Alasdair Cochrane works at an organization called the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in the UK. The journal Bioethics has just published Cochrane’s article “Undignified Bioethics” (subscription required), in which he argues that the concept of inherent human dignity should be rejected. Cochrane correctly notes that treating all humans as though they possess inherent dignity merely by virtue of the fact that they are human gets in the way of the really nifty medical experiments we could perform on the defenseless among us if we were to jettison that notion:
This conception of dignity as inherent moral worth certainly seems coherent enough as an idea. Indeed, we can also see why this conception of dignity is employed in certain debates around bioethics. For if all individual human beings possess dignity, then they should not be viewed simply as resources that we can treat however we please. To take an example then, it may be that we could achieve rapid and significant progress in medical science if we were to conduct wide-ranging medical experiments on groups of human beings. However, because human beings have dignity, so it is argued, this means that they possess a particular quality that grounds certain moral obligations and rights. These obligations and rights restrict what we may permissibly do to them. As such, inflicting great harms on individual humans, as would be inflicted in medical experiments, is impermissible on the grounds that human individuals possess dignity. The dignity of individual human beings prevents us from doing certain acts to them, even if those acts would lead to great social benefits.
Therefore, we need to “argue” over which of us humans are exempt from medical experimentation and which of us are fair game for the Mengele wannabes:
Obviously, given controversies over abortion, stem cell research, genetic interventions, animal experimentation, euthanasia and so on, bioethics does need to engage in debates over which entities possess moral worth and why. But these are best conducted by using the notion of ‘moral status’ and arguing over the characteristics that warrant possession of it. Simply stipulating that all and only human beings possess this inherent moral worth because they have dignity is arbitrary and unhelpful. . . . I urge for an undignified bioethics.
This is where materialism inevitably leads. Cochrane believes that human beings are purely material – nothing but matter in motion. Given that premise, how can one argue with his logic? Why should we not treat objects like, well, objects. In a materialist world “justice” is a meaningless word, and the strong exploit the weak for their own ends.
I wonder if Cochrane would stick to his position if we conducted the “argument” he urges upon us and decide that foppish Brit materialists fall in the “exploit at will” category?