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Yodelay Cuckoo!

The Swiss Go Crazy—Literally—Over "Dignity"

by Michael Cook

Their penchant for yodeling notwithstanding, the Swiss must be counted among the most dignified people on the planet. Now their parliament has decreed that Swiss goldfish, too, must be treated with dignity. And not because they are gold, but because they are fish. Beginning in September, a new law will set rigorous standards for the treatment of all "social animals." Swiss aquariums must have an opaque side to allow the fish to live in a natural cycle of day and night. It will also be an offense to keep a lone goldfish, guinea pig, or budgerigar. Or one rhinoceros, apparently, because the law also covers pet rhinoceroses.

The Swiss are pioneer dignitarians. In 1992, Switzerland was the first country in the world to begin to phase out battery hens. Since then, the law has become even tougher. In 2006, for instance, a researcher was forbidden to give thirsty monkeys a drink of water because a reward mechanism to get them to carry out a task was deemed harmful to their dignity. Thoroughness has always been a Swiss virtue. So by the same reasoning that led them to protect fish, bureaucrats there are now thinking of expanding the boundaries of non-human dignity to include plants.

The Swiss Constitution requires respect for "the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms." The body in charge of interpreting this Delphic phrase, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, recently released a discussion paper about the dignity of plants. Its astonishing conclusions could become law in due course.

Among them is that "decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason" is essentially a crime. In fact, the committee was unanimous in its agreement that any "arbitrary harm caused to plants [is] morally impermissible." Genetic modification of plants would be permitted—but only if their "independence," including their reproductive ability, is ensured. This could mean that producing sterile roses or seedless fruit will be an offense under Swiss law.

None of this is the legal equivalent of yodeling. The world's leading science journal, Nature, has reported that Swiss biologists are worried. Funding for their work might get cut off if they offend the dignity of plants. And we all know how sensitive our floral friends are about their dignity. The great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley even wrote a long (and very bad) poem—"The Sensitive Plant"—about the delicacy of their feelings.

Switzerland's passion for the dignity of all creatures great and small, however, rings hollow in view of its treatment of human beings. It is one of the few countries in the world where assisted suicide is legal. The best-known agency for DIY euthanasia, a Zurich-based group called—what else?—Dignitas, recently opened its thanatorium in the same building as Switzerland's biggest legal brothel. Surely that violates one of the numerous provisions in the constitution guaranteeing human dignity. As it is now, there seems to be about as much bureaucracy involved in killing a Swiss goldfish as there is in killing a human being. (Special chemicals are required, since flushing fish down the toilet has been deemed undignified.)

The poor, befuddled Swiss have clearly lost the plot on what dignity is and who is entitled to it. But they are not alone. The concept of human dignity is in crisis around the world. Influential government reports in country after country are now placing condescending scare quotes on either side of the phrase "human dignity."

Last year, Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority complained that "it is difficult to gain a consensus on the definition of human dignity." And the Irish Council on Bioethics recently declared that "its exact meaning is elusive." In March, the US President's Council on Bioethics weighed in on the debate with a report that tries to clarify exactly what we mean by the phrase. Although many of the contributors defend it, neuroscientist Patricia Churchland guts "human dignity" of all content. She contends, like many of her colleagues, that morality and free will are essentially illusory and that past defenders of "human dignity" have been self-righteous, totalitarian fanatics.

The trigger for this controversy is a widely discussed paper written four years ago by an American bioethicist, Ruth Macklin, in the British Medical Journal. She stated bluntly that "dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content." Not to be outdone, Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, whom Time magazine once described as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, recently described human dignity as worse than useless. He wrote a controversial article for The New Republic under the inflammatory headline "The Stupidity of Dignity." Why extol the "squishy, subjective notion" of dignity, he asked, when you can jog along perfectly well with clear, sharp-edged ideas such as autonomy and respect for persons?

Well, the Swiss folderol suggests that we will all be very sorry when "human dignity" is eliminated. The scope of human dignity in Switzerland has shrunk to the point where death tourism there has become a boutique business. At the same time, the scope of non-human dignity has expanded. This is to be expected. For years, the radical fringe of animal-rights activists has attacked violence against animals by using violence against humans.

What is unexpected is that there seems to be no bottom to the ever-deepening spiral of non-human dignity. Somewhere above spiders and slugs, perhaps. But the Swiss experience suggests otherwise. Once the DNA of human dignity has been tampered with, it keeps expanding by some crazy logic, unfettered by common sense, until it includes plants and even "other organisms." Now it threatens to turn treading on wildflowers into a crime. And it might not stop there. What constitutes respect for the dignity of bacteria and viruses must send shivers through the Swiss pharmaceutical industry.

The Swiss need to recover the conviction that human beings deserve a special status because they are unique in the universe, the only beings with reason and free will. This is not only the wellspring of human dignity, but the source of our obligation to treat animals and plants with due care. Otherwise, the Swiss will end up conferring rights upon irrational things that cannot appreciate their dignity and stealing rights from rational beings who can. 

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