Undignified Arguments: A Critique

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Something strange has happened to the concept of dignity in bioethics. After a long period in which U.S. pragmatist and U.K. consequentialist philosophers have argued that the concept is useless and vacuous, and in which they have been reasonably successful in expunging it from mainstream English-language academic bioethics, dignity has suddenly become popular again in debates about the legalization of physician-assisted dying (PAD). And, even stranger, it is deployed not by conservatives but by liberals. In the debates about PAD, liberal proponents of legalization seem to accept without question that there is such a state or process as "death with dignity," which is juxtaposed to "undignified dying." It also seems to be accepted that both of these states can be fairly easily identified and that they carry great moral weight. This article provides an analysis of the current resurgence of "undignified" arguments and argues on the basis of that analysis (1) that a proper understanding of the concept of dignity shows that the previous reductive arguments against dignity are partially incomplete and therefore partially misguided and (2) that, despite dignity having meaning, the idea of an undignified death cannot carry the moral weight it is given by proponents of the legalization of PAD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228-238
Number of pages11
JournalCambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
Issue number2
Early online date9 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


  • Journal Article


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