Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 191–208 | Cite as

What is the scope for the interpretation of dignity in research involving human subjects?

  • Lawrence BurnsEmail author
Scientific Contribution


Drawing on Lennart Nordenfelt’s distinction between the four distinct senses of dignity, I elucidate the meaning of dignity in the context of research involving human subjects. I acknowledge that different interpretations of the personal senses of dignity may be acceptable in human subject research, but that inherent dignity (Menschenwürde) is not open to interpretation in the same way. In order to map out the grounds for interpreting dignity, I examine the unique application of the principle of respect for dignity in Canada’s research ethics guidelines. These guidelines are unique because they consider dignity to be a foundational concept and the protection of the dignity of research subjects is regarded as a measure that prevents “the impoverishment of humanity as a whole”. While the conception of humanity invoked here is incomplete, Canada’s research ethics guidelines nevertheless represent a more European approach to biomedical policy. Finally, in order to correct a pervasive blind spot in contemporary policy on research involving human subjects, I sketch a functional model for attributing inherent dignity that avoids the untenable connotations of speciesism.


dignity human subjects research humanity interpretation moral community Nordenfelt policy 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s University College at the University of Western OntarioLondonCanada

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