Human Dignity : A Study in Medical Ethics

Abstract: Human dignity is an enunciated ethical principle in many societies, and it has elicited a great deal of interest, not least because it is central in health care. However, it has also been the subject of criticism. Some have argued that it is sufficient to rely on a principle of autonomy, and that dignity is a redundant principle or concept in health care. Other discussions have focused on the precise meaning of dignity, and how a principle of dignity should be interpreted and applied. This dissertation discusses questions on the principle of dignity and the meaning of the concept. In addition to a theoretical analysis of these questions, a qualitative research study has been carried out, based on interviews with physicians in palliative and neonatal care, and hospital chaplains, looking at dignity at the beginning and end of life. This dissertation can be categorised as empirical ethics because of its methodological approach. Based on a narrative analysis of the interviews, the results from the study shed light on the theoretical discussion on dignity. Through the history of ideas, dignity has often been linked to human abilities such as autonomy and rationality. However, autonomy is only one of the aspects which emerged from the qualitative research in this dissertation. Other aspects introduced into the discussion on dignity include human vulnerability, interdependence and the responsibility to face vulnerability in others. Some theoretical perspectives on dignity are criticised in the light of the empirical results. Furthermore, the dissertation includes a theological perspective where a Christological view – connected to Bakhtin’s ethics of responsibility – forms a critique to both the Kantian deontological perspective and dignity acquired by virtue. The dissertation also considers how the results can be applied to medical practice.