Bioethics Blogs

What Is Dignity and Does Bioethics Need to Talk About It?

Elisabeth Gedge argues that dignity should have a place in bioethics.


Appeals to dignity have a long history in ethics. Philosopher Immanuel Kant suggests that human dignity denotes the inherent value of all humans by virtue of their autonomy (capacity for free and rational choice). Catholic religious thinkers claim that humans possess dignity because they are made in the image of God. The concept of dignity has also helped to shape human rights documents. For instance, the Preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims that “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and the 2005 UNESCO Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights calls dignity the “overarching principle of bioethics.”

Dignity emphasizes the intrinsic and equal value of all humans.

However, bioethicists have recently criticized uses of the concept of dignity when trying to settle ethically contentious clinical or policy issues. This is because the concept appears to raise several problems. First, if dignity resides in the capacity for autonomous choice, not all humans will be afforded dignity because not all humans are fully autonomous. For example, young children and those whose capacities are limited because of age or illness are not fully autonomous. Second, if dignity is based on a religious viewpoint it is problematic because religious foundations for ethical claims have limited force in a secular society. Third, appeals to dignity are often made by both sides of an ethical debate. For example, “dying with dignity” suggests that dignity in dying can only be preserved when we have the choice of physician-assisted death.

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.