Sunday, January 03, 2010

Dignity's 'wooly uplift'

I have been sufficiently concerned for awhile about the more or less random deployment of terms such as 'human dignity' for and against any and all kinds of normative positions that I have done a bit of research on it while I was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London's Graduate School last term. Here's a pre-print of an Editorial I jointly wrote with Anna Pacholczyk, a graduate student at Manchester University for the journal BIOETHICS (2010; 24(2): ii. There's also a longer article forthcoming in the first issue of the JOURNAL OF BIOETHICAL INQUIRY in 2010 that I wrote on my own. Check it out and let me know what you think about it.


A. J. Ayer was famously and predictably dismissive of terms such as 'human dignity', referring to them as a kind of 'wooly uplift'.1 Despite the pervasive presence of appeals to dignity in medical ethics and the common use of this term in professional codes, constitutional texts and various human rights instruments2, both the moral basis as well as the meaning of this term continue to remain nebulous at best. Ruth Macklin suggested that we can do without dignity.3 Christian anti-choice campaigners, worried that a term as hegemonic as 'dignity' might be used by their opponents in the context of arguments about assisted dying, are staking their claims as to the true meanings of the term.4

Recent empirical research focuses on the importance and meaning of dignity to terminally ill patients. Dignity here, however is little other than an umbrella term for various patient needs being satisfied.5 This place-holder function offers us nothing by way of addressing the crucial normative questions that usually give rise to the deployment of 'dignity' in bioethics and biopolicy, such as for instance the moral permissibility or otherwise of assisted dying.

Given that the concept of dignity is not a primitive term of ethics, despite vague noises to the contrary6, invoking dignity without clarifying its basis and reach is mere sloganism – an ethical conversation stopper of a kind.7

Ethics is commonly and quite rightly so understood as having two primary functions: to guide our actions as moral agents and to provide us with justifications for the guidance provided. Can a hydra-like notion of dignity serve this purpose? In the context of assisted dying, appeals to dignity are used on the both sides of the fence. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church considers euthanasia to be a 'violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person.’8 On the other hand, organizations campaigning in favour of the decriminalization of assisted dying in its varying forms do not hesitate to campaign in the name of 'human dignity', too.9 The situation in the legal context is not much better. When in September 1993 the Canadian Supreme Court issued a ruling on the terminally ill Sue Rodriguez's petition to declare invalid s 241 (b) of the Criminal Code10 - which criminalizes assisting people to commit suicide – both the majority and minority opinions employed the argument from ‘human dignity’ to support their views. 11

Some scholars accept that we cannot reasonably 'expect dignity to have only one, clearly delineated meaning.'12 Doris Schroeder argues that this is no reason to get rid of the concept altogether. She maintains that 'dignity is a slippery idea, but also a very powerful one and the demand to purge it from ethical discourse amounts to whispering in the wind.'13 A recent defense of the UNESCO Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights against its critics, asserts that 'human dignity' and other such principles could 'function as guidelines for reviewing or reorganising research practices'.14 That is a troubling proposition.

The current state of affairs seems to be that, notwithstanding the dubious normative merits of 'human dignity', the fact that it is commonly used is sufficient reason to continue using it. This proposition is evidently flawed. We surely can do better than this.

1 A. J. Ayer. (1947) Language, Truth and Logic. London: Victor Gollancz.

2 C. McCrudden. Human dignity and judicial interpretation of human rights. European Journal of International Law 2008; 19: 655-724.

3 R. Macklin. Dignity is a useless concept. BMJ 2003; 327: 1419-1420.

4M. Somerville, “Defining human dignity”, 22 November 2009, The Gazette (Montreal), online: . Accessed 29 November 2009.

5 H.M. Chochinov. Dignity and the essence of medicine: the A, B, C, and D of dignity conserving care. BMJ 2007; 335: 184-187.

6R. Goddin, “The political theories of choice and dignity” (1981) 18:2 American Philosophical Quarterly 96.

7 R. Van Der Graaf & J.J.M. van Delden, “Clarifying Appeals to Dignity in Medical Ethics from an Historical Perspective” (2009) 23:3 Bioethics 151.

8 F. Cardinal Seper. Declaration on Euthanasia. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1980; 72: 542. Available at: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Accessed 29 Nov 2009].

9 D. Hillyard & J. Dombrink. 2001. Dying Right: The Death With Dignity Movement. New York: Routledge.

10 R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46.

11 Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 519.

12 D. Schroeder. Dignity: Two riddles and four concepts. Camb Q Healthc Ethics 2008; 17: 230-238: 237.

13Ibid: 237.

14 M. Levitt & H. Zwart. Bioethics: An export product? Reflections on hands-on involvement in exploring the “external” validity of international bioethical declarations. J Bioeth Inq 2009; 6: 367–377:370.


  1. Some very good points: strongly agree with the idea that it is predominantly a 'conversation stopper' in ethical debate. I wonder if an alternative conclusion could be drawn from the points you made. Certainly, we shouldn't conclude that dignity has unique conceptual and analytical value - i.e. it denotes something meaningful and draws an otherwise inarticulable distinction - simply because it is used. However, I do think it is part of our moral phenomenology, allowing individuals to articulate something that is lost or absent. Usually found in clinical contexts, this perception of loss may be loss of autonomy, control, normality, or meaning. This doesn't render dignity conceptually water-tight, but it does explain its persistence beyond linguistic inertia (or discursive laziness).

  2. I agree that the concept of dignity is ambiguous. The reason for this, in my view, is not simply that the concept of dignity is a useless concept, but that it is an important one, and everyone wants to claim a piece of the action. Christians claim that human dignity derives from the creation of human life by God. This is the Cardinal's point. But there is little question that, in many cases, human's lack dignity. The individual suffering from Alzheimer's dementia is lacking in dignity, though he or she may once have possessed it. This does not diminish the claim that the Alzheimer sufferer is still human, but for someone to insist on using the concept of dignity with respect to him or her would be to misuse the concept. As Steve Riley says, loss of dignity seems to map loss of certain kinds of personal control and meaning.

    Dignity is something that people possess, not intrinsically, but because of certain characteristic features. A person in great poverty may or may not lack dignity. It depends on how they bear, or can bear, their deprivations. A person in pain may lack dignity, unable to measure up to their best understanding of what it is to live with dignity, or to die with it. Many people rightly sense that dying in misery and pain, without the ability to express in their lives those things that define them as the persons that they had been, and had striven to be, would be to die without dignity, and that depriving them of this possibility is a great wrong.

    So, while I do agree that the concept of dignity may be ambiguous - in fact, I would claim that it is systematically ambiguous over individuals, because it pertains mainly to individuals' self-conception - it does capture something which individuals consider very important to their own sense of self, the loss of which would make their lives no longer worth living. Just because people have put their dirty finger prints all over this concept should not lead us to dispense with it - after all, other moral concepts have gone through similar depreciations; rather, we should try to reclaim it, especially from the religious hacks who use the concept of dignity precisely because its use has been primarily secular, and they have been so busily trying to convince people that the dignity of being human derives, not from Renaisance humanist sources, but from the religious belief in creation in the image of God. But the ambiguity here is religious, for what it means to be created in God's image is anyone's guess, and it has been variously filled, depending upon the needs of the moment. The concept of dignity may suffer from similar kinds of ambiguity, but it does, after all, have a fairly determinate meaning, which can be defined with some precision. It's use, after all, is not primarily to speak of something intrinsic to human beings qua human beings, but to how individual human beings see themselves and understand themselves as persons, and how they estimate their prospects for continuing to possess such characteristics as, to quote Steven Riley, "autonomy, control, normality, or meaning." This is how individuals understand their dignity, and there seems little reason to avoid a concept which is in such general use in the context, especially, of assisted dying (or other contexts where personal dignity is under threat). It is used in the British assisted dying organisation, Dignity in Dying, in the Canadian Dying with Dignity, and in the Swiss organisation Dignitas' motto: Menschenwürdig leben; menschenwürdig sterben. The American assisted dying organisation, Compassion and Choices, by its name alone, unfortunately, turns the dying person into a victim, and erodes dignity rather than affirms it. There is no reason in the world why we may not use this word stipulatively to identify a range of personal goods, without which individual life tends to become, for the individual, lacking in meaning, purpose, control and self-definition.

  3. here's a bit of further discussion of the issue at hand as well as here

  4. I'm not sure that squaring off against Margaret Somerville is very helpful in trying make the meaning of 'dignity' more precise. Her talk about intrinsic and extrinsic dignity is really nothing much more than a red herring, since she wants to use the concept of dignity - as it appears, for instance, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - in a way that was never intended, to refer to the religious idea of the sanctity of human life. Dignity is simply out of place in this context.

    As Mirandola used the concept of dignity it applied first and foremost to questions of autonomy. What gives human beings dignity is their ability to see and understand their state in the world and respond to it with a sense of its appropriateness or inappropriateness, its justice or injustice. Somerville wants to apply the term to human bodies in a permanent vegetative sense, or prescriptively of those who feel that their dignity is compromised by the processes of dying. She wants to impose dignity on those who have said that their dignity would be better served by being given help to die more quickly. And this idea of imposing dignity is, in fact, to offend against the original intention of the words as used in the context of human rights talk.

    In other words, though I will acknowledge that there is some ambiguity in the word, it does have some fairly clear parameters, and serves a useful purpose. That Somerville is happy to transgress those boundaries for her own religious purposes is perhaps to be expected, but it doesn't say a lot for her integrity. The idea of dignity has a very important role to play in the argument about assisted dying. People who are dying experience many forms of loss, but the main form of loss that they experience is an increasing loss of autonomy, as their bodies deteriorate and decay. This is experienced by them as a loss of dignity. Some palliative care workers speak as though the dying are wrong to feel this loss. They want to impose their own concepts of dignity upon them. But dignity is something that pertains to individuals and their autonomy, and is something that individuals will go to great lengths to protect. That we refuse the right of individuals to protect their dignity by providing them with assistance to die with dignity, as they conceive of it, is a great injustice. But the idea of dignity plays a central role here, and I think we should be reluctant simply to let it go, because it is a concept that has been abused in so many ways.

  5. Dear Greywizward, thanks kindly for your thoughtful comments, and for taking the time to comment on this issue. I cannot comment substantively on the end-of-life matter at this point in time, that you are bringing up here, because of my role in the RSC panel reporting on this issue later this year. However, with re to the autonomy/dignity proposition. There's several problems with this approach: if respect for personal autonomy is the underlying issue, then why not say so, why use talk of dignity to begin with? Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that dignity related protections would not extend to incompetent patients needs. Finally, it has been pointed out by critics of this grounding of dignity also leaves open the question of what dignity we mean when we talk about folks like Hitler. If it's all or primarily about autonomy, why not use that term (as Ruth Macklin suggests).

  6. Dear Udo (if I may),

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I am fortunate to be part of an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Bielefeld that is examining precisely these questions (related to the meaning and utility of the concept of human dignity in applied ethics).

    FWIW, I tend to share your skepticism regarding the term, but I have generally been persuaded that there might be some pragmatic value to the term if it is understood in a somewhat deflationary sense.

    In any case, the group website is here:

    My understanding is that some conference proceedings and publications are expected to follow the completion of the Group's work (October 2010).

    Thanks much,

    --Daniel S. Goldberg

  7. Ah, but, Udo, autonomy does not exhaust the idea of dignity. Dignity is a characteristic that beings capable of autonomy possess. But they may also, by their actions and choices, diminish their dignity. I am reminded here of Kant's claim that those who choose to die voluntarily have extinguished their dignity, and may be treated as we treat animals. (I think Kant probably thought it was right to treat animals in ways that we would no longer consider morally appropriate. I think he is just wrong about suicide.) That is why we lock some people up, presumably, because they have surrendered aspects of their dignity by their actions and choices.

    Autonomy is certainly central to dignity, but it is not all that is meant by dignity. Dignity is, I suggest, a complex of values and affective responses related to what persons do with their autonomy, and how they have chosen to live. Rather than retain the idea of dignity in a deflationary sense, as Daniel Goldberg suggests (and I have not yet read his reference), it seems to me that dignity is highly complex, and stands in for the many ways in which it is morally appropriate/inappropriate to respond to persons. It has to do, then, in a very complex way, not only with autonomy as a matter of making choices in particular cases, but as it concerns the creation, by those choices, of a life project, and of the self created by it (and of all the moral obligations and commitments created by such a project).

    Of course, an individual life project cannot be divorced from the regard that the individual, whose life project it is, has for others and their life projects. This was certainly central in Mirandola's concept of human dignity, when he speaks of the imperative of considering alternatives and possible criticisms of one's own ideas. Here is where Hitler and his like fail, and to that extent lack in dignity, or, perhaps, better expressed, to that extent betray their own dignity as persons.

    One reason to preserve the idea of dignity is that it occurs twice in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the preamble, and in Article 1, but it also captures, as I am suggesting, an important aspect of our sense of what it means to be persons.

    Of course, speaking in terms of the dignity of the human person does not exhaust our moral obligations, though it is hard to think of incompetent human beings as either persons or possessed of dignity, as such, even though it may be desirable to treat them with dignity to the extent this is possible. Because they bear the physical image of the human, what we do to them may also tend to legitimate that behaviour towards other human beings, and may even endanger those others. Thus, to some degree, dignity related protections may well justly be extended to incompetent human beings. Besides, infants are, almost by definition, incompetent, and yet dignity related protections almost certainly apply to them. However, the importance of dignity is not obviously undermined by moral considerations concerning incompetent human beings or sentient non-human beings.

  8. Perhaps I should have added that, if the idea of dignity is being used in medical contexts to mean autonomy, pure and simple, which is the point that Ruth Macklin was making, then, of course, there is no reason to use the term, and for clarity's sake, speaking of autonomy would be better. But it is just here that we get complaints about a kind of intense or excessive individualism (the hallmark of Margaret Somerville and the Archbishop of Canterbury et hoc genus omne), and talk about dignity is a sign that we are talking about something far more complex.

    In other words, as I suggested above, I think dignity is a more complex value. Autonomy is necessary, but not sufficient, for dignity. I also think that the use of dignity in contexts where we are talking of human cells (Daniel Goldberg, or at least the article on the site he directed us to), or ventilated human bodies, is, indeed, nothing more than wooly uplift with an unacceptable level of misdirection as well.

  9. Thanks - again - for these extensive comments! You are proposing essentially (referring to the longer of your two notes) to ascribe 'dignity' to persons (ie excluding the incompetent, animals as beings owed direct respect, at least as far as this could be based on directly owed 'dignity'), provided they behave in some ethical sense properly. This seems essentially to boil down to respecting persons living a reasonably ethical life. This in its own right would have been quite sensible - as far as it goes - but my question would have been how adding 'dignity' to this melange adds anything normatively. Based on your account respect is owed due to the dispositional capacities persons have and the moral choices (or lack thereof) they make. I think this can be had without reference to dignity.
    I even buy into your conclusions (albeit for different reasons) that respect is owed to incompetent human beings to some extent. You pinpoint our physical similarities (aka species membership) and the potential harm that might occur if we treated them badly. This is an empirical claim and it's difficult to ascertain whether your worries are justified. They may or may not be. This takes us into a discussion of whether anthropocentric thinking is sound ethics, but I'd rather leave this discussion for another day.

  10. Udo, you said: "You are proposing essentially ... to ascribe 'dignity' to persons ..., provided they behave in some ethical sense properly."

    First, an apology for the long notes. Second, this is not what I am proposing. What is 'behaving in the ethical sense properly'? There's a fair measure of disagreement here. What I am saying is that behaving morally, as well as other uses of one's freedom, is a complex matter of creating a life, and that dignity attaches to that achievement (whatever stage it has reached), even in the many cases where one might consider the achievement, from one's own point of view, defective in some measure (and this no doubt applies to all of us). Even quite dismal failures to live well deserve some respect, since they are what people have done with their freedom. It's at this point that dignity comes in, though, of course, as I mentioned, we might, for those who have done great, or even moderate harm, to others, think that they have in some sense betrayed their dignity. I do not know of another term which can be used to capture the regard which we ought to have for this complex and very important type of achievement.

    I think here of something that Rawls said about self-respect, which, says Rawls, "includes a person's sense of his own value, his secure conviction that his conception of his good, his plan of life, is worth carrying out." (TOJ, 386). Respect for a person's dignity consists in respect for this sense of personal value, and the complex achievements which comprise it. I know no other term which picks out this important aspect of persons and their lives which deserves respect other than the word 'dignity'. In this sense, the word dignity - and I think this is how we use the word - is more than just 'wooly uplift'.

  11. I can't forbear to take this one step further, and mention dignity in connexion with assistance in dying (about which I know you cannot comment at the moment), because Dworkin says something very similar in his book Life's Dominion. There he says, on page 217: “Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious from of tyranny.”

    Critics of assisted dying think that acceding to a person's request for assistance in dying is simply to give in to the intense, atomistic individualism of contemporary society. But if you think of a person's life as an achievement comprising choices, relationships, and all the rest that goes to make up a life, this is not true. While Dworkin uses 'dignity' in a wider sense than is, to my mind, useful, speaking of all human life, including here cellular life, the point that he does make about dignity is, despite this, I think, close to what I have been saying. He says that among the most important features of Western culture is the importance that it ascribes to individual human dignity, which he characterises as the idea "that people have the moral right - and the moral responsibility - to confront the most fundamental questions about the meaning and value of their own lives for themselves, answering to their own consciences and convictions." (166) Just so long as we see that dignity attaches to the whole life as a moral achievement (which will also include moral failures and, very often, their remedies), this is what I believe too, and I think there is something here the loss of which would be a serious attenuation of what we consider to be of value about autonomous beings.

  12. Thanks again. Sorry if I misunderstood your take on 'dignity'... - so you're proposing to assign dignity to whenever a person uses his or her freedom to live his or her life. You believe that people can betray that dignity by making bad or very bad choices (eg choices that harm others). I'm unclear as to whether or not this betraying means that one would lose one's so understood dignity altogether or not. If one doesn't, the question remains, which kind of dignity respect Hitler's life choices eg ought to trigger. If one does, it would seem that it ain't the fact that a person makes inevitable life choices but what kind of choices such a person makes. Either way, unless I am misunderstanding you again, you're proposing that we should assign dignity to the inevitable choices autonomous persons make (as well as to the dispositional capacities that permits them to make such choices). I still think that all of that can be had without resorting to language of dignity. You might want to have a look at this piece as well as the virulent response it triggers at

  13. Filipe Calvario (from Brazil)January 06, 2010

    I'll say here something I said in Shallit's Recusivity blog. Perhaps the concept of dignity may have something to do with the idea of one has of oneself. Animals but the homo sapiens, for instance, are (I think) unlikely to feel ashamed for eating food in which another animal has spit over, nor to have touched fæces. Nor would a female feel ashamed for being forced to copulate.
    Perhaps that is the point of respecting other's dignity: to impede or avoid, when possible, that other people may come to feel very ashamed or outraged.
    What do you think?

  14. Interesting suggestion, Filipe. I guess where this idea falls flat though, would then be not so much on the action guidance (questionable as it might be) but on the action justification front. Surely it isn't always wrong to make people ashamed of things they do, feel or think. Racism, sexism, global justice and any number of other issues come to mind here. In any case, if it's about not unnecessarily causing psychological harm (shame and outrage might fall into that category), we don't need the stilts of 'dignity' either. Consequentialists would agree with your proposition (emphasis on 'when possible', ie not at all cost), so would Kantians. Dignity doesn't add anything here, rather it would be a short for what elaborate justifications given by various ethical theories would require in terms of actions.

  15. Bit late in my response, spending most of yesterday reformatting my hard drive, reinstalling windows and other programmes. But I'm back. Oh, dear!

    Couldn't access the article - something to do with cookies, and I couldn't get it to work, though I did get Wesley J. Smith's diatribe. Clearly, the concept of dignity as some kind of mysterious 'instrinsic worth', in Wesley Smith's terms, won't do. And if that's the implication of anything that I have said, then I would abandon the concept straight away. This kind of moral hysteria will scarcely do. Besides which, the idea of dignity, so understood, leads people to act in ways that offend against dignity, as Wesley Smith does with great regularity.

    The question about Hitler is really a trick one, in a sense, because it's hard (to say no more) for any reasonable person to respect the life choices that Hitler made. Of course many did, and he was, by times, massively supported for making those choices. But though we may not respect his life choices, had he not died by suicide, and had he been taken into custody, still we would not have treated him as something without dignity. The dignity we would accord to him is that of respect for normative agency, if you like, the respect due to a being capable of making moral choices and being responsible for them.

    So, dignity does not characterise a person 'whenever [he or she] uses his or her freedom to live his or her life.' Nor are we assigning 'dignity to the inevitable choices autonomous persons make,' for some of those choices might be very bad indeed. However, we would treat them with the dignity appropriate to those able to take responsibility for their choices.

    Perhaps we can have all this without using the language of dignity, and certainly if dignity must be interpreted in the way that the Wesley Smiths of the world interpret it, then we had better find some other way to speak of this value. Yet the sense of persons facing troubles with dignity is a deeply rooted aspect of our regard for people. I am reminded of the prisoner Dr. Reichhardt (the mucician) in Hans Fallada's Everyone Dies Alone (which should be Everyone dies for oneself alone), and how he bore his imprisonment with a measure of cheerfulness and self-control, despite the madness all around him. Not everyone manages this, of course, but our regard for other people should include respect for their dignity, this potential for normative agency and control even in the midst of trouble, of which our lives are in large part composed. Part of respecting that dignity is treating people as capable of responsibility even as they fail to act responsibly.

    I hesitate to add this, for it is deeply personal - although that is what dignity is, in my view, in any case, something personal, something that speaks of potential for, or the achievement of, personal integrity - but I speak from some experience, here, of assisted dying, for my wife died at a Dignitas clinic in Zurich. It is my own view that she died with great dignity, and the dignity lay in the fact that, for her, her dying was of a piece with the rest of her life. And her being enabled to die in a way that respected her life as a whole, as she had conceived and lived it, was to treat her, not only as a free, autonomous agent, though it was also that, but as someone possessed of internal strength, character and worth, that even such a decision could be said, in some sense, as it was said of Socrates, to have ennobled her, so that she died, as she had lived, with great force and dignity, living out the Dignitas motto to the end: Menchenwürdig leben, Menchenwürdig sterben.

    Perhaps, in the end, the idea of dignity is purely emotive, and has no particular value as an ethical category. I could live with that. But it is still a valuable concept to have, even, I think, in ethical contexts, however indeterminate.

  16. Steve RileyJanuary 07, 2010

    Two, largely distinct questions, run through the foregoing.

    1/ The Macklin Challenge: explain why D adds something clear, meaningful or normative that is not found in the use of autonomy.

    2/ The Hitler Conundrum: does someone who has forfeited any grounds for respect still possess D?

    The way I would seek to answer the first question, and dissolve the second, is to separate the geneaology, grammar and phenomenology of D.

    Grammar (how it functions in discourse): it performs the limits of debate (a 'conversation stopper'); it denotes the phenomenological aspects of D; it connotes the genealogical origins of D.

    Genealogy (historical origins, near-synonyms and other linguistic baggage): this includes D as bearing, station, autonomy, sovereignty, personhood, and possessing intrinsic value.

    Phenomenology (how we perceive D): the absence of animality (or, positively, the presence of distinctively human characteristics); sovereign bearing.

    1/ The Macklin Challenge. D adds something phenomenologically that is not captured by autonomy. Plus, its grammar is important (as a conversation stopper), especially when it is opposed to scientism in clinical contexts. That D (and not autonomy) has this power is partially because of its rich genealogy but also because, normatively, the use of D is an insistence that there are more forms of dehumanisation that the loss of autonomy.

    2/ The Hitler Conundrum. Phenomenologically and genealogically, leadership and social elevation seems to entail or bring with them a form of dignity (bearing / self-control / forbearance). I don’t think anything of any great import rests on applying or denying this to Hitler. But there is something bestial in the level of hate that he represented and to that extent he lacked dignity (as an absence of the bestial). In fine, to manifest blind raging hate is to manifest something bestial. 'Lacking dignity' doesn't quite capture the magnitude of that, but it's more meaningful than autonomy in this context.

  17. Filipe Calvario (from Brazil)January 07, 2010

    Greywizard said:

    "Perhaps, in the end, the idea of dignity is purely emotive, and has no particular value as an ethical category. I could live with that. But it is still a valuable concept to have, even, I think, in ethical contexts, however indeterminate."


  18. Dear Greywizard, in case you are unable to access the paper on Wiley's interscience, I'd be all too happy to send you a complimentary pdf. Email me (perhaps create a suitably anonymous address to maintain your privacy if you wish).
    Stephen, normatively (I do ethics after all), neither your grammar nor your phenomenological points carry any weight (action guidance/justification - the objectives of ethics). What you call it's 'rich genealogy' to me is its baselessness, it's all over the place and nowhere. I suspect you might have said more in your forthcoming academic pieces (and I will look out for them), but as it stands you haven't yet provided us with an explanation of whether dignity is a primitive term of moral language (or derived from some other moral framework), or with hints on how it ought to be used appropriately in order to guide our actions (and how to justify them). Under genealogy there's talk of respect for persons and intrinsic value (of persons). You can call that dignity, but truth be told, in moral philosophy you wouldn't have to.

  19. Steve RileyJanuary 08, 2010

    I can't fault your response. If your starting position and needs are purely normative then phenomenology and grammar are of no use to you. [We can agree to gloss over the fact-value problem of a 'pure normativity'.]

    My position is premised on a (sub/pseudo) Wittgensteinian position that assumes that moral theory tries to say (in normative language) what can only be shown (which is where phenomenology comes in). One consequence of this is that critique of the language of dignity - "baselessness, it's all over the place and nowhere" - is fairly and equally levelled at all moral language.

    I think in that sense we're both consistent, even if we disagree!