Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Don't Say I Didn't Tell You

In a story in today's New York Times we learn what most rational folks suspected all along: you don't really need embryos to do stem-cell-like research anyway. As soon as the stem cell debate got under way in earnest a few years back, anyone who opposed it, even for principled reasons (or sometimes because of one's principled reasons), was seen as some sort of troglodytic moron living in the middle ages and benightedly ignorant of the aims and needs of science. Objections about doing unethical research on "human beings" were dismissed as quaintly unscientific and out of touch with modern reality.

Now it turns out that you can create stem-cell-like cells out of human skin cells just by adding four genes. To put it more bluntly, there is no need either to make or destroy human embryos in order to carry out this research.

Will there be any apologies from the Forces of Evil? Don't hold your breath, since they would approve of stem cell research even if it required killing everyone's grandmother to get the cells. But today's story certainly underlines a point that is often overlooked in the rush to judgment of the utilitarian crowd: in addition to the fact, which I have already noted in earlier posts on this subject, that some advances in science may not be worth the price we have to pay in order to gain them, we may add the fact that limited technology ought not to be used as an excuse to do the inexcusable. Some folks seemed to think that stem cell research was the silver bullet that was going to eradicate a whole host of nasty human ailments, and they thought this without any empirical evidence to support the idea; but more importantly, these folks were willing to toss any argument against them out the window without even considering pursuing alternative research strategies. In short, many early proponents of stem cell research were arrogant as well as short sighted and unethical.

Now we learn that any embryos that have been destroyed in this line of research were killed to no purpose whatsoever.

We live in debauched times, but at least some of us can now act all superior about it.

7 comments:

Apollodorus said...

Well, hopefully some of us will get to act all superior about it. From my reading of the media reports on this, it isn't yet clear that this method will work as well as people might like. One major apparent problem is that the procedure risks cancer as a side-effect. It also isn't clear to me whether this method will really work as a complete replacement for the embryo cloning method. I hope so, but I'm not going to hold my breath just yet.

I do think it's important to point out, though, that one need not be a utilitarian to promote the embryo cloning method. The issue centers around whether or not the embryo counts as a person, not whether or not one accepts hedonism or consequentialism. Many of my friends support the embryo cloning method and also insist on what strikes me as a fairly Kantian, rights-based morality. Their acceptance of embryonic stem cell research is of a piece with their acceptance of abortion: they reject the idea that a fetus qualifies as a person. Once they take themselves to be dealing with persons, though, their ideas are far from utilitarian. As far as I can tell, nothing about their view on persons compels them to accept utilitarian principles.

Of course, their views on persons may well be wrong. I'm pretty sure they are, though I'm (as usual) not as confident as you are. Most often, I find, folks just find it obvious that fetuses (and, a fortiori, embryos) are not persons. If they defend that view, it usually has something to do either with consciousness or with viability outside of the womb. I'm not convinced that these things make the crucial difference, but believing that they do does not make one a utilitarian.

Even the line of defense that I find most irritating is far from utilitarian -- the 'female autonomy' argument presupposes either that fetuses are not persons or that a woman with a person in her womb can do whatever she pleases to it; in my experience, people who take this line often simply refuse the question. Their insistence on the inviolability of autonomy, though, strikes me as nothing more than hyper-Kantianism and is as opposed to utilitarianism as you or I.

You are probably more bitter about this issue than I am simply because I tend not to argue about it with people. Even my friends tend to get angry with me when I raise the possibility that intentionally killing a fetus or an embryo is a bad action. Thus I avoid the topic with people who are even less likely to be patient and charitable. Maybe you've been treated badly most often by utilitarians, but my own experience has shown me that few people are really utilitarians, and most are Kantians.

Scott Carson said...

Apollodorus

I think that regardless of the difficulties there may be with this particular strategy my point still stands: there have been those who have been remarkably quick to condemn those of us who recommend finding alternative research strategies, on the grounds that, while the research may indeed be valuable, it's not worth killing innocent human beings.

That's why I'm not so sure you're exactly right about the utilitarian issue. They may not accept that the fetus is a person, but they are surely aware that a rather substantial number of people disagree with them, and it seems to me that a willingness to ignore criticism, to unilaterally push one's own moral vision as though all competitors are benighted, can be motivated only by one of two things: sheer arrogance or a desire for scientific progress. While it may not seem like much, surely the latter is a more charitable interpretation than the former, and the latter is what smacks of utilitarianism, if it is pushed in the face of strong criticism. It seems to me that your own personal experience points to this, if it's really true that your own friends get angry with you when you raise the possibility that killing embryos might be unacceptable. Why would they get angry, unless they thought you were being obstreperous, rather than raising a genuinely important moral qualm? And why would they assume that you are being obstreperous unless they though that you were standing in the way of some gain or other?

As you know, I'm not particularly sympathetic to the persons/humans distinction, even though it is one that the Catholic Church appears tacitly to endorse, at least insofar as it uses the term "person" in moral and theological contexts. I'd be interested to hear what you think the difference is between a human and a person, beyond the, to my mind, question-begging assertion that "persons are bearers of rights and duties, while humans are not". That is, what is the empirical difference that supports the view that there really is such a distinction to be drawn in nature? Is there such a difference, or is the category of "person" entirely a construct?

Darwin said...

Their acceptance of embryonic stem cell research is of a piece with their acceptance of abortion: they reject the idea that a fetus qualifies as a person.

The somewhat interesting thing here, I think, (and the place where utilitarianism comes in) is that what we have seems to be people who do not consider the embryo to be a person telling people who do believe the embryo to be a person that their position is absurd because it would be so useful if the embryo could be treated as handy raw materials rather than a person.

Thus, while the pro-cloning/harvesting person may or many not have reach his embryo-is-not-a-person convictions by means of utilitarian reasoning, his argument against his embryo-is-a-person opponent is essentially utilitarian: that embryos are far too useful to bother about anyone's concerns that they might be human.

Apollodorus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Apollodorus said...

I'm still not buying the idea that it's utilitarianism that drives all moral views that allow for abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Darwin's paraphrase of the argument may be a charitable paraphrase of somebody's argument or line of reasoning, but it isn't the view that I hear from people whom I firmly believe to be honest and reasoning in tune with their conscience. I won't say for a second that this makes them right, but it does seem to demand that we not treat them as though they are being dishonest, or that their explicit views are merely masks for their secretly utilitarian reasoning.

To be clear, let me clarify what I understand by utilitarianism: a moral view characterised by consequentialism, the idea that the worth of any action is determined by the total quantity of good brought about as a consequence; and hedonism, the view that all intrinsic good is, in one way or another, pleasure. There are a vast number of variations of utilitarianism, some less obviously flawed than others. I reject all of them because I reject consequentialism and any form of hedonism in which the concept of pleasure plays any substantive role.

So do most of the folks I know who support abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Most of these folks base their moral reasoning on rights, and they will maintain that the violation of certain rights is never (or not usually) justified by demonstrably good consequences. It's true that some utilitarians defend rights, but they usually defend them on consequentialist grounds. On the contrary, plenty of people who support abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research will insist that people have certain rights just because they are persons; we owe them respect not because respecting them will maximize the good, but because their nature as persons demands respect. This is not a utilitarian view.

Why, then, do they insist that fetuses and embryos aren't persons? Well, this is precisely where my trouble begins. The reason why I believe that abortion and the intentional destruction of an embryo are wrong is that I can see no legitimate reason to deny personhood status to fetuses and embryos. My friends disagree, but they are not utilitarians on that account.

As for Scott's question about the human/person distinction, I'm not sure I can answer it, since I'm not a big fan of the distinction myself. As a strictly semantic matter, I suppose I'm willing to grant that the term 'human being' is a fairly straightforward, descriptive term. If we ask who counts as a human being, we are asking an empirical question. 'Person' in our sense adds a normative component; an account of what a 'person' is tries to specify what properties, capacities, or whatever make a being a worthy subject of moral respect. Ultimately, I think we could do without the term and simply ask what makes human beings worthy subjects of moral respect (and of what kinds of moral respect). If some human beings then turned out to completely lack the necessary qualifications, then we would be under no obligation to show them moral respect.

My own conception of what makes human beings merit respect is constantly under construction, and I'm not satisfied with the accounts that I've been able to give so far. But I tend to center on the human capacity to pursue and participate in characteristically human goods as rational, purposive agents (to condense quite a lot). However I qualify or flesh that out, though, it remains that human beings are not capable of doing all of that until they have been alive for quite some time. What we (or at least I) respect is not simply that they are rational, reflective, ideally autonomous agents in pursuit of the good, but that they can be. In other words, potentiality seems to me to merit as much respect as actuality. So 'human beings' and 'persons' are not necessarily completely co-extensive for me, but fetuses and embryos deserve respect.

As for my non-utilitarian friends and acquaintances, their view derives from what I think is ultimately a Cartesian and dualist conception of 'persons.' Persons are primarily defined by consciousness; no consciousness, no person. Sometimes the ability to feel pleasure and pain is cited even though the people who cite it disavow hedonism. I certainly don't want to say that these views are coherent. I'm just insisting that they aren't utilitarian.

As for the rhetorical and dialectical misbehavior of people responding to criticisms of abortion and embryonic stem cell research, I wish I didn't have to say it, but that's American politics for you. In my experience, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are all about as likely to respond to criticism with high volume declarations of their opponents' idiocy and/or malice than to respond with a respectful argument - or even a disrespectful but still rigorous argument. This sort of behavior is by no means limited to these issues. So I wouldn't feel too bad about it. As someone who tends to fall on the 'left' on a lot of issues, I can assure you that I have had plenty of conservatives treat me like an idiot for failing to be conservative (perhaps you would agree with them!). I don't know what to do about this problem other than to keep trying to engage people in respectful and sympathetic rational argument. I'm going to fail in that more times than not, but I know of no other strategy.

Anonymous said...

"As for my non-utilitarian friends and acquaintances, their view derives from what I think is ultimately a Cartesian and dualist conception of 'persons.' Persons are primarily defined by consciousness; no consciousness, no person. "

What's incoherent or wrong about this? I'm not planning on arguing the point--I think I'd be out of my depth. But I'm curious to see the argument against this position.

I mostly avoid arguing this myself--people on both sides strike me as arrogant, including myself when I do get into arguments about it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is necessarily incoherent in the sense that such a definition has an internal inconsistency. However, I would think it wrong to equate consciousness with person or "no consciousness, no person".

There are many examples of beings that maintain personhood without consciousness, foremost among them those who undergo general anesthesia prior to/during surgery. A being isn't a person before the drugs do their work, not a person while knocked out, and then suddenly a person again when the anesthesia wears off. Of course, this is a "temporary" lack of consciousness, but an embryo is also in a temporary state of unconsciousness, eventually to become fully conscious assuming nature takes it regular course.

I can't see any meaningful basis for distinguishing between the sedated patient and the embryo. Both are only in a temporary state of unconsciousness, and at least one is not considered a nonperson simply for being in that state. Another example of this can be seen in state "brain death" statutes which specify that the lack of neurological activity must be irreversible - that is, temporary cessation does not rob one of his personhood rendering him a corpse. Basically, this approach incorporates the "potentiality" concept stated by Apollodorus.