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Competing concepts of human dignity: A lethal Dignitas dose


In a dominant tradition stemming from the Enlightenment, it is our rational will — the human power to reason and to exercise choice — that gives us moral worth or dignity. To be a rational, self-legislating being, as Immanuel Kant put it, is "the basis of the dignity of human nature". The Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas, which offers, for a fee, to terminate the lives of those with incurable and irreversible medical conditions, appears to focus above all on this aspect of our humanity. The "dignity" that the clinic purports to promote and respect is above all the dignity of exercising the rational will; and this explains the elaborate procedures designed to make sure that the patient is rationally choosing to end his or her life, without confusion or external pressure. Clients are carefully interviewed on arrival at the clinic to ascertain that they are there of their own volition, and understand what they are doing. They are then interviewed again, after a "cooling off" period of one day, to check that they are steadfast in their resolve to end their lives. And finally, on the day of the killing, they are again questioned about whether they know what is about to happen, what will be the effect of the drugs administered, and so on. The use of the term "killing" may strike some readers as hostile or critical, but there is no such necessary implication. It is a matter of simple factual accuracy to describe the clinic's work as that of killing people, or, perhaps, helping them to kill themselves. The euphemistic (not to say Orwellian) term "assisted dying", used for example by Mary Warnock in her recent book Easeful Death, should cause disquiet precisely because it attempts to divert attention from what is actually being done in such cases.

I don't however want to discuss the question of euthanasia here, but instead look at the more general question of what is the basis or grounding of our human "dignity". Do we have dignity or worth merely by virtue of being human? If we look at the qualifications a candidate has to display in order to pass the tests required by Dignitas, they are very far from being a matter of simply belonging to the class of human beings. Something much more active is required articulacy, moral responsibility, ability to respond to searching questions at interview, and so on. And one can clearly imagine many confused, distressed or disabled terminally ill patients failing the tests. So perhaps paradoxically, the "dignity" that is the focus of attention in the clinic's operations is by implication a property pertaining only to a qualified subset of human beings.

If we are to make acceptable use of the concept of human dignity, it seems clear that it needs to be a more "universalist" notion than this. But in the past, dignity was the very opposite of something universal. The Latin word dignitas, in its classical usage, most frequently referred to some exalted or honoured status that attached to someone by virtue of their rank or position — the dignity of a consul, for example, or of a patrician as opposed to a plebeian. This usage spills over into English term "dignity", so that when Prince Florizel in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale leaves the royal palace in disguise to woo the humble Perdita, a courtier describes him as someone "who has his Dignity and Duty both cast off, Fled from his Father, from his hopes, and with a Shepherd's daughter". Luckily, of course, it eventually turns out that Perdita, unbeknownst to anyone, is herself a King's daughter, so the threat to Florizel's dignity which would have been occasioned by his marrying someone of low birth is happily avoided.

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