Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Philosophy

Of Liberals and Stem Cells

The debate over stem cells is one that ought of course be left to the scientific community. There great public can no more know the exact nature of what the research is (should they want to stop it) than their open support can ensure its success as a field of research (should they want to encourage it). We wont know what we turn up, until we do, that’s why it’s called research, and why so much of the ethical debate related to stem cell’s is so misguided.

But whilst the conservative position is clear and has its own moral logic (that life must not be consciously tampered with), there’s a certain amount of confusion about the Liberal position. As such you get -fair minded- criticism’s of the Liberal approach such as this occurring regularly in the press:

the comments I’ve received from readers about Obama’s stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.
Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:
If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.
I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can’t buy that. I’m a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it’s on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it’s not there yet. It hasn’t acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

If we don’t draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we’re so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

Yet despite the author ‘cringing’ at such an interpretation, he still returns to it in adopting wishy-washy words to describe the Liberal position. Liberals are accused of “denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people” without any discussion of just what “the beginnings of people” means morally. Billions of women have had miscarriages which have dumped similar stem cells, many before the mother was even aware of the pregnancy. This is a simple fact of life.
Likewise other key cells sperm cells are in their way the beginnings of people, just as are ovarian eggs. Yet these are naturally and regularly are dumped by the human body, and even the churches have largely given up the fight to stop it. But this is still claimed to be a “simple fact” that Liberals somehow deny in their view of stem cells as just that: Cells.

Likewise as we come to the end of the piece, Liberals are warned that this encouragement for research on certain cells (as opposed I guess to studying how heart valves are repaired, or skin cancer cells removed or foot fungus manages to affect the skins cells growth) risks the apochalyptic sounding risk of “obliterating respect for human life”, as if the Nazi’s eugenics program came before and led to the rhetorical demonisation of entire peoples, instead of the other way around.

In both cases whilst the consequences of the conservative effort are clear: No research that may benefit the well being of the living, efforts to legislate against practices which occur daily in human beings and are discarded naturally, the consequence of the Liberals position is unknown. So we get treated to such claims as it will cause the human race to stop caring about the human race, or bromides about “simple facts” of the moral universe that are anything but.

So here is roughly the Liberal thinking on Stem Cells
1) The relieving of pain and suffering is our supreme moral agenda.
2) The well being of conscious humans is far superior to that of cells which neither feel, think, or act.
3) Nothing alive should be disrespected, even though it bears less authority than that of the life of a Human Being (It’s no surprise Animal Welfare groups sprung from Liberal thinkers)
4) We don’t know the potential benefits or risks of each decision until we come to actually encounter it. The allowance of stem cell research doesn’t automatically mean we will later be faced with issues of human cloning or human eugenics. Such steps may never be possible, just as potential benefits (greatly extended life, cure for cancer, AIDS or something else wondrous) are also unknown. The moral weight of our decision is only known then, when potential outcomes come into focus, not now when they are entirely shadowed and impossible to see.
5) Following on from that, we are no more likely to justify moral abuse tomorrow than we are today, simply because we have made one decision now on the facts to encourage research or action in a certain direction. The briefest study of politics, especially within democratic societies will show the self-correcting and pendulum nature of human debates. Debates that are usually only ended when such a great mass of evidence occurs as to make it near nonsensical to object. (Ie that Communism is an immoral practice) There is no slippery slope. We can climb off at any point in time, and regularly do.
6) There is little way the general public can understand the complexity of such issues and whilst society certainly ought to make it’s general moral principles clear, it is not something we can asses that directly and certainly one’s we cant assess whilst still hypothetical’s.

But here’s the kicker: Stem Cells arn’t a matter of Liberal ideology, or moral theory. They were unknown until recently, and once we know more about them (or discover ways to replicate the results with artificial cells) may never be a point of contention in the future. They are simply a scientific opportunity that offers the potential to relieve and overcome significant human suffering, and we are dealing with material that is not, and never could be a human being, despite being alive. Just as the fly buzzing around your room is, or the 80’000 bacteria that cover your skin right now are, or those floating in through your window.

Liberals no more want human cloning or depraved eugenics than conservatives do. But they are at least willing to make a decision based on the actual facts before us (is anyone hurt by using stem cells:no, can research stem cells help: yes) than on hypotheticals far down the road (could human cloning result from mad scientists). That is the difference between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue. One is dealing with the current facts, respecting that future generations can also make informed moral choices if they do not like the path taken, the other claiming a moral foresight and knowledge that both is far greater than that of any future generation is capable, and one which knows before the research is done what path and outcome will result.

Ross Douthat (who is due to become the NYT’s next conservative columnist) take a new twist in response to similar arguments instead arguing that the Conservative position here against Stem Cells despite the loss of similar entities naturally and regularly in nature/fertility clinics/ is a democratically driven compromise position:

pro-lifers have done what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn’t make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley’s screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country’s uninsured and there’s no chance of passing single-payer would be “morally unserious” if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren’t newborns?)

But here Douthats comparison here doesn’t work, running on the simplistic logic that half a defense is still better than nothing. Yet unlike the clear benefit that would be benefited from mandating healthcare for newborns despite the millions who arnt newborns in his coutner example, there simply is no benefit in stopping the legislation against stem cells, either practically or morally. They arn’t half or a comprromise between respecting life and being willing to use it callously, they dont even qualify as a object of definite recognition. Which is why all the moral outrage has to be directed at hypothetical and potential moral problems such as cloning. As Michael Kingsly writes “There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells”. The debate is over the potential for future research, rather than anything currently engaged. But apparently defending something that isn’t worth defending, on the basis of hypothetical potentials, all the whilst your intention is effectively to legislate against something that occurs naturally anyway by the millions.
That is, the anti-stem cell position is one that since it cant defend it on the current circumstances is explicitly based on a deliberate leap to future possibilities in a universe where consent for immoral practices is already presumed), and a position that is effectively legislating against something that occurs naturally and regularly in the world. If none of this impresses you as sensible, then it’s claimed to be valid in its own right simply as a compromise position held within a democracy (which is a pragmatic not a moral argument, which by invoking allows in a whole host of other pragmatic arguments (such as the benefits the research could have to alleviate pain and suffering amongst the sick) that conservatives have desperately tried to avoid talking about by claiming this is a moral issue to be decided on moral grounds alone. And all this filed under a post Douthat actually labels “Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness”.

What price truth?

There exists in the mind of much of the public a quite misplaced idea of an incompatibility between science and religion, or at least within the religious and scientific community there feels such a contest is under way, when in fact their questions and methods are so completely incompatible as to be irrelevant to each other (science can not replace the “meaning-gap” which religion fills for some, and the idea of religion as just bad science has always been an a-historical misnomer). Then again scientific studies like this dont really help:

a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”

It’s hard not to be impressed by findings like that, but a skeptic will say there’s nothing remarkable — much less spiritual — about them. You live longer if you go to church because you’re there for the cholesterol-screening drive and the visiting-nurse service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against HIV because your levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — go down first.

Other than the obvious placebo effect here, it still must be remarked how insignificant the benefits of faith truely are. Think about it for a second. Those of faith believe they have been welcomed into the loving embrace of a omnipotent deity who not only created the world, but knows all things that have and ever will happen, and promises you eternal life for your embrace of the true faith. But on earth you get only a slightly lower chance of dying ? It’s not exactly a great pay off is it? The big guy may be on your side, but he’s not exactly helping out around the house is he? I know all faith’s have arguments arranged for why god simply doesn’t reveal his presence and be done with it, that it is the leap of faith that makes it meaningful. But talk about hiding your light under a bushel! Killing all except a few faithful through a giant flood was apparently O.K in ancient times, but now the active benefit of faith on believers wellbeing is no different to that brought through eating more broccoli in one’s diet!

Much like Pascal’s wager, i find the whole idea of selecting beliefs based on personal benefit quite distasteful and illogical. To think that the same omnipotent being who you are prepared to rely on, couldn’t see through your selfish motives. That tis better to falsely adopt a belief so as to be a part of the right club, than earnestly be wrong in your search for truth, in the eye’s of an omnipotent, ever loving god. What price truth then, if it is suggested you sell it for a lower chance of dying (with no chance of a money back guarantee should something go wrong!), even eternal life seems a somewhat ugly reward for the selling out of our belief for the rest of our (confirmed, real, tangible) natural life about the meaning of that life, the structure and form of how it came to be and to what ends you should devote your waking life.

For my own part, I’m agnostic in that I cant accept this world bears anything but a indifferent attitude towards human life. And so whilst intellectually I do not know the answer to the existence of god/gods/a spiritual side to existence (and in this i believe all who claim to know that answer, including atheists as faith bound), morally this universe makes much more sense if it is devoid of such a being (or at least one with any of the positive moral characteristics we bind up in the label “god”). But more than that, I enjoy not having an answer to the deepest and perhaps most important question in all human life. The existence of a god changes everything for human existence. To be certain one way or the other, yet with such pitiful evidence available seems to close so many doors and a fascinating intellectual struggle. But hey, if they’re right, they might at least have a few more years to see out than we wrestlers with the truth. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:


150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.