The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Autonomy or Worthiness? How to Find Dignity in Death” -Margaux Killackey in Public Discourse

We invite you to read a piece entitled “Autonomy or Worthiness?  How to Find Dignity in Death,” by our Deputy Assistant Director, Margaux Killackey.  Miss Killackey wrote this piece in response to an earlier Public Discourse article by Dr. Aaron Rothstein, “All Death is Death Without Dignity.”

“Dr. Rothstein’s own thesis seems to be built upon a mistaken understanding of the word ‘dignity.’ There is dignity in living and dignity in dying, because the concept of ‘dignity’ is inseparable from our humanity. This is true even during the process—and indeed the very moment—during which the soul is separated from the body of a human being. We get a glimpse of this reality in the innate sense that we must respect dead bodies—even the dead bodies of people whose lives were not admirable.

“Etymologically, ‘dignity’ derives from the Latin adjective dignus, which means ‘worthy.’ On this understanding, then, we all have dignity simply by being human. However, there is a superadded dignity to a death well-encountered. This dignity is ascribed, of course, to the person, not to death, which is in itself a great evil.

‘Worthiness’ is a kind of integrity, which probably accounts for why people may be tempted to equate it with autonomy: physical integrity. But if we look beyond the physical—if we see man as not only a composition of limbs and eyes but as a person who is capable of loving and sacrificing—our idea of integrity and worthiness takes on a larger meaning. Dignity, then, is found not only in our external actions, but even in our passions (which, Aristotle instructs us, are things that happen to us). I posit, then, that true dignity is the worthiness and integrity with which a person both acts and receives the actions of outside forces. We can act well and receive well in the face of good and evil.”

Read the whole article here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790