What Sorts of Dignity?

The concept of Dignity has recently become a subject of considerable debate. This debate is partly being sparked by the publication of the monograph Human Dignity and Bioethics by the US President’s Council on Bioethics. The notion of dignity is being attacked as too vague and ambiguous to have any value, and some critics see the use of the concept of human dignity as ploy by conservative ethicists to thwart the advancement of medicine and science through new technologies. In fact, it has been used by both sides in such debates, but it remains vague and ambiguous. In my opinion, the problems with its squishy definition require attention, but I think there is something underneath the messy definition that needs to be explored, not abandoned. What do you think? Is dignity a concept that has no practical value and should be abandoned? If we dump the concept of dignity, what is lost? What does dignity mean to you? …. And what do you think it means to others?

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3 thoughts on “What Sorts of Dignity?

  1. I think it is important that it is a term in public discourse, so we’re not just thinking about whether it has value in academic discourse. That said, I think of the terms as having two sorts of contributions, one good and one really not. The good one (as I think of it) seems related to a sort of popularized Kantian idea of seeing others as subjects, not objects.

    But the bad one comes from the theological literature and Sunday sermons, where it has to do with God’s plans as interpreted by the clergy. Here it can offend against ‘the dignity of man’ (sic) to relieve pain, etc. Sex is certainly not dignified, etc, etc.

  2. Thanks, JJ,

    I agree that dignity is an important concept, but a dangerous one when applied in certain ways. In some way, I think my own vision of dignity is about being true to ourselves and true to humanity in creative rather than destructive ways). So sex, or for that matter, any of our basic functions have an element of dignity in spite of their primitive nature. Maybe part of the great dignity divide is related to whether our concept is grounded in our nature or rising above our nature.

  3. I agree. I think you are right about the importance of whether dignity is connected to our nature or not. At the same time, it might be very tricky to spell this out, since some people feel they’ve been dealt a bad hand by nature, or that others have. I suppose that’s just part of the topic of this blog.

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