June 23, 2010

Published in the American Journal of Bioethics

I recently co-authored an open commentary with bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn that has been published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (Volume 10 Issue 7 2010).

The article, "Dignity and Agential Realism: Human, Posthuman, and Nonhuman," was in response to Fabrice Jotterand's critique of transhumanism, "Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-technological Devices Have Moral Status?"

I can't republish our entire article at this time, but here's a taste:
The notion that beings exist as individuals with inherent attributes (such as dignity) anterior to their representation, is a metaphysical presupposition that underlies the belief in political, linguistic, and epistemological forms of representationalism (Barad, 2003). Within the framework of representionalism, dignity is most certainly tied into capacity; it is fair, within that framework, to suggest that the diminishment or deliberate withholding of certain attributes results in the lessening of one's dignity (That being said, one should not confuse dignity with the ways in which all human persons deserve equal status in the eyes of the law). Consequently, the inverse also holds true, whether it be the alleviation of a debilitating syndrome or the augmentation of a physical or cognitive characteristic. As far as the agent in question is concerned, human or otherwise, these interventions are dignifying. Representationalism, on the other hand, separates the world into the ontologically disjointed domains of words and things. (Barad, 2003)

A performative understanding, in contrast, contests this metaphysical assumption that dignity is an inherent attribute, as if dignity existed in a vacuum, independently of an individual’s actions or interactions with other beings. A performative understanding shifts the focus from description and questions of correspondence to matters of practice, doings and/or actions; the active participation, phenomena and “intra-actions” (Barad 2003, 2007) are what help create agreed upon meaning. The phrase made popular by M. Scott Peck, “Love is as love does” is an illustration of this shift in understanding; so is Forrest Gump's “Stupid is as stupid does.”

So a performative understanding of dignity includes recognition that the dignity of a person is contingent on the ways in which they are treated by others (including institutions) and the ways in which they are capable of interacting with their external environment. What should not be tied into notions of dignity is the value of persons or the questioning of a person's degree of equality under the law. Nor should dignity tied into the Kassian notion of embodied human life—an inherently speciesist notion that carries with it unjustifiable conditions for exclusionism. Dignity is not status; rather, it is a measurement (or assessment) of the quality in which persons are treated, the depth of their interactions, and the degree to which they are capable of engaging in life. Consequently, a performative understanding of dignity recognizes it as more an issue of treatment and social justice than abstract and confusing notions about equality, value and status.

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