On the Problem of Human Dignity
Lebech, Mette (2010) On the Problem of Human Dignity. Bioethics Outlook, 21 (4).
Saying that human dignity constitutes a problem may require explanation. It is in fact one of those things that we like to take for granted, and thus not to consider a problem. At the same time, paradoxically, we may be so sceptical about the possibility of bringing it into focus that we aren’t willing even to consider as amounting to a problem. Between these two extreme, but common, attitudes this article addresses the problem of identifying what human dignity is, what we mean by the expression and what we refer to when we intend what is meant by the expression. Discussions about this have often turned into a competition between different traditions and worldviews that provide incompatible ‘foundations’ for human dignity, a competition that seems to have to be ‘won’ before a discussion of the nature of human dignity can begin. Such competition misses the point that we must mean something by the word for us to find it meaningful in order to fight about it. The ‘problem’ of human dignity consists in finding out what this is, and dealing with the problem thus serves to deflect attention away from the issue of conflicting worldviews towards the central theme around which they diverge, but on which they must converge for any discussion of human dignity to be meaningful. Concentrating on the problem in this manner implicitly directs itself towards its ‘solution’, i.e. to finding out what it might be that different conceptualisations compete to conceptualise. In the following we shall first give a ‘satellite’ overview of what has been said about human dignity in the European tradition and discuss how to interpret the textual evidence (1). Then we shall suggest that human dignity could plausibly be said to be the fundamental value of the human being and show that representative accounts of the textual evidence converge on this idea (2). And finally we shall explain by a phenomenological analysis what it means that human dignity is the fundamental value of the human being (3). The background to this is my recent book On the Problem of Human Dignity, in which sources are discussed and arguments unfolded in much more detail. Here I shall attempt to present the argument in miniature. It goes without saying that there is more to say.
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