Monday, May 31, 2010

The Rights of the Dead

On May 29th, she will defend her PhD thesis Duties to Past Persons: Moral Standing and Posthumous Interests of Old Human Remains at the Uppsala University in Sweden. Masterton's thesis covers the moral status of past people and our duties towards the dead.

“At least in Sweden, the living are protected by laws on genetic integrity. We have no legal obligations to King Tut or other historical persons, but there is perhaps still integrity worth protecting,” says Malin Masterton at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB).

In her thesis, Malin Masterton discusses ethical guidelines for the handling of human remains and makes suggestions for revisions. The basis for these revisions is that the dead also have an identity in the form of a narrative. “I propose that the dead should be given moral status based on our respect for human life,” says Malin Masterton.

Whose integrity and interest is it when the person is dead? Malin Masterton argues that parts of a person’s identity remain after death. One way of looking at identity is as a narrative – the story of one’s life – that both stands alone and is interwoven with other people’s stories. Seen like this, the dead too have a name and a reputation worth protecting. So no more calling Helen of Troy a whore, Nero a nitwit or Belzoni a looting circus artist?

If the dead, to some degree like the living, have integrity and reputation, they also have moral status and we can wrong them. According to Malin Masterton, we have three duties to the dead:

  • We have a duty of truthfulness in our description of a person’s reputation.
  • We have a duty to respect the personal integrity of the dead in research contexts.
  • We have a duty to admit wrongs we have committed against the dead, like illegal archaeological digs.

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