[...] philosophies of the human person that affirm non-material properties like "human dignity" are not items of real knowledge. [...] philosophies of the human person, though they may be privately embraced and practiced by individual citizens in accordance with their own religious sensibilities or believed on the basis of utility5, none of these philosophical anthropologies may ever serve as the basis on which a society may regulate research and practices of bioethical controversy, such as embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, or reproductive technologies.
Vol. 26:2 summer 2010 dignity neVer been photographed: sCientifiC materialism, enlightenment liberalism, and steVen pinKer FRANCIS J. BECKWITH, PHD Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were And into every masterpiece of literature for dignity… Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed Dignity never been photographed I went into the red, went into the black Into the valley of dry bone dreams So many roads, so much at stake So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take To find dignity - Bob Dylan, from the song, “Dignity.” 1991 Special Rider Music- In March 2008, the President’s Council on Bioethics published a volume entitled, Human Dignity and Bioethics.1 It consists of essays penned by council members as well as other scholars and practitioners invited to contribute. As one would guess, the idea of human dignity and what it means for bioethics, both in theory and in practice, is the theme that dominates each of the works contributed to this impressive volume. But for those who have been following or participating in the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary world of secular bioethics during the past fifteen or twenty years, the insertion of the idea of “human dignity,” or even the word “dignity,” as the anthropological foundation of bioethics is highly unusual. Much of the cutting edge literature in bioethics, with few exceptions, tends to employ the language of modern political theory and contemporary analytic political philosophy and jurisprudence. So, for example, one finds in these cutting-edge works discussions about the meaning and implementation of the principles of autonomy, justice, nonmaleficence, and beneficence, as well as calls for the application of these principles to what constitutes physician neutrality, informed consent, and patients’ rights. This project often goes by the name principlism. There is, of course, much that this project has contributed to the study and practice of bioethics. For each principle and its application has a long and noble pedigree about which many of us hold a variety of opinions. But what distinguishes principlism from the concept of “human dignity,” and what makes this central concern of the council’s volume so astounding, is that advocates of principlism typically intend for it to be a means by which a physician, ethics committee, nurse practitioner, general counsel, etc., need not delve 93 ethiCs & mediCine into the metaphysical question for which “human dignity” is offered as a partial answer, namely, “Who and what are we, and can we know it?”2 To put it another way, if bioethics commits itself to the idea that “human dignity” is essential to its practice, as the President’s Council suggests, it follows that bioethics must embrace a philosophy of the human person, a philosophical anthropology, if you will, that can provide substantive content to the notion of “human dignity.” But such a suggestion seems to run counter to two ideas that are dominant in the secular academy: (1) Enlightenment Liberalism, and (2) Scientific Materialism. Enlightenment Liberalism is, roughly, the view that a state that aspires to justice and fairness ought not to embrace one view of the human person as the correct view because to do so would be to violate the principles essential to libe
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