I was at a conference last summer where, amongst other topics, there was a discussion of the concept of ‘dignity’. It was not a philosophical discussion. It was about whether, and how far, the value we attach to human dignity can help us make moral judgements about public policy in difficult cases. It is a concept recognised, among other places, in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the post-war German constitution and in the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Two hypothetical cases were put forward for discussion. One involved the case of a terminally ill child. In this case there was a conflict between the doctors and the parents over the doctors’ wish not to continue further treatment. The child was put under the protection of the courts and a judge had to decide whether, or not, treatment should be continued.
In the other case, a driverless car, containing a passenger with a capability to override the driverless feature, was involved in a collision with a cyclist who died as a result.
The possible guidance provided by dignity
The contention of some of those participating in the discussion is that the concept of human dignity helps us to see what the right decisions in these two cases are.
In the first case it seemed to be suggested that, as long as there were offers of continued treatment for the child from equally qualified and equipped medical sources, then the dignity to be attached to the life of the child required that those offers should be accepted. Furthermore, a sense of human dignity required that the technical judgement of doctors should not over-ride the human judgement of parents.
In the second case it seemed to be suggested that we should not be so blinded by the marvels of artificial intelligence that we ‘personify’ the on-board computer, attribute blame for the accident to it, and become disinclined to attach blame or responsibility elsewhere. We should instead distinguish clearly between machines and humans. The responsibility of the car assemblers, the computer designers and programmers, and the makers of the electronics, as well as the passenger, needed to be recognised.
The shortcomings of the guidance
A different perspective could be taken on each case.
In the first hypothetical case, the doctors were taking a position in the light of their knowledge in the’ best interests’ of the child. The conflict with the parents was over who is better placed to determine the ‘best interests’. In such disputes the placing of the child under the guardianship of a third party, the protection of the courts, seems a reasonable precaution. The issue is in defining the circumstances in which third party protection is called for.
The further problem seems to lie in the judicial process that follows. Adjudication could be given to a judge (as in this case). It could be given to a panel of experts. It could be given to a jury.
None of these avenues is problem free. A judge can be biased. A jury carries with it an unknown baggage train of moral pre-conceptions. A panel of experts might be seen to be inclined towards the doctors on grounds of professional solidarity and not wanting to second guess.
In such cases there is no perfect solution. Guardianship, and each method of trying to decide what is right for the child, have their flaws. But the concept of ‘dignity’ does not seem to help us.
In the second case, of the driverless car, the issue is around the difficulties of the attribution of responsibility when there are multiple actors and agents involved. In some cases it will be very clear. For example, the passenger might have panicked and incorrectly activated the over-ride. In other cases, the responsibility might lie elsewhere – for example in malfunctioning electronics. But it does not seem that the concept of dignity carries us very far in the attribution process.
Expanding the uses of dignity
An important motivation that lies behind calling on a venerable concept such as dignity in order to guide us to right decisions is to demonstrate its continued relevance in today’s world, to give it new meaning, and to expand its use into new areas of ethical concern.
One area where the use of dignity has developed in the post-war world is in extending the notion of ’rights’. The extension is from rights that focus on procedure, such as the right to vote, to rights that focus on substance such as the right to shelter and to a clean environment.
The idea behind this extension of the use of dignity is that, now many democratic societies have grown richer, we can enlarge our empathy and understanding for what it is to be human. According to this use of dignity we can use our riches to ensure that the basic needs of everyone are met. Beyond this we can move into new areas of concern such as the environment.
A second area, illustrated by the two cases, is in relation to the new ethical challenges posed by medical and technological advances.
Setting the terms of the debate
Mobilizing the concept of dignity can be viewed as an attempt to set the terms of the debate in these new areas of social concern. It is a way of framing the key issue or issues. It provides the perspective against which we can arrive at the right decision. In the case of the EU, an example is provided by the EU’s Data Protection Supervisor that deploys the concept of dignity in an attempt to frame the ethical issues around privacy in our era of big data.
In general we have to be cautious about the use of framing devices. They can be misused to manipulate the terms of a debate. They can also be misused to create bias. A privacy issue can be framed in terms of a ‘right to be forgotten’. The same claim could be described as the ‘right to conceal’. The former has a positive ring. The latter a negative vibe.
The two hypothetical cases we discussed at the meeting, illustrate that dignity does not always work to provide the relevant frame. In the first case the more relevant frame seems to be around third party guardianship – the circumstances in which it is justified and the procedures for exercising that role. In the second case the framing issue is around agency. In the case of privacy, the framework of dignity may also divert attention from the different underlying ethical and social issues.
A second way of thinking about the use of dignity in new areas of social concern is as an umbrella, or canopy, for bringing together different but related values. For example substantive social rights such as the right to shelter, or to a home, or to family life can all be seen as related to an overarching, or umbrella, value of human dignity.
This is a less demanding use of the value to be attached to human dignity. It simply says that as we confront new areas of concern we should keep the link to our old core values in order to find guidance on the right way to decide.
No doubt this is well intended advice. But, in the two cases illustrated, the appeal to dignity as a linking element did not seem to work. On the contrary it seemed to help obscure the underlying ethical questions.
A third, but more demanding role for dignity is that it should be regarded as the decisive ethical concern. In this role it pre-empts and over-rides other concerns we might have.
One area where a pre-emptive role seems applicable is in relation to the many new ‘end of life’ decisions faced by societies with aging populations. It seems as though the right to decide on a dignified death should rest with adults able to make an informed decision for themselves and that society should respect this right.
The difficulty in this application is that there is a potential for abuse, misapplication and manipulation. Individuals may abuse the right, carers and next-of-kin may do so, and society as a whole may shirk the cost of care for the elderly. It seems therefore that while the concept of dignity is central in such cases, it cannot pre-empt, or trump, other concerns.
Dignity: a limited role
What all this means is that we need to recognize the limitations of an overarching concept such as dignity. It does not always provide us with the relevant frame, or a helpful link with past valuations. It is even less likely to be pre-emptive.
As we face new ethical challenges it is important for us to give new meaning to old values. But it is equally important for us to be open to new ways of valuing and to new values.