Death, dignity, and moral nonsense

J Palliat Care. Autumn 2004;20(3):171-8.


Although the concept of human dignity is widely invoked in discussions regarding end-of-life decision making, the content of the notion is ambiguous. Such ambiguity has led some to conclude that human dignity is a redundant or even useless concept that we would be better off without. This paper argues, to the contrary, that the concept of human dignity is indispensable to moral discourse. Far from dispensing with human dignity, we must work to clarify the concept. The paper outlines two distinct but related conceptions of dignity that are often conflated in contemporary moral discourse. These conceptions are labelled "basic dignity" and "personal dignity", respectively. It is argued that basic dignity functions as a universal meaning constraint on moral discourse in general. Hence, to dispense with the notion could reduce us to speaking moral nonsense. Throughout the discussion, some implications for our understanding of end-of-life decision making are explored.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Decision Making / ethics
  • Ethical Theory
  • Human Rights / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Human Rights / psychology
  • Humanism*
  • Humans
  • Morals*
  • Patient Advocacy / ethics*
  • Patient Advocacy / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Patient Advocacy / psychology
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Religion and Medicine
  • Religion and Psychology
  • Right to Die / ethics*
  • Right to Die / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Social Values
  • Terminal Care / ethics*
  • Terminal Care / psychology