Chasing the Norm

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

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”.