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An article in the journal Bioethics proposes dumping intrinsic human dignity as a basis for determining bioethical principles and policies.  But that would expose the most defenseless among us to the worst forms of exploitation, which the author, Alasdair Cochrane, acknowledges. From his article “Undignified Bioethics” ( link to abstract ):

. . . if all individual human beings possess dignity, then they should not be viewed simply as resources that we can treat however we please. To take an example then, it may be that we could achieve rapid and significant progress in medical science if we were to conduct wide-ranging medical experiments on groups of human beings. However, because human beings have dignity, so it is argued, this means that they possess a particular quality that grounds certain moral obligations and rights. These obligations and rights restrict what we may permissibly do to them. As such, inflicting great harms on individual humans, as would be inflicted in medical experiments, is impermissible on the grounds that human individuals possess dignity. The dignity of individual human beings prevents us from doing certain acts to them, even if those acts would lead to great social benefits.

The stakes are clearly high. So, why dump human dignity?  Cochrane brings out the old saw promoted by most utilitarian bioethicists, that since some individuals do not possess unique human attributes and capacities such as rationality and moral agency, then the concept of inherent dignity is “arbitrary.”   But those individuals who happen to lack those attributes have either not developed them yet (embryos, fetuses, infants), or have illnesses or disabilities that impede their expression.  This is because these attributes are uniquely part of our natures . That some have not developed, or have lost, them, is irrelevant–particularly given the stakes.  Indeed, judging the moral worth of individuals returns us to the pernicious thinking of eugenics and social Darwinism.

In place of human dignity, he argues a concept of “moral status:”

Obviously, given controversies over abortion, stem cell research, genetic interventions, animal experimentation, euthanasia and so on, bioethics does need to engage in debates over which entities possess moral worth and why. But these are best conducted by using the notion of ‘moral status’ and arguing over the characteristics that warrant possession of it. Simply stipulating that all and only human beings possess this inherent moral worth because they have dignity is arbitrary and unhelpful.

Hardly arbitrary, given the consequences of rejecting it and the uniqueness of human beings as the known universe’s only moral species.  Unhelpful, perhaps–in that it would prevent fetal farming, killing for organs, using human being as lab rats, and other utilitarian horrors.  But if we want universal human rights as a primary goal of society, intrinsic dignity is absolutely essential. He concludes his essay:
I urge for an undignified bioethics.

If we have an undignified bioethics, that is precisely the way we will treat the most vulnerable and defenseless among us.  In this sense, we can see how radically bioethics is straying from true liberalism based on the ideal of attaining universal human equality. More details and analysis over at Secondhand Smoke .

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