Human Dignity and Human Embodiment

April 12, 2010 • Posted in Book Reviews

Human dignity is a hard concept to define and an essential one to understand in our rapidly changing biotech society. In Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics, Leon Kass has provided a liberal democratic view of human dignity. Human dignity for Kass rests in human embodiment and human finitude.

As Americans, Kass notes that we have long enjoyed the protection of human dignity as expressed in natural or negative rights. Our dignity has been protected from the interference of others in our “blameless liberties.” Therefore, we have the right to freedom from interference in expressing our opinions or practicing our religion. But in addition to these negative rights, we have added welfare rights which claim entitlement to certain opportunities or goods. Kass rightly points out that this Nietzschean change in our politics bases human dignity on the right to self-creation and self-expression.

Technology has long allowed men to order the world to their will. Now, biotechnology and its advances may allow us to order our own human nature to the demands of the individual will. But Kass notes, that as the ancient Greeks understood, the triumph of technology sometimes comes at too great a cost. With the will as our guide, Kass fears that we will destroy the very core of human nature and thus human dignity.

Kass examines each area of bioethics and points out the direction our will has taken us. In each case, he notes that detaching the will from human embodiment results in human indignities. The human condition is not simply a matter that biotechnology can diagnose and cure. Humanity is wondrous and our dignity must be attached to our common heritage of embodiment and finitude. Without these, we will destroy the very thing we are trying to achieve – human freedom. In each instance where individual will is given free rein over bodies, the freedom of others, or even ourselves, is sacrificed. Kass’ Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity is an inspiring work and contains an approach to bioethics that defends our human freedoms by protecting our embodiment and finitude.

A Review of Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics
by Melanie Unruh, R.N., B.S.N.
Intern, Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture
June 2007