Monday, January 04, 2010

Somerville and Schuklenk on Dignity

Margaret Somerville weighs in on "dignity" here.

Udo Schuklenk takes apart the concept of "dignity" here.

Who do you think has made a better case?


M@ said...

Instead of reading Somerville, I think I'd rather just read Catholic doctrine. You get the same tiresome conclusions in the Vatican's doctrine papers, but they are usually more succinct, rely less on obfuscating terminology and other cynical word games, and are in general more pleasurable to read.

Filipe Calvario said...

I have always agreed with the concept of euthanasia applied to terminally-ill people who asked for it. This "dignity's therapy" (Somerville's article), however, makes me wonder.

Steve said...

The squishy term "human dignity" is less bothersome than the idea that it is somehow inherent.

While a person might be born as an innocent possessing dignity, if that same human being develops into a monster, say, then what is the nature of that original dignity that keeps it in place? Inherence?

Inherent human dignity is bullshit.

And who are the ones stripping others of their dignity if not the ones proclaiming the inherency of dignity, the ones telling others they have no right to certain end-of-life decisions?

I suppose you can probably tell what I think of "secular sacred".

Eamon Knight said...

In fairness, I should give Somerville a closer read later, but my initial reaction is that she blathers back and forth about definitions of "dignity" before abruptly (albeit predictably) arriving at the conclusion that we must not allow euthanasia. Along the way she invokes the meme "what it means to be fully human" -- yet another term of wooly uplift (I am so stealing that phrase ;-)) with no real definition, which rather damages her argument. It seems to imply that there is some essential transcendent Humanness beyond the biological facts and our subjective stream of experience -- but what it is, no one can say without dragging in their own theology.

Paul said...

Sorry, I got stuck at this quote early in Somerville's essay:

"we no longer agree about the content of dignity, because we no longer share ... a 'vision of what it means to be human'."

Excuse me... who are 'we' in this case, and when was this golden age when 'we' all agreed on much of anything let what it means to be human or even who is considered human? Or did I sleep through the part where Cortez and Montezuma signed an early draft of the universal declaration of human rights.

I think the pertinent issue is just that 'we' of any given group that may share a consistent vision of what it means to be human have a harder time shielding ourselves from other groups that do not. There may also be specific beliefs that are disproportionately higher now than before. But it's not clear--certainly there is nothing very new about hot button issues such as euthanasia or infanticide. Some cultures have accepted them; others not.

Is my distinct important or pedantic? Well, I think it's important that anyone quoting or referring to 'we' can make it clear who they include in this group. It's also important to avoid spouting generalities that have no basis in reality. For what definition of 'we' did we once agree on something and now disagree? For large enough groups, we never agreed. For small enough groups, we probably still agree. Is there some middle ground where the claim has any merit?

Moreover, the conclusion is going to be different depending on whether the claim holds. If 'we' all used to agree and don't anymore, then maybe the dissenters can be turned from their errant ways, which is usually the implied goal of such arguments. On the other hand, if the main issue is that we're just more aware of the pre-existing differences, the only 'cure' would be go back to living in insular groups. Even if possible, it's hard to see what the benefit could be.

ADHR said...

Somerville's a twit; Udo is awesome. (Saw him talk at the Eastern APA in NYC. 'Twas a highlight.) I don't agree that dignity can't be given a good, thorough cleansing -- making it normatively useful and contentful (Kant does this, in terms of autonomy) -- but Udo's right that dignity can't be taken as some sort of ethical given. Which is why I'm always flummoxed that Somerville is taken seriously by... well... anyone.

Udo Schuklenk's Ethx Blog said...

Thanks for this interesting discussion. May I point out in response to Filipe's comments, that 'dignity therapy' (and variations thereof) has been invented by Harvey Chochinov and has little to do with the various normative understandings of 'human dignity'. Human dignity is here simply a placeholder for meeting dying patients' needs better. One should not take this lightly, Chochinov's findings are important, but unsurprisingly his findings do not support Somerville's normative conclusions. All he's claiming is that if we responded to relevant patient needs better fewer patients would demand assisted dying. That is an important finding. It should arguably trigger changes in our interactions with dying patients. However, in at least one paper Chochinov concedes that his research does not address the normative questions at hand. This is so, because, amongst other reasons, even if we followed his advice to the letter, some dying patients would still request assisted dying. The normative questions at the heart of the assisted dying debate cannot be settled by this kind of research. Chochinov acknowledges this much in his own peer reviewed publications.

Bryce said...

Udo wrote: "the moral basis as well as the meaning of this term continue to remain nebulous at best."

That's probably true of many terms used in ethics.

Udo ends his essay with the following: "A recent defense of the UNESCO Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights against its critics, asserts that 'human dignity' and other such principles could 'function as guidelines for reviewing or reorganising research practices'. **That is a troubling proposition. **

The current state of affairs seems to be that, notwithstanding the dubious normative merits of 'human dignity', the fact that it is commonly used is sufficient reason to continue using it. **This proposition is evidently flawed.** We surely can do better than this."

Note especially the parts I highlighted. Seems to me that Udo needs to do more than just state his opinion, but also to defend it.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I understand and agree entirely with your comment, Dr. Schuklenk.
I am aware that the dignity's therapy and Somervilles' real point are distinct. I just meant that:
before, I thought that once a terminally-ill patient requested assisted dying, it would be proper to attend him/her. Now, I think that if a terminally-ill patient requested it, first it should be proper to comtemplate him/her with something like this "dignity's therapy", and, then, only if (s)he insisted in asking for euthanasia, it might be proper to attend the request.

Udo Schuklenk's Ethx Blog said...

Thanks for your comments, Bryce. If I take your two requests for further substantiation. You will notice that I have responded to the first citation in a separate paper. You might want to look it up. The piece you're referring to is a 880 word (incl refs) one-page editorial, the journal equivalent of an OpEd. There's only so much you can do in 880 words. Either way, even if I hadn't written the other paper, surely it's fair game to say that a normative concept that leads to logically contradictory guidance ain't a good tool to 'reviewing or reorganising research practices'. I think the same more or less applies to your second request, once I have shown this, I don't know what else I would need to do in response to eg Schroeder's argument that we should continue using 'dignity' because we have done so for such a long time. Tradition is a bad reason for using flawed concepts. So, I do think the editorial, short as it was, packed quite a bit more analytical punch than you give it credit.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Now I remember having heard/read somewhere (I really can't recall it) that dignity may have something to do with the idea that one has of oneself. That animals but the homo sapiens are unlikely to really feel humiliated, for example, for eating food in which another being has spit over. A doggess would not feel outraged for being forced to copulate.
This "respecting the dignity" thing may be related to this: to impede that other people may be in such a situation that they feel very ashamed of themselves without having committed an immoral action, or that they may be constantly humiliated, just because of the way they are, since such concerns have a logical/justifiable basis, of course, not being superfluous.
What do you all think?

Miranda said...

I found this rejection of the concept of dignity, by Alistair Cochrane, enlightening:

"This conception of dignity as inherent moral worth certainly seems coherent enough as an idea. Indeed, we can also see why this conception of dignity is employed in certain debates around bioethics. For 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. These obligations and rights restrict what we may permissibly do to them. As such, inflicting great harms on individual humans, as would be inflicted in medical experiments, is impermissible on the grounds that human individuals possess dignity. The dignity of individual human beings prevents us from doing certain acts to them, even if those acts would lead to great social benefits." ... "Obviously, given controversies over abortion, stem cell research, genetic interventions, animal experimentation, euthanasia and so on, bioethics does need to engage in debates over which entities possess moral worth and why. But these are best conducted by using the notion of ‘moral status’ and arguing over the characteristics that warrant possession of it. Simply stipulating that all and only human beings possess this inherent moral worth because they have dignity is arbitrary and unhelpful. . . . I urge for an undignified bioethics."

Miranda said...

a typo of mine:
Alasdair, not Alistair

PS: Other essays concerning dignity appear here:

Bradbury said...

Miranda, you found that excerpt enlightening? You mean you like the fact that his dignity argument justifies, or at least sure as hell seems to justify, medical testing on humans with low intelligence?

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I may be wrong, but it doesn't seem that what Cochrane said (Miranda's comment) implies what Bradbuty said. Not at all.
Actually, I think it's like what Udo Schuklenk said in his blog (at least that's what I think he means), at the comments section - that Dignity may be a proper word, to be used in some contexts, but when it comes to arguments defending or combating something (in debates concerning ethics, for example), it is just too indeterminate, too inaccurate, or even not appropriate. Other expressions would be much more precise - "moral status", for example, is the expression Cochrane proposed.
However, I would agree that Miranda's introduction to the citation "I found this rejection of the concept of dignity, by Alistair Cochrane, enlightening" was not very enlightening itself, for it could make one think that Cochrane rejected the word "Dignity" definitely.