Dignity, By Virtue of Bodily Requirements

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By: Robert Schmaltz

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life…”

~ Hans Jonas (1984)

Human dignity refers to a kind of value that is difficult to distinguish without first recognizing something unique to the embodied human, the capacity to not only sustain life but radically proliferate a state of wellbeing and the capacity to absolutely annihilate. Humans can improve upon the excellences of physical conditions almost ceaselessly, tenderly care for the most fragile of conditions, and we can break bodies beyond comprehension. Why has some skepticism emerged from comparing the value of dignity to the function of autonomy? I uphold the view that for autonomy to have any worth, which it does, it must be preceded by the recognizable value of dignity. Ultimately, the objective value of human dignity is held in the practice of living and sustaining embodied lives.


In 2003, Ruth Macklin wrote an article on the notion of human dignity published in The BMJ (British Medical Journal) that has become a touchstone for ‘dignity deniers.’ Focused primarily on dignity’s place in medical treatment and research, Macklin writes, “dignity seems to have no meaning beyond what is implied by the principle of medical ethics, respect for persons: the need to obtain voluntary, informed consent; the requirement to protect confidentiality; and the need to avoid discrimination and abusive practices” (2003; 1419). That is to say, dignity has no meaningful function beyond that which ‘autonomy’ has covered already.

Autonomy does provide valuable content to the area of medical ethics, chiefly in support of the interpretive and deliberative models of physician-to-patient relationships. These models emerged from a critical response to countless abuses suffered due to the excesses of paternalism in medical ethics, abuses suffered mostly by women, children, minority groups, and the poor. The principle of autonomy aims to preserve the equivalent agency of the thinking-self and the acting-self of each person (Korsgaard; 107), helping physicians and patients avoid both direct and indirect abuses, respecting the norms of choice, preference, and self-determination.

Dignity and autonomy do not express the same aims, nor hold the same place for human value. To the effect that autonomy aims to preserve the thinking-self and the acting-self of each person, dignity aims to preserve the embodied self. Recognizing the moral necessity for protections serving the ends of preserving the embodied self gave rise to the guiding medical principles of autonomy, beneficence, justice, and non-maleficence.

Dignity arises from humans as we are interdependent and capable of choosing to order our lives in such a way that promotes specific living values over others, such as flourishing and inclusion over suffering and alienation. As Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed in 2012, “People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters.” With dignity we recognize what matters, and with dignity we act to sustain what matters most.

If we cannot endorse our own nature as moral agents embodying a reasoning kind, then nothing can be universally normative at all (Korsgaard; 107). That we are embodied creatures both vulnerable in our existence and in possession of outsized powers capable of shaping large portions of the natural order, accounts for the necessity of a common understanding of dignity. Judith Butler offers a view on the nature of vulnerability: “Vulnerability to one another, that is to say, even when conceived as reciprocal, marks a pre-contractual dimension of our social dimensions.” This, I believe, is what infuses dignity with content, by virtue of bodily requirements.

The body, in all its dimensions, is what we are speaking of when we speak of human dignity. Western assumptions about the mind and body, the signified individual and the sign of society, affect theoretical points of view and ethical paradigms in ways that obscure living realities of our embodied lives. Leon Kass writes that such dualistic notions of personhood, as infused into the culture by Descartes and by Kant, “denies the importance of life’s concrete particularity, lived always locally, corporeally, and in a unique trajectory from zygote in the womb to body in the coffin… not all dignity consists in reason and freedom.” The answer to threats on human dignity must not ignore what is urgent, or deny “dignity to the human bodily life as lived” (Foster; 146).

We must consider what human dignity requires of us that no other notions about human nature ask. Human dignity asks that we embody a form of mutual reverence for one another, with the understanding that the goods or excellences of our embodied lives are achieved in direct proportion to how we order ourselves with regard to one another. When we talk about dignity we are not talking about our thinking and acting self. We are talking about the self and the way we value our self not as choosing to sink or swim as individuals but as persons whose lives are indebted, interdependent on one another.

Robert Schmaltz is completing an M.A. in Ethics & Society at Fordham University. His research interests include Political Philosophy, Biopolitics and Bioethics. You can follow him on Twitter @RLSCHMALTZ and read more of his work on his blog.

Judith Butler, “Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?” in Radical Philosophy. Adormo Prize Lecture, September 11, 2012. Published Nov/Dec 2012. (English). Web. Accessed, 3.18.2015. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/can-one-lead-a-good-life-in-a-bad-life/

Charles Foster, Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law. Oxford: Hart Publishing Ltd. 2011.

Christine Korsgaard. “The Sources of Normativity” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University. November 16 and 17, 1992. Web. <http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/k/korsgaard94.pdf&gt;

Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why human beings need the virtues. Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing. 1999.

Ruth Macklin, “Dignity is a useless concept,” The British Medical Journal (BMJ) 2003; 327:1419-20


Written By Fordham University Center for Ethics Education

Dignity, By Virtue of Bodily Requirements was originally published @ Ethics and Society and has been syndicated with permission.


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