Review: Human Dignity and Bioethics

Notice: The final, definitive version of this review has been published in Contemporary Sociology 39(2):191-192, 2010, doi:10.1177/0094306110361589ll, © SAGE Publications. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

This is a purpose-driven book. The President’s Council on Bioethics, from its inception under former U.S. President George W. Bush until its dissolution under current U.S. President Barack Obama, consistently justified its recommendations on embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and other issues through references to human dignity. The concept of human dignity grounds many different kinds of moral projects [see, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], so in itself such a move is not unusual. But as several critics, most prominently Ruth Macklin, pointed out, the concept of human dignity as used by the Council did not seem to have specific and consistent content independent of its rhetorical value for justifying the Council’s bioethical recommendations. The Council’s second [and final] chairman, Edmund Pellegrino, responded to this challenge to Council legitimacy by inviting contributions that would “illuminate, in a preliminary way, the question of human dignity and its proper place in bioethics” (p. 4).

The resulting edited volume, first published by the U.S. Government Printing Office and here reproduced largely unchanged by the University of Notre Dame Press, contains twenty chapters and eight short commentaries structured around six distinct topics in human dignity and bioethics. Readers should not expect to encounter a full range of positions and arguments about human dignity. The proposition that “the central purpose of bioethics is to protect human dignity” (p. x) is not up for discussion, as the collection simply omits any essay or commentary that seriously disputes the concept or utility of human dignity in bioethics. The result is a book that is not so much about whether human dignity exists or is applicable to bioethics, but about which version of human dignity is most suitable for addressing concerns shared by many of the volume’s contributors.

Religious versions of human dignity feature prominently. Many of the authors have religious affiliations, and many of the contributions make explicitly religious arguments about human dignity and bioethics. For such diverse contributors as former Council chair Leon Kass, Robert Kraynak, Gilbert Meilaender, and David Gelertner, religion is the only basis for a concept of human dignity, as the relationship between humans and God provides a comprehensive answer to the question of what makes humans unique in the first place. Essays by Peter Lawler and the late Richard Neuhaus highlight the fundamental role of religion in shaping the sense of human dignity that obtains in the American context. Holmes Rolston III and, less explicitly, Alfonso Gómez-Lobo each work to reconcile perceived conflicts between scientific and religious perspectives.

But this is not simply a book-length religious defense of human dignity. While the volume is hardly comprehensive, there are many different views represented in its pages, and not all of these align with religious perspectives. Daniel Dennett, for example, offers a variation on his “belief in belief” argument: whether or not there is a religious foundation for human dignity, it is probably good that we believe in human dignity and work together based on that belief. As commentary by Peter Lawler shrewdly notes, this kind of argument, precisely because it does not attempt to rule on matters of truth, creates discomfort in those who rely on truth claims to determine what is good, even when they agree with Dennett on the importance of the concept of human dignity for bioethics. Similarly discomfiting is Patricia Churchland’s sharp warning against the danger of moral certitude in the face of uncertainty, which she illustrates with several examples of past religious moral certitude that did not turn out very well.

Yet the reader is left with little doubt that religious perspectives have patterned this book, particularly in the organization of essays and uneven distribution of commentaries. The most aggressive and least civil commentaries are directed against essays by Dennett, Churchland, and Martha Nussbaum that challenge religious argument or suggest policies at odds with religious belief. Exchanges of essay and commentary are usually set up to resemble debates, but these are debates in the same way that professional wrestling matches are sporting events: matches may unfold in various ways, but the outcome has been predetermined. Instead of pairing Nussbaum’s contribution with Paul Weithman’s constructive criticism of her capabilities approach, the editors instead offer Diana Schaub’s dismissive and brief commentary, the substantive content of which is that Schaub does not like Nussbaum’s policy recommendations. Similarly, after failing entirely to engage the thrust of Churchland’s argument about moral certitude, Meilaender’s commentary on Churchland’s chapter suggests that since Churchland does not understand Roman Catholic perspectives on in vitro fertilization or contraception, she should remain silent altogether. When Richard Rorty referred to religion as a conversation-stopper, this is probably the kind of thing that he had in mind.

Readers interested in the content of elite public bioethical debate will find this book informative, though not exhaustive of debate and certainly not dispositive on the concept of human dignity. In terms of substantive content there is not much here for sociologists. By and large this volume is an historical record of one part of an elite debate among professional bioethicists from a narrow range of intellectual backgrounds. But as a practical example of the use of religious arguments in public debate, it provides interesting case study material for courses on politics, religion, and American society.

Michael S. Evans
University of California, San Diego

Human Dignity and Bioethics, edited by Edmund D. Pellegrino, Adam Schulman, and Thomas W. Merrill. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. 576pp. $40.00 paper. ISBN:9780268038922.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019