More on Human Dignity (4)
Despite its varying history and application, concluding the working paper written by Adam Schulman, Ph.D. for the December 2005 meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Schulman attempts to find a meaning or significance to the term human dignity and our need eventually to take a stand on its definition. . Again, I will include the disclaimer that the paper was prepared by staff solely to aid discussion and it does not represent the official views of the Council or of the United States Government. ..Maurice.
3. Dignity understood as humanity—an indispensable concept for bioethics?
Having disentangled some of the roots of the modern concept of human dignity, can we make a compelling case for the usefulness of this concept in present-day and future bioethics? Only a tentative answer to this question can be hazarded here.
There is a strong temptation to say no, for the following reason. The fundamental question we have alluded to several times in this paper—the question of the specific excellence or dignity of man—has proved sufficiently daunting that a long line of great modern thinkers, from Hobbes and Locke to the American founders, have found it prudent, for political purposes, to assert that all human beings have rights and freedoms that must be respected equally, without spelling out too clearly the ground of that assertion.18 And such deliberate reticence as to the foundation and content of human dignity has arguably served liberal democracy well, fostering tolerance, freedom, equality, and peace. In the particular context of medical ethics, it must be acknowledged that for a long time the liberal principle of “respect for persons”—including the rights of voluntary, informed consent and confidentiality, as well as protection from discrimination and abuse—has proved serviceable in resolving many (though by no means all) ethical problems.
But in this extraordinary and unprecedented era of biotechnological progress, whose fruits we have scarcely begun to harvest, the campaign to conquer nature has at long last begun to turn inward toward human nature itself. In the coming decades we will increasingly acquire the power to isolate and modify the biological determinants of human attributes that hitherto have been all but immune to manipulation. For example, we are learning to control the development of human embryos in vitro, and this may one day make possible the cloning of human beings, the creation of animal-human chimeras, and the gestation of human fetuses in animal or artificial wombs. We are assembling a growing arsenal of psychoactive drugs that modulate not only behavior but also attention, memory, cognition, emotion, mood, personality, and other aspects of our inner life. We are acquiring the ability to screen out unwanted gene combinations in preimplantation embryos and may in future be capable of direct germline genetic modification. We may one day be able to modify the human genome so as to increase resistance to diseases, optimize height and weight, augment muscle strength, extend the lifespan, sharpen the senses, boost intelligence, adjust personality, and who knows what else. Some of these changes may amount to unobjectionable enhancements to our imperfect nature; but surely not all forms of biomedical engineering are equally benign and acceptable.
Our ever-increasing facility at tinkering with human nature itself poses an acute challenge to any easygoing agnosticism on the question of the ground and content of human dignity. As we become more and more adept at modifying human nature at will, it may well prove impossible to avoid a direct confrontation with the question posed by the Psalmist, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” That is, among all the features of human nature susceptible to biotechnological enhancement, modification, or elimination, which ones are so essential to our humanity that they are rightly considered inviolable? For example, if gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs should become feasible, would it not be a severe distortion of our humanity and an affront to our dignity to develop assembly lines for the mass production of cloned human beings without mothers or fathers? Would it not be degrading to our humanity and an affront to human dignity to produce animal-human chimeras with some human features and some features of lower animals? Would it not be a corruption of our humanity and an affront to human dignity to modify the brain so as to make a person incapable of love, or of sympathy, or of curiosity, or even of selfishness?19
In short, the march of scientific progress that now promises to give us manipulative power over human nature itself—a coercive power mostly exercised, as C. S. Lewis presciently noted, by some men over other men, and especially by one generation over future generations20 —will eventually compel us to take a stand on the meaning of human dignity, understood as our essential and inviolable humanity. If the necessity of taking that stand is today not yet widely appreciated, there will come a time when it surely will be. With luck, it will not be too late.
[References for this section of the Working Paper:
18. Hobbes, however, was somewhat less reserved than the others: in chapter 13 of Leviathan (1651) he indicates that our equal rights are derived ultimately from our roughly equal ability to kill one another. Note that, for Hobbes, dignity is not intrinsic to human beings but is merely “the public worth of a man, which is the value set on him by the Commonwealth.” (Leviathan, ch 10).
19. In the novel White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo, a drug is invented whose specific effect on the human brain is apparently to suppress the fear of death. Would it be compatible with human dignity for all of us to start taking such a drug?
20. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), chapter 3: “From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument…. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”]