Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

This is moral reasoning?

Here’s an op-ed that appeared in today’s WaPo:

First, do the embryos used for stem cell research and therapy have rights? They are clumps of a few dozen cells, biologically more primitive than a mosquito. They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been. Nature itself creates and destroys millions of these every year. No one objects. No one mourns. In most cases no one even knows. If my life is worth no more than the survival of one of these clumps, then it is terribly unfair that I can plead my case on the op-ed page, and they can’t. But I have no trouble feeling that the government should value my life more than the lives of these clumps. God may disagree. But the government reports to me and to other adult Americans, not to God.

I don’t know where to begin. The author, Michael Kinsley, suffers from Parkinson’s, and so has both my sympathy and an interest in finding a cure. To justify satisfying his interest by means of stem cell research, he has to find some way of denying the potential of the blastocysts. Is it the lack of consciousness, the lack of sophistication, the lack of relationship with other conscious beings? Of course, if they were "endangered species," none of these considerations would be dispositive. We’d have to preserve them. But "endangered species" is a human label, one that can be withdrawn almost as easily as it was given. We, then, are the sources of value and protection, which is pretty much what Kinsley concedes in the closing sentence of the paragraph. In matters of assigning moral value, worth, and protection (at least by government), it doesn’t matter what God thinks; it only matters what we think.

Gee, I wonder who would have appreciated that line of argumentation during the slave era?

And then there’s Kinsley’s "sensitive" medical ethics catch-all:

I guess it’s not cricket to use a woman’s unwanted eggs to cure dreadful diseases without her permission. But if this is what alarms Kass, the solution is a simple release form.

You can’t use my "stuff" without my consent. Not exactly deep and profound thought.

Update: Ken Masugi has more.

Discussions - 8 Comments

This is no easy issue; certainly, it seems as though Kinsley greatly oversimplifies it.

Yet, in so far as we are trying to make sound public policy, I wonder whether "what God thinks" should count. First of all, because there is no obvious access to "what God thinks" on this subject or any other. In the revealed religions, we are left with artifacts that believers claim to be revelatory, if not of God’s thoughts, at least of God’s commands, or intentions for how human beings should conduct themselves. I have respect for such believers but merely note that they do not agree among themselves, and therefore I don’t see a legitimate methodology, at least in a liberal democracy that embraces and tolerates many traditions and faiths, for weighing and deciding among these different views of "what God thinks."

Every day policymakers make life and death decisions, whether in balancing the effects on US competitiveness against precautions in the health safety and environmental areas, or in national security, or in criminal justice. Kinsley tries to pre-determine one trade off that he likes, by pretending there is nothing to trade off. The people who chant the slogan of "sanctity of life" commit the same sophistry. A denial of the meaning of "responsibility" in politics.

On endangered species, there is broad international agreement about what these are at present, reflected in treaty law, and the protections of such species are not absolute (trade offs remain).

If only we had the degree of certainty and consensus about "what God thinks" as we do about what is an endangered species!



I don’t mean to suggest that it’s easy either to discern "what God thinks" or to find agreement about it, though the Declaration of Independence may offer us a clue. My objection to Kinsley’s line of reasoning is roughly the same as Lincoln’s objection to Douglas’ advocacy of popular sovereignty. Kinsley’s claim is that human beings decide what forms of life are valuable, whether that be accomplished through laws or treaties. Absent something like a "natural law" background, everything is up for grabs. Whether he wants to face up to it or not, Kinsley is careening down a slippery slope.

On this point, I completely agree with you--in his final sentence, Kinsley makes it sound like the question of protection of life is merely a matter of weighing preferences in the political process, and that only the preferences of adults (i.e. voters) do or should count. There are no binding normative guidelines or constraints (apart from apparently honoring a system where only the preferences of voters count). I don’t think one needs to invoke God in order to show what is wrong about this thinking. To distinguish norms/principles from interests/preferences in political decisionmaking and deliberation is entirely possible without theistic or theological premises: see for example Habermas’s Fakticitaet und Geltung. (By the way have you read Habermas’s recent book on ethics and biotechnology etc.?)



Hmm, considering the decline of humans on the planet, may invoking the ESA might be the way to put double speak to the ultimate test. The Ausies are actually paying women to have children. Apparently, they get it!

The rest of the sadly misinformed will have to wait until social security and other "free lunch" programs fail completely.

When Kinsley writes, "They are clumps of a few dozen cells, biologically more primitive than a mosquito. They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been," I think he forgets the inescapable, obvious, and simple fact that every human being orignated in those clumps of cells. Not horses, mosquitoes, or dogs; just human beings.

"First, do the embryos used for stem cell research and therapy have rights?...They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been.

To use Kinsley’s logic, should one slip into a state of unconsciousness - even momentarily - will result in the forfeiture of rights. For him, awareness = rights. Now you know why DEMACRAPS need the courts to protect them: they lack awareness of the real world.

Regarding Michael Kinsley’s comments on embryonic stem cell research, and embryos in particular, "Nature itself creates and destroys millions of these every year...No one mourns."

Obviously, Mr. Kinsley has never had a wife who has had a miscarriage. If he has and still feels this way, he is both heartless and selfish. Many people have been neutral on the issue of abortion until they or their spouse miscarried after carrying, for the shortest of time, the happy news of pregnancy. In mourning their loss, however, they have acknowledged that their "fetus" was a child.

What does God say about trying children as adults when they are accused of "adult" crimes? Do we refer to God, or do we refer to some human-generated set of rules and definitions?

What does God say about the decision to attack an urban area in Iraq, or Dresden, or Hiroshima, or New York City? Is the term "collateral damage" handed down from God? I think that some of us seem relatively comfortable, justifying killing according to human definition and differentiation.

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