July 7, 2022

Another blast at “human dignity”

A straw in the wind for Canada’s euthanasia debate?

The leading journal Bioethics has launched a stinging attack on the notion of dignity, especially in end-of-life issues. In a joint editorial, Udo Schüklenk, co-editor of the journal, and Anna Pacholczyk, a graduate student at Manchester University, argue that “human dignity” is so woolly, nebulous and slippery a term that bioethicists should scrap it. “Invoking dignity without clarifying its basis and reach is mere sloganism,” they contend.

They also point out that although the term is being deployed frequently in the debate over euthanasia, it “offers us nothing by way of addressing … crucial normative questions”.

The article could be influential in Canada’s debate over euthanasia. It appears two months after Professor Schüklenk, who is lecturing at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, was appointed the chair of an influential panel studying policies on end-of-life decision-making for the Royal Society of Canada. Like Professor Schüklenk, most of the other members of the panel also lean towards supporting some form of legalised euthanasia.

The panel’s terms of reference are vast: an investigation of some of the most contentious issues of end-of-life care: physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, terminal sedation, withdrawal of hydration and nutrition, human dignity, informed consent and advance directives – among others. The Royal Society says that the report should be “balanced, thorough, independent, free from conflict of interest, and based on a deep knowledge” of current research.

Professor Schüklenk invokes the Oxford logical positivist A.J. Ayer and his rather dim view of abstract notions as meaningless nonsense. Curiously, in view of the importance of the topic, he assumes, without explaining, why Ayer became his canonical philosopher. For if “human dignity” is nothing but “woolly uplift”, what are justice, truth, democracy, or fairness, or even good and evil? What use will we have for bioethics or bioethicists? Accountants will do very nicely. But the solution to this and other conundrums will undoubtedly be revealed with the publication of the Royal Society’s report. ~ Bioethics, Feb; Royal Society of Canada, Oct 27


Michael Cook
Creative commons
human dignity
Udo Schuklenk