Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Does Technology Spell Trouble with a Capital "T"? Human Dignity and Public Policy

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Does Technology Spell Trouble with a Capital "T"? Human Dignity and Public Policy

Article excerpt

In recent years, human dignity has attracted considerable attention as a policy standard. From bioethics and constitutional law to torts and the regulation of the Internet, human dignity has seemingly become the most salient touchstone for assessing current policy initiatives Yet dignity is a slippery concept, as illustrated by the opening scene of the movie Singin in the Rain. (1) Set at the premiere of a Monumental Pictures hit, the stars arrive in limousines and walk down a red carpet into the theater. While adoring fans "ooh" and "aah," the screen celebrities grant brief interviews to a prominent gossip columnist. Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is asked to explain how he became a star. Lockwood responds with a speech in which he claims that he has always lived by a simple motto: "Dignity, Always Dignity."

Lockwood then recounts episodes from his "privileged" upbringing, while the considerably less appealing reality of a hardscrabble childhood is depicted. For example, Lockwood claims to have started his career by performing "for Mom and Dad's society friends," as he is shown tap dancing in poolrooms to harmonica music and collecting thrown pennies from the floor. He talks of accompanying his parents to the theatre ("They brought me up on Shaw, Moliere--the finest of the classics") as he is shown sneaking into B-movies. Playing fiddle in a three-man band in a smoky bar is labeled "rigorous musical training at the Conservatory of Fine Arts." Similarly, "an apprenticeship at the most exclusive dramatics academy" is actually an amateur night audition with a slapstick vaudeville routine. The "dance concert tour at the finest symphonic halls in the country where audiences adored us" is a cross-country tour of obscure hamlets (including Dead Man's Fang, Arizona, and Coyoteville, New Mexico), during which Lockwood is regularly booed off the stage after tap dancing and fiddling.

Lockwood is "spinning" his origins, but the disparity between his words and objective reality implicates some of the difficulties in using human dignity as a meaningful policy standard. It goes too far to suggest that one man's dignity is another man's dishonor, but there are nonetheless broad areas of human existence on which there is little agreement about what behavior is dignified, let alone a consensus that dignity is the correct standard for judging conduct. Part I outlines some of the reasons for these difficulties. Part II considers the history of using dignity as a policy standard for regulating technology and innovation. Part III outlines several ways in which professional norms and forms of discourse undermine the possibility of using human dignity even in those areas where it has considerable saliency. Part IV offers a brief conclusion.


Assessments of human dignity are quite subjective, with considerable variation temporally, (2) chronologically, (3) geographically, (4) and culturally.(5) Social class, religion, wealth, and the degree of industrialization matter as well. (6) There is also a considerable degree of individual variation. Consider whether human dignity is enhanced, diminished, or unaffected by blue laws, capital punishment, cloning, decriminalization of drug possession, gay marriage, genetically-modified food, gun control, legalized prostitution, partial-birth abortion, physician-assisted suicide, prohibition of hate speech, school prayer, school vouchers, state lotteries, and three-strikes laws. Would Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean, Zell Miller, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the Pope have the same answers to that question?

Even if people agree that human dignity is the appropriate standard for assessing policy initiatives, they are only likely to agree on what is dignified for matters at the extreme end of the policy distribution (e.g., incest, slavery, and cannibalism). On matters that fall closer to the mean (e. …

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