My recent postings on the selling of organs for transplant touched on the concept of human dignity. There are some who argue that a person who sells his organs (e.g., a kidney) for money is somehow sacrificing human dignity. It is somehow undignified for a person to be reduced to a state in which he must sell off body parts for cash. It makes him little more than a commodity – an 'organ market' rather than a full human being.
I would venture to guess that people who trade their organs don't find the process to be a violation of human dignity.
I am not willing to grant that venture without more argument. It could very well be the case that those who sell their organs for money do find it a violation of human dignity. It may be the case that those who sell their organs simply find themselves in a position where there is something more important to them than preserving their dignity. Perhaps they have gambling debts to pay off, or they dream of going to college, or they have this plan to start a business that will make him and his family rich. So, he sacrifices his dignity for a greater good.
The place to start with respect to dignity is that it is a value-laden term. It is a term that has value written into its very meaning. It is no mere coincidence that something that results in a violation of dignity is bad – just as it is no mere coincidence that bachelors are unmarried. An evaluation is written directly into the meaning of a term. We cannot actually tell whether something is a violation of human dignity until we have a theory of value that we can use to evaluate that something. If our theory of value suggests that something is not bad, then it cannot be 'undignified'.
If it is true (as the desire utilitarian maintains) that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, and that nothing is good or bad except insofar as it is such as to fulfill or thwart desires, then nothing conforms to or violates human dignity except insofar as it is such as to fulfill or thwart desires. We must have a reason to dislike that which is undignified, and if no reason to dislike it (in the form of a desire) exists, then the claim that it violates human dignity is false.
Elements of human dignity are often taken to be elements that contain intrinsic value. There is something intrinsically wrong with treating people in certain ways. However, intrinsic values do not exist. No state of affairs contains within itself a 'reason for action' dictating that those who perceive it properly must approve or disapprove of it. The person claiming that things are intrinsically undignified is taking his own (probably learned) aversions and mistaking them for perceptions of something external.
I think the argument has to do with perception. In other words, there may be no intrinsic human dignity, but the way people perceive others influences the way they treat them. So, it seems normal to "sell" your brain and muscles, and nobody perceives that as violating human dignity.
The issue here is one of cause and effect. If others should come to perceive you as merely a tool for their gratification, then they can be expected to treat you as a (mere) tool. The thing about tools is that we can destroy them in the pursuit of our ends, and their destruction does not matter much (except we lose the use of the tool at a later time). There are some tools (e.g., explosives) that are meant to be destroyed when we use them.
Certainly, we have little reason to promote the idea that people are mere tools. For one thing, it risks becoming victim to the idea that we and those we care about are mere tools. Instead, we have reason to preserve the sense that people are something more than tools and, as such, there are certain ways in which they are not to be used. I am not just an organ farm for your convenience. I am a person, and my status as a person requires that I be treated with a certain amount of dignity.
However, if the exchange of a kidney for money is purely voluntary, then this would defeat any claim that I am being treated merely as a tool if I should volunteer to sell my kidney for money. My ends – my goals – are being respected by the fact that I am being provided with the means to pursue my own goals – a wad of money. In fact, it is quite reasonably the case that a wad of money is more useful to me in the pursuit of my goals than a backup kidney. I can't think of any way that my second kidney can help me to retire more quickly so I can work full time on moral philosophy except insofar as it is something that I can use to get extra money.
But selling organs seems like it violates human dignity. And since it seems to do so, it actually does.
This is an important insight.
Take what G-Man wrote above about dignity and apply it to language. There is nothing in the word 'lion' that intrinsically means 'a member of the cat family that lives in prides'. However, because we have assigned this meaning to the word 'lion', it actually does mean that.
We assign meanings to acts in just the same way we assign meanings to words. A salute in the military means something. There is nothing in a salute that intrinsically indicates that the one saluting owes obedience to the one being saluted. This is a meaning that we have assigned to this act. Yet, because we have assigned this meaning, it actually does have the signification we assigned to it.
A culture may designate that it is an insult to fail to present a business associate at a meeting with a business card. Because the act (or, in this case, the non-act) of failing to provide another with a business card has been deemed insulting, it actually is insulting.
Similarly, if we assign to the act of selling an organ the meaning that, "I am something less than a human – a mere organ farm for use by others, then, the person who sells an organ, like the person who salutes a superior officer, is communicating something that we do not want people to be communicating. Effectively, the objection is, "You shouldn't say such things."
But meanings like this are arbitrarily assigned and can be just as arbitrarily unassigned. If it were to turn out that one of these arbitrarily assigned meanings interferes with life-saving activities, this alone is good enough reason to reconsider the arbitrarily assigned meaning we have given to that action. We simply need to decide, "It doesn't mean that at all."
In the case of a military salute, this would be easy. The military would simply hand down new rules. In the case of a cultural norm where no person or group has the authority to dictate meanings, it may take a lot of hard work in order to change public attitudes. Organizations devoted to making sure that people who need organs get the organs they need may need to invest some of their money in a PR campaign that compares the selling of an organ to, for example, the selling of a house or a few hours of one's labor.
We see these types of campaigns all the time, where groups try to take something that has been perceived as good or indifferent and promotes a public attitude of hostility. One example is the way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed the image of the drunk driver as the comic nuisance to the irresponsible deadly menace. Another is the way religious groups have promoted the image of atheists as being un-American by writing this idea into the national pledge and national motto.
Where people have a habit of taking their feelings as perceptions of intrinsic value, and where they have learned aversions to the thoughts of people selling organs, the best way to proceed might first require a campaign to change those feelings. Organizations interested in making sure that organs are available to those who need them may need to invest some money in a campaign along these lines.
The question to ask before starting this campaign, however, is, "What will be the effects of weakening this aversion generally?" Will it, in fact, promote the availability of organs to those who need them? Or will it lead to the sense that poor people exist merely for those who have money to use for their own convenience regardless of the cost?