The Concept of Human Dignity in Bioethics
Eddleman, Lisa McDonald
Doctor of Philosophy
The concept of human dignity has gained a great deal of traction in European bioethics, yet there remains in American bioethics a deep skepticism regarding the utility of the notion. I contend that the appeal to human dignity is not reducible to the traditional bioethical appeals of beneficence, autonomy or justice that comprise the predominant American approach to bioethics. Nevertheless, current accounts of human dignity in bioethics lack substance, and too often presume shared convictions grounded in either religious beliefs or some kind secular humanism; consequently, such versions of human dignity fail to do the philosophical work necessary to sustain either normative claims or bioethical policy grounded in the appeal. A philosophically satisfactory theory of human dignity must deliver both sufficiently universal justification and richness of content. To that end, I elaborate an original version of human dignity that balances the seemingly incompatible requirements of universality and content in a surprising way: by developing a richer notion of the Kantian rational valuer. I argue that, properly understood, the rational valuer is both normative and foundational: certain capacities and conditions are necessary to function as a rational valuer, and these can be defended as valuable to every human being. To respect human dignity, then, is to protect and promote these capacities and conditions. Utilizing this conception of human dignity, I revisit the list of European bioethical constraints that motivated my work to begin with. I conclude that, while my account of human dignity sustains few of the prohibitions, it enriches bioethical discourse by reconnecting bioethics to the deeper question of human flourishing. An important consequence of this is that my version of human dignity moves bioethics beyond constraints to entail substantial positive duties that have typically been overlooked in the field. Human dignity has previously been largely set to the side in American bioethics. It is time to bring it to the forefront.
human dignity; Kantian dignity; rational valuer; bioethics