Thursday, November 15, 2007

Equivocating on "Should"

According to a story in today's New York Times:
Researchers in Oregon are reporting that they used cloning to produce monkey embryos and then extracted stem cells from the embryos.

Not only is this the first time such cells have been produced in any animal other than a mouse, but the method, the researchers say, should also work in humans.
The method should also work in humans. The "plain sense" of that, of course, is that the method will probably work in humans even though it hasn't been tested yet. But it certainly raises the question of whether the method should be tried in humans. In order to test the method, human clones will be needed, and once you have cloned a human being, well, you have another human being, and you need to decide what to do with that new human being once you've harvested its stem cells. I suppose you just throw it away when you're done with it.

Needless to say, the folks who conduct such experiments don't regard what they're doing as "throwing away human beings". They're throwing away "tissue" or "embryos" or "blorgas" (here the word "blorga" is just a term I made up to use instead of "human being" because I don't want people to think that I'm throwing away human beings). So there's equivocating about more than just the word "should" going on around here. many scientists reject essentialism, and so they think that the question whether an embryo is also a "human being" is a meaningless question to begin with, but you don't have to be an essentialist to think that an embryo is a human being. Hadley Arkes has offered some rather illuminating arguments against the view that a human embryo could possibly count as anything other than a human being in moral terms in his book, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), one of the best introductions to moral realism that I have read.

Our culture becomes increasingly utilitarian in its orientation as we desire more and more of the comforts of life. This is one reason why the so-called "problem of evil" is such a puzzler for some folks: since they define happiness strictly in materialistic terms, they cannot fathom the possibility that physical suffering is anything but evil. While it is, indeed, a sign of evil, since Christ's sacrifice it has not had the same ontological status that materialists almost universally give it. When it comes to medical ethics, then, it comes as no surprise to find that many people are willing to do whatever it takes to gain new medical knowledge, if they think that the payoff will be great enough. The Nazis made some important discoveries about hypothermia by submerging prisoners of war, Jews, and others into freezing cold water and studying the effects. Recently the data that they collected was discovered in an archive, and there was great interest in it. From an ethical point of view, of course, we wouldn't allow folks to gather scientific evidence these days by doing experiments on unwilling human subjects, but this was a long time ago, and some people figured, hey, why not use the data? Other objected that it would be ethically wrong to use such data, given the way it was collected, because to use it would be to make it even more valuable and, hence, to encourage others to collect data however they can.

There is a popular thought experiment in medical ethics classes that asks: if you could find a cure for a disease that kills thousands of people annually by directly killing 500 people in experimental studies this year, would you do it? Most people say no, but I wonder whether that will remain true as our society grows ever more addicted to living longer and healthier. At first it's the embryos that get directly killed, because they don't exactly look human and they don't occupy the same place in our web of social commitments, but who's to say that we won't expand the domain of expendables if we need to? Maybe the handicapped? Those who are already dying of some incurable disease? The mentally ill? Criminals on death row? Will we be willing to draw the line somewhere, even if we wind up on the wrong side of that line? There have been, throughout history, plenty of people who would refuse to do certain things even if doing those things had a certain kind of payoff that benefited others. Generally, these are people for whom the consequences of a given act do not make it right or wrong. Bringing back public evisceration as a form of punishment might have a very strong deterrent effect, but few would say that the positive payoff would really outweigh the terrible wrongness of the act itself.

At least, few people these days. As we grow ever more utilitarian in our outlook, who can say that we will always feel the same way?


Mike L said...


Given how things are trending, the answer to your closing question "should" be "no."

The real challenge is convincing those who are not already convinced that such an answer matters.


John Farrell said...

Exactly. And no doubt, Father Tad's concerns will be dismissed out of hand by those who can only think in utilitarian fashion.