Oregon and Washington’s Death with Dignity Acts, a defeated Dying with Dignity bill and organisation of the same name in Australia, the British Dignity in Dying, and the infamous Swiss group Dignitas.
With all this talk of dignity, it would be nice if someone could actually define it. But the word remains ambiguous and the concept is—perhaps intentionally—left undefined in the human rights arena. Yet there is a very straightforward understanding of dignity that can be gleaned from the word’s linguistic roots. And while the roots of a word do not necessarily give us the word’s contemporary meaning, when dealing with words as mysterious and ambiguous as dignity, tracing the roots may indeed lead us to the outermost branches.
Dignity entered the English language as a French word, in turn derived from the Latin dignitas meaning “worthiness.” “Dignity,” then, is an alternative to good old-fashioned “worth,” itself derived from the old-English weorð meaning “to be equal to.” “Worth” is to “dignity” as “want” is to “desire”, and in the absence of fancy French alternatives we English speakers would probably still be wanting worthiness rather than desiring dignity. If dignity is originally just the Latin equivalent of our worth then we have an excellent basis for understanding what our thirteenth century ancestors were on about when they co-opted the term, before it became so deeply enriched with a wealth of cultural and historic associations.
So “human dignity” is more or less synonymous with “human worthiness” which in turn means “the worth of a human being.” What is a human being worth? The answer might depend on the culture and society at the time. “Life is cheap” we sometimes hear from war-zones and poverty stricken communities. But historically we in the West have decided that the value of a human being is actually very high, priceless in fact. How do we arrive at such a high estimation of human worth?
The key lies in knowing that worth is a matter of relative value, the weighing of one object against another. Yet human beings are not the same as any mere object: we are, uniquely, subjects. While I might be willing to trade you my car for three thousand dollars (I think it’s worth at least that much to me), I cannot logically trade myself to you for any amount of money. How much am I worth to myself, after all?
Any attempt at trading a human being implicitly objectifies that which is no object. It is no more legitimate than a con artist “selling” properties that are not his to sell. The logical impossibility of selling a human being (either oneself or another) effectively drives any question of relative worth out of the market. The question of relative worth is therefore given an absolute answer: human life has infinite value. Put away your credit cards, these items are not for sale.
I described dignity as a fancy word for worth and it should be apparent by now that human worth deserves a uniquely fancy word. We do not ask about the dignity of objects, except in an anthropomorphic sense. We humans are uniquely subjects rather than objects, possessing infinite value, which is in turn reflected in the esteem with which we regard the word dignity itself. Dignity as the infinite, intrinsic, inviolable worth of a human being cannot be won or lost, revoked, conferred, promoted or demoted. In this sense, every death is a death with dignity.
Yet the “death with dignity” trope remains potent because life doesn’t always show us the respect that our dignity deserves. There is some truth in the pro-euthanasia claim that the circumstances of death do not reflect our worth as human beings. We all, almost inevitably, will suffer unworthy treatment and circumstances, the harsh indignities of life.
People fear these future indignities as much as future suffering itself, but euthanasia is a false response to the threat of unworthy conditions. Euthanasia encourages us to destroy ourselves rather than endure conditions beneath our great worth. Yet what could be more unworthy of a human than to kill himself to avoid an indignity? This euthanasia mindset confuses dignity of circumstances with the dignity of the self. It mistakes the expression of dignity for the substance. For in the end, it is we-the loved ones, carers, and the dying themselves-who bring dignity to death, not its circumstances that confer dignity on us.
Zac Alstin works part-time as a research officer for the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in South Australia, and is a freelance writer for the online magazine MercatorNet.