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
” …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.
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.
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.