Bioethics Blogs

Dignity, By Virtue of Bodily Requirements

Felix Gonzales Torres, Untitled (1991).


By: Robert Schmaltz

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life…”

~ Hans Jonas (1984)

Human dignity refers to a kind of value that is difficult to distinguish without first recognizing something unique to the embodied human, the capacity to not only sustain life but radically proliferate a state of wellbeing and the capacity to absolutely annihilate. Humans can improve upon the excellences of physical conditions almost ceaselessly, tenderly care for the most fragile of conditions, and we can break bodies beyond comprehension. Why has some skepticism emerged from comparing the value of dignity to the function of autonomy? I uphold the view that for autonomy to have any worth, which it does, it must be preceded by the recognizable value of dignity. Ultimately, the objective value of human dignity is held in the practice of living and sustaining embodied lives.

In 2003, Ruth Macklin wrote an article on the notion of human dignity published in The BMJ (British Medical Journal) that has become a touchstone for ‘dignity deniers.’ Focused primarily on dignity’s place in medical treatment and research, Macklin writes, “dignity seems to have no meaning beyond what is implied by the principle of medical ethics, respect for persons: the need to obtain voluntary, informed consent; the requirement to protect confidentiality; and the need to avoid discrimination and abusive practices” (2003; 1419). That is to say, dignity has no meaningful function beyond that which ‘autonomy’ has covered already.

Autonomy does provide valuable content to the area of medical ethics, chiefly in support of the interpretive and deliberative models of physician-to-patient relationships.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.