May 26, 2024

Have the Swiss smuggled religion into their constitution?

The 1992 referendum demands respect for the ‘dignity’ of creatures

Switzerland has some of the strictest laws in the world for care of animals. Goldfish, for instance, being social animals, must have companions in their bowls. This concern for animals and even plants stems from a 1992 referendum to amend the Swiss constitution to protect “human dignity” (Article 119) and the dignity of creatures (Article 120).

These amendments have been unpopular in some circles as they hamper the development of human reproductive technology and biotechnology.

An American lawyer, James Toomey, has published “the first English-language study of the Swiss constitutional concept of dignity as a coherent, unified concept that restrains biotechnology in both humans and other species” in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences.

He argues that “Because this theory speaks directly to contested questions of the good life, Switzerland’s adoption of it as a constitutional principle is analogous to the adoption of a religious theory in a constitution.”

The restrictions have very practical implications, as the rapid development of CRISPR gene editing technology will inevitably conflict with Swiss law.

Toomey, however, attacks the Swiss constitutional amendments not because they hamper the development of business and technology, but on philosophical grounds. “This worldview is meaningfully indistinguishable from traditionally religious ones. It is not one that liberal states should endeavor to adopt because liberal states should not adopt any one.”

His argument is an original one: that the Swiss have imposed a religious doctrine upon their citizens.

There is no doubt that for many Swiss people, nature has a moral value. It matters for its own sake, and they live their lives keeping that in mind. They enacted their worldview by majority vote into the Swiss constitution. In some sense, this is direct democracy in action, and more power to the activists able to convince a majority of citizens and cantons. But where democracy clashes with liberalism (and there is little more foundational to the liberal promise than individual freedom of belief), it is the majority and not the foundational principles of liberalism that ought to bend. As Steven Pinker put it, ‘[a] free society disempowers the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens’.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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