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Dignity's steer, dignity's subjects, dignity's synonyms? Three questions for dignity's supporter(s)
  1. Richard Huxtable
  1. Correspondence to Professor Richard Huxtable, Centre for Ethics in Medicine, School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Canynge Hall, 39 Whatley Road, Bristol BS8 2PS, UK; R.Huxtable{at}

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In Human Dignity in Bioethics and Law, Foster makes an engaging case for considering dignity the ultimate adjudicator over a vast array of bioethical (and bio-legal) dilemmas, since—on his account—it is the value, which underpins all others. Notwithstanding the book's merits (it is, eg, refreshing to hear a barrister regret the need for laws: p. 22), I emerged with various questions, three of which I outline here.

Dignity's steer?

First, what moral steer does (Fosterian) dignity provide? Foster indicates that every human has dignity, no matter what (p. 12). If dignity is ineliminable, regardless of what is done to (or by) the human then how can we use the concept, that is, when can we say that a practice is contrary to (or perhaps even simply disrespectful of) human dignity? For example, Foster apparently judges human enhancement to be an affront to human dignity. His account is explicitly tethered to humans; lurking within his exploration of ‘humanness’ is the idea that humans are what humans do, as well as what they have evolved to become (p. 26). If this is a fair reading then how can we coherently object to anything that humans do or wish to do, enhancement included? Foster risks seeing dignity everywhere, which …

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  • Competing interests The author was the external examiner for Charles Foster's PhD, in which some of the questions posed in this paper were explored.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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