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Stem-cells and Moral Philosophy

Following up on the commentary and discussion on Bush’s stem-cell policy, here’s a worthwhile and relatively short piece on many of the moral and philosophical issues inherent in our stem-cell debate. From the introduction:

If we listen closely to the moral discourse arguing that embryonic stem cells should be employed in medical research, we get a glimpse into the prevailing moral culture of our time. At its heart is a utilitarian calculus, combined with an unlimited emphasis on the virtue of compassion and undergirded by a worldview of what we might call "spiritualistic naturalism."

Discussions - 17 Comments

What about torture and the utilitarian moral calculus? Still waiting to hear the views of NLT folks on this score, which strikes me as a bigger deal than stem cell research. . .

But don’t all arguments against stem-cell research ultimately rest on a matter of faith--that human life begins at the moment of conception? If we accept that even the tiniest cluster of cells counts as a human being, it is easy to conclude that such research as unjustifiable. But this is hardly a non-controversial premise; I myself find it a bit hard to swallow. In other words, how is this likely to convince anyone who isn’t already a believer?

John: Thats not a matter of faith, thats a matter of Science. What difference, genetically, is there between an embryo and you? None really: both a fully developed adult and a embryo have the same number of chromosomes, etc. Sure, it does not look like a human, but if we go along that road what about children born without legs? or arms? In that respect they do not look like humans. Can they be murdered morally?

The only difference I see between an embryo and me is that I’m further along in my development. The same applies in reverse between me and an octogenarian, for example.

Also, assuming one is pro-life, how can one say abortion is bad while saying that experimenting on embryos is good?

What difference, genetically, is there between an embryo and you? None really: both a fully developed adult and a embryo have the same number of chromosomes, etc. Sure, it does not look like a human, but if we go along that road what about children born without legs? or arms? In that respect they do not look like humans. Can they be murdered morally?

What difference is there, genetically, between you and a trauma victim who is brain-dead? Is it murder to remove said victim from life support? Or is it more appropriate to say that there is more to personhood than DNA? I believe that the presence of brainwaves has something to do with it. And brainwaves are not present at the moment of conception--they only appear after about a month.

Also, assuming one is pro-life, how can one say abortion is bad while saying that experimenting on embryos is good?

You shouldn’t assume that I am anti-abortion in all cases. My stand on abortion is perfectly consistent with the above--that is, without brainwaves there is no human being, so a pregnancy can be legitimately terminated in the first month.

No assumption here about your stand on abortion.

Why are brainwaves determinant of one’s humanity? Assuming you are correct, however, what is that "clump of cells" prior to brain activity? Surely you acknowledge that it is alive. If it is alive, and not human, what is it then? Why would something that is not human have the same DNA structure as a human?

What is it that makes one human? Is it the onset of reason? In that case we should follow Peter Singer and argue for legal killing of children up to age 7 or so. My main concern is that if we do not draw the line at conception then where is the line drawn? Brainwaves, for the reasons stated above, do not satisfy.

One other point I just thought of that I’d like to get your opinion on: even when a person becomes "braindead" do we not still recognize that person as a human? albeit a dead one? Their brain activity is not determinant of their humanity, but perhaps one indication that the human’s life has come to an end. In the same vein, an embryos brain activity is just one more development in their budding humanity; along with the development of arms, legs, the ability to feel pain, etc.

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

I doubt that I can improve upon Mr. Driscoll’s comments. Not only is science in his favor, but his moral reasoning as well. I think a bit of commonsense may be necessary in this discussion as well. A man and a woman have sex, the sperm fertilizes the egg, the cells divide, nine months later a baby is born, and the person grows, lives, and then dies. And, also, humans have human offspring after sex, bears have bears, ducks have ducks, etc. Does one really have to be a believer in the divinity of Christ not to see this? Is this really "hard to swallow?"

The reference to Peter Singer and killing those with less reason (children, the retarded, etc.) or brainwaves or whatever sounds a bit frightening (actually a lot) to me, and trumped my own mention of it. Are these not the arguments that Adolf Hitler made?

I also have to wonder if such an argument about killing the one month old child in the womb is made by a father. When a wife tells her husband that she is a few weeks pregnant, should the husband say, "Well, honey, I would be excited if it had brainwaves and were thus fully human, but since it’s not, let’s have a discussion about removing this thing or not. In another week or so, I’ll celebrate, and we’ll definitely have to keep it then because it will be human." I find it hard to believe that one minute it’s not a human life and then, pop, here are the brainwaves, and now, we have a human life. One minute before that, it was a worthless lump of flesh able to be discarded? I think that I, you, and all of us, are worth a bit more than the sum total of our brainwaves.

I think it is generally interesting that I’ve heard so many sophistries from people trying to defend abortion at whatever stage. My students have told me that the spinal cord makes us human. Others say it’s brainwaves. Some say it’s the ability to feel pain. So much disagreement. On the other side, is the confidence in a very simple truth - the truth about the awe-inspiring power of the loving act of a man and a woman to produce a totally new, unique creation. Sounds quite powerful, but also full of responsibility. I think it the profound folly of human hubris to think that one can develop arguments to tamper with such a thing and then implement them. What gave us the right? What if we’re wrong? Do we really want to take that risk? To what good and noble end?

Rob’s points are well taken. Undoubtedly we are talking about a living organism; however, I think that a distinction needs to be made between living cells and human life. Particular cells in the human body continue to live for years after the human dies--hair and nails, for example, continue to grow long after the body itself has ceased to function. But no one thinks to define human life so broadly as to include every cell.

Today doctors use two guidelines to determine whether or not someone is dead--heartbeat and brainwaves. Obviously if there is no heartbeat it’s all over, but a doctor may, with the consent of next of kin, pull a patient off life support if there is a lack of brainwaves. If this is to be the main factor in determining when life ends, why not use it in deciding when it begins? By the way, an embryo does not even develop a heartbeat until more than three weeks after conception.

even when a person becomes "braindead" do we not still recognize that person as a human? albeit a dead one?

Yes, we do, but that is not what is really at issue. The question is whether the human in this case possesses rights; namely, the right to life. Our present practice does not recognize such a right, since the braindead patient can be legally taken off life support.

I appreciate the emotion in Mr. Williams response, but I suggest that he and his wife’s excitement and enthusiasm for pregnancy is not one that is universally shared--otherwise it is unlikely that we would be having this discussion. Moreover, even couples who are pleased with their pregnancy tend not make a habit of telling anyone about it until it is at least one month along, because there are so many complications that can occur in that first month.

Thats an interesting point about living cells not defining human life: cutting ones nails is not quite the same thing as tryin to cut one’s wrists, for obvious reasons. Yet we can tell when systems vital to the overall end of the human organism are no longer working, thus ending its "life." One’s body’s systems cannot function without a heartbeat, or without any brain activity, etc. That embryo has not even developed these things, but it will, given a normal pregnancy. The natural end of the embryo is the same as our natural end (at least biologically: breathing, heartbeat, sensations of pain, etc.)

In the case of the dead patient, we realize that he no longer has a right to life because life has left him. In the embryos case, life is just beginning. They are at different ends of development, but that does not mean that the embryo and the patient are different in such a way as to allow us to use the embryo as if it were not human while trying to respect the patient’s right to life.

John, I guess my main question to you would be what is an embryo if its not human life? If human life begins at 1 month with brainwaves (or 3 weeks, as you suggest, for heartbeat), what is that clump of cells before then? To perhaps redirect some of Tony’s emotion into this, when a couple has a miscarriage (I’ve known a few) why is it such a trauma for them? Perhaps this is unfair: I’m not sure if couples know about a miscarriage so early, before brain activity, etc. But I’ll ask anyway!

I suppose I have no objection to referring to an embryo in a sense as human life, but I’d also draw a distinction between general human life, and a human being as a rights-bearing entity.

It strikes me that this discussion is very much like those in the Medieval Church regarding "ensoulment"--that is, the question of when precisely the soul entered the body. Although the Church has always denounced abortion at any point in a pregnancy, it traditionally recognized a distinction between abortions that took place in the first several weeks (which were merely life-destroying) and those that occurred later (which the Church regarded as homicide). What made the difference was the presence or absence of a soul. By the way, a quite lucid discussion of this issue may be found here.

Why is a miscarriage traumatic? This seems to me a lot simpler than it sounds. If I think that I have just won the lottery, then upon taking it to the convenience store to claim my prize I find that my ticket was counterfeit, I am likely to find this gravely upsetting. On the other hand, if I have a tumor which I later learn is benign, then I have cause for celebration. It is all a matter of one’s expectations, and whether they are then either met or frustrated. I imagine that for a woman who really does not want a child, but who is unwilling for whatever reason to have an abortion, a miscarriage might come as a relief.

My point about the new parents being excited (or even teen-agers worried about a pregnancy for that matter) is that they know that they are going to bear a human life. Simple. I think that the reason why parents are so upset about the miscarriage is that they thought that they were going to bring a new life into the world and now they are not. It may in part be because of expectations, but it is the character of what they are expecting that is important.

I also have to think of my limited understanding of Thomas Aquinas and his efficient causes (if that’s what it is called). All human life goes back to a first cause - I’m not sure how one cannot take a living, breathing human being of whatever age outside the womb and keep going back to the first division of cells when the sperm and egg united. There are obviously developments along the way which are part of growth such as the development of the heart, spinal cord, brain, lungs, etc., etc. But it all begins in that first magical moment. If that’s not the cause of EVERY single one of us, I don’t know what is.

I would like to bring up Pascal’s Wager in relation to this topic. He didn’t really believe in God but basically wanted to cover himself just in case he was wrong about the whole thing.

I should think this analogous to the abortion debate. Unless one has 100%, absolute certitude that abortion is morally licit for whatever reason, prudence would probably dictate not allowing it. If about 40 million children/humans/whatever you would like to call it have been terminated over the last thirty years legally, should anyone be willing to take the remotest risk that they are in fact human beings? Because I think it really comes down to an either-or, sic et non, choice of totally moral licit in whatever framework you like or murder. And, that’s a lot of "people."

Unless one has 100%, absolute certitude that abortion is morally licit for whatever reason, prudence would probably dictate not allowing it.

The reason why many folks find Pascal’s Wager convincing is that the cost of believing in God is so low--certainly far less than that of living with an unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, given that "100%, absolute certitude" is a pretty darn high standard, I imagine that Tony must believe there are a lot of things that are legal today that he would like to see banned. I suspect most people--including many conservatives--would not want to live in his world.

If you don’t want the pregnancy, don’t have sex. Oh, I’m sorry that such "simple" ideas are "such a high standard." There’s something very simple called responsibility. And, that’s probably the highest cost of unwanted pregnancies.

I would like to hear what else you suspect that I would like to see made illegal because they are probably many less than you think. I am a conservative who believes in freedom and natural rights, but a freedom informed and tempered virtue and natural law. And, on the blog, I’ve committed myself against abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage - that doesn’t seem like excessive regulation to me. And, maybe the opposite, where freedom is license and morality is relative and uninformed by any higher standard than human reason, is a little more frightening than regulating some immoral behavior.

I would like to hear what else you suspect that I would like to see made illegal because they are probably many less than you think.

Drinking, smoking, drug use, prostitution, gambling, birth control, masturbation, adultery, overeating, any form of non-vaginal sex? Remember your original standard:

Unless one has 100%, absolute certitude that abortion is morally licit for whatever reason, prudence would probably dictate not allowing it.

So it is not enough that you personally abstain from such activities--you’re saying that unless you are 100 percent, absolutely certain that something is "morally licit," the government ought to forbid it. Logically, then, you should be calling for the criminalization of all these questionable activities (some of the things on my list, of course are already illegal).

By the way, I’m all for responsibility. I just think that turning over our power to make moral decisions to the government is not a way to promote it.

In my last post on the actual topic of in-vitro fertalization, (as opposed to John Stuart Mill) I made an argument that in effect doesn’t mesh with consensus because while I agree that an embryo is alive I said that it wasn’t alive by much more than sperm and oocyte combined. Then I argued that the two share the same telos which is being a human being. That whatever brought this about from that which is living but only a building block is justified. The deaths of the sperm and oocyte and even embryo’s don’t count as long as a human being is generated. I also said that it was wrong to count as immoral the destruction of embryo’s when one would never lament the death of the sperm or egg of which that embryo was formed.

Now if ever a Rawlsian argument has its time and place it is here. Immagine a time before In-vitro fertalization, immagine that you are a sperm but you do not know that your prospectus is, as a society of sperm you agree that the first sperm to the occyte has the right to become a human being, while all the other sperm must sit and die for it is agreed that "Each sperm possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of (sperm)society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests." This is true and it is justice because all sperm agreed upon it before the time of ejaculation (thus in a condition of justice). But of course this does mean that all but one sperm all doomed to die, and the fact that they were disadvanteged in positioning or happened to have shorter tails does not change the contract once made. All but one sperm must sit there and die, and cannot fight back or object.

This is after all the true original position. No sperm knows his class position or social status or his sex or his their natural talents, abilities, intelligence or strength or what their plan for a good life is, all they know is that to even exist they must be the one who is lucky why everyone else in the society dies. In this situation howhever previous to In-vitro fertalization, there is no hope for sperm society in choosing the least bad alternative, because there is only one alternative and several billion to one that alternative ends in death, before reaching the next stage. Thus the advent of In-vitro fertalization increases alternatives, and opens up the prospect of making something out of the original state, from behind the veil of ignorance. Given the prospect of In-vitro fertalization is the sperm society more likely or less likely to agree to it?

More likely because sperm know that without it they will all die, while with it some of them will live to attain telos in embryo form while others perhaps only one perhaps as many as three will become human being. In the vell of ignorance of the original position accepting In-vitro fertalization means that those who become embryo cannot complain of the unfairness if other embryo are picked instead of them to become human being, but the sheer magnitude of the odds against them ever becoming embryo and the sheer luck if it is them, dampens the force of the argument that they will fight to live and not accept being simply embryo if in fact they make it. Thus they agree that In-vitro fertalization is preferable in the Original State. Next comes the issue of abortion.... abortion increases sex... is sex pleasurable for sperm? increase in sex means increase in number of embryo (telos of sperm) is this counterweighed by those embryo who are stiffled in becomming human by abortion? Some sperm object that abortion is likely to weed out those of them that are weakest, and since they themselves don’t know if they will belong to this group they largely object to abortion. Does this carry weight given that the greater number of sperm can only expect the pleasure of sex and then death? The sperm discuss and table the discussion. Next issue is human cloning... the sperm object on the grounds that it might make them useless...but various arguments abound. Next issue and particularily important stem cell research...the sperm agree that stem cell research will increase the amount of their number who reach telos, although some feel that reaching this hightened state only to be experimented with would take some of the power and awe away from the telos of the thing, some sperm point out that this is only fair since if so many sperm are so thrawted in reaching telos the pain of it increases if it goes from being something only one enjoyed to being something several enjoy. Finally the an argument emmerges that says that allowing this will aid those of them who make it to being human only to find that they are striken with disease infirmity. Some also point out that it may lead to increased bennefits for those of them that do live, such as increased health, intelligence..ext.. and since the outcome of it is also an increase in the chance each sperm has of reaching telos, they agree that it is a good thing because the society that has the fewest number of its least fortunate individuals in the least unfortunate situation is best.

Now the question is can the sperm who entered into this agreement in a veil of ignorance, recant once they find themselves as embryo?

John Lewis.

I would guess that torture is only justifiable during war. When getting information from the bad guys(evil/guilty) is crucial to saving the good guys(innocents)

Other than extreme cases for narrow purposes torture would not be allowed.

Nor as Proffessor Alt suggested would society be justified in punishing certain crimes with penalties that are harsh enough to deter them completly but which would be noxious to an idea justice or fairness.

"The right inherent in society, to ward off crimes against itself by antecedent precautions, suggests the obvious limitations to the maxim, that purely self-regarding misconduct cannot properly be meddled with in the way of prevention or punishment. Drunkennesses, for example, in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference; but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person, who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink, should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty, and that if when in that state he committed another offence, the punishment to which he would be liable for that other offence should be increased in severity."(On Liberty Ch.5)

Of course there is a difference between Mill’s teachings and Utilitarianism proper. Many philosophers have appropriated parts of Utilitarianism, some have broken it in two making a distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, some like Rawls have mixed parts of it with Kant. In general the two prevailing moral philosophies in America are Utilitarianism and Kantianism (objectivism) Personally when I defend Utilitarianism I am only defending Mill. And I was only doing that because after reading him closely I think he is a defender of liberty. -John Lewis.

A comment on the actual article.

"In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus justified the dying off of large numbers of poor and hungry people for the good end of curbing population growth." The author accuses Utilitarians of making compassion a key word yet also tries to make them look harsh! You want to have your cake and eat it too. Actually Malthus was interested primarily in population issues and though wrongly that the world would overpopulate. He didn’t justify large numbers of poor and hungry people dying off he simply described it as an economic consequence of growth. When you have a period of time when there is a lot of food people eat more and populate more, but then if hardship comes they starve.(so he said) His goal was to try to prevent people from reproducing as much in good times so that they wouldn’t starve in bad ones. Other than that his arguments and attacks were somewhat justified. But still I disagree.-John Lewis

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