Health Humanities Series: Nancy Jecker: Dignity in Later Life

Some philosophers think dignity is a useless concept we can do without. Against this view, I argue dignity is a central concern across the lifespan, especially during later life. The salience of dignity in later life is part of a broader view I call the life stage relativity of values. Across the lifespan, different values emerge as central at different periods of our lives. During early life, caring, trust, and nurturing should figure prominently, due to vulnerabilities and needs that characterize infancy and childhood. By adulthood, the capacity to develop greater physical and emotional independence rightly leads to autonomy taking center stage. During later life, people face heightened risk for chronic disease and disability, which makes keeping dignity intact a critical concern. Ignoring the life stage relativity of values invites life stage bias, particularly midlife bias, which occurs when we apply values central during midlife to all life stages.

Nancy S. Jecker is Professor of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2022, she was elected President of the International Association of Bioethics. Dr. Jecker’s research explores healthcare allocation, capabilities and human dignity, African philosophy, individual and societal aging, artificial intelligence and social robots. Dr. Jecker has published over 200 articles and 4 books. Her most recent book, Ending Midlife Bias (Oxford University Press, 2020), coins the term ‘midlife bias’ to refer to the privileging of midlife values across the lifespan.