By Wesley Smith
God may not be dead, but considering the imago Dei [made in the image of God] in philosophical discourse and public policy certainly is. Not only that, but the rational reasons for acknowledging the exceptional dignity of humans are wrongly denigrated as merely reflecting our religious past in which rigid moralism supposedly trumped reason.
Today’s dominant cultural voices argue that an individual’s moral worth should be predicated upon his or her individual capacities of the moment. This view is most acutely expressed in bioethics, the field that wields tremendous influence over health-care public policies and in the ethical protocols of medicine.
The potential that denying human dignity has to oppress, exploit, harvest, and kill the weakest and most vulnerable among us hangs in the air like malodorous evidence of a ruptured sewer line. In 2010, bioethicist Alasdair Cochrane clearly identified the ominous stakes:
“If all individual human beings possess dignity, then they should not be viewed simply as resources that we can treat however we please. To take an example, then, it may be that we could achieve rapid and significant progress in medical science if we were to conduct wide-ranging medical experiments on groups of human beings. However, because human beings have dignity, so it is argued, this means that they possess a particular quality that grounds certain moral obligations and rights.”
Even so, Cochrane wants to “purge dignity from bioethics” and judge individual “moral status” based on “the characteristics that warrant” a finding of “moral worth.”
He’s not alone. In recent years, prominent bioethicists have proposed various moral status formulas to justify allowing “after-birth abortion” (otherwise known as infanticide), non-voluntary euthanasia of Alzheimer’s patients, and the use of profoundly disabled humans in dangerous medical experiments—just to name a few of the policy proposals that would obliterate our inalienable right to life.
Outside of religious bioethics advocacy—which holds virtually no sway in the field—there has been scarce intellectual pushback against undignified bioethics. That is why I was heartened to read a just-published article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics that self-consciously stands against the “dignity deniers.” In “Dignity and the Ownership of Body Parts,” Oxford law professor Charles Foster defines our dignity as “objective human flourishing”:
“Our main concern should be not abstract human thriving but the thriving of a particular human being. It is her humanization that should be the object of ethical discussion. . . . All of which boils down to the proposition that human dignity is objective thriving in the biological, societal, geographical, and other circumstances in which the individual finds herself.” (emphasis mine)
In other words, the profoundly disabled human being and the athlete each possess intrinsic dignity and, hence, must be treated in ways that recognize their best respective potential to thrive.
Many bioethicists, in direct contrast, want to distinguish between the athlete and the profoundly disabled person based on their subjective belief that the robust individual has a higher quality of life. Such relativist thinking has already seeped into public policies, such as health-care rationing in the U.K., widely espoused for adoption.
Most impressively, Foster defends the dignity of permanently unconscious people, currently the prime targets for being stripped of equal moral status in utilitarian bioethical advocacy:
“Is there any sense at all in which she can be said to be thriving? Yes, and two points can be made in support of this conclusion. First, her story (which in many ways is her) continues. The story is the necessary substrate for any ethical considerations that concern her.”
“And second, there are good stories and bad stories, and it is better for her (a betterness accurately described in terms of thriving) for her story to be a good one. That is why we rightly say that it would offend her dignity were her body to be used by medical students to practice rectal and vaginal examinations.”
Foster also gets into a point relevant to the Terri Schiavo case:
There are the interests of her family and friends. The patient might be incapable of appreciating her relationships, but that does not mean that she does not have relationships, or that the appreciation of those relationships is not an important part of the thriving interests of others. Going to see her each day might be the only thing that keeps her parents going.
Foster answers the dignity deniers’ objection that part of a good life is altruism—so why not, as has frequently been proposed in bioethics, harvest the unconscious patient’s organs?
“Everyone, in fact, has a dignity interest vested in this particular patient. The criminal recognizes that society as a whole is damaged by, for instance, a murder. This is not merely or mainly because, if murder goes unpunished, murders will proliferate and the risk of each one of us being murdered rises. More important is what the fact of the unpunished murder says about the zeitgeist—about the ethical water in which we all have to swim. A society that tolerates murder is toxic, and the toxicity affects the ability of us all to thrive.”
The moral heft of the last point—that denying dignity adversely impacts the zeitgeist—also is relevant to other lethal matters such as euthanasia and abortion. Foster somewhat dilutes his clarion call for dignity by proposing a complicated formula for its implementation. But that’s a quibble. His is a rare voice in secular bioethics pushing back against those who would objectify the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
Good. We need all the help we can get in the Alamo.
Editor’s note. This first appeared at firstthings.com.