Does dignity matter in biotech?

25 Oct
In discussing emerging biotechnologies, the term ‘dignity’ is often thrown out as a blanket defence of bioconservatism. Proponents of technologies are questioning whether this is really relevant. But what IS dignity, and does it even matter?

The idea that human dignity is an empty concept is not a new one. It has been suggested in academic works throughout the best part of the last two centuries that the use of the term is often nothing more than what Marx termed a “refuge (from history) in morality”. In 1837, Schopenhauer set precedent for this attitude in his analysis of Kant’s ‘Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals’, wherein he described human dignity as the

Almost as widespread as his rad hair.

” …shibboleth of all perplexed and empty-headed moralists. For behind that imposing formula they concealed their lack, not to say, of a real ethical basis, but of any basis at all which was possessed of an intelligible meaning…”

-from the tone of which we can perhaps infer that Schopenhauer, at least, saw how widespread and wide-ranging the term had become even then.

This is not to say, however, that merely because a view has been held by our intellectual forebears it must be so. I would argue that there are other moral concepts which we respect despite their being used conflicting rhetoric, ‘freedom’ being the most obvious, if slightly trite, example. Consider that while it would be generally agreed upon (in the West) to support the principle of freedom in terms of political agency, this freedom can be interpreted differently- for example, positive versus negative liberty. Regardless of your interpretation, having respect for this freedom is regarded as a solid, defined concept and a key feature in democracy.

The concept of respect for human dignity is different, and this is best illustrated by Schopenhauer’s assertion that the subject ‘…lack[s]… intelligible meaning…”.

So can we really respect a concept without a universally agreed definition? Academics of far greater provenance than I have attempted to work out of what might constitute human dignity, and many thousands of pages have been published in argument. That this debate continues is indicative of the scale of the difficulty that exists in validating the term, and it is worthy of note that possibly the most important- in that it was designed to guide future U.S. policy– review of the term, by the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2008, concluded that “…there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term human dignity.” I’m not, therefore, going to try and give a definition myself; but it is of value to note that this meaning has gone from something defined and rather narrow in scope to Marx’s all encompassing moral shield, and to an undefined phrase at the core of various legislative documents today.

The ancient Roman concept of dignitas gave our English derivation of dignity. However, its meaning was not in reference to any inherent value held by a person, as later espoused by Kant, but rather it was analogous to what we might today refer to as reputation or status. You can see how this is similar to our concept of a person being described as dignified, perhaps better termed as distinguished or august.

Judging from this expression, I think he just lost his dignitas.

This is worth thinking about- it is context alone which makes it clear as to whether ‘dignity’ refers to the dignitas of Cicero, or to the less defined moral construct. This semantic differentiation is therefore impossible to apply to legal documentation, which frequently uses the term as a stand-alone. Look at the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”, which doesn’t exactly explain anything.  Having to work it out for yourself is hardly the point of definitive law.

So: human dignity is ill-defined, lexically. Maybe this is unimportant if all those who use it are referring to the same thing, but this is exceptionally difficult to prove.

Our first and perhaps most obvious point of contention would be to require an agreement on what constitutes ‘human’- a topic so broad that I’m once again not even going to try to fathom it, but that very fact serves to illustrate the scale of the problem. You need only to consider the debate over abortion, or that over the use of embryonic tissue, to see violently opposed viewpoints over the issue. The lynchpin in these cases is of course the determination of the exact point at which human life may be thought to begin, but it is a simple matter to extrapolate these principles to the wider question when we ask what exactly is deserving of ‘dignity’. I’m guessing it’s safe to suggest, given the vociferous and long-running nature of the debate over abortion, that an answer acceptable to all parties will not be forthcoming in the near future.

How, then, are we to determine what constitutes a being capable of possessing human dignity?

Legislation exists which leaves this question as a gaping hole in their rulings. These documents uniformly totally fail to define the term they are using. Look at the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (the Oviedo Convention), which entered into force in 1999. The document is more properly titled the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine’, which makes it clear that human dignity is a core issue addressed within. In its preamble, the convention states that it is “ …recognising the importance of ensuring the dignity of the human being; conscious that the misuse of biology and medicine may lead to acts endangering human dignity”. A handsome sentiment, no?  But these phrases are effectively meaningless: as legislative preamble they are intended to set out the contexts in which the convention has been developed, yet they offer no explanation as to what they refer. This oversight exists in other international documents (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ “the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”), and has been noted to be unsatisfactory in other analytical literature. In discussing UNESCO’s Universal Draft Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (UDDBHR), Häyry and Takala suggest that “[t]he drafters may have thought that it is not necessary to provide a definition, because everybody agrees on its scope and content.”

Maybe- if I’m being charitable- a similar reasoning lies behind the quotations from the Oviedo Convention, but this does not render it acceptable- as I pointed out, it would seem impossible to agree upon the meaning of the phrase and consequently its use in the preamble cannot be taken definitively in reference to any one interpretation.

The Convention takes this uncertainty further by enshrining it as actionable international law. Article 1 states that “Parties to this Convention shall protect the dignity and identity of all human beings…”, and  Article 23 demands that “The Parties shall provide appropriate judicial protection to prevent or to put a stop to an unlawful infringement of the rights and principles set forth in this Convention…”. These passages effectively make it a legal obligation of signatory nations to obey the principle of respect for human dignity. However, exactly what constitutes this dignity; and who and what may hold it, are left to the assumptions of individual state’s lawmakers. This renders it impossible to determine what would embody an infringement of this legal imperative- in different states, it would be a different threshold. Thus, if we consider ‘respect’ for a principle to be, in this context, to obey it; then we find ourselves at an impasse. You can’t obey when it is unclear what constitutes accordance, and I’m forced to venture that the principle of respect for human dignity is exemplified by the Convention as being an empty concept.

Not pictured: meaningful concepts.

The same argument can be applied to other legislation. Without rehashing my point, it is highly evident in the aforementioned Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity…”, a passage which leaves us with a familiar question. While it is reasonable that this existence may require different remuneration in different states, a key point of the document is that human dignity is a universal truth. Consequently, by failing to state what this might comprise, the article is left without meaning- an empty idea.

Developing and theorised biotechnologies would of course come under existing legislation prior to any new charters or declarations being formed, and so would be subject to the confused principle of respect for human dignity as it is held in law in much the same way as I have mentioned. In light of the nature of these forthcoming technologies, the concept, ill-defined as it is, is unhelpful. Human enhancement research, including fields such as human genetic engineering, neural implants, and nootropics is necessarily challenging what it means to be human, and it has been argued by some academics that the ‘human’ dignity of the UDHR is not necessarily relevant to that of ‘post-humans’.

If we cannot  satisfactorily agree upon what entities are currently deserving of human dignity (the general contentious issue being, as mentioned, early-stage embryonic life), how can we apply any rule to a new type of being? (Which is not to say that an enhanced being is necessarily not human- an idea I will post on in the near future.)

The idea that such enhancement technology does not respect the principle of human dignity is a commonly held argument by its opponents. Whilst if we are to accept the arguments made already in this post we may be justified in dismissing this notion, it cannot be denied that the nebulous concept is, as claimed by Schopenhauer, something of a pervasive smokescreen.

James Hughes discussed how conservative biopolicy groups such as the Christian Right Centre for Bioethics and Culture have mired debate in the United States by using the term as a wall against which reason is often dashed to no avail. For those in support of advancing biotechnology it would seem abundantly evident that human dignity has no useful application in these terms, but you can’t really deny partisan viewpoints solely on the basis that they are obstructive. This problem leads to severe limitation on development of new biotechnologies, in misguided attempts to appease all parties. While it is reprehensible to suggest that research goes unregulated, it is conceivably possible to provide oversight and ethical protocol without hobbling advancement.

Any discussion of human dignity as it may apply to developing biotechnology is fraught with difficulties. Current legislation isn’t likely to suffice in the long term due to failures to define human dignity. Any new bodies of law enacted to govern future technologies of this nature would need to take into account the effect these advancements might have on the idea of being human; and it is fundamentally the case that without a solid definition from which to work, any additional queries can only render the issue less and less clear. Consequently, new declarations or charters would be well advised to avoid the use of the principle of human dignity, for fear of creating an environment that is potentially more open to abuse. A situation such as this would be an absolute failing of the intention of such documents, but is eminently foreseeable unless the  empty principle is laid to rest.

Behind the transient ideals of respect for human dignity generally lies a desire to avoid doing harm; an idea which is open to interpretation, but with the principle of beneficence entrenched to some degree however it is appraised. As long as this latter concept is held paramount we can maybe forgo adherence to a principle which is impossible to definitively apply.

As bioscience develops, the term ‘human dignity’ will only become more difficult to define as new questions are raised regarding human life, and will therefore only serve as a greater barrier to progress.

Have at me.


2 Responses to “Does dignity matter in biotech?”

  1. Nicholas Evans (@neva9257) October 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Hi there,

    I really liked your article. You are right—dignity is really problematic by virtue of being ill-defined.

    (disclosure: shameless self-plug follows)

    However, it needn’t be that way. Dignity is poorly defined, but there have been some cracking attempts to try and navigate the complicated terrain. The two that come best to mind are Doris Schroeder’s “Dignity: Two Riddles and Four Concepts,” and Suzy Killmister’s “Dignity: not such a useless concept.” John Kleinig and I have recently published “Human Flourishing, Human Dignity, and Human Rights,” in an attempt to explore those three metaphors and their various origins.

    Importantly, we don’t need the “human” to have “dignity.” Dignity as _dignitas_ has venerable, Christian origins, but the term has been used in any number of ways. Pettit has used it to identify the capacity to “secure dominion over one’s choices and space,” which hardly seems to require some biological so-called “humanity” to function (unless people are seriously contemplating enhancing themselves beyond choice?). Griffin uses it to refer to rational moral self-governance, which surely doesn’t require humanity as such.

    As for dignity’s meaninglessness, the same might be said for all sorts of concepts. “Harm” is really not as simple as I think you give it credit for. I mean, there are some things we associate as paradigmatic of harm—say, physical pain—but even if we take a Benthamite approach it doesn’t seem we get very far: it then falls to why harm in this sense matters over other conceptions. The same goes for a denial of rationally informed preferences, some list of (physical, cognitive, dispositional or otherwise) goods, and so on. The same has been said about enhancement, well-being, autonomy, liberty… whenever we make prescriptive arguments we run into these endless problems of what we mean and why it is valuable.

    Which is where, I guess, you lose me. I think you are bang on that dignity is more often than not ill defined. I think that where this is so, authors, researchers, policymakers and everyone else ought to be roundly criticised for their failure to do so—even if only in a stipulative sense. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take pains to come up with a robust conception (or, in Doris’ case, a set of them. She’s built on the above paper in the last few talks I’ve seen her give).

    What would you say about the possibility that on a good number of occasions, dignity is not only poorly defined, but even a solid conceptualisation of the term would be less useful than other, less contentious terms?

    Finally, it seems pretty bold (and dare I say, ill defined?) to claim that a) there is a possible regulatory system out there that could give oversight and ethics without slowing progress, or b) why progress is so important in this case that we should avoid all barriers to it. What system would you see helping with a), and even if such a system exists, are there really no cases in which you might think that b) is false, and sometimes we should slow down in the name of some other important consideration?

    • biojammer October 26, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the piece, let alone leave such an insightful comment. Certainly gave me food for thought… You’re also clearly more knowledgeable on the specific area than I, though I shall definitely take the time to look into those papers.

      Firstly, no, I agree that it needn’t be that way- if a workable definition of the construct can be given, then I’m all ears, and even if it is the case that it has to fall into a collection of different conceptions (as appears to be the idea of the Schroeder article) then I would happily accept those- my real problem with the lack of definition of ‘dignity’ is that the documents and legislation which wield it as a reason for certain decisions do not proceed to explain what it is that they (the drafters) understand it to mean. I don’t have a problem with dignity as a general concept- indeed, it is clearly of a great deal of value in the right circumstances. The drive behind its invocation is generally of recognisably beneficent intention- in the bluntest terms, a need to preserve dignity was a key factor in the creation of the UDHR, and no-one would ever claim that to be anything other than honourable. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself properly in the article, though- I don’t believe we shouldn’t try to define it. Quite the opposite, in fact! Wheresoever the term ‘human dignity’ is enshrined in law, there’s absolutely no room for it to be even slightly vague. I feel, however, that until such a time comes to pass, it is perhaps advisable to leave it out of any new legislation. My use of the line ‘unless the empty principle is laid to rest’ is maybe a bad piece of phrasing, and I accept that it perhaps loses the point slightly.

      I do think you’re right about prescriptive arguments and the endless depths of ‘meaning’, though, and I agree- you can’t always pick these holes because ultimately you could take most anything apart, and then where would we be? it would be unhelpful, for the most part. I merely pick on dignity here because it is so frequently used as a be-all and end-all reason and endgame argument, particularly by bioconservative commentators. I’d have problems with any buzzword which can be thrown into an argument to blow it out of the water with an unassailable obfuscation.

      As regards the idea that solid conceptualisations of dignity would be in some cases less useful than other terminology, I’d say that rather depends on what those terms might be- in principle I agree completely, if we assume those terms to be of less nebulous nature. Even a solid conception of dignity is still an attempt to net smoke, and so in many cases the use of specific reference to the elements that are considered to be commensurate with dignity would almost definitely be more useful. They’d be clearer, and less open to interpretation, which is generally a good thing in legal terms.

      Finally, in response to your concern a)- Yes, it is bold, and I’m not convinced that there is a wholly appropriate system. The fact that I can’t think of one myself perhaps speaks more to any potential future with me as a legislator… However, to operate within more definite paradigms would surely be beneficial- by hobbling advancement, I don’t mean (and this may go some way to addressing your concern b)) that there is a system which would allow progress to continue unimpeded. Having the potential to impede it is, after all, the point of having such systems of oversight- wherein a line of research is deemed to be harmful/unethical/’bad’, then clearly it needs to be halted. What I was referring to with the phrase was more that otherwise ‘good’ (for want of a better word) work is so often held up by these ‘buzzwords’, which are so often employed when the critic has no real backing for their opposition- ‘it’s against human dignity’ so often translates into ‘ew I don’t like it’, the wisdom of repugnance or ‘ick factor’.

      I think all your points are valid- for the most part, they are along the lines of what I was trying to say, but perhaps failed to articulate properly. In a faintly rushed blog post, though, you can’t always win. I hope I’ve addressed some of what you’ve said though, and thanks again for taking the time to think about it as you have!

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