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Charles Foster's important book—which I use in my graduate courses in theological ethics—goes far beyond the piece to which we are responding here.1 My students appreciate his expertise with respect to the ethical reasoning behind certain kinds of laws and legal decisions. This is an on-the-ground practical reasoning with which academics are often unfamiliar, and a welcome intervention.
The challenge to which he attempts to respond is as big as it gets. How, especially in its post-Christian incarnation, can bioethics (and, perhaps, Western culture more generally) take the concept of dignity seriously? A Christian understanding arrives at heretical conclusions within secular academic/medical discourse, but, as Foster notes, what remains of dignity has been criticised by Ruth Macklin and others as hopelessly vague.
But Foster knows that when we jettison the concept of dignity we become unable to ground even very basic moral judgements—ones shared across several different moral traditions. If we become unable to explain why it is wrong to use a human head for a football, or to sexually exploit a dead body, then something has gone very wrong.
And the problems go even deeper. As Foster suggests, without the concept of dignity it looks difficult to ground the moral standing of a good number of flourishing members of Homo sapiens. Indeed, in a culture that sees full moral standing as depending on something like autonomy, fellow members …
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.
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