Human Dignity — A First Principle

September 20, 2021 • Posted in Blog

Holding hands

C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture

C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow
The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture

After the horrific human rights abuses of Nazi Germany were revealed at the end of World War II, an international tribunal was held in Nuremberg to try those who were responsible for the Holocaust. Hard on the heels of those Nuremberg Trials (1945-46) followed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which enshrined the notion of human dignity, declaring that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Article 1). Since then, every major declaration or international convention on biomedicine and bioethics has been grounded in the affirmation of human dignity as the source of basic human rights.

One of the most extended contemporary discussions of human dignity and its role in bioethics was commissioned under George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. The council’s two reports, Being Human (2003) and Human Dignity and Bioethics (2008) are the results of a number of public meetings, thousands of pages of testimony, and the work of two scholar-chairmen, Leon Kass, MD and the late Edmund Pellegrino, MD. Notwithstanding the enormous scope of the council’s work, however, in his letter to the President in March 2008, Dr. Pellegrino pointed out that as the second of the reports makes clear “there is no universal agreement on the meaning of the term, human dignity.” This, despite the fact that the notion of human dignity has been part of philosophical discourse at least since Greek and Roman antiquity and despite the fact that some of the best minds in the world have focused on the topic.

The work of the council provoked bioethicist Ruth Macklin to brand human dignity a “useless concept.” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker even assailed the notion of dignity as a “stupidity.” Nevertheless, the term and the idea it stands for continues to possess significant currency not only in the popular imagination but especially in the bioethical, biolegal, and international policy literature. Roberto Andorno, Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Institute of Biomedical Ethics of the University of Zurich, maintains that the notion of human dignity is so ubiquitous in intergovernmental documents in biomedicine that “It is therefore not exaggerated to characterize it as the ‘overarching principle’ of international biolaw.”

Though a precise definition may be elusive, we should understand human dignity to be a first principle. That seems to be one of the significant uses of the term in both ordinary language and, as importantly, for the way international bodies employ the idea. This, of course, does not resolve every difficulty. We may certainly ask questions of human dignity. What sort of thing is it? Why should we believe in it? What would follow if we do? Chillingly, what would follow if we did not? But beginning with it as a properly basic notion rooted in our species membership and as the ground of human rights goes a long way toward an operational definition that helps us to make meaningful decisions about how we treat one another and what obligations we owe to whom. As Emory University legal scholar John Witte, Jr., has put it, “the current ubiquity of the principle of human dignity testifies to its universality. And the constant proliferation of human rights precepts speaks to their power to inspire new hope for many desperate persons and peoples around the world.”

The doctrine of informed consent, the protection of human subjects in research, and other canons of contemporary medical ethics are the legacy of the affirmation of human dignity. Whether one is an atheist, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Jew, there seems to be a very important overlapping consensus that what we share as a species should be the basis for solidarity, justice, and humanitarian action in every arena, including biomedicine.