Bioethical pastoral: Life, ethics, and the politics of human dignity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The last decade of work on vital politics has seen a sharp and unexpected return to the figure of universal humanity. Despite this return, the canon of work on vital politics remains marked by a curious omission: little attention has been paid to the place of ‘human dignity’ in the governance of the biological body. The reasons for this omission are not obvious. After all, since World War II, talk of dignity has become a sine qua non of global counter-politics. If the reasons are not obvious, the significance is: dignitarian politics is distinguished by a refusal of the logic of biopolitics and an embrace of a political sensibility consistent with what Foucault called pastoral power: the demand that the pastorate must care, simultaneously, for all of the flock and for the soul of each member. This article seeks to highlight the place of pastoral power in the study of vital politics by examining one domain in which vital and dignitarian politics have become entangled: the figure of human dignity in bioethics. Tracing the situated ways dignity has been reimagined and remobilized in relation to the biopolitical body in the case of U.S. stem cell ethics, it seeks to cast new light on contemporary economies of life and power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)601-622
Number of pages22
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018


  • biopolitics
  • human dignity
  • pastoral power
  • stem cell research
  • the archonic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy


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