Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dignity Has Greater Explanatory Power Than Does Autonomy

The following is from my recently published article in Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics 26.2 (Summer 2010), "Dignity Never Been Photographed: Scientific Materialism, Enlightenment Liberalism, and Steven Pinker." (endnote omitted)

According to Pinker, “[I]nformed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany.” Although it is true that the Nazi victims were not provided with informed consent, it does not follow that the absence of that informed consent is the reason why the Nazi research was wicked.
After all, suppose we discovered that half of the Nazis’s victims had come to believe Adolph Hitler’s rhetoric and concluded that they were in fact to blame for all that was wrong with Germany. And imagine that some of them willingly became Mengele’s guinea pigs and the remaining went to the gas chambers because of their love for the Fatherland. These courses of action would be entirely voluntary, an exercise of the principle of autonomy. Yet, the reason why these people were gassed was precisely the same reason why the non-voluntary victims were gassed. A bad reason to do evil does not become less of a bad reason simply because the victim voluntarily participates in his own unjustified homicide. Replacing intrinsic dignity with autonomy actually diminishes that wrong, for it turns an intrinsic wrong into a conditional one. So, ironically, if this analysis is correct, it is autonomy and not dignity that is not a necessary condition for assessing the wickedness of these acts. Thus, it is the idea that human beings have intrinsic dignity that best accounts for our understanding of the wrongness of the Nazi atrocities.
The entire article may be downloaded here.

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