Intended for healthcare professionals


Dignity is a useless concept

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 18 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1419
  1. Ruth Macklin, professor of medical ethics (macklin{at}
  1. Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1300 Morris Park Avenue, Bronx, NY 10461, USA

    It means no more than respect for persons or their autonomy

    Appeals to human dignity populate the landscape of medical ethics. Claims that some feature of medical research or practice violates or threatens human dignity abound, often in connection with developments in genetics or reproductive technology. But are such charges coherent? Is dignity a useful concept for an ethical analysis of medical activities? A close inspection of leading examples shows that appeals to dignity are either vague restatements of other, more precise, notions or mere slogans that add nothing to an understanding of the topic.

    Possibly the most prominent references to dignity appear in the many international human rights instruments, such as the United Nations' universal declaration of human rights.1 With few exceptions, these conventions do not address medical treatment or research. A leading exception is the Council of Europe's convention for the protection of human rights and dignity of the human being with regard to the application of biology and medicine.2 In this and other documents “dignity” seems to have no meaning beyond what is implied by the principle of medical ethics, respect for persons: the need to obtain voluntary, informed consent; the requirement to protect confidentiality; and the need to avoid discrimination and abusive practices.

    References to dignity emerged in the 1970s in discussions about the process of dying, in particular, the desire to avoid burdensome, life prolonging medical treatment. Often couched in terms of “the right to die with dignity,” this development led to the enactment of statutes in the United States that officially recognised the right of patients to make advance directives. The first such statute, the California Natural Death Act 1976, began: “In recognition of the dignity and privacy which patients have a right to expect, the Legislature hereby declares that the laws of the State of California shall recognize the right of an adult person to make a written directive instructing his physician to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining procedures in the event of a terminal condition.” In this context dignity seems to be nothing other than respect for autonomy.

    Commenting on the appearance of this vague usage in connection with end of life treatment, a US presidential commission observed: “Phrases like… ‘death with dignity’… have been used in such conflicting ways that their meanings, if they ever were clear, have become hopelessly blurred.”3

    An altogether different use of dignity in relation to death occurs when medical students practise doing procedures (usually intubation) on newly dead bodies. Some medical ethicists charge that these educational efforts violate the dignity of the dead person. But this situation clearly has nothing to do with respect for autonomy since the object is no longer a person but a cadaver. There may be reasonable concern about how the dead person's relatives would feel if they knew that the body was being used in this way. But that concern has nothing to do with the dignity of the dead body and everything to do with respect for the wishes of the living.

    The US President's Council on Bioethics, appointed by President George W Bush, issued its first report in July 2002. Its title, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, illustrates the prominent place the concept of dignity occupies in the committee's discussions. In one of many references the report says that “a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore their equal in dignity and humanity.”4 The report contains no analysis of dignity or how it relates to ethical principles such as respect for persons. In the absence of criteria that can enable us to know just when dignity is violated, the concept remains hopelessly vague. Although there are many persuasive arguments against human reproductive cloning, to invoke the concept of dignity without clarifying its meaning is to use a mere slogan.

    Appeals to dignity are either vague restatements… or mere slogans

    The president's council is equally concerned about existing modes of assisted reproduction. Draft documents specify scientific experiments that the committee would like the US Congress to prohibit in a law to be called the “Dignity of Human Procreation Act.”5 One can readily identify procreative acts between two human beings that are abusive or degrading. But it is a mystery how modes of in vitro fertilisation can have or lack dignity.

    Embedded Image

    Dignity has its origins in religious and human rights writings

    Credit: ©UN PHOTO 2000/TOPFOTO

    Human genetics is another prominent area where concerns about violations of dignity exist. One chapter of a report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is entitled “Genetics, freedom and human dignity.”6 To its credit, this report goes well beyond the US President's Council in specifying a meaning of dignity in research on behavioural genetics. The report refers to the sense of responsibility as “an essential ingredient in the conception of human dignity, in the presumption that one is a person whose actions, thoughts and concerns are worthy of intrinsic respect, because they have been chosen, organised and guided in a way which makes sense from a distinctively individual point of view.”6 Although this renders the concept of human dignity meaningful, it is nothing more than a capacity for rational thought and action, the central features conveyed in the principle of respect for autonomy.

    Why, then, do so many articles and reports appeal to human dignity, as if it means something over and above respect for persons or for their autonomy? A possible explanation is the many religious sources that refer to human dignity, especially but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings. However, this religious source cannot explain how and why dignity has crept into the secular literature in medical ethics. Nor can the prominence of the concept in human rights documents, since only a small portion of the literature in medical ethics addresses the links between health and human rights.

    Although the aetiology may remain a mystery, the diagnosis is clear. Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content.


    • Competing interests None declared.