In the history of Western civilizationÂ’s reflections on ethics and morality, it is commonly asserted that the most elementary maxim is Â“Do well and avoid evil.Â” For purposes pertinent to bioethics, this can also be phrased as Â“Do right and avoid wrong.Â” The first principle of practical moral reason, in obedience to that maxim, is to direct an individualÂ’s will in accord with the human good.
For that purpose, then, is the concept of human dignity useful? The better phrase is Â“the dignity of the human person.Â” Â“Human dignityÂ” may suggest the collective and include efforts such as taking technological charge of the evolution of the human species. Â“The dignity of the human personÂ” places the accent on the individualÂ” although, to be sure, the individual situated in community. The dignity of the human person may entail an important, although limited, measure of autonomy. Dignity as autonomy features strongly in, for instance, arguments for Â“death with dignity.Â” Morally, however, the dignity of the human person is affirmed most significantly not in the assertion of oneÂ’s own autonomy but in the protection of others who are most subject to having their dignity violated. Therefore, in bioethics as in medicine more generally, the first rule is Â“Do no harm.Â” That first rule enjoins us to protect and maintain something that is recognized as good simply in its being.