Friday, December 9, 2005
Session 5: Human Dignity as a Bioethical Concept
Paul Weithman, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Philosophy, University
of Notre Dame
James Childress, Ph.D., Hollingsworth Professor,
Department of Religious Studies, Center for Biomedical Ethics,
University of Virginia
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: We will start with Dr. Childress,
and anyone who is in the field of bioethics knows Jim Childress,
but if Jim will allow me to repeat a few aspects of his career,
but only a few, as you know, he is co-author with Tom Beauchamp
of the most widely quoted text in biomedical ethics in the world
Jim is the John Allen Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics and of
medical education at the University of Virginia. He teaches in
the Department of Religious Studies and directs the Institute for
Practical Ethics and Public Life.
Dr. Childress earned his Bachelor's degree at Guilford College,
his divinity degree at the Bachelor's level from Yale Divinity
School, and his Master's and Ph.D. also at Yale University.
Jim is the author of innumerable articles, I would say. I have
already mentioned his work with Tom Beauchamp. Of course, on his
own he has published many papers. He serves on many national boards
and committees, the National Bioethics Commission which preceded
this one, and he currently chairs an Institute of Medicine committee
on increasing the rates of organ donation, which I understand from
Jim will have its concluding meeting next week, and we look forward
to that one as well because I know it will be of interest to the
members of this Council.
DR.CHILDRESS: Thank you very much.
It is good to be with you and to see friends and former colleagues
and others whose work I've appreciated over the years.
And it is a pleasure and honor to share some reflections about
human dignity with the President's Council. As several of you
have heard me say in other settings, I greatly admire the work of
the President's Council since its origins and the kind of vision
that Leon Kass sketched for it. Even when I disagree with particular
recommendations or conclusions, I always find the reports, and in
addition, the transcripts of the meetings with their analyses and
argumentation and discussion quite illuminating, and you really
have provided a great resource for the field of bioethics.
Having served on the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, I
can appreciate the difficulties of getting recommendations enacted
into public policy since I'm not sure I can point to very many
that we ever got in place.
But apart from that, the contribution to public discourse has
been immense and a resource I direct students to all the time is
the Website for the Council.
As a participant in both academic and public policy debates in
bioethics and biolaw, I have long been interested in the role and
functions, possibilities, and limitations of principles like human
dignity, especially over against other widely recognized principles.
And human dignity has been evoked in the United States in several
debates, particularly about physician assisted suicide and euthanasia,
where it has been evoked on both sides. And then, of course, it
was evoked pretty widely about human reproductive cloning.
But on the whole, it has played a much more prominent role in
European and international contexts. In general, philosophers from
the Anglo-American analytic tradition tend to be more suspicious
of appeals to human dignity than philosophers in the Kantian tradition
or phenomenological tradition, and ethicists within particular religious
traditions or philosophers who are attuned to and are more sympathetic
with religious traditions have also tended to be more sympathetic
to appeals to human dignity, as are efforts to work with the international
human rights tradition.
Now, the appeals to human dignity internationally and then in
the U.S. in contexts such as discussion of death with dignity and
discussion of human reproductive cloning, those have aroused a lot
of criticism, criticism focused in part on the protean nature of
human dignity. You can appeal to it in so many different ways that
some critics have charged that it is simply a loose cannon, and
as you know from the paper that was circulated to you, some stronger
criticisms and one that I'll come back to a little bit later
is that indications of human dignity actually damage the quality
of public discourse.
Well, some of the recent discussion about the possible role of
human dignity in bioethics discourse has focused on the report of
the Council on Human Cloning and Human Dignity, and some
of the criticisms that have emerged note that this report tended
to invoke rather than really use the idea of human dignity. There's
a contention that it tended largely to leave the idea unanalyzed
and the connections with human cloning undeveloped.
Now, if one looks at the report carefully, and I'll just offer
a comment about it, a couple of comments about it here at the outset
because I think in a way you can see how this serves as a focal
point for a lot of the current debate about the possibilities and
limitations of the use of the concept of human dignity.
Other than in the title and the running head, the phrase appears
about 15 times in the whole report and in the chair's letter
of transmittal, and even in the report the phrase several times
relates to research involving human subjects where there has been
historically specification of human dignity in such rules as voluntary
informed consent, and some of the other uses appear in a list of
Now, that's kind of staying on the body of the report. Obviously,
there are other uses I do not include in that count, in the Council
member's personal statements. Nevertheless, even though it's
not fully analyzed, even though the links are not fully established,
the very fact that it appears in the title and in the running head
frames the discussion.
And so this has led, I think, on the part of many who have looked
at the document to wonder whether it would be possible to make a
judgment based on the report that actually there is a cogent argument
for a ban on human reproductive cloning based on human dignity because
the links have not been established thoroughly in the report.
And that has led to a suspicion on the part of some, for example,
Steven Marks, that leaving the notion unanalyzed then permits too
much else to come in. For example, he would suggest a variety of
theological concepts might be working behind that, but to analyze
it would, indeed, expose that.
I think several of these criticisms are unwarranted, but what
I want to note is the way the notion was left unanalyzed in the
report can give rise to that sort of exaggerated, overstated criticism.
So it's good, I think, that the President's Council is considering
whether to return to this either directly by making this a focal
point of an examination or less directly by developing it more fully
in relation to particular topics.
So what I want to do is not defend or oppose a particular conception
of human dignity, but rather to raise a few questions, identify
a few distinctions that might be useful if you return to this topic
more fully, again, directly or indirectly.
And on the outline, I've listed a few of the things I want
to cover. You should have that at your seat.
I want, first, to think about human dignity, what I call "Conception
1," as a standard of duties and rights because this is one
particular way to think about human dignity or the principle of
human dignity or respect for human dignity, and I think it tends
to be the paradigmatic concept of human dignity. When someone appeals
to it, that's what I think people tend to think of first.
And it presupposes some property or characteristic or capacity
of human beings or persons that is the basis for dignity and respect
for dignity, and I think it appears in both duty-based and rights-based
approaches, and I don't think it's necessary to draw a sharp
line between those here. I think there are other variations that
are much more important in conceptions of human dignity as a standard
of duties and/or rights.
And one of those is whether we should think about human dignity
as an overarching foundational standard, to use two different metaphors
there, or simply one standard among others. I think this, within
this first conception, is a fundamental issue to face.
Now, clearly, there are frameworks, for example, in the international
covenants on civil and political rights or economic, social and
cultural rights where it appears that human dignity serves as a
foundational concept from which then specific rights are derived.
Louis Henkin, referring to these documents, says that the authors
of these documents in seeking a theoretical foundation for the international
human rights movement that would be acceptable to all peoples, cultures,
and political ideologies justified human rights by relating them
to human dignity.
And clearly, that is one approach to the notion of human dignity.
Do it as foundational or overarching.
But there's also another approach that's widespread, particularly
in European discussions. For example, often you find four ethical
principles in biolaw or bioethics, as these discussions put them:
autonomy, dignity, integrity, and vulnerability, often set in the
context of solidarity and responsibility, or another variation in
the European context, dignity, precaution, and solidarity. Whatever
the formulation, these approaches think about human dignity as one
among several principles.
Now, you can see that also in the recent universal declaration
on bioethics and human rights, where it says at one point, "Human
dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms are to be respected,"
and they are in that context put alongside each other rather than
one viewed as foundational.
There are a variety of other related distinctions that would need
to be thought about, objective, subjective, as well as then if you
take this approach, the relation between human dignity and various
other conceptions. So how might one begin to think about those?
Well, one thing that would need to be done is to try to specify
the range in scope of the principle of human dignity or value of
human dignity, and this is in two different senses. One would be
to determine — and the Council has done a bit with this, for
example, in coming up with notions about the intermediate moral
status of the human embryo — questions about the entities
to which this principle refers or which entities get encompassed
under it, and there, of course, to develop this in a rich way and
rigorous way would require attention to the various qualities that
have been offered and determine which ones could actually be defended
in relation to the assignment of human dignity to various entities.
So that's important for trying to specify this broad principle
even when one is trying to bring it alongside others.
But then there are other questions about specification, and that
would somewhat have to do with trying to determine content, and
I've listed just a few examples in recent discourse, human rights
tradition. Clearly there's been an effort to specify quite
a number of human rights that could be seen as at least derivative
from or consistent with the notion of human dignity.
And then the tradition that tends to focus a lot on avoiding objectification
or instrumentalization as part of what it means to respect human
dignity or within the Roman Catholic tradition, particular attention
to the sanctity of life.
Well, all of these are possible ways and perhaps incomplete ways
of trying to specify the content to a principle of human dignity
understood now as one principle alongside a variety of others.
One of the big questions to raise in going this route would be
to try to determine when you have violations of specific duties
and rights derived from or backed by human dignity, and those are
ruled out; to ask what exactly does the appeal to human dignity
capture beyond that because, clearly, there is an attempt to say
that there's more involved even if you end up with the specification,
that there really is more involved in the appeal to human dignity.
Is it captured in some further notion of what might count as indignity
or insult or affront to human beings?
So the question is, once you get the specification of rights and
duties, what is the value that remains in relation to the notion
of human dignity.?
Well, that's one important dimension and to try to specify
the range or scope of a value or principle of human dignity. But
a second question that arises focuses on a second dimension, and
that is, if you recognize several different principles or values,
human dignity being one of them, then how would you think about
the relation among those principles and values if conflicts arise?
Is human dignity one that needs to be considered absolute? And
does that mean that that's at such a broad level of generality
that any time there's a conflict it captures enough that it
always wins, or is it rank-ordered as superior to the others, or
is it one among several, each of which would have independent and
presumptive value, but perhaps could be overridden in some cases?
Again, if you're going down the route of thinking about human
dignity as a standard of duties and rights, those are some of the
There is a second conception, and that conception is of human
dignity as a standard of virtue. Now, in getting into this, let
me draw on some comments by Deryck Beyleveld. In discussing reproductive
technology, he focused at one point on a set of considerations that
might be distinct from basic rights, but that might be said to concern
human dignity, and here's what he wrote.
"What I have in mind is that it might be argued that certain
uses of reproductive technology violate human dignity not in the
way in which they treat the human embryo, but in how they reflect
upon the character of those who wish to avail themselves of those
"In ordinary uses persons that are characteristically said
to act in undignified ways when they display weaknesses that they
ought not to display, for example, by failing to display fortitude
in the face of adversity or by seeming to evade responsibility for
And then he goes on to say along those lines he could imagine
— and he's imagining this, not necessarily defending it
— an argument that the use of in vitro fertilization
for postmenopausal women is a violation of human dignity, again,
in terms of this standard of character.
PROF. GEORGE: Jim, could I interrupt just to ask who you're
quoting there? I didn't hear it.
Jim, it's Robby.
DR.CHILDRESS: I'm sorry.
PROF. GEORGE: Jim, it's Robby.
Who are you quoting there?
DR.CHILDRESS: Derick Beyleved. His name appears under
Introduction, third bullet.
PROF. GEORGE: Thank you.
DR.CHILDRESS: And he along with Roger Brownsword have
co-authored, I think, a very useful book on human dignity in the
area of bioethics and biolaw.
Now, I think that if Leon will forgive me, I think that his approach
also is one that often in his own writings can be seen as human
dignity as a standard of virtue and excellence, and I'm not
going to elaborate his position. Obviously he's here in the
Council meetings and can easily do that himself.
But it seems to me this conception is one that focused on violations
of human dignity that go beyond concerns about rights and duties
and they often focus more on the agents who act rather than the
humans who are acted upon, not that they are mutually exclusive.
They are not. I think it's a matter, in part, of which conception
tends to be taken as the starting point and perhaps even as the
Well, in contrast to the language of violation of rights and duties
that we find in the first conception, it seems to me the primary
valuative language in this second conception tends to be dehumanization,
degradation, debasement, et cetera, where people depart from a standard
that should apply to them as a standard of virtue and excellence.
And often, and we find this, I think, in some of Leon Kass's
writings, the emphasis may fall on the experience of repugnance
or repulsion, sometimes as an epistomological starting point for
trying to discern the content of the standard of virtue and excellence.
Now, a few points in drawing this to a close, begin conscious
of the time limit of 20 to 25 minutes that was indicated. However
powerful a conception of human dignity as a standard of virtue,
I think that it's harder to make the case for laws and public
policies reflecting this conception in a liberal, pluralistic society.
For example, harder to make the case to ban human reproductive cloning
from this standpoint.
Harder also, I think, to make the case for the ban on buying and
selling organs from this standpoint.
I think it's easier, given the framework of moral discourse
within a liberal, pluralistic society if we can develop an approach
that focuses on the human dignity as a standard of rights and duties.
For that you need, obviously, as I have suggested, an operational
definition of human dignity, along with a variety of specific arguments
that would connect those conceptions of rights and duties to, for
example, reproductive cloning or to buying and selling organs.
It seems to me one of the critical parts, again, is drawing those
connections and links.
Now, Carmel Shalev, a philosopher in Israel, observes that arguments
about human dignity do not hold up well under rational reflection,
and she's doing this in relation to human reproductive cloning.
But I'm not sure that is what the source of the problem is here,
and it may simply be, again, a failure on the part of defenders
of human dignity to develop the clear, careful, rigorous arguments
that would be required, and this would, in part, mean spelling the
matter out in a transparent way, but also building what I would
call an ethical bridgework or links to the activity that is being
brought into relation for critical purposes to the standard of human
Now, I noted at the outset that several philosophers in the analytic
tradition and others call on the society to avoid the rhetoric of
human dignity. Some even as I suggested recommend purging it from
our moral, social, political vocabulary.
I'm somewhat more optimistic about appeals to human dignity
and public discourse, not only recognizing that those appeals tap
into a variety of religious and philosophical convictions, as well
as ones that relate to the human rights tradition in our society.
But at a very minimum it seems to me that those who are appealing
to human dignity in debates about biotechnology, for example, need
to distinguish two conceptions and perhaps others as well of human
dignity as a standard in moral, social, and political discourse,
and here I distinguish again a standard of rights and duties versus
a standard of excellence and virtue.
And, again, in my judgment these clarifications are important
as a matter of transparency and also integrity in public discourse,
and one reason I would suggest this is important is that rhetorically
in our society appeals to human dignity gain considerable force
from the duty-based and rights-based approaches.
However, some of those appeals to human dignity may, in fact,
be based on another conception or other conceptions, such as a standard
of virtue and excellence. And it seems to me that we need to be
as clear and transparent as possible in public discourse when we're
invoking concepts such as human dignity.
So I think this first step is a crucial one if you decide to go
along the path of further explication and elaboration of human dignity,
and that is to determine what kind of standard it is or if the appeal
that you want to make is to both, to indicate exactly how they're
related and how much of the heavy work is done by which standard.
Now, it seems to me that in the process of developing, explicating,
and elaborating the notion of human dignity after clarifying these
standards, it's also going to be important to avoid over-inflationary
and over-extended uses of the concept of human dignity. I occasionally
see in the bioethics discourse a view that human dignity can do
most of the work, if not all of the work that needs to be done in
this area, and I'm skeptical of that. I think that even if
we take it as a broad overarching or foundational concept, once
we spell out or elaborate or specify the various rights and duties
connected with that, I think that we'll see several of those
also have independent appeals, and it may be important to give them
due weight along with our notion of human dignity.
So I think that the discourse itself is likely to challenge this
as a single overarching principle or value that can do most of the
work for us.
Furthermore, I think in the process of explicating and elaborating
this notion it's important to avoid — and this is connected
with the previous point in some ways — appeals to human dignity
as a conversation stopper because sometimes — and there are
other concepts that ultimately work this way in our discourse as
well — sometimes it tends to function that way.
But, again, I'm suggesting that there's a lot more analysis
and argumentation that would be needed to enable us to appeal to
the principle or value or concept of human dignity in ways that
can really eliminate the issues that have to be faced in both public
culture, as these matters are debated; whether reproductive cloning
or buying and selling organs or assisted suicide, but also and perhaps
particularly at the point of trying to recommend public policies.
Thank you very much.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Thank you very much.
I think what we will do is ask Professor Weithman to comment next,
and then the Council can direct its questions and comments to both
speakers, and they can exchange as well and have kind of a mini
So I would like to introduce next Dr. Paul Weithman, who is Chairman
of the Department of Philosophy at Notre Dame University. He earned
his first degree in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame
and his Master's and Doctoral degrees from Harvard University.
Among his many published books and articles, his "Religion
and the Obligation of Citizenship," from Cambridge University
Press. He was awarded the North American Society for Social Philosophy
Annual Book Award in 2003 and has thought very carefully about this
question and would like to relate it to the broader issues of the
Thank you very much, Dr. Weithman.
DR.Weithman: Thank you.
I'd like to thank you for inviting me here for your session
this morning. It's a real pleasure to be here.
I know that your time is scarce and valuable, and that I have
a time limit. It is a special honor to be here because your time
is scarce and valuable, but despite the fact that your time is at
a premium and that I have a time limit, I'd like to begin, if
I might, with a couple of preliminary remarks.
The first is that, to say the least, I am not an assiduous reader
of government reports. I'm not aware of what kind of work other
government committees do or the standards to which they hold themselves.
When I sat down all too recently, I confess, to read through the
reports that the Council has produced, I was, I must say, very impressed
with what you've done with your presidential mandate.
You've taken up a wide range of some of the most difficult
ethical questions of the day. You've clearly worked very hard,
where necessary, to educate yourselves about the science, the medicine,
the philosophy. You've produced reports and personal statements
that reflect a range of sophisticated reasoning and opinion and
that will, if assimilated, do a lot to raise the level of public
discussion and argument of the problems that you have taken up.
And I especially appreciate the searching humanism that you've
brought to the task. The questions before you are not merely scientific
questions or technical questions. They're ethical questions.
Those ethical questions cannot be answered simply by pointing to
the promise of medical benefits. They go, I think, to what we are
as individuals and as a people.
And questions that go so far, questions that go to what we are
as a people are questions that demand humanistic reflection, and
I think you have engaged in that, and I commend you for doing so.
If national discussion of issues and bioethics remains less deep
or sophisticated than it might be, that surely cannot be laid at
your door. As a teacher myself, I commend the way you've used
your mandate as an occasion to educate the public.
I am, as I said, a teacher, but I don't come before you as
a teacher of bioethics or of science. I come to you rather as a
student and teacher of political philosophy, and that you would
include a session on the notion of human dignity that is bound to
be somewhat philosophical and abstract itself bespeaks the depth
you've tried to give to your deliberations and to our national
And it's a special honor for me to be here precisely because
by inviting me, you've extended yourselves and construed your
mandate broadly in a way that I commend, and I hope that my participation
will be useful to you and worth your trouble.
Well, you've invited me today to join your discussion about
the concept of human dignity and its usefulness in deliberations
of the kind the Council has conducted and will conduct in the future.
It is a concept the utility of which can be doubted, as you know,
and doubted for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are
good ones; some are not.
The concept of human dignity is one of which the Council has made
a great deal of use. In relying on the concept in its published
reports, the Council has drawn on the descriptive and rhetorical
force of the concept and drawn out its normative implications.
I had expected before I sat down to look through the reports that
the greatest reliance on the concept of human dignity would be in
the report on human cloning which bears the title Human Cloning
and Human Dignity. I was surprised to find the mention of
dignity and human dignity occur with greatest frequency —
search functions, search engines are wonderful things — occur
with greatest frequency in Beyond Therapy, and that many
of the occurrences of those notions are to be found in one of the
most sensitive appreciations of athletic performance of which I'm
There I thought many of the benefits of talking about human dignity
and the dignity of human action were evident, yet I gather from
Dr. Pellegrino and from reading around that your reliance on the
notion of human dignity has been subject to challenge, and those
are challenges you're interested in taking up.
So there are three questions that I want to take up this morning.
One, what are the benefits of talking about human dignity and what
are the problems of talking about it?
Second, in light of the benefits and problems, is the notion of
human dignity useful or illuminating?
And third, will the Council's future work benefit from talking
about or arguing in terms of human dignity?
Well, the notion of human dignity occurs frequently in Catholic
moral thinking, especially in some of the social teachings issued
in recent years and is, therefore, a notion that I've had to
confront regularly and with which I have had to grapple.
I have never felt I fully understood the concept of human dignity
or the conditions under which it should be applied, even though
the notion sometimes enables me to say some of the things I want
to say, leads me to some quite useful reflections, I think, and
helps me to express agreement with people with whom I would like
Well, let me begin with the usefulness of the notion of human
dignity. To say of human beings, to say of human adults, normally
functioning human adults to take an easy case, that they have inherent
dignity seems to imply that they have moral status, a status which
places them above other things, including other animals.
To say that their status is exalted sounds a little grand in our
democratic age, but I have always liked Immanuel Kant's remark
that implies that we are, in fact, exalted, his remark that human
beings are not the highest among the animals but the lowest among
the hosts. Kant said few enough poetic things that it is worth
searching them out and commending him when one can do so.
In fact, I think Kant isn't quite right, and we are both the
highest among the animals and the lowest among the hosts, but let
Because of having the status that dignity suggests, it seems that
human beings have worth. Their worth and status have to be honored
and acknowledged. Human beings are, if talk of dignity is correct,
human beings are to be treated with the respect due to creatures
of such status. There are some things one cannot do to human beings
because to do such things to them would be inconsistent with their
status. It would be in many cases to treat them as beings of lesser
status than they have.
Such actions include those that degrade, demean or violate human
beings. So this much seems clear enough and suggests that the notion
of human dignity is a useful one when we want to call attention
to the status that human beings have and when we want to condemn
actions done to human beings and to say something about what makes
those actions wrong or objectionable.
Adherents of many moral and religious traditions have agreed that
human beings have special status and have agreed on some of the
implications of the status they have. The concept of dignity has
proven useful in expressing their agreement. That I think is an
important point about the concept and one to which I'll return.
But problems with reliance on the concept of human dignity are
also clear. First, even those who agree that human beings have
dignity can disagree about why it is that human beings have it.
Those who agree that human beings have a moral status that demands
respect can disagree about in virtue of what that status is attained
or is held.
Some people will think that we are worth what we are because God
loves us; others, because we resemble God or are images of God.
People have different stories to tell about in virtue of what we
image God. Is it because we have capacities for reason and execution,
for reason and will as Aquinas seems to have thought, or are there
other ways in which we image God instead?
Still others will think that we have dignity because we can rise
above the causal determinism of nature to give ourselves ends and
principles of action.
Still others may look at the highest achievements of the species,
the drawings of Leonardo, the cantatas of Bach, the fastballs of
Roger Clemens, and say that a species that can do that or that can
produce those things is a species that's worthy of respect.
Second, these differences will have — another problem appealing
to dignity, is that these differences have implications for the
question of who has dignity. Disagreement about the basis of dignity
leads to disagreement about its possession. If one thinks that
human beings have dignity in virtue of having a capacity to set
ends for themselves and act on those ends, then one may reach different
conclusions about just who has dignity or what to do when those
capacities are lost than somebody who has some quite different story
to tell about why we're dignified.
A third problem with appealing to the notion of human dignity
is that we can disagree about what human dignity and respect for
it demand. We can disagree about what actions if done to other
people violate their dignity, and we can disagree about what conditions
are incompatible with dignity.
Is the life of an elderly person with advanced dementia an undignified
life or not? If it is beneath human dignity, what can be done about
As Jim noted, human dignity, the notion of human dignity is appealed
to by both sides on the debate about assisted suicide and by both
sides in many other ethical debates as well.
The difficulty of bringing some order to our judgments about these
matters is compounded by another difficulty. Not every wrong done
to people is wrong because it violates human dignity. Not even
every injustice is unjust because it violates human dignity. Not
every condition for which people should be helped or removed, not
even conditions in which they should be helped or removed as a matter
of justice is a condition from which they should be aided or in
which they should be aided because it's a condition in which
their dignity is violated.
I think an example from health care ethics makes this clear.
Reproductive technology, technology of assisted reproduction, including
pharmaceutical technology, is available, at least in many places,
available only to people with means. Insurance doesn't always
cover treatments, doesn't always cover the drugs needed to make
reproduction more likely.
One might think this is an injustice, but I don't think that
even if one does, one doesn't have to think it's an injustice
because infertility is an undignified condition. So there's
an example of a condition in which people should arguably be aided
as a matter of justice, but it's not a condition in which their
dignity is compromised or lacking, or at least it's not obviously
So there's controversy about the grounds and the implications
of human dignity and about who has it. The concept of human dignity
is not self-explanatory. It's, therefore, not, I think, foundational.
It's not the sort of concept that is appropriate to use as a
Rather, it's a concept the application of which draws upon
other moral considerations that are, I think, more fundamental.
It's also not a master concept, either. It's not one
such that if we get clear about it, we'll be able to answer
all of the questions we want to answer. Rather, human dignity,
if we can get clear about it, is one moral consideration, one important
moral consideration, among many. It's one that has to be weighed
against others, and the weighting will itself be a very difficult
Now, I am not at all sure that the conflicts about human dignity
and its implications or all of those conflicts can be explained
by appealing to the clash of a couple of different conceptions.
It does seem to me very useful to distinguish different conceptions
of dignity and the briefing paper that you commissioned, the very
fine briefing paper that you commissioned, I think does a wonderful
job mapping the various tributaries and streams of thought about
dignity that come together in contemporary use of the notion.
And I think it's that kind of detailed historical work and
much more of it that's needed to figure out just how many traditions
of thought about human dignity there are and about whether various
uses of it that seem to belong to different traditions, can, in
fact, sometimes be found in the same one.
And so sometimes discussions of human dignity that seem quite
closely tied to a rights conception of dignity also have within
them very moving passages that suggest an excellence or an aretetic
conception of human dignity as well.
Well, do these problems with human dignity imply that the concept
of human dignity is useless because it's empty or that it masks
disagreement or that it should be dispensed with?
To see that it should not be, I think that we need only ask what
moral reasoning would be like without it, and to explore that, I'd
like to digress for a moment. On a mention of human dignity in
one of the Council documents that I found especially interesting,
a remark in Reproduction and Responsibility, that fundamental
American law, unlike fundamental European law, doesn't speak
of human dignity.
Well, what does talk of human dignity add to talk about rights,
say? Reflecting on that for a moment might give us some idea of
just how useful the notion of dignity is, and I do think that talk
of dignity adds something to moral discourse that can't be captured
simply by talk about rights and liberties, and that talk about dignity
and talk about rights can pull apart.
For one thing, not every offense against rights is an offense
against human dignity. If one thinks with the philosopher John
Rawls that political rights and liberties should have fair value,
then the failure to guarantee the fair value of political rights
and liberties is an offense against rights. It's not clear
to me that it's an offense again dignity.
If one thinks with the philosopher John Rawls that it's an
offense against justice that people not have fair equality of opportunity,
then one will think it unjust if inequalities of opportunity are
not rectified, but I'm not sure that inequalities of opportunity
are offenses against human dignity.
So these seem to be cases in which talk of justice or talk of
rights might add something or draw our attention to important moral
considerations that talk of human dignity does not.
But there are also places where talk of human dignity can add
a great deal and take us beyond talk about rights, and that, too,
I think is worth noting.
For one thing, not all rights are created equal. The claim that
some act violates human dignity can call attention to the fact that
some violations of rights are special affronts to persons. Rights
violations which temporarily or permanently rob someone of the powers
of agency, for example, the violation of rights by torture, are
affronts to human dignity that I think affronts to property rights
Some exercises of one's own rights are affronts to one's
own dignity. Having sex in a place that's publicly visible
is, for example. I think it may well be an exercise of one's
right, but I also think it's an example of people exercising
their rights to degrade themselves and rob themselves of dignity.
I think there are lots of ways to compromise one's own dignity
even if you can't violate your own rights, and so there, too,
is a set of cases in which talk about rights and talk about dignity
can pull apart, and then which talk of dignity can draw our attention
to important moral considerations of independent force.
Clearly, some affronts to dignity don't violate or entail
violations of human rights. For example, burning the corpses of
Islamic soldiers is, I think, an affront to dignity, but I'm
not sure that there's anybody whose rights are violated. The
people in question are, after all, dead. So their rights surely
are not violated by violating their corpses, and yet I think there's
an affront to dignity in the neighborhood.
I mean, there's another example of the case in which talk
about dignity can, I think, be morally illuminating or helpful even
where talk of rights fails to capture what's gone wrong.
There are goods of human life that the concept of dignity seems
especially apt to capture. The dignity of a good performance, dignity
in the face of death or infirmity. Perhaps in these cases talk
of dignity can be dispensed with in favor of talk of self-mastery
or self-command, self-mastery or self-command in the face of especially
But the talk of dignity calls our attention to the fact that self-possession
under such conditions merits our respect and admiration, and that
behavior of that kind is an ideal to be honored and perhaps promoted.
Yet none of this, I think, can be captured by talk about rights
and liberties. It is hard, for example, to make arguments for promoting
ideals of self-possession or the good performance I think without
some concepts in the perfectionist family.
And if one thinks as I do that society has an interest in promoting
good artistic performance or in safeguarding good athletic performance,
then one will find talk of dignity or may find talk of dignity quite
useful in saying what it is about such performance that we want
There are some conditions into which people can be forced by a
conspiracy of circumstances and bad luck that are, I think, affronts
to their dignity as persons even if no violations of their rights
or liberties are involved: being homeless, living in squalor, having
to eat cat food, having to beg on the street with one's children
present, being unable to discharge the responsibilities of parenthood
by securing basic hearing for one's children. These, I think,
are all conditions in which one's dignity is violated, but it's
not clear that there's any rights violation in the neighborhood.
Finally, I am reluctant to ascribe rights to communities, but
I think communities, peoples and nations can have or aspire to dignity
among the people's of the earth and that it gives the lie to
a nation's pretensions to dignity if certain practices are condoned
within those nations or if some of its people are allowed to live
in degrading conditions.
Well, we may disagree about moral and political conclusions to
which talk of dignity points. Indeed, I've already suggested
that we do in many cases, but for now the point is that the concept
of human dignity stimulates moral reasoning and that the Council
has made a very interesting point in Reproduction and Responsibility
in suggesting that our legal, our moral, and especially our legal
and political thinking are impoverished by its absence.
Well, where does this leave us with respect to the questions I
said I'd take up? I surveyed the merits and demerits of talk
of dignity. Despite the demerits of talk of dignity, I think that
it's a very useful concept and for a number of reasons.
For one thing, I think dignity seems an appropriate concept to
describe us. It seems to be true of human beings that we have dignity
as, to vary an example from one of Krauthammer's personal statements,
it seems true that the Grand Canyon is awesome.
For another, the concept of human dignity has connotations which
resonate with many of the moral traditions that shape us. Those
connotations give the concept of dignity rhetorical power that commands
a reader's or a hearer's attention, and it signifies moral
In that way talk of dignity differs from talk of awesomeness,
which while it may have had some power in the 17th Century, as I
believe it did, has been cheapened by careless adolescent application.
Third, talk about dignity is fruitful. The connotations or resonances
with our moral tradition suggest normative implications. They suggest
implications for how we ought to treat and respond to human beings
and human actions, at least those human actions in which our human
powers seem to be most engaged or which have the potential for distinctive
forms of human excellence.
Those connotations suggest implications for what our attitudes,
our doings, and our refrainings ought to be in virtue of the fact
that human beings and actions have dignity.
And finally, because the concept of dignity seems capable of expressing
judgments of adherence of many moral traditions, it seems to be
an apt concept in which to phrase documents which must be the object
of consensus, and I think it important as you reason through the
use you want to make of human dignity to remember just what an odd
genre of document you are producing, at least that you're producing
collectively. You're not producing philosophical treatises.
You're producing documents which have to gain the consensus
of people on the Council who have very different views and that
one hopes will command some consensus in the public at large.
For that reason, reliance on mid-level concepts like dignity rather
than more foundational concepts derived from Kantianism or Aristotelianism,
Utilitarianism, Catholicism or what have you, might be most useful.
Well, how useful is the concept of dignity for the work to which
the Council is turning now? I understand that you're turning
now to various questions about health care ethics and children,
questions about guidelines for drug experimentation for treatment
of children, for children's access to care.
And here I confess uncertainty about the usefulness of the notion
of human dignity, and I'm uncertain because I think our intuitions
about the dignity of children are somewhat rubbery and unsure.
It is surely possible to treat children as mere means, to use them,
to abuse them, to exploit, degrade and demean them, to humiliate
It is easy to forget what a sense of themselves children, even
very young children, have and how easily they can be humiliated.
It's very easy, I think, to forget that, and unfortunately it's
possible to violate children.
There are many things it is possible to do to children that all
too often get done to children that seem in the neighborhood of
violations of dignity. It's also possible to say of conditions
in which children live that those conditions are subhuman.
But whether any of this should be discussed as violation of the
dignity of children is something about which, as I said, I'm
a bit unsure, and I'm unsure enough about this to suggest that
some other way of reasoning about children may be better. I don't
suggest any relaxing of strict prohibitions on the abuse, the exploitation,
the demeaning or the degradation of children, nor do I mean to suggest
anything that would license allowing them to live in conditions
that are subhuman.
Talk about dignity seems to me to suggest or to depend perhaps
upon what children will become when fully developed and emancipated
rather than what they are, and I wonder if talking about, reasoning
about what it's right and wrong to do to children might, therefore,
better proceed in some other terms.
I worry about talking of the dignity of children in part because
it seems to me it might distract from the real issues at stake,
but also because it threatens to cheapen talk about human dignity
and, therefore, to evacuate it of its force when it is, I have suggested,
a concept that has some force that can be quite useful to us.
All of us who were at dinner last night were privileged to see
the pictures of Dr. Hurlbut's baby son. How you reason about
how to treat a gift like that is very hard. It depends upon and
will draw upon many of the moral resources that we have available
to us. I am just not sure that in the end talk of human dignity
will be one of them.
Thank you very much.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Thank you very much, Dr. Weithman.
Both you and Jim deserve our gratitude, especially mine for adhering
so rigorously and so well to the time restriction. It provides
ample opportunity for the members of the Council to explore your
And I'll open up the discussion now, and direct your questions
to either one or both of the presenters.
Sure — sorry, Gil.
DR. GÓMEZ-LOBO: Well, I want to thank both of you
for excellent presentations. This may be a little bit more rambling
than my usual interventions, but of course, there are many very,
very interesting suggestions in both expositions, and I'd like
to perhaps focus attention on the last remarks by Paul, if I may.
Of course, there are many different notions of human dignity,
but in my perception in American public life, it's the Kantian
tradition that seems to be preeminent. In other words, when in
public discussions or in discussions with other people you mention
slavery and you ask on what principles should we reject slavery,
invariably you go back to this idea that, of course, we should not
treat other human beings instrumentally, right?
So it seems to me that the sharp Kantian contrast between dignity
and, well, the symmetrical concept is price, if I recall correctly,
things that the value of different things is expressed in a different
way. The value of humanity or human beings is expressed in the
concept of dignity. The value of things is expressed in the notion
Now, in that regard, couldn't it be the case that, for instance,
the way we focus on children may be aided by that? In other words,
for instance, the case of research of Willowbrook and all of those
cases, it seems to me that there is a flawless conceptual connection
between making certain children, in this case disabled or retarded
children, instruments maybe for the sake of other children or for
the sake of future generations or whatever.
That seems to me to be a way of arguing for what went wrong there.
Now, if this is acceptable, then it seems to me rather important
to say, well, young children, Bill Hurlbut's son among them,
have dignity. It's hard for us perhaps visually to pinpoint
this because we think of a dignified person as an elderly gentleman
of some sort.
But I think it's the extension of the concert of dignity to
all stages of life that is important, even to the unborn, and there
it seems to me there might be a useful application of the concept
DR.Weithman: I certainly think that in thinking about how
children might be employed in medical studies, say, that it's
useful to think about whether or not we're treating them as
mere means. I certainly think that's so.
Whether if they are treated as mere means we have violated their
dignity, though it may follow given the way Kant sets things up,
it just doesn't strike me as the most useful way of expressing
it. Perhaps violating humanity within them or something like that
would be a good way of talking.
But I guess talking about the children's having dignity, of
which they are deprived by being treated as means strikes me as
a way of talking that might simply invite objections that we needn't
get into. Why isn't it enough to say that the children aren't
to be treated as mere means; that it is an exploitation of them
if we do so; and that it is for that reason wrong?
I just wonder why we need to take an extra step that simply might
invite controversy where no controversy is needed. When we say
that treating children as mere means is exploitative, it seems to
me that we have done enough.
DR. GÓMEZ-LOBO: Yeah, it seems to me that the two
notions are analytically tied to each other.
DR.CHILDRESS: I very much agree with Paul's point,
and as I was suggesting, when we talk about trying to specify a
notion of human dignity, a lot of these other conceptions do come
up, avoiding exploiting people, avoiding instrumentalizing them,
avoiding objectifying them in the various ways.
But then, again, they often function as free-floating concepts,
and you may well be right that, I guess, remnants of the Kantian
tradition may be most dominant in thinking in this area, but it
seems to me that they're rarely worked out in a clear way in
relation to the Kantian premises and much more likely to have infiltrated
the social, cultural, moral discourse in a way that people appeal
to them independently of that appeal to human dignity.
And I think as Paul has suggested, the big question is what the
appeal adds to or in some ways supports the concerns that might
well be expressed in other more specific and concrete ways.
DR.Weithman: Let me just try to loosen the connection between
treating something as a means and depriving it of dignity. I'm
not sure that I can do it, but let me just explore it for a second.
Suppose that the right way of thinking about our relationship
to our children is that of stewardship. Stewardship is not something
that I think in which the Kantian tradition is particularly strong.
I mean, its reflections on stewardship, I think, are not as helpful
as they might be, though I'm not a Kant scholar. I could be
wrong about that.
But clearly, we can be stewards of the earth, stewards of the
Grand Canyon or of the great sequoias, and we can fail at stewardship
by treating those things as mere means to our satisfaction so that
we can chop down sequoias and panel our billiard rooms with them,
for example, and it seems to me that in doing so we're failing
atstewardship. The ways in which we fail might appropriately be
described as using these grand creations of nature as mere means
when they shouldn't be that.
But I'm not sure that it's appropriate to describe what
we've done as violations of the dignity of the things in question.
Now, maybe we can think of our relationship with our children as
that of stewardship and that failing by treating children as mere
means is a failure of stewardship. Does it follow then that we're
violating their dignity? I'm not sure.
At least I'm trying to loosen the connection between treating
something as a mere means and violating its dignity. I'm not
sure whether the attempt succeeds or not.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Dr. Lawler.
DR. LAWLER: Right. The problem with Kant in this context
is that Kant ain't American, but with respect to the right of
the children, you don't have to go into this instrumental objectification
sort of language. All you have to say is children have rights,
and they have Lockean rights, and Lockean rights based upon consent,
and children don't fully consent, of course, but you have to
understand children as full human beings, and this not using them
as means can be rephrased as simply you can't understand them
to be compelled to do anything they wouldn't consent to do as
free human beings.
But the problem though with the fact that Kant isn't American,
as both of you have pointed out in different ways, would be something
like this. We have rights, and that's a good thing. I'm
all for rights, but oftentimes we exercise our rights in undignified
ways. So it's our characteristically American tendency in looking
at our founding principles to go back prior to the founding to the
Christians and the Stoics and Leon to Genesis.
And you go forward to Kant and subsequent philosophers. So we
do have trouble talking about dignity, but I don't think we
have trouble talking about why we shouldn't treat children as
instruments because Locke by himself gives us enough there.
DR.Weithman: Locke isn't American either, and in fact,
my colleague Alasdair MacIntyre says that Locke's political
philosophy is so thoroughly suffused with religion that it probably
couldn't be taught in American public schools.
DR.Weithman: There is a regrettable tendency, I think,
to secularize Locke in an attempt to make him more American than
I think he is. I think that's very unfortunate both as a matter
of Locke scholarship and I think it's irresponsible to our own
intellectual heritage as Americans.
There are, I think, a number of difficulties with appealing to
Locke to ground the claim that children have rights. I mean Locke's
writings about children are, I think, quite interesting. The stuff
in the Treatise about why children in the state of nature aren't
free is, I think, particularly interesting in this connection.
It's not clear to me that Locke thought children, at least young
children, do have rights because they're not capable of exercising
reason and capable of apprehending the law of nature. That's
why they need to be entrusted to someone else until they reach the
age of maturity, at which point those to whom they're entrusted
lose their authority claims over them.
Even if we suppose the children have some kind of rights based
on consent and say that they shouldn't be treated in ways to
which they would not consent, trying to figure out to what children
would consent is a very difficult matter.
I have difficulty getting mine to decide what they like in their
lunch boxes. Getting them to decide or figuring out what they would
consent to on very complicated matters of treatment seems to me
very difficult, particularly if one thinks one has to ask oneself
what they would consent to as adults.
And what muddies the water still further, I think, is that we,
their parents, have a certain amount of control over what adults
they become and, therefore, what they would consent to when they
reach the age of adulthood.
Trying to figure out what children would consent to seems to me
extraordinarily difficult and not an idea that's going to provide
us a lot of guidance, I think.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Lawler, Meilaender and George.
DR. LAWLER: Locke says the guardianship for parents over
children is temporary and nondespotic. So I don't think it's
so hard, and whatever Locke thought in some deep way, you know,
this would radically disagree, but that's not a big deal.
I would understand Locke the way the great author of the Declaration
of Independence understood Locke, which is not so Christian.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Gil.
PROF. MEILAENDER: If each of these presentations had not
been as interesting to me as they were, I would have a question
PROF. MEILAENDER: But because they were interesting, I'd
like to think out loud just a little bit and let you say anything
that occurs to you in response.
I'm interested less in Kant, the philosopher, and more in
Kant, the poet, that nice phrase "highest among the animals
and lowest among the hosts." And I wonder if that doesn't,
in fact, get at something rather important about what we mean when
we make these appeals to the concept of dignity.
Human being is not quite a beast and not quite a god, but somewhere
in between these two, and therefore, unlike the beasts, how we come
into being and go out of being has importance and significance.
We can give meaning and point to suffering, for instance.
So that although we're animals, we're not quite that.
Not quite gods either. So that whatever exactly human excellence
means, it's excellence within certain kinds of limits, limits
of the body, for instance, and so forth, and I just wonder —
and if you've got nothing to say about it, that's okay,
too .- but I just wonder if maybe, in fact, a lot of the appeals
to the language of dignity aren't aimed at trying to think through
what it means to be this peculiar sort of in between creature who
occupies this very unusual status.
And I'd just be interested in anything you had to say about
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Jim.
DR.CHILDRESS: Gil, I think your direction is both an appropriate
and an important one, and I think that for a variety of moral discourse,
spiritual discourse, et cetera, to think in terms of the good or
better ways of or less so for various ways of living, patterns of
life, confronting mortality, trying to figure out who we are, et
cetera; that that's very appropriate, and that is then a place,
I think, for a conception of human dignity as a standard of virtue
and excellence that one can develop that direction.
I guess I tend to think about a lot of these matters in the context
of the public policies and how we can defend various kinds of public
policies, and one of the points I was underlining in my presentation
is that when we then move to try to develop and defend the public
policy, for example, one that involves coercion, it seems to me
that we obviously have a stronger case if we're able to tie
this with some kinds of rights and duties, and I'm treating
both of those together because I'm not working here or thinking
here as a rights based philosopher,but rather one who can see these
two as closely correlated.
And I think it's more difficult then to move from whatever
standard of excellence we come up with to defense of the course
of public policies. Clearly, it can be done in some settings, but
I'm much more inclined to think in terms whether we view as
Paul suggested human dignity as a mid-level concept. It certainly
in many forms of discourse will function parallel to a number of
other conceptions that I think may have as much weight.
So I guess in terms of the notion of human dignity you point an
important direction. Then when we try to spell this out, it may
go two different ways in terms of the kinds of standards that are
involved, and I think that either way can be appropriate for development
of public culture and the way we approach children and a variety
of other topics.
But as we move toward thinking of what kinds of public policies
are appropriate, then it seems to me we should end up trying to
specify this in ways that will pick up a variety of kinds of interests
and the like that won't quite be captured in the notion of the
Center of Excellence.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Dr. George.
PROF. GEORGE: Thank you.
Jim and Paul, thanks for those fine presentations. Wonderful.
I want to just set out an argument that one sometimes hears and
ask you to — both of you — to respond to it. The argument
goes this way.
Science is about the business of rigorous, rational inquiry into
the facts of the natural order. Any ethics that appeals to dignity
or similar, difficult, perhaps somewhat slippery, difficult, hard
to define concepts. Indeed, any ethics other than a utilitarian
ethics, and especially an ethics that is derived from or associated
with religious traditions is simply insufficient to provide valid
reasons for limiting the freedom of scientists to conduct their
And this is especially true, the argument goes, where we grant
as we must today that scientists are people of goodwill and good
faith whose research objectives are to benefit humanity, especially
by finding treatments and cures for dreaded diseases and by improving
the conditions of life for vast numbers of people.
How would you respond? Perhaps, Jim, you could go first.
DR.CHILDRESS: It seems to me that, yes, we can think along
the lines that you have suggested as an approach to science that
we sometimes hear, but it seems to me that we also recognize a variety
of moral constraints that are appropriate.
And the question is: which of those moral constraints relate
to, in the context of this discussion today, to notions of human
dignity versus other kinds of moral conceptions?
And so I think that we can have rational discourse and not some
of your science as a rational enterprise, but we can have rational
discourse about a variety of moral directions and constraints that
we can appropriately bring to bear on science, and then appropriately
use in terms of directing and justifying public policies that constrain
and limit what scientists do.
However, the way I would be inclined to think about that would
be, again, to try to work out a conception even for connecting with
human dignity of the rights and duties that we find defensible,
some of which will connect with some conception of human dignity
and some may have quite different sources. But I would at least
see that as a possibility of rational discourse and argumentation
over and against those who would limit the rationality to the scientific
DR.Weithman: Three quick responses. The first, why carve
out an exception for utilitarianism? I mean, I'm not sure why
utilitarianism gets a free pass when other forms of ethics don't,
from the consequences to which any plausible version of utilitarianism
Well, themselves, it seems to me to be described in quite rich
ethical terms. So we want to look at what the consequences of human
cloning on a large scale are likely to be.
It seems to me very unlikely that the most plausible way to describe
the consequences for purposes of constraining or liberating science
is simply in terms of pleasure and pain. One simply needs to appeal
to a far richer description of the consequences to get any ethical
traction. Once you allow rich, ethical descriptions of the consequences,
I'm not sure why the utilitarian way of adding up the consequences
is the right way to go about deciding what to do.
So one reaction is: why carve out an exception for utilitarianism?
The second reaction appeals to the claim that scientists are people
of goodwill. That is a claim that I have absolutely no interest
in denying. I also don't want to suppose that the scientists
are any better than the rest of us. The scientific enterprise,
like the enterprises, the professional enterprises in which we all
engage, is an enterprise that presumably sets up incentives which
tempt people to do what they can and make what progress they can
on their own watch and to their own credit.
That isn't to impugn the goodwill of scientists for a moment.
It's simply to note a fact about the human condition and about
professional life as we all know it, given that those incentives
are in place and that they are bound to be sorely tempting to scientists,
as they certainly would be to me and to many others.
I think it appropriate to talk about how to constrain the pursuit
of the incentives and what the incentives ought to be.
And finally, a third reaction is that it does seem science and
biotechnology, in particular, have the possibility so to impact
human life, basic human institutions, the way in which humans think
of themselves, that we have to be extraordinarily careful in pursuing
things that will change those dramatically.
I mean, we are, as Gil repeated, creatures of an intermediate
status, creatures whose way of thinking about ourselves is profoundly
tied to our natural condition, to the way in which we come to be,
to the way in which we go out of existence or have whatever change
in existence is brought about by death. Those are basic facts of
human life, and things that alter them by changing the ways in which
we come to be, by changing the relationship between generations,
by changing the conditions in which we go out of the world or prolonging
human life dramatically, all are bound to have profound consequences
for human beings, for the way we think of ourselves for how human
life is lived.
That in itself, I think, is a reason to be very, very careful
and to think with all the tools we can about just what the consequences
of science are likely to be. In that way I think the third reaction
builds upon the first. We need the most sophisticated description
of the consequences of scientific progress that we can get, and
we need to evaluate them in the most sophisticated way.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Lawler — oh, did you?
PROF. GEORGE: Could I have a second question?
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Please, go ahead.
PROF. GEORGE: Specifically for Paul, and it's not
a long one.
Paul, you really usefully contrasted talk of dignity and the usefulness
of the concept of dignity with an ethics of rights and liberties
and explained that there were some moral propositions that couldn't
be captured with the concept of dignity that can be with the concept
of rights and liberties, and vice versa.
What I'm wondering is could an ethics of duty — and
I mention it specifically in this question of whether there are
some things that an ethics of rights and liberties just can't
capture that the concept of dignity supplies — but could an
ethics of duties when attached to an ethics of rights and liberties,
and Jim was talking about a ethics of rights and duties, but could
an ethics of duties, especially if not a purely deontological, but
rather one rooted in an eudaimonistic understanding of our moral
life, supply everything that the concept of dignity supplies? So
there wouldn't be anything left over.
Now, even if the answer to that is yes, I'm not supposing
that that means we should ditch the concept of dignity at all.
That's not my question. I'm trying to understand the concept
of dignity by asking whether a eudaimonistic ethics that was the
grounds of an ethics of duty attached to an ethics of rights would
complete the picture.
DR.Weithman: I don't think so. I think the kind of
hybrid ethics in which duties and excellences or duties and virtues
work together is one that needs to be spelled out carefully and
investigated carefully. It seems to me there are better and worse
ways to build such an ethic, and the problems with some of the worst
ways to do it are, in fact, pointed out by virtue ethicists who
don't want to have much truck with duties at all.
But leave those problems aside. Are there moral intuitions that
we have or morally important considerations that we recognize that
couldn't be helpfully captured by such an ethic?
I guess I'm inclined to think so. I think moral perfectionism
plays an important role in our moral thinking, and so there's
an important niche in our moral thinking that is reserved for people
who excel in ways that go beyond what they are duty bound to do
and that part of ethical thinking and part of ethical training and
moral formation depends upon holding up such people at exemplars,
and so I think we need to talk about human excellence and human
perfection at least in certain areas in order to do that, and we
need to be able to talk in many of these cases about the dignity
of the people we are holding up as ideals.
I also think that we as a society have an interest in promoting
certain ideals of artistic perfection, say, or athletic perfection
or good athletic performance. I'm not sure that that interest
is a duty that we have, and so I think the talk about rights and
duties would leave us unable to capture that.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Meilaender, Lawler. I'm sorry,
A point of information. Time is rapidly disappearing. So conciseness
would be helpful.
Thank you very much.
Go ahead, Dr. Meilaender. Jim, have you got a short one?
DR.CHILDRESS: Yes, very quickly.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Sorry.
DR.CHILDRESS: It seems to me the direction you proposed
would be quite useful, but then notions that might be built into
that are duties to sell, for example, which are particularly contestable.
And back on the other point about utility for a moment and giving
it a free pass, I guess I would also add perhaps an application
that the controversy about the values related to the consequences
is one that persists, and those values for assessing consequences
are ones that are much up for grabs as the other issues, and that
following Paul, the notion of a precautionary approach or a principle
might well be an important addition, even within that framework.
So there are ways to enrich it as well, I suppose.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Meilaender, Paul McHugh and Kass.
PROF. MEILAENDER: I think I'll pass because, I mean,
I've got plenty I'd like to say, but I'll give an opportunity
for people who haven't said anything.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Lawler.
DR. LAWLER: Very quickly. So rights aren't enough;
duties aren't enough; dignity is not enough because it's
an ambiguous term. Got to stick excellence in there somewhere.
So how about this? We'll go back to the most old fashioned
way imaginable of looking at this, but still philosophic. Can we
once again start to talk about natural human goods and tie dignity
as a mid-level concept to that?
The bottom line is we are created in a good way by nature, and
the undignified modern project taken to an extreme would threaten
these goods we were given by nature.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: McHugh.
DR.McHUGH: Well, I too enjoyed both your presentations.
They were stimulating to me, and I'd like to comment what our
Council is about.
And our Council is a Council on Bioethics, and you've presented
to us material that makes me wonder the place of bioethics in the
analysis and the future of our world, particularly in the world
that I live in.
I live in a — I'm a teacher of medicine. My job is
to try to make the doctors of the future, and in order to do that,
I have to teach them various things. A lot of them are technical
skills, and we talked yesterday about the absence of technical skills
in developing a problem if we didn't have the technical skills
and the problem really wasn't what you thought it was.
But then there is this issue of developing the character of people.
The best doctors are those who have courage and temperance and prudence
and things of that sort, which, Dr. Childress, you made the point
that these are virtues in relationship to dignity that tie to the
practice, to the person, to the individual.
And of course, in our Council we have made this emphasis not only
in relationship to the way we have discussed things, but even in
our publications. We published a set of stories, plays, poems that
we thought were better descriptions of what we meant by human dignity
than the philosophical, analytical, and you might say bioethical
PARTICIPANT: You were right.
DR.McHUGH: Well, I think I'm on the right track anyway
to my question.
The question becomes to, again, return to Professor Childress'
point, that in these areas in a pluralistic society, we can't
get agreement. We certainly can't seem to get agreement over
laws derived from an analytic position, but we certainly in our
history as a country have moved ourselves ethically in a direction
primarily over products of art.
Harriet Beacher Stowe moved more people about what slavery did
not just for the slaves, but for the slave owners than anybody else
did. Solzhenitsyn in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
did more to disrupt the sophistic ideas about communism than all
of the analytic people.
We also know that this process can be deranged. I mean, Ayn Rand
can write stories that lead us in very wrong directions.
Now, all of this is to bring you around to the point about I'm
trying to make doctors, and I'm trying to be a citizen as well.
Does it mean that your role as analytical philosophers fundamentally
comes to be as critics, more as critics than creators, more as analysis
of what we are being driven for by the pictures, everything from
the Aristrean tragedies right till now, or do you really think that
bioethics is something that is more creative and capable of doing
something in a pluralistic society?
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Leon.
DR. KASS: Thank you.
And I want to thank you both for really very stimulating presentations.
If there were many hours, there would be many things to discuss.
Let me say just to Jim I probably as much as any of the critics
of our use of the term "dignity" feel the force of those
criticisms. I know that we have not done a careful thematic analysis
of it, and your very gentlemanly, gentle hortatory remarks at the
end are, at least speaking for myself, absolutely well taken.
A comment and then a question to try to engage the two of you
where you seem to have had probably more difference than, in fact,
A comment is that it does seem to me that Professor Weithman and
Gil's question and your response, Jim, suggest that somehow
the anthropological question even prior to the moral question is
somehow central here and needs a careful consideration, and it is,
I think, indispensable for thinking about some bioethical questions,
by no means all of them, when we are acquiring the power to alter
the ways in which human beings have hitherto entered life, left
life, and conduct their activities.
The notions of freedom and equality don't do the whole work
of thinking through those concerns that people have, and the interest
in human dignity might be one way of trying to flag an interest
in what are the human goods that we wish to defend and what are
the human goods that we feel are threatened.
But so I think that that's right, and I think we need to do
more work to try to spell that out, and "dignity" might
not be the right language, but there's something missing from
the way in which we've gone about talking about things for the
most part, and part of our effort here has been to call attention
to those things that have been missing.
The thing that interests me and the difference between your presentations
had to do with Jim's rightful caution that in a pluralistic
society certain kinds of efforts to promote virtue in the community
in ways that actually had coerced behaviors on others were problematic,
and that one would do far better if one talked about violations
of rights or duties.
Whereas Professor Weighman talked about communities have virtues
and there's a concern about what kind of a community we are
building for our children and for the future, and you know, we coerce
children to go to school. We started to coerce them to go to school
not because we wanted them to become computer experts, but because
we thought that it was good for them as human beings.
We have had blue laws, still I think defensible, laws about prostitution,
laws against voluntary servitude. We tolerate discussions of banning
the use of steroids in athletics not just because they're unsafe
or because their use is unfair.
There are ways in which both by the things that we prohibit, but
even by the things we, in fact, encourage through federal funding
and through public decision. We try to promote a society of the
sort we think is good, and I wonder whether or not the view of a
good society is exhausted by the rights and duties approach or whether
we don't need some kind of positive view of an ideal granting
a great deal of pluralism, but that the world of the future is in
a way our to shape. We shape it all the time with some tacit notion
of what a good community is, and I don't see how sensible public
policy — I guess my challenge is how could sensible policy
do without such conception however difficult it is to get an agreement
and knowing that we're going to fight about these things.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Could I ask our two speakers to hold
for just a moment?
I am going to use the Chairman's privilege to extend this
discussion for a few moments. Dr. Meilaender wants to make a statement,
and then if you two would respond as you wish, and then we'll
Thank you very much, Leon.
PROF. MEILAENDER: Well, this is just to raise the issue
I was going to raise before, but I'll chime in with it now because
it follows up on what Leon said, and it was really what I was thinking,
Jim, in response to what you had said earlier about pluralism, and
it's two basic things.
The first is that it's not clear to me how useful rights talk
always is. Talk about a conversation stopper. Rights talk is very
often a conversation stopper. Talk about a concept that's hard
to clarify on many occasions that it's difficult to know what
we mean by that language; it's very difficult to know what the
reason or basis for rights are. So exactly how much better off
is rights talk in a pluralistic society?
I'm just not sure about that. That's not exactly a confidence
statement, but it's a question.
And then the second point I was going to make, and this is what
chimes in with what Leon says, it's not clear to me how we —
if ultimately what we're talking about is who we are here, what
kind of creatures we are, if that's what the dignity language
at least in part is getting at, how could the public not care about
It doesn't mean we'd necessarily agree on it. It doesn't
mean that I could necessarily come up with something that you'd
find persuasive, but how could we not think it was important for
us to argue about even? It seems to me inevitable that it has a
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Jim, and then Dr. Weithman.
DR.CHILDRESS: Well, thanks very much.
And this always happens in meetings. Things really build up to
a crescendo at the end. So we'll probably need to have a discussion
afterwards, but thanks very much for the points.
First of all, I would distinguish public culture from public policy,
and I think the Council has done a wonderful job in this regard
of enriching public culture with attention to a variety of things.
At the point of justifying public policies, I didn't say it
was impossible to do from the other standpoint of, say, the standard
of virtue or excellence, just to use shorthand language now, but
there was more problematic, and I think that for many areas I agree
that we don't have agreement always on rights or duties, and
I put both of those together because I think about them together.
There will still be disputes there. However, within our social,
political, legal framework, there are presumptions in favor of liberty,
for example, that we have come over time to view as presumptions
that should be overridden only under certain kinds of circumstances,
and it is, I think, more problematic to override them on the basis
of a standard of virtue than it is on the other.
That's not to say it can't be done. It's more problematic.
Often, and we'll have some debate here in some of the areas
whether it's prostitution or selling organs or what. There
are issues that would relate to coercion or exploitation or the
like that could be seen in terms of a rights or duties framework
without necessarily going the other direction.
Again, I think the standard of virtue approach, absolutely important
for public culture, along with the other, and it's more problematic
at the point of justifying coercive laws, but not impossible to
One quick comment in relation to Dr. McHugh's point about
whether bioethics ends up being always kind of a critical perspective
when one is thinking about this philosophically. I very much agree
that narrative, et cetera, in terms of character, individual character
for professionals in training, such as physicians, nurses, teachers,
but also for the society at large, that the narrative approach is
obviously going to be much more important for shaping character,
individual and social over time, and the work of being human, my
colleague Bill May, formerly on the Council, has used it last year,
using it again this year in an undergraduate course very successfully,
actually for the students who took it one of the highlights of their
undergraduate experience. So cudos.
Now, it seems to me though that there's still another aspect
to this, and that is processes of moral reasoning that need to be
thought about as well, and there it seems to me the philosopher,
theologian or whoever plays some role, but it probably is a subsidiary,
secondary role in trying to probe some of the assumptions and implications
of positions. So I would see it more in that way, and so it looks
like a critical perspective, but actually it's one that I think
can work in tandem with the other.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: thank you, Jim.
Dr. Weighman, closing statement?
DR.Weithman: Sure, and I will try to be brief. That will
not be easy because there were so many interesting things to respond
to in the Council's last set of remarks.
It's often assumed the disagreement, moral disagreement even
when public policy is concerned automatically means retreat to the
lowest common denominator of discussion, and I myself think that
that is a mistake. Disagreement in some areas is more important
than disagreement in others.
There may be disagreement about whether we should fund the arts.
There may be disagreement about what art is. I don't think
that that means we have to retreat to the lowest common denominator
of art or artistic expression or be afraid to fund the arts even
in the face of disagreement about whether we should do so. There
are some kinds of human perfection and human excellence that communities
should foster even if there's disagreement about the standards
to be employed in assessing it.
There are other areas in which disagreement may be much more telling
and in which we might think excellence is not something that we
need to seek publicly or to subsidize or encourage using public
power. I'm much more interested in fostering excellence of
artistic expression than I am in fostering excellence of sexual
expression in privacy between consenting adults. Some kinds of
excellences are worth pursuing; others aren't. Not all disagreement
forces us into silence. I think important to bear that in mind.
There may be deep disagreement in society about the big questions
of what a good life is, perhaps deep disagreement about what artistic
expression is good, very deep disagreement about what forms of sexual
expression are good, excellent, tolerable, or ought to be legal.
I wonder whether — and this now goes to Dr. McHugh's
question — whether there is such profound disagreement about
what makes for a good doctor or what people want in their doctors.
I would be very surprised if people want to give up the traditional
virtues and excellences associated with the practice of medicine.
One of my worries about physician assisted suicide, for example,
is that it's advocates play on the traditional excellences while
promoting a practice that I fear will undermine them. People who
want physician assisted suicide want physician assisted suicide
from doctors who are caring and compassionate and have all the traditional
virtues and yet are willing to kill them.
I'm deeply worried about people trying to have it both ways.
That people want to have it both ways suggest that there is one
traditional way in which they do want to have it. If there is widespread
consensus on what virtues we want physicians to have, then by all
means encourage them, and I think the arts are a splendid way
to do it.
The report on human cloning that you all produced is excellent.
Is it going to persuade people? Perhaps. Far more persuasive,
I should think, would be a novel I've not read by the author
of The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled on the
consequences of cloning people simply as repositories for organs
to be transplanted. I have not read the book. I read reviews of
it. It sounds absolutely chilling.
I would put that in the hands — in fact, if you can overcome
copyright problems, attach it as an appendix to the second edition
of your report on cloning.
DR.Weithman: Thank you all very much for having me. It's
been a wonderful experience. I appreciate your attention.
CHAIRMAN PELLEGRINO: Thank you very much to the speakers
and the commentators for a spirited discussion.
We will have to shorten our break just a little bit. We will
certainly have the public participation as promised with the time
(Whereupon, the foregoing matter went off
the record at 10:16 a.m. and went back on the record at 10:26 a.m.)