Friday, July 28, 2006

Stem-cells, abortion, etc.

President Bush has been roundly condemned or opposed by virtually everyone (scientists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, media) for his recent veto of a bill that would have lifted the ban on government-funded research of embryonic stem-cells. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Bush's decision is of a kind with similar decisions of religious conservatives who have stifled scientific research throughout history. Indeed, in a Senate hearing on the matter, Republican Senator Arlen Specter predicted that Bush's opposition to government-funded stem-cell research would one day be considered as ridiculous as the Church's (since-renounced) opposition to Galileo's astronomical theories.

Well, I'm here to tell you that...I have absolutely no idea whether the conventional wisdom is right or wrong, though my inclination is to support the research. And while we're on the topic of divisive moral issues, perhaps a discussion of abortion and other moral matters is in order as well.

You see, the problem with stem-cell research, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, and a whole host of other morality-related public-policy issues is that - when it comes right down to it - the rightness of all of these policies essentially depends upon the gut-instinct of the people who either oppose or support it, and scientific data has very little to say about such judgments. Should a convicted mass-murderer be executed? Well, I think so, but if you disagree, it is highly unlikely that sociological studies and/or other accumulation of data will convince either of us to change our view.

Philosophers have long-noticed that ethical issues are decided in a sort of fact-averse vacuum. David Hume famously noted a sort of "is-ought gap"- in other words, that there is no simple way to proceed from fact-based premises (i.e. the way the world is) to moral conclusions (i.e. the way the world ought to be). One (terrific) philosophy professor of mine, David Johnson, claimed that "Ethics" is a sort of the black-hole of philosophy; basically, all moral arguments fail. [Incidentally, Johnson insisted on speaking of the "apparent is-ought gap" because the gap has not been proven to exist. It's just that no one thus far has been able to bridge it. Philosophy professors are often crazy. Johnson also believes that he has proven (something like) "either God exists or there is an infinite number of alternate universes in which conditions do not permit the existence of human life." Nice.]

Now, before we go overboard and start cohabiting with animals, it seems worth mentioning that, happily, the United States and other functional societies manage to traverse the morass of ethical dilemma by enshrining as law almost-universally-agreed-upon ethical norms. Murder for instance, is outlawed and punished. Same goes for stealing, rape, assault, and countless other behaviors. Indeed, theorists have even found common ground in various outlawed behaviors and have established principles that underlie them. So, for instance, many societies have codified a respect for "individual rights." Given the assumption that the rights of an individual may not be violated, it does in fact follow that murder or theft, say, is a violation of the principle. Now all this is good - great, in fact, I would say.

But what is perhaps glossed over is the fact that whether or not to resepect "individual rights" is itself a moral decision. Of course, it may seem like an easy moral decision, but that actually is my point. There is no controversy over "individual rights" because the public overwhelmingly (by which I mean, almost everyone in the society) believes that "individual rights" should be respected. Decisions about moral issues are easy to reach when they reflect a consensus.

But, needless to say, issues like stem-cell research and abortion (and the death penalty, and euthanasia, and polygamy, and war, etc., etc., etc.) generate what can only be considered the opposite of a consensus. Not only do people disagree about the morality of the issue; often, they believe that the opposite side advocates serious moral crimes. But, as we have seen, factual data often contribute very little to these arguments. Gut instinct (individual or collective - in the case of church-inspired opinion) lies at the heart of all these matters.

I would make one more point, which is subtle but should clarify my argument in one important respect. When I say that these arguments are not influenced by fact, I don't mean that people don't cite facts in order to convince the other side (and themselves) of their righteousness. Death-penalty proponents, for instance, attempt to bolster their view with data proving that the death-penalty acts as a crime deterrent. Neo-cons attempt to foster support for their view that Saddam must be deposed by alleging that Saddam's WMDs constitute an existential threat to the United States. But these facts, while related to the issues at hand, do not really address the moral core of either issue. Even if the death penalty is a deterrent, that does not prove (or even address, really) the question of whether it is moral to put a person to death under any circumstances. Even if Saddam is known to have WMDs which constitute an existential threat to the US, that does not prove (or address) whether it is moral to depose a leader who is an existential threat to a particular country. You see, what people are doing by citing these facts is to change the perception of the situation from one in which the morally advisable course of action is murky to a situation in which a consensus exists about the morally advisable course of action.

Now, sometimes these arguments are at least partially effective. For many people, the procedure known as "partial-birth abortion" seems so similar to murder that the practice appears obviously immoral (I am one of those people). But in many more cases, the issue being debated is not comparable enough to a different situation (in which a moral consensus exists) that any sort of consensus on the new issue can be reached.

And that, it seems to me, is where we stand on abortion. America does not see abortion as murder, but neither does it see it as nothing - as a morally neutral act. As there is no obvious moral comparison to make, we should not be surprised that public opinion is conflicted and essentially deadlocked.

Stem-cell research appears to be a bit different. It seems like a solid majority of Americans find it similar enough to a morally neutral act (or, at least, to the discarding of the embryos that would have happened anyway) that the potential benefits offered by the research far outweigh any squeamishness inspired by the prospect of fiddling with human embryos.

I admit that my gut instinct lies with the public on this one. Upon deeper reflection, I confused myself, but I still incline towards supporting government-funded research. Here are my thoughts:

1) I accept as fact (for the sake of argument) that stem-cell research might provide valuable medical knowledge that can save lives. But does that justify destroying human embryos?
2) The closest analogue I can think of to live-saving human embryos is life-saving human corpses. All things being equal, we would rather not cut up human corpses and we would rather not cut up human embryos.
3) But, there are cases in which it makes sense to cut up at least some human corpses. Organ donation seems like the most obvious case in which it is morally obvious that a corpse should be cut up. The attempt to immediately save a living human being seems worth the sacrifice of cutting up the body of what was once a living human being but is now not alive and never will be.
4) Aside from organ donation, other cases exist in which it seems morally correct to cut up corpses. Medical research (in medical schools and elsewhere) is done on corpses, and autopsies provide important data on communicable diseases and other areas of medical knowledge.
5) The government has no problem funding research that is based on the cutting up of corpses.
6) I can't really think of a good reason that messing with embryos that will never be human beings is worse than messing with corpses that once were human beings.
7) So fund the research.

But again, who really knows?


Blogger Danny the Manny said...

I just want to say, I tried to read this. I really did. I'm crying foul here as it's just too long. It must have been written by an African American male on performance-enhancing drugs. This blog's testosterone level charted at 6:1.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Kraut said...

thanks for giving it a shot, dude. i gotta mix it up a little, though. i'm sure i'll be back to immature pettiness soon.

4:47 PM  

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