The law introduced by Switzerland in 2004 to protect the dignity of animals, plants and other life forms is now in conflict with the country's research agenda. Two top Swiss universities have been forced to appeal to the supreme court in a bid to secure the right to perform perfectly reasonable experiments that have been banned because they are said to offend the dignity of the non-human primates involved. The problem in this instance lies in an interpretation of the law that flies in the face of research reality (see page 833).

The Swiss law is at odds not only with beneficial research but also with good sense. Even plant scientists potentially face restrictions on the kinds of genetic engineering they are allowed to do (see Nature 452, 919; 2008), and debates have arisen about the abuse of dignity in decapitating wild flowers.

Although pondering the dignity of dandelions is downright silly, the underlying problem with the Swiss law is that it allows rules to be built on the foundation of a notoriously subjective concept. In March, the US President's Council on Bioethics produced a collection of 28 essays on the dignity of human life and proved unable to come to a consensus. The essays offer statements on the concept that are often contradictory: dignity is earned, but it is also shared by all in full measure. Dignity cannot be taken away — yet it can and has been in cases of slavery. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a powerful critique of the panel's efforts in the 28 May issue of The New Republic , arguing that 'dignity' has been widely misused to mean whatever conservative bioethicists want it to mean.

Dignity as a concept cannot be a director of moral judgement. After all, when the Swiss government assigned dignity to plants, it was in essence assigning autonomy, as if a plant sways in the breeze because it has decided to do so. A strict interpretation of such a framework would prohibit agriculture. But even where such rules are not absurd, laws should not be based on such a slippery concept.