Does Dignity Work?

On the year’s most discussed philosophical lecture

In the year’s most discussed philosophical lecture, Alasdair MacIntyre—at Notre Dame, no less—argued that appeals to dignity don’t work very well and can even be dangerous.

On MacIntyre’s view, dignity can be lost. Hitler shows us just how. Moreover, recognizing that dignity is incompatible with slavery is of little worth if the freed slave has no way to build a new life.

If we are beneficiaries of a God-given dignity, we can’t expect secular institutions to care overmuch. So it’s time to look beyond the rhetoric of dignity. MacIntyre says that “looking beyond” calls for “looking back,” specifically to Aristotle’s concept of justice.

Well, I’m not persuaded. As I told my long-suffering wife, I’m pondering a scholarly rebuttal. More on that later, depending on how it goes. But in this post, gentle readers, I can review a pair of quite recent attacks on the concept of dignity.

First comes Ruth Macklin’s short piece “Dignity is a Useless Concept” (BMJ 2003 Dec 20). For Macklin, personal autonomy suffices. Human beings suffer, reason, and thereby choose. We should be free to choose as we wish. Enter “informed consent.”

But there are a pair of immediate objections to Macklin’s position. The first is that human beings are not equal, whether in their suffering or in their reasoning. Why then should we give equal weight to their choices?

The second objection is that people sometimes make appalling choices to which we should give no weight at all. Truth is stranger than fiction, right? The notorious “cannibal of Rothenburg” located, via the internet, someone who wished to be killed and eaten. The cannibal complied. He defended himself, unsuccessfully, on the grounds that to one who is willing no harm can be done.

Next up for consideration is Steven Pinker’s polemical essay “The Stupidity of Dignity” (The New Republic, May 27, 2008). George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which produced a 555-page report titled Human Dignity and Bioethics, had stoked his displeasure.

The report, Pinker charges, reeks of Catholic “theocon” obstructionism. The forward march of medical research is under threat! He faults its authors with telling inconsistencies. Alternatively they argue that either dignity can be taken away or that it survives every attack against it; again, they instruct us that either only some people, through the strength of their character, achieve dignity or that each of us has the fulness of dignity.

Such contradictions won’t do. What they tell us is that the friends of dignity, if they understand it rightly, should speak with one voice. Dignity, I maintain, comes with the intrinsic, incommensurable, and irreplaceable value of each person. And why do human beings have such dignity? Because God chooses to fashion each of us in His image and likeness.

But for the secular Pinker dignity is dicey. What matters is “respect for the person.” Our shifting tokens of dignity can promote that respect. But a culture’s (or a regime’s) signaling of dignity can distract us from the contempt that the duly dignified show to those that they hold in contempt.

Friends of dignity should, indeed, distinguish it from the external tokens of dignity that may or may not attend it. (Let’s take a good look at “the dignitaries” on reviewing stands and at what they are reviewing! In some cases it is wrong to be “respecters of persons.”) As friends of dignity, we should also ask Pinker just how he will ground the respect for persons with which he would supplant dignity. Indeed, we should ask whether it is not human dignity itself that demands respect.

Back to Alasdair MacIntyre. I plan to ask him  just how and why Aristotelian justice can do justice to human dignity. As for our secular and cultured despisers go, let’s live out the Good News to which they give a deaf ear.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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