Human dignity has become a much maligned term partly because it is seen as undefinable and inherently theological. Charles Foster's book, which argues that dignity is the only sustainable 'Theory of Everything' in bioethics and law, swims bravely against this tide.
Foster argues that dignity is the direct route to the right answer in most bioethics problems and actually underpins each of Beauchamp and Childress's four principles. He contends that its meaning can be derived from a study of what makes humansthrive. The book takes up this theme and examines dignity in a range of contexts from human enhancement technologies, through to more everyday problems such as the provision of single sex hospital wards. He argues that dignity is ubiquitous because dignity is to be found wherever there is a human being.
Foster references Judaeo- Christian interpretations of dignity, from Aquinas to modern day writers such as Luke Gormally. However, his exploration of the topic does not take an explicitly theological perspective. Given the dismissal of dignity by secular commentators, this serves to make his case stronger.
Foster's writing is wideranging and erudite. His call to the bioethics community to reconsider dignity is timely and makes for an engaging read.
Helen Barratt is a Clinical Research Fellow in Public Health in London.