Nature attacks ‘human dignity’

Human dignity is a contradictory, “notoriously subjective” and “slippery” concept, according to the world’s leading science journal, Nature. In a brief editorial commenting on restrictions on animal research in Switzerland, the journal supported a controversial stand taken by evolutional psychologist Stephen Pinker, of Harvard University, that human dignity, as a bioethical concept, is “stupid”. “Dignity as a concept cannot be a director of moral judgement,” insists Nature.

The notion of human dignity is coming under attack from a growing number of bioethicists and scientists who claim that it is too squishy to serve as a rationale for bioethical decisions. They prefer the harder-edged concept of autonomy. This, they say, is safeguard enough for all the elements of what we normally regard as human dignity. The underlying reason for the attack seems to be a reluctance to concede “human dignity” to embryos or, at the other end of the life cycle, to comatose patients.

Admittedly, Switzerland’s views on the “dignity” of animals and plants do sound rather squishy. Its 2004 constitution stipulates that the “dignity of creatures” must be taken into account in animal research. Zurich’s two largest institutes have decided to appeal to the nation’s supreme court after a local court ruled that they could not experiment on macaque monkeys to study how the brain adapts to change. They claim that the ban is a serious threat to basic research in Switzerland. ~ Nature, June 11

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