Professor of Bioethics
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Some people hold that all human beings have a special type of dignity which is the basis for (1) the obligation all of us have not to kill them, (2) the obligation to take their well-being into account when we act, and (3) even the obligation to treat them as we would have them treat us. Indeed, those who hold that all human beings possess a special type of dignity almost always also hold that human beings are equal in fundamental dignity.
Other thinkers—for example, Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and Ronald Dworkin—deny that all human beings have a special type of dignity. They maintain that only some human beings, because of their possession of certain characteristics in addition to their human nature (for example, an immediately exercisable capacity for self-consciousness, or for rational deliberation), have full moral worth. In this paper I defend the first of these two positions. I will argue that all human beings, regardless of age, size, stage of development, or immediately exercisable capacities, have equal fundamental dignity. .
Let me begin by making a few remarks about the general concept of dignity. Dignity is not a distinct property or quality that we directly know by an intuition. So it is not a good argument to say that it is wrong to kill human beings because they possess an intrinsic dignity—dignity just means, having some nature or property that makes it such that it is wrong to kill this being, so such an argument would be question-begging. The question is: what is that nature or property, and why does possessing it make it wrong to kill the one who possesses it?
I will argue that what distinguishes human beings from other animals, what makes human beings persons rather than things, is their rational nature. Human beings are rational creatures by virtue of possessing natural capacities for conceptual thought, deliberation, and free choice, that is, the natural capacity to shape their own lives.
These basic, natural capacities to reason and make free choices are possessed by every human being, even those who cannot immediately exercise them. One’s existence as a person thus derives from the kind of substantial entity one is, a human being—and this is the ground for dignity in the most important sense. Hence one cannot lose one’s fundamental personal dignity as long as one exists as a human being.
In truth, all human beings have real dignity simply because they are persons—substantial entities with a natural capacity for conceptual thought and free choice. All human beings have this capacity, so all human beings are persons. It is precisely this truth that is at stake in the debates about killing human embryos, fetuses, and severely retarded, demented, or debilitated human beings, and many other debates in bioethics.
To explain the basis of human dignity, and how human beings inherently possess dignity, I will first examine one proposal that denies that every human being has an intrinsic dignity which grounds full moral worth; then I will present and defend my position; finally, I will show how the feature (nature) that grounds full moral worth is possessed by human beings in all developmental stages, including the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages, and in all conditions, including severely cognitively impaired human beings (sometimes called “marginal cases”).
The Capacity For Enjoyment or Suffering as a Criterion
Some philosopher’s deny that all human beings possesses full moral worth, an say, instead, that all animals deserve moral consideration, and that, indeed, some non-human animals have a higher degree of moral worth than some human beings. This, of course, is the animal welfarist position. I will take Peter Singer’s position as an example. According to Peter Singer, and other animal welfarists, the criterion of moral worth is simply the ability to experience enjoyment and suffering. Singer frequently quotes Jeremy Bentham: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Singer then presents the following argument for this position: All and only beings which have interests have moral status; but all and only beings that can (now) experience suffering or enjoyment have interests; therefore, all and only beings that can (now) experience suffering or enjoyment have moral status. In other words: the basis of dignity or moral worth (according to this position) is having interests, and since all animals have interests, it follows that all animals have some degree of moral worth. But it also holds that there are varying degrees of moral worth, proportionate to the different levels of interest.
There are several difficulties with this position. Here I will present four.
First, although Singer has made famous the slogan, “All animals are equal,” this theory actually leads to denying that all animals, including all humans, have equal moral worth or basic rights. Singer means that “All animals are equal” in the sense that all animals are due “equal consideration.” Where the interests of two animals are similar in quality and magnitude, then those interests should be counted as equal when deciding what to do, both as individuals and in social policies and actions. However, as Singer himself points out, (on this view) some animals can perform actions which others cannot, and thus have interests which those others do not. So the moral status of all animals is not, in fact, equal. One would not be required to extend the right to vote, or to education in reading and arithmetic to pigs, since they are unable to perform such actions. But this point leads to problems when we attempt to compare interests. According to this view it is the interests that matter, not the kind of being that is affected by one’s actions. So, on this view, it would logically follow that if a human child had a toothache, and a juvenile rat had a slightly more severe toothache, then we would be morally required to devote our resources to alleviating the rat’s toothache rather than the human’s. That is, since it is the interests that count—not the kind of being whose interests we are considering—if a rat has more pressing interests than an infant, then we must place the interests of the rat above the interests of the infant.
Second, consider, in general, the condition of a human newborn infant who will die shortly (and so does not appear to have long-term future interests), or a severely cognitively impaired human. On the animal welfarist view these beings will be due less consideration than a more mature horse or pig, for a mature horse or pig will have richer and more developed interests. Since the horse and the pig have higher cognitive and emotional capacities (in the sense of immediately or nearly immediately exercisable capacities) than those newborn infants (that will die shortly) and severely cognitively impaired humans, then the interests of the horse and the pig should (on this account) be preferred to the interests of the newborn or the severely cognitively impaired human.
Third, let us now consider the differences between types of interests—if we do that, then Singer’s position actually implies an indirect moral elitism. It is true that according to this position no animal is greater than another solely on the ground of its species (that is, according to its substantial nature). Still, one animal will be due more consideration—indirectly—if it has capacities for higher or more complex mental functions. As Singer puts it: “Within these limits we could still hold that, for instance, it is worse to kill a normal adult human, with a capacity for self-awareness, and the ability to plan for the future and have meaningful relations with others, than it is to kill a mouse, which presumably does not share all of these characteristics . . . . “(emphasis supplied) But this difference between degrees of capacity for suffering and enjoyment, will also apply to individuals within each species. And so, on this view, a human will normally have a greater capacity for suffering and enjoyment than other animals, and so will have a higher moral status (indirectly). But it will also be true that more intelligent and sophisticated human individuals have a greater capacity for suffering and enjoyment than less intelligent and less sophisticated human individuals, and so the more sophisticated human beings will have a higher moral status than the less sophisticated human beings. As Richard Arneson expressed this point, “For after all it is just as true that a creative genius has richer and more complex interests than those of an ordinary average Joe as it is true that a human has richer and more complex interests than a baboon.”
Finally, there is a fourth difficulty for the animal welfarist position, a difficulty that also clarifies the principal difference between that position and traditional morality. You will recall that Peter Singer’s argument was that moral worth is based on interests, and interests are based on the ability to experience suffering or enjoyment. In other words, a key premise is only beings with feelings or some level of consciousness can be reasonably considered to have interests. However, this is simply not true. Rather, all living beings, not just those with consciousness, have interests. It is clear that living beings are fulfilled by certain conditions and damaged by others. Therefore, it is true to say that what promotes the organism’s survival and flourishing is in its interest and what diminishes its chances of survival or flourishing is against its interests. So, if moral worth were based on interests, then it would follow that all living beings have interests. But while it may be initially plausible to think that all animals have rights because they have interests, it is considerably less plausible to think that all living beings (which include wheat, corn, and rice, not to mention weeds and bacteria) have rights. But the interest argument—if applied to rights—would lead to that position.
And this point, I think, clarifies the issue. The arguments advanced by Singer and others do not actually attempt to establish that nonhuman animals and other living things have moral rights in the full sense of the term. I think it is true of every living being, in some way, that we should not wantonly destroy or damage it. With sentient beings, whether their life goes well or badly for them will significantly include their pleasure, comfort, or lack of suffering. And so their flourishing includes pleasure and lack of pain (though it also includes other things such as their life and their activities). Yet it does not follow from these points that they have full basic and inherent dignity (moral worth) or rights. There simply is no conceptual connection between pleasure and pain (enjoyment and suffering) on the one hand, and full moral worth (including genuine rights), on the other hand.
Indeed, almost no one actually argues that these beings have basic dignity or full moral rights. Rather, animal welfarists argue that all animals (or perhaps all higher mammals) merit some consideration, but also hold that human beings are due more consideration (though not, apparently, different in kind). In effect, instead of actually holding that all animals have rights, they have simply denied the existence of rights in the full sense of the term. Instead, they hold only that all animals, or all higher mammals, deserve some varying degree of respect or consideration. I agree with this point, but I also maintain that every human being is a subject of basic rights, that is, every human being should be treated according to the golden rule, and it is absolutely wrong intentionally to kill any innocent human being or intentionally to deprive any innocent human being of any basic, intrinsic good. In other words, I grant that we should take account of the flourishing of all living beings, and the pleasures and pains of nonhuman animals. But we are not morally related to them in the same way that we are related to other beings who, like ourselves, have a rational nature—beings whom (out of fairness) we should treat as we would have them treat us.
These difficulties are all due to the selection of a criterion of moral worth that varies in degrees. If the moral status-conferring attribute varies in degrees—whether it be the capacity for enjoyment or suffering, or another attribute that comes in degrees—it will follow that some humans will possess that attribute to a lesser extent than some non-human animals, and so inevitably some interests of some non-human animals will trump the interests of some humans. Also, it will follow that some humans will possess the attribute in question in a higher degree than other humans, with the result that not all humans will be equal in fundamental moral worth, i.e., dignity. True, some philosophers simply bite the bullet on these results. But in my judgment this is too high a price to pay. A sound view of worth and dignity will not entail such difficulties.
On the contrary, I think the true position must be that the criterion of moral worth is the possession of a characteristic that does not itself vary in degree – it must, that is, be the possession of a nature. Being of moral worth must be grounded in an entity's existence as a substance of a certain sort rather than in the possession of a set of accidental or variable properties.
There are many things to be said in defense of this position, but let me make here just a few brief points. First, this view will explain why it at least seems to most people that our moral concern should be for persons, rather than only for their properties or accidental attributes. After all, when dealing with other persons we at least tend to think that the locus of value is the persons themselves. We do not normally view persons as mere vehicles for what is intrinsically valuable: one’s child, one’s neighbor, or even a stranger, is not valuable only because of the valuable attributes they possess. If persons were valuable as mere vehicles for something else—some other quality that is regarded as what is really of value—then it would follow that the basic moral rule would be simply to maximize those valuable attributes. It would not be morally wrong to kill a child, no matter what age, if doing so enabled one to have two children in the future, and thus to bring it about that there were two vehicles for intrinsic value rather than one. So, persons themselves are valuable, rather than mere vehicles for what is really intrinsically valuable.
But if that is so, then it would make sense that what distinguishes those entities that have full moral status (inherent dignity) from those that do not should be the type of substantial entity they are, rather than any accidental attributes they possess. True, it is not self-contradictory to hold that the person himself is valuable, but only in virtue of some accidental attributes he or she possesses. Still, it is more natural, and more theoretically economical, to suppose that what has full moral status, and that in virtue of which he or she has full moral status, are the same.
Second, this position more closely tracks the characteristics we tend to think are found in genuine care or love. Our genuine love for a person remains, or should remain, for as long as that person continues to exist, and is not dependent on his or her possessing further attributes. That is, it seems to be the nature of care or love that, at least ideally, it should be unconditional, that we should continue to desire the well-being or fulfillment of one we love for as long as he or she exists. Of course, this still leaves open the question whether continuing to live is always part of a person’s well-being or fulfillment; I also maintain that a person’s life always is in itself a good, but that is a distinct question from the one being considered just now. The point is that the structure of caring from someone consists in willing to the person, as a subject of existence, in other words, as a substance, his or her real fulfillment. And this structure is more consonant with the idea that the basis of dignity or moral worth is being a certain sort of substance, rather than possessing certain attributes or accidental characteristics.
The Difference in Kind between Human Beings and Other Animals
Human beings are fundamentally different in kind from other animals, in two fundamental respects: first, human beings have the basic natural capacity for conceptual thought (they have the capacity to apprehend the natures of things rather than just their individual characteristics and particularized similarities); and, second, they have the capacity for to make free choices, that is, to shape their own lives. [In the longer paper Robby and I have a defense of these two propositions, but there is not time for that here, so I will just act as if these propositions have been thoroughly established.]
Having a Rational Nature, or Being a Person, Is the Criterion for Full Moral Worth
Neither sentience nor life itself entails that those who possess them must be respected as ends in themselves or as creatures having full moral worth. Rather, the ground of full moral worth is having a rational nature.
How can we defend this position from the standpoint of practical or moral reason? I think the basis for this in practical reasoning is along the following lines. The first step is to see how we recognize basic reasons for action, or basic goods, in our practical reasoning. When one chooses an action, one chooses it for a reason, that is, for the sake of some good one thinks this action will help to realize. That good may itself be a way of realizing some further good, and that good a means to another, and so on. But the chain of instrumental goods cannot be infinite. So, there must be some ultimate reasons for one’s choices, some goods which one recognizes as reasons for choosing which need no further support, which are not mere means to some further good.
Such ultimate reasons for choice are not arbitrarily selected. Intrinsic goods—are human goods that are basic aspects of human well-being and fulfillment, and these goods provide more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for choices and actions. They are not just what we happen to desire, perhaps different objects for different people. Rather, the intellectual apprehension that a condition or activity is really fulfilling or perfective (of me and/or of others like me) is at the same time the apprehension that this condition or activity is a fitting object of pursuit, that is, that it would be worth pursuing. These fundamental human goods are the actualizations of our basic potentialities, the conditions to which we are naturally oriented and which objectively fulfill us, the various aspects of our fulfillment as human persons. They include such fulfillments as human life and health, speculative knowledge or understanding, aesthetic experience, friendship or personal community, harmony among the different aspects of the self..
The conditions or activities understood to be fulfilling and worth pursuing are not individual or particularized objects. I do not apprehend merely that my life or knowledge is intrinsically good and to be pursued. I apprehend that life and knowledge, whether instantiated in me or in others, is good and worth pursuing. For example, seeing an infant drowning in a shallow pool of water, I apprehend, without an inference, that a good worth preserving is in danger and so I reach out to save the child. The feature, fulfilling for me or for someone like me, is the feature in a condition or activity that makes it an ultimate reason for action. The question is: In what respect must someone be like me for his or her fulfillment to be correctly viewed as worth pursuing for its own sake in the same way that my good is worth pursuing?
The answer is not immediately obvious to spontaneous, or first-order, practical reasoning, or to first-order moral reasoning. That is, the question of the extension of the fundamental goods genuinely worthy of pursuit and respect needs moral reflection to be answered. By such reflection, we can see that the relevant likeness (to me) is that others also rationally shape their lives, or have the potentiality of doing so. Other likenesses—age, gender, race, appearance, place of origin, etc—are not relevant to making an entity’s fulfillment fundamentally worth pursuing and respecting. But being a rational agent is relevant to this issue, for it is an object’s being worthy of rational pursuit that I apprehend and which makes it an ultimate reason for action, and an intrinsic good. So, I ought primarily to pursue and respect not just life in general, for example, but the life of rational agents—a rational agent being one who either immediately or potentially (with a radical potentiality, as part of his or her nature) shapes his or her own life.
In addition, by reflection we see that it would be inconsistent to respect my fulfillment, or my fulfillment plus that of others whom I just happen to like, and not respect the fulfillment of other, immediately or potentially, rational agents. For, entailed by rational pursuit of my good (and of the good of others I happen to like) is a demand on my part that others respect my good (and the good of those I like). That is, in pursuing my fulfillment I am led to appeal to the reason and freedom of others to respect that pursuit, and my real fulfillment. But in doing so, consistency, that is reasonableness, demands that I also respect the rational pursuits and real fulfillment of other rational agents—that is, any entity that, immediately or potentially (that is by self-directed development of innate or inherent natural capacities), rationally directs his or her own actions. In other words, the thought of the Golden Rule, basic fairness, occurs early on in moral reflection. And here, I think, the basic point emerges clearly: One can hope that the weather, and other natural forces, including any non-rational agent, will not harm one. But one has a moral claim or right (one spontaneously makes a moral demand) that other mature rational agents respect one’s reasonable pursuits and real fulfillment. Consistency, then, demands that one respect reasonable pursuits and real fulfillment of others as well. Thus, having a rational nature, or, being a person, as traditionally defined (a distinct subject or substance with a rational nature) is the criterion for full moral worth.
On this position every human being, of whatever age, size, or degree of development, has inherent and equal fundamental dignity and basic rights. If one holds, on the contrary, that full moral worth or dignity is based on some accidental attribute, then, since the attributes that could be considered to ground basic moral worth (developed consciousness, etc.) vary in degree, one will be led to the conclusion that moral worth also varies in degrees.
It might be objected against this argument, that the basic natural capacity for rationality also comes in degrees, and so this position (that full moral worth is based on the possession of the basic natural capacity for rationality), if correct, would also lead to the denial of personal equality. However, the criterion for full moral worth is having a nature that entails the capacity (whether existing in root form or developed to the point at which it is immediately exercisable) for conceptual thought and free choice—not the development of that natural basic capacity to some degree or other (and to what degree would necessarily be an arbitrary matter). The criterion for full moral worth and possession of basic rights is not the having of a capacity for conscious thought and choice which inheres in an entity, but being a certain kind of thing, that is, having a specific type of substantial nature. Thus, possession of full moral worth follows upon being a certain type of entity or substance, namely, a substance with a rational nature, despite the fact that some persons (substances with a rational nature) have a greater intelligence, or are morally superior (exercise their power for free choice in an ethically more excellent way) than others. Since basic rights are grounded in being a certain type of substance, it follows that having such a substantial nature qualifies one as having full moral worth, basic rights, and equal personal dignity.
An analogy may clarify this point. Certain properties follow upon being an animal, and so are possessed by every animal, even though in other respects not all animals are equal. For example, every animal has some parts which move other parts, and every animal is subject to death (mortal). Since various animals are equally animals —and since being an animal is a type of substance rather than an accidental attribute—then every animal will equally have those properties, even though (for example) not every animal equally possesses the property of being able to blend in well to the wooded background. Similarly, possession of full moral worth follows upon being a person (a distinct substance with a rational nature) even though persons are unequal in many respects (intellectually, morally, etc.).
In sum, human beings constitute a special sort of animals. They differ in kind from other animals because they have a rational nature, a nature characterized by having the basic, natural capacities (possessed by each and every human being from the point at which he or she comes to be) for conceptual thought and deliberation and free choice. In virtue of having such a nature, all human beings are persons; and all persons possess the real dignity that is deserving of full moral respect. Thus, every human being deserves full moral respect.
. Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” in Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, 5th ed., ed. Thomas Mappes and Jane Zembaty, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 440, quoting Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation, chap. 17.
 Jeff McMahan, whose view is in other respects more complex than Singer’s, still holds that only interests are of direct moral concern, and explicitly recognizes, and accepts, this logical consequence. See his The Ethics of Killing, Problems at the Margin of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 205-206.
 Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” op. cit., 484.
 Richard Arneson, “What, If Anything, Renders All Humans Morally Equal?” in Dale Jamieson, ed., Singer and his Critics (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 103-127, at 105.
. Could it be true of every being, living or not? It is hard to see what the good or fulfillment of a non-living being is, since on that level it is hard to know just what are the basic, substantial entities as opposed to aggregates of entities. Thus, when we breathe we convert oxygen and carbon molecules into carbon dioxide molecules—have we destroyed the oxygen in that process or have we only rearranged the atoms in their constitution? It is hard to say.
 Peter Singer acknowledges that he is “not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one, except when it is used as a shorthand way of referring to more fundamental considerations.”
 We are simply abstracting from the issue of capital punishment in this article.
. The Humean notion of practical reason contends that practical reason begins with given ends which are not rationally motivated. However, this view cannot, in the end, make sense of the fact that we seem to make objective value judgments, not contingent on, or merely relative to, what this or that group happens to desire—for example, the judgments that murder or torture is objectively morally wrong. Moreover, the Humean view fails to give an adequate account of how we come to desire certain objects for their own sake to begin with. A perfectionist account, on the contrary, one that identifies the intrinsic goods (the objects desired for their own sake) with objective perfections of the person is able to give an account of these facts. For criticisms of the Humean notion of practical reason: Joseph Boyle, “Reasons for Action: Evaluative Cognitions that Underlie Motivations,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001), 177-197; R. Jay Wallace, “How to Argue About Practical Reason,” Mind 99 (1990) 355-387; Christine Korsgaard, “Skepticism about Practical Reason,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); David Brink, “Moral Motivation,” Ethics 107 (1997) 4-32; John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983), 26-79; Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 288-368.
. The idea is this: what is to be done is what is perfective. This seems trivial, and perhaps is obvious, but it is the basis for objective, practical reasoning. The question, what is to be done? is equivalent to the question, what is to be actualized? But what is to be actualized is what actualizes, that is, what is objectively perfective. For human beings this is life, knowledge of truth, friendship, and so on.
. This claim is derived from Thomas Aquinas, and has been developed by Thomists and Aristotelians of various types. It is not necessary here to assume one particular development of that view against others. We need only the point that the basic principles of practical reason come from an insight—which may be interpreted in various ways—that what is to be pursued, what is worth pursuing, is what is fulfilling or perfective of me and others like me. For more on this see: Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 33 (1988) 99-151; John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), chaps. 9-11. John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983); John Finnis, Aquinas, Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); T. D. J. Chappell, Understanding Human Goods: A Theory of Ethics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998); David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000); and Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action: A Theory of Practice (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992). Mark C. Murphy, Natural Law and Practical Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
. Once one apprehends such conditions or activities as really fulfilling and worthy of pursuit, the moral norm arises when one has a choice between one option the choice of which is fully compatible with these apprehensions (or judgments) and another option that is not fully compatible with those judgments. The former type of choice is fully reasonable, and respectful of the goods and persons involved, whereas the latter type of choice is not fully reasonable and negates, in one way or another, the intrinsic goodness of one or more instances of the basic goods one has already apprehended as, and recognized to be, intrinsically good.
. The argument presented here is similar to the approaches found in the following authors: Louis G. Lombardi, op. cit.; Michael Goldman, “A Transcendental Defense of Speciesism,” Journal of Value Inquiry 35 (2001) 59-69; William J. Zanardi, “Why Believe in the Intrinsic Dignity and Equality of Persons?” Southwest Philosophy Review 14 (1998) 151-68.
. The position that the criterion for full moral worth cannot be an accidental attribute, but is the rational nature, that is, being a specific type of substance, is defended in Patrick Lee, “The Pro-Life Argument from Substantial Identity: A Defense,” Bioethics 18 (2004) 249-63. See also Dean Stretton, “Essential Properties and the Right to Life: A Response to Lee,” Bioethics (18) 2004, 264-282, and Patrick Lee, “Subtantial Identity and the Right to Life: A Rejoinder to Dean Stretton, forthcoming in Bioethics.