July 6, 2022

Mourning Nelson Mandela

Hi there,

The death of Nelson Mandela this week at the age of 95 is a reminder for me, at least, of how powerful human dignity can be in history. The notion of “human dignity” (usually in scare quotes) has been dismissed by a number of bioethicists as ” flawed, fuzzy and unhelpful” or as just plain “stupid“. Of course dignity is a bit fuzzy; most concepts that do a lot of heavy lifting are. But it is no more fuzzy than the alternative ethical criterion on offer, autonomy.

Mandela was the embodiment of dignity, in all its senses. He was a man who commanded respect and admiration, even veneration, because of the way he comported himself and dealt with others. But he also believed that every human being was worthy of respect because they possessed an inalienable dignity. As he wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom, “Any man that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose”. Mandela was a pragmatic politician, but these were more than fine words. His strategy of nation-building through truth and reconciliation demonstrated his consistency. As a slogan, dignity was more powerful than even prosperity or nationalism.

Does this have any relevance for bioethics? Indirectly, yes. Apartheid, the system which Mandela fought and dismantled, led to terrible inequities in health care and created conditions which helped to make South Africa the AIDS capital of the world. All because respect for human dignity had been lost – or rather because the ruling National Party had redefined who is human.

The dreadful, deadening, dreary ideology of apartheid was (almost literally) gospel truth for South Africa’s politicians. It was undemocratic, violent, and unjust to the blacks and coloureds, but it was supported by the whites. It was even defended as doctrine of Christianity by the Dutch Reformed Church, in defiance of all other denominations. Apartheid’s defenders included intelligent, well-educated, even well-meaning people. But these qualities did not keep them from colluding in what is now regarded as a paradigmatic case of an unjust government.

Human dignity is powerful in the hands of heroes like Mandela, but fragile, oh so fragile, in the hands of ethical pygmies. 

Michael Cook
The death of Nelson Mandela this week at the age of 95 is a reminder for me, at least, of how powerful human dignity can be in history.
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