Friday, July 29, 2005

Actually, Billy, It's a Matter of Morality

Speaking of the Problem of Evil, what's up with Bill Frist? He's not really a moron, so how can he be so confused about the moral difficulties involved in stem cell research, calling it a matter of science rather than a matter of faith? Dorothy Rabinowitz, whom I love dearly as a social commentator, made a similar mistake on the PBS show Journal Editorial Report, when she complained that holding up stem cell research is about as smart as holding up research into viral innoculations, which requires the use of live viruses to produce the serum. She apparently thinks there is no difference between a human being and a virus. I guess her strong point is social commentary rather than biology, but let that pass. What's Bill's problem? He presumably knows something about biology, unless he got his medical degree in Jamaica or some place like that.

He seems to believe, along with other genuinely sloppy moral thinkers, that the acquisition of knowledge is worth whatever price we have to pay for it. So, even though we don't actually have any guarantee that stem cell research really will bring about cure after remarkable cure, he thinks we should sacrifice human lives now on the off chance that we'll save a few in the future.

One cannot help but be reminded of the discovery, a few years ago, of data collected by the Nazis during the 30s and 40s regarding the effects of hypothermia. Unwilling subjects were frozen--sometimes to death--in order to facillitate the study of cold on the human body and the discovery of new treatments for hypothermia. When this data was found lying around not so long ago, there was a debate among current researchers over how it ought to be used, if at all. Can we ethically use data gathered from unwilling subjects by such evil mad scientists? Some thought not--some thought that the pursuit of knowledge ought to be tempered by just conduct. Some things, in other words, may not be worth the cost of knowing.

The Tuskeegee Experiment, in which African Americans were unknowingly exposed to syphillis, in another such case. Is it right to use human beings in this way, merely to gather more information that might be useful to the rest of us? It is impossible for anyone who understands morality to condone this sort of thing.

And yet that is exactly what Bill Frist is recommending that we do now: make it easier to use human beings--against their will, obviously, since embryos are not yet sentient and hence cannot possibly give consent--in the pursuit of knowledge at any cost. These particular human beings, of course, will die in this pursuit, but the rest of us might be able to live a little longer or a little more comfortably thanks to their "sacrifice". Too bad they couldn't give consent but, hey, what's a little technical detail like that when it comes to scientific progress?

Bill might change his mind if someone decides to use him in a scientific experiment against his will. But if he is to be consistent in his view he will not be able to protest when the utilitarian argument is made that his death will make other lives better.

Way to go, Bill. Welcome to the ranks of the morally bankrupt.

3 comments:

carl s webber said...

Frist's move is to support the use of taxpayers' money to fund cell research, an activity which is currently "legal" and privately funded.

In effect, he is suggesting that taxpayers who may not agree with the research be obliged to fund it anyway.

Shucks, millions of us taxpayers do that all the darn time. I helped pay for the war in Vietnam although I had serious doubts about its wisdom. I was very annoyed, but that's the kind of annoyance one can expect as a citizen of a diverse representative democracy.

The fundamental choices are made by voters (God help us all!) and until they decide to legally prohibit stem cell research, the acts complained of should be expected.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I would be interested in hearing your empirical proof that Frist is not a moron. I've never seen any particular evidence of cerebral excellence. I've worked in enough medical schools that I'm not buffaloed by Harvard Med on the CV. His board cert is in surgery. It's about as intellectually demanding as playing a video game.

Scott Carson said...

Kathy,

You know, it's notoriously difficult to get empirical evidence in support of a negative, and in the face of your evidence to the contrary, I think I'll just have to admit defeat on this one!