The Dignity of Human Life: Sketching Out an “Equal Worth” Approach

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The term “value of life” can refer to life’s intrinsic dignity: something non-incremental and time-unaffected in contrast to the fluctuating, incremental “value” of our lives, as they are longer or shorter and more or less flourishing. Human beings are equal in their basic moral importance: the moral indignities we condemn in the treatment of e.g. those with dementia reflect the ongoing human dignity that is being violated. Indignities licensed by the person in advance remain indignities, as when people might volunteer their living, unconscious bodies for surrogacy or training in amputation techniques. Respect for someone’s dignity is significantly impacted by a failure to value that person’s very existence, whatever genuine respect and good will is shown by wanting the person’s life to go well. Valuing and respecting life is not, however, vitalism: there can be good and compelling reasons for eschewing some means of prolonging life.

Key Words

Human dignity, equality, moral status, quality of life, value of life

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Cite as: Helen Watt, “The Dignity of Human Life: Sketching Out an ‘Equal Worth’ Approach,” Ethics & Medicine 36, no. 1 (2020): 7–17.

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About the Author

Helen Watt, PhD
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Helen Watt, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre and Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. Her publications include Life and Death in Healthcare Ethics and The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbirth, together with several edited volumes, including Incapacity and Care and Fertility and Gender. Her research interests include reproductive ethics, gender, action theory, and issues of cooperation and complicity. She currently resides in London, United Kingdom.

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