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Human dignity in bioethics and law
  1. Charles Foster
  1. Correspondence to Dr Charles Foster, The Ethox Centre, Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK;Charles.Foster{at}

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Dignity tends to be unpopular among philosophers. At least when they are doing the day job.

It is not hard to see why. It is hard not to distrust a principle used to defend and denounce abortion, and to bay for the blood and pray for the life of a murderer. Its ubiquity in international and domestic declarations and codes does not help either. It is often used there as a placeholder, and the suspicion is that that is because it has no real substance. What substance it has, it is often thought, is creepily Judaeo-Christian: borrowed from the Imago Dei, and dressed up dishonestly as Cicero or Kant to deceive the unlettered. So, whether it is hopelessly amorphous, incurably theological or just plain incoherent, it has no place in the lexicon of a serious thinker.

But sometimes nothing but dignity will do.

It is wrong to use the head of a dead person as a football, for medical students to practise vaginal examinations on a woman in permanent vegetative state or to let youths at a Casualty Department gaze lustfully at the undraped body of a seriously brain-damaged girl—even though she enjoys their attention. The wrongness can only properly be described in the language of dignity, or in some language that is necessarily dependent on dignity. Respect …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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