Dignity and Vulnerability: Some Remarks about the Theory of Gaymon Bennett

It is one of remarkable features of contemporary concepts of dignity that they imply that one of its most essential qualities is vulnerability. In contemporary ethics, dignity is recognized by almost everyone as an intrinsic quality of every human being. It obviously belongs to everyone since the very birth and nobody can be dispossessed of dignity. At the same time, it stays under constant danger of terminal damage (be it humiliation, “nullification” etc.). Thus, the primary method to develop human dignity means to protect it. Thus, contemporary concepts of dignity very often imply that one of its most essential qualities is vulnerability. This intimate connection of dignity and vulnerability has been developed during 20 Century along with emergence of various institutes designed to protect human dignity. In my speech I shall discuss a genealogy and structure of this relation between dignity and vulnerability.

In the first part of my speech, I discuss critical approach of Gaymon Bennet, looking at his recent book Technicians of Human Dignity (2016). His work is grounded on Michel Foucault’s studies in genealogy of subjectivity along with theological critics of contemporary bioethics. Bennett compares several approaches to dignity developed by UN, Catholic Church and President’s Council on Bioethics. He shows they to a certain degree share a specific practical relation to the human creature, which he defines as “pastoralism”. The core of “pastoralism” rests in idea that human dignity is an anthropological quality that is never secure and always need and additional care in its unfolding. These international institutions find their legitimacy in “pastoralism”, thus they desire dignity to be understood as essentially vulnerable. At the same time, the very idea of dignity perhaps would never become so influential in contemporary world without these influential institutes, because it was their influence that made dignity so world-wide approved value. Thereby, vulnerability is being anchored as fundamental quality of any human being. Is there any room opportunity to develop another understanding of dignity?

In the last part of my paper, I make a comparison, looking at another approach to dignity, developed by Jan-Willem Van Der Rujt, — a “republican” one, as he defines it. In his approach, dignity is not defined primarily by its vulnerability. Thus, it does not strive for “pastoral” institutional treatment. I consider Van Der Rujt’s approach useful to confine bio-political discourses, which are thoroughly “pastoral” in their treatment of human dignity.