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Dignity Vs. Virtue: Kantian Conception Of Rationality And Its Bioethical Consequences

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When attempting to use aspects of the Kantian categorical imperative, namely the formula of humanity, to understand the way modern society views the ethical treatment of many controversial issues, scholars today often find themselves in heated debate and deep-rooted division. Thomas Bushnell is one such scholar, who in his thesis exposed the significance of the formula of humanity to modern ethical decision making by using it to validate his belief that Kant cannot have epistemological grounds for ascribing rational natures to anything.

Bushnell uses simple scenarios where Kantian ethics illustrates the fact that the value of things is different from the dignity of objects possessed of rational natures, and therefore the duty of humans is based on the degree to which we distinguish between dignity and value. Like Bushnell points out in his essay, to legitimize Kant's formula of humanity, "one must know which objects in the world to take as having rational natures". It is precisely this argument that is really the heart of the controversy of many modern ethical crises, especially in the areas of bio and medical ethics, where the most encompassing and widely publicized issues are in the areas of abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Both abortion and stem cell research involve the termination of something that can and will become life under the right conditions - a new human life. The problem: is this something really a thing, or is the correct term perhaps somebody? And do the conditions under which this something exists have the power to alter an object so much as to make it switch between value and dignity, in Kantian terminology? There is still no answer to these questions, to the extent that an answer would establish a general consensus (today such a consensus is often in the form of a law).

Kant already establishes that the rational nature is what gives an object the dignity that places it above those things that possess merely value. However, Bushnell makes the case that even though Kant may be correct in at least isolating rational nature as the defining factor by which such distinctions are made, he has no epistemological grounds for ascribing rational nature in the first place because he is not able to define exactly what a rational nature is. If Bushnell is correct and there cannot be an established criterion that is indicative of rational nature (there hasn't been thus far in the sense that society has come to a consensus), then the fact that rational nature is the pivotal factor in separating value from dignity is almost rendered useless Ð'- because there is no established definition of what constitutes dignity, particularly human dignity, things like abortion and stem cell research will continue to remain impassioned ethical battlefields, not only in the arena of science, but in political, social, and economic arenas as well.

Even though there is no explicitly established list of qualities that are characteristic of the dignified rational nature, it still seems generally obvious that there are certain things that act as signals for people to treat certain objects with dignity, which Bushnell classifies as "linguistic competence, neurological complexity, or some other combination of marks." This leaves me with the question regarding where objects with the potential to have the trademarks like linguistic competence and neurological complexity should be placed on the value-dignity spectrum. Should objects like embryos, which obviously do not have linguistic competence or the same physiological efficiency as a fully developed human, be treated as if they possess the same rational nature which governs ethical treatment toward fully developed humans in the Kantian sense? And, more broadly, does potential carry the same weight as the manifest? Do objects that house the precursors to that which we recognize as manifest qualities of rationality (in this case, undifferentiated cells or even specialized cells before they are fully assembled into organs) possess the same dignity as the outwardly rational?

Bushnell is right in saying that if all things that are potential bearers of rational natures (because we don't have a criterion of what is a rational nature, everything in essence could have the potential to become rational) are treated as humans then we would be unable to act at all. Bushnell's statement, "so long as we have any doubts about which beings have rational natures, we have doubt about the extent of our duties", as well as his "linguistic competence and neurological complexity" conception of rationality form the basis of my own conclusions regarding objects that are known to come into a rational existence. It can be determined, using the linguistic competence and neurological complexity that Bushnell listed as indicators of rationality, that rational natures exist on a sort of gradient with respect to these qualities. In the words of Bushnell, "the stone is very, very unlikely to have a rational nature; the tree merely very unlikely; the flatworm unlikely, the ankle patient likely, and the erudite philosopher very likely."

Here it is evident that certain things are known to come into rational existence Ð'- sticks and stones will never have linguistic competence or neurological complexity. It is known that sticks and stones, even though theoretically they could come into rational existence because we have not defined what a rational nature is, that they won't based on Bushnell's listed qualities. We know that trees and flatworms are a sort of intermediate based on Bushnell's qualities in that they have neurological complexity to a certain degree but lack linguistic competence and therefore only partially possess a quality of rational natures. Rational natures, however, if we ascribe them to beings based on the above qualities, are somewhat like a circuit Ð'- if one part is missing, the object will never achieve the same degree of dignity that a being would

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