Conservatives face a daunting challenge today. On the most pressing moral issues confronting the country—many of them having to do with aspects of biotechnological research—the public is deeply divided, and the divisions are far from trivial. Take the issue of embryonic stem cells. Many conservatives contend that the union of complementary gametes (sperm and ovum) instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same rights as a mature human being; they thus conclude that embryonic stem cell research, which destroys this person, must be prohibited. But many others think differently. For them, the prospect of relieving the suffering of sentient human beings—especially when they are members of one’s own family or beloved celebrities such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox—should outweigh concern for the dignity of a microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish.
The former view is clearly based on the stronger argument. In the words of Robert P. George, blastocysts are indeed “capable of directing from within their own integral organic functioning and development into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of life, and ultimately into adulthood as, in each case, determinate, enduring, whole human beings.” And yet, the latter position is not obviously absurd. It is neither nihilism nor reflexive sentimentality, but rather an intuition embedded in moral common sense, that leads so many to conclude that decency requires us to do what we can to relieve the suffering of those we love. The conflict, then, arises from a tension within morality itself.
With this, from April, 2005:
Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms--even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.
Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty "culture of death." But this is far from fair. It is neither nihilism nor a craving for "death" that leads many of us to conclude that we should support research that promises to relieve human suffering when doing so inflicts no suffering of its own. (A microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish is, of course, non-sentient.) On the contrary, this conclusion flows from an intuition embedded in moral common sense. This is not to deny a certain moral grandeur to the Pope’s absolutist stance, which holds that the defense of innate human dignity ought to trump suffering every time. But denying that both positions have moral weight does serious damage to the richness and complexity of moral experience.
What he once called the better argument is now just an "absolutist stance" to which he concedes a "certain moral grandeur." Yes, human moral life is complicated, but becoming "pro-choice" on stem cell research is not self-evidently the better way to proceed, politically or morally. Linker seems to have forgotten (if he ever knew) that the pro-choice position is itself a moral teaching, not a merely political or "meta-moral" position that ascribes equal status to several competing moral positions. It teaches us either to be indifferent to the moral considerations involved in stem cell research, or it elevates social peace or personal autonomy to the privileged position. There’s an argument for this stance, but it’s not a slam dunk.
Update: Rick Garnett has more.