Dignity: The Moral Compass

Book Pick of Christopher Kaczor's Defense of Dignity.

A Defense of Dignity

Creating Life, Destroying Life and Protecting the Rights of Conscience

By Christopher Kaczor

University of Notre Dame Press, 2013

232 pages, $30

To order: amazon.com


As a term used to justify diametrically opposed courses of action, “dignity” is a term that many doubt is of practical use in ethical discussions.  Yet Blessed John Paul regularly invoked dignity as a moral compass.  Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, does a masterful job in showing how important is this concept, properly understood, to contemporary bioethics. 

Kaczor treats those bioethical dilemmas in three broad groups: the beginning of life, its end and the doctor’s role as a moral agent. The issues he examines are cutting-edge and current: abortion, artificial reproduction, surgery on fetuses, artificially supplied nutrition and hydration for the comatose, organ donation and physician-assisted suicide. 

Conscience and its rights is a theme running throughout the book: Two chapters explicitly deal with the conscience rights of medical personnel who object to being involved in abortions, but conscience as an issue repeatedly surfaces wherever doctors and nurses morally dissent from what the law brands to be legally right, e.g., improved breeding through in vitro fertilization or helping patients kill themselves.

The author, whose Ethics of Abortion established him as an intellectually robust advocate of the right to life, applies his razor-sharp analysis to those issues, often formulating a pithy and reasoned response to those who would fumigate the public square of any moral influence. Consider how well, in light of mainstream media jeers at companies successfully fighting the Obamacare abortion-insurance mandate, Kaczor responds:

“Ethically, either corporate persons have ethical responsibilities, or they do not. If they do not, then institutions such as hospitals have no duties to provide abortions or anything else. If corporations do have ethical responsibilities, then we face the question … whether there are any sound, valid arguments that corporate persons must perform abortions.”

And he concludes they do not.

Or consider his riposte to the objection that society should help homosexuals or single people to have children (probably the next wedge issue now that the redefinition of marriage is being pushed full force):

“There are … no such things as ‘rights to reproduce.’ This would amount to the right to have a child; but children — like other human beings — are not property to which other persons could have rights.”

Modern bioethics spawns many of its own problems, e.g., on-demand baby production through in vitro fertilization has produced hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos, babies cryopreserved and abandoned because their parents chose to implant their siblings instead. What is to happen to them? If we can adopt children after birth, is it moral to do so before birth? Is that heroic or a form of surrogacy? Kaczor defends the morality of prenatal embryo adoption, giving us challenging justifications as to why this may provide a solution to children otherwise condemned to the twilight of suspension in liquid nitrogen.

Kaczor argues as a philosopher in the light of reason, not revelation. His arguments provide the intellectual ammunition today’s Catholic needs to challenge the caricature of Catholic medical ethics as some kind of off-beat, tribal set of papal taboos and commands, picturesque but irrelevant to the modern world.

One might not agree with everything that Kaczor concludes may be moral (e.g., I have doubts about some procedures he seems to think acceptable in treating ectopic pregnancy, such as use of methotrexate). That said, on the vast majority of bioethical issues confronting Catholics in 2014, he’s a good partner in your corner. And his style, demanding yet accessible and engaging, rewards the effort.

John M. Grondelski writes from

 Shanghai, China.