Human health and human dignity: Defining the principal goods of the biotechnology debate

Samuel James Crowe, Fordham University


Health and dignity play an important role in the political debate over biotechnology. They are the principles to which the competing political positions appeal. Those who desire to use biotechnology tend to appeal to its ability to improve health by relieving suffering and by curing disease. Those who desire to restrict or to ban biotechnologies tend to argue that these technologies threaten the sanctity of human life and the dignity of being human. But while these goods play such a significant role in the debate, their meaning is never very clear. In my dissertation I attempt to uncover what health and dignity might mean in the hopes of better understanding what is at stake in the biotechnology debate. My dissertation has two main parts. In the first part I explore how the President's Council on Bioethics defines dignity and health. Given that the Council represents our government's best attempt at understanding the significance of biotechnology, I naturally turn to it to clarify the meaning of the two principal goods of the debate. I discover, though, that the Council inadequately defines the goods. I then turn to the work of the Council's former Chair, Leon Kass, in the hopes of finding more adequate definitions. Kass' definition of dignity ends up being the same as the Council's definition, and thus suffers from the same limitations. His definition of health, though, is somewhat better than the Council's, but it, too, is finally insufficient. Using the work of Erwin Straus and Claudius Galen, I then suggest how these definitions might be improved. In the second part of the dissertation I turn to the political debate. I demonstrate that the competing political positions define dignity and health in a similar fashion as the Council. I then show why such definitions hinder the debate, and how better definitions of dignity and health might improve it.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Crowe, Samuel James, "Human health and human dignity: Defining the principal goods of the biotechnology debate" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3201126.