Wednesday, April 29

Clarifying Human Dignity (Response to Graham…)

You brought up some excellent points in regards to the two types of human dignity in your last post Graham. I think that this is a very important distinction to make. I admit that as I’ve been thinking through the human enhancement, it has been the first definition that I’ve utilized (as you picked up on my last post). Just to clarify the first definition of human dignity relates to our intrinsic value as human individuals and then the second definition of human dignity (as Graham pointed out) relates to our behavior as human individuals. We use this second definition when we say that someone’s actions (running around naked or throwing feces at people) don’t measure up to some kind of social standard.

I think we can agree that the second definition of human dignity in regards to behavior isn’t what gives us intrinsic value. Going back to your lunatic running the streets naked. The fact that he acts in a socially deviant way doesn’t negate the fact that he has intrinsic value. This is why you as an individual can’t just shoot him or enslave him for his behavior. Although his actions may be undignified as a human being, there is still something about him which must be respected. He may need to be punished for his criminal behavior, but as Kant points out to punish someone for a crime IS to treat them as an end and not a means. It recognizes their individual responsibility as human.

You wonder why people like Kass seem to think that our human dignity can be so easily lost. I think a clarification here may be helpful. Kass’s whole point is that human dignity can’t be lost! It is impossible to extract from an individual there intrinsic worth as a person. It is actually those who think an individual’s worth comes from their biology or external social views that need to answer why human dignity can be taken away from someone.

What Kass is saying is that while, a person’s human dignity can never be taken from them, we can treat others as if they didn’t have that intrinsic worth. That is the danger of post humanism, not that is will somehow remove the “dignity gene” but that it isn’t treating the individual with the respect due them as a person with intrinsic human dignity. By analogy, enslaving a group of people doesn’t actually remove their dignity as persons but in a horrifying way treats them as if they weren’t intrinsically valuable individuals.

I can relate to your frustration when Kass never clearly defines human dignity. That is one of the weaknesses of his argument I admit. But, let’s look at both sides. The post-human proponents say that if Kass can’t give a clear definition for human dignity then he shouldn’t denounce them as harming this unidentified thing. On the same note though, if the proponents can’t give an adequate definition for human dignity how can they say that Kass’s policies oppose it? It’s pretty clear I believe that the proponents haven’t provided a clear and defensible definition for human dignity and how post humanism won’t harm it.

One last question, I haven’t taken phil bio but the notion of essentialism seems interesting. If essentialism holds that a species has a distinct set of properties that define it as a species, are these properties physical or immaterial? Is essentialism referring to scientifically, statistically determined characteristics like Fukuyama’s Factor X or does it refer to a philosophical, classical definition of essences? (You’ll have to excuse my ignorance).


  1. Justin you state: “That is the danger of post humanism, not that is will somehow remove the “dignity gene” but that it isn’t treating the individual with the respect due them as a person with intrinsic human dignity.”

    However, I am having a hard time seeing how? For I do think that in respect to the pursuit and application of enhancements we must be careful and determine the reasoning behind why we wish to pursue or apply an enhancement, but how does this process threaten our intrinsic human dignity?

    Perhaps it is because if we choose not to implement an enhancement we are then forcing it on future generations and thus threatening their intrinsic value (and therefore disrespecting them as a person). But, could you not then argue that you are also disrespecting them by not implementing the enhancement? Especially if the costs and benefits have been analyzed and it has been deemed beneficial to not only the individual but also to everyone (to society)? Also, if all enhancement are pursued in such a manner, then if we do reach a state of “post-humanism,” how have we disrespected individuals?

  2. Justin, I agree with Rachel, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that post-humanism would fail to treat the individual with dignity. Especially if the individual herself chooses which enhancements she receives, I don’t understand what the assault on her dignity would be.

    I’m still trying to figure out your original question about what human dignity is rooted in. I think this is a very interesting question, but I’m not sure you’ll ever reach an answer that is satisfying to more than one viewpoint. I really liked Roger’s response to your earlier post where he said that human dignity is at least partly cultural and partly biological. I think you have a good point, Justin, when you say that if human dignity is merely a social contruct, then it can too easily be taken away if the majority decides to do so. However, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘majority rule.’ Rather (again, referring back to Roger’s post), we can understand dignity partly through the many ways in which we relate to each other: emotions, language, history, companionship, mutual respect, curiosity, etc. I think we could probably agree that the term ‘human dignity’ is itself a construct of human thought and language, even if there still remains some deeper meaning we can’t quite articulate. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine what dignity would be like if it we didn’t take into consideration our human relationships with one another; after all, if human dignity is truly rooted in the individual alone, whom is there to respect besides yourself?

    So yes, I do think that dignity is partly a social construct, but I think that’s actually a good thing because it provides a foundation on which to build moral theories and rules. However, there has to be something physical and biological too, for if there is no human body then what do we treat with intrinsic value? Of course it can’t be rooted entirely in the physical realm alone, but I think there’s at least some physical/biological prerequisite for having dignity.

    What I’m trying to say is that human dignity is a multi-faceted concept that involves both cultural and biological aspects in its definition. I’m open to the possibility of an additional ‘source’ of dignity, but I don’t think you can leave culture and our physical makeup out of the picture. In my opinion, it is our human-to-human relationships, and even human-to-nonhuman animal or human-to-environment ones, that propel discussions and deliberations over human dignity. If human enhancement indeed threatens our human relationships, then yes, maybe there is an assault on dignity; if not, I’m not sure how it would.


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