On June 13, 2013 Dr. Edmund Pellegrino died at the age of 92. (Obituaries are available here and here.) For bioethicists this is a time to reflect, but in particular affiliates of the Petrie Flom Center will recall that one of the very first events that that the PFC hosted was a distinguished panel to discuss the concept of human dignity in bioethics, featuring Martha Nussbaum, Nick Bostrom, Dan Brock, and Edmund Pellegrino. (I recall attending the event as a student.) The webcast is still available, at the bottom of the page, here. This event commemorated the release of the Presidential Bioethics Advisory Commission’s new book on the topic of human dignity. Dr. Pellegrino chaired the PBAC, and his contribution to the book is available online here.
My recollection of the book and that panel was that the concept of human dignity was very difficult to pin down. Is it a property of individuals? Or of the species? Or of a particular culture within that species? Is it possible to disrespect dignity while fully respecting the rights of an individual? Does a larger set of entities (e.g., embryos) possess dignity than possess rights?
In his contribution, Dr. Pellegrino drew from international treaties and other documents to suggest that human dignity is actually the more fundamental moral insight, making concepts like rights derivative thereof. He wrote that human dignity is “the first principle and the inescapable grounding for all human rights.” Assuming this insight is correct, it still leaves open the question of whether rights exhaust all there is to say about human dignity, or whether there is some residual value that we need to represent and respect by additional talk of “dignity”
As one reads Dr. Pellegrino’s work, it sometimes verges from the analytic to what Kant might call the synthetic, or others might call the mystical. For example, in his contribution to the PBAC dignity volume, he approvingly quotes Kukuljevic as: “One transcends experience by means of concepts which make experience possible and are only meaningful in relation to experience.” In the analytic philosophy and sense of practicality that dominates American bioethics today, such profundity, which risks losing rigor and meaning in its earnest reaching for truth, is rarely seen. There is a certain irony in the affinity of this methodology with the “conservative” politics of our era.
To end, I give you Dr. Pellegrino’s own ending of his dignity essay:
Sadly, the world had to experience the massive deprivations of human dignity of World War II and the world scene following it to understand human dignity in a way no purely conceptual analysis could. To paraphrase John Keats, dignity became an axiom only when it was “proven” on the “pulses” of the whole world. Only when we all had gone some way on the “same steps” did we grasp how intimately our humanity was embedded in our inherent dignity. We then understood what happens to dignity when humanity is “delivered” to tyrannical regimes; let us hope we will not also have to learn what happens to human dignity when humanity is delivered to “the process of technicalization,” the “problem” that troubled Marcel.