September 27, 2022

Human dignity under fire again in leading bioethics journal

Animal rights theorist calls for an “undignified bioethics”

Ever
since bioethicist Ruth Macklin published her famous BMJ article,
“Dignity is a Useless Concept”,
the notion that human dignity is
a cornerstone of bioethics has been under attack. Now the leading
journal Bioethics, which favours articles of a utilitarian
bent, has published another broadside. Alasdair Cochrane, of the
London School of Economics, calls for an “undignified bioethics”.

As
usual with such articles, he reviews four common arguments for human
dignity in his refutation: “dignity as virtuous behaviour; dignity
as inherent moral worth; Kantian dignity; and dignity as species
integrity.” Cochrane’s own assumptions are not completely clear,
but he seems to be a thorough-going utilitarian. For him, the
possession of interests is sufficient to warrant recognition of moral
status and well-being is sufficient for a flourishing life. This is
an approach popular with animal rights activists, and, indeed, Dr
Cochrane is working on two books on animal rights
.

Concepts,
because they are immaterial, are notoriously hard to define, as first
year philosophy students see in reading Aristole and Plato on
justice, truth, beauty and so on. But Cochrane makes the job even
harder by ignoring metaphysics, or considerations about reality which
transcends materiality. For instance, he discusses briefly the famous
first article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “All human
beings are born free and equal in dignity”. “But why are they?”
he asks. “When we start looking at particular characteristics that
might ground dignity – language-use, moral action, sociality,
sentience, self-consciousness, and so on – we soon see that none of
these qualities are in fact possessed by each and every human. We are
therefore left wondering why all human beings actually do possess
dignity.”

Tellingly,
Cochrane omits rationality, which is the key feature of homo
sapiens, the Aristotelian man. Hence, only religion is left as a
foundation for a sense that people have something which transcends
physical characteristics. And since religious faith is beyond
rational discussion, it fails to support “human dignity” as a
useful concept.

Human
dignity is so much a part of everyday discourse, as well as a
prominent feature in many countries’s constitutions, that it is hard
to imagine a world without it. Dr Cochrane calls for its abolition
anyway: “Just because an ethical term is popular does not mean that
we are under an obligation to keep it… if concepts are flawed and
unhelpful, it is the job of scholars to push that they be rejected.
In the case of dignity in bioethical discourse, I take the latter
view. As such, I urge for an undignified bioethics. ~ Bioethics, Nov
30 (early on-line)

Michael Cook
animal rights
bioethics
human dignity