Defending human dignity as the foundation of bioethics


By Michael Cook |

humandignityEnglish barrister and medical ethicist Charles Foster has penned defence of “human dignity” as the foundation of bioethics in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. He believes that it is more adequate than the reigning view that autonomy is its fundamental principle. In particular dignity does a far better job of explaining why body parts or patients in a vegetative state deserve respect.

Foster is well aware that the concept of dignity has weaknesses:

Dignity has a smug tendency to rest on its laurels. Its advocates have often responded to criticism of the use of dignity by philosophical name-calling—along the lines of “You don’t like dignity, and therefore you must be a Nazi/communist/utilitarian/shallow reductionist.” That’s not argument. It rightly produces derision from the dignity deniers. They tend to respond in kind, saying words to the effect of “You’re a credulous, theologically contaminated mystic.” And so it goes on. A lot of the literature on dignity is comprised of these sorts of exchanges. It is not amusing for long, and not productive at all.

However, autonomy is “hardly more satisfactory and less question-begging”. In particular, it fails to take into account the web of relationships in which we all exist.

What is dignity? “Dignity is objective human thriving. …Dignity is about being human well. A dignity-enhancing measure is a humanizing measure. There are things that are objectively humanizing and things that are not.” Good things include health and companionship; bad things include isolation and arsenic.

Even if human dignity sounds airy-fairy to those of a utilitarian cast of mind, Foster points out that it has already been enshrined in law in the European Convention on Human Rights:

Article 8(1) provides that “(1) everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” But this right is not absolute. …

It is now clear that Article 8 is the natural home of dignity. It is a rather tense home. The space is shared with autonomy, and there are sometimes silent, icy breakfasts and sometimes shouting matches. Also the landlords (the Strasbourg court) won’t leave the place alone. They are always redecorating and adding on extensions. But there is no danger of dignity being ousted. Indeed, it now holds, with autonomy, a perpetual joint tenancy. It used to have a bare license, and autonomy kept it in a shabby spare room. Dignity is here to stay, and its main address is Article 8.

Foster is clever debater and stylish writer (unlike most bioethicists). This is an essay which is well worth reading as a defence of an often maligned concept.

Editor’s note. This appeared at