Monday, August 08, 2005

Is You Is or Is You Ought?

One month after the British subway attack, it finally feels right to get back to an issue at the interface of modern biomedical science and political theory: the embryonic stem cell debate. I intend to return to specific GWOT (or should I say SAVE?) issues in the near future, but today's post draws on some of the same ideas I invoked in my prior discussions of causality and moral agency.

The fireworks over at the Corner these last few days on the stem cell issue once again seems to get down to the is-ought problem, sometimes referred to (not entirely accurately) as the "naturalistic fallacy." Most sophisticated thinkers, such as those at NRO, are well aware of this longstanding conundrum, and are quick to abjure its use. Nevertheless, both John Podhoretz and Robert P. George seem to help themselves to a handful of Is in their attempts to get to Ought. In both cases, I think that they are seeking answers in Science that are to be found elsewhere.

Robert P. George, a legal scholar and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, opposes any destruction of human embryos for scientific purposes, on the grounds that: 1) all human life is entitled to equal dignity and basic rights; and 2) human life begins at conception. He directs his opening thrust at those who agree with 1 (whom he implicitly assumes includes most conservatives) yet are unsure about 2, and are asking: "When does the life of a human being begin?"
Where do we go to find the answer? Not to the Bible, which says nothing about human embryos... Not to the Koran. Not to our "moral intuitions." Rather, we go to the standard texts of modern human embryology and developmental biology...When we consult these works, we find little or nothing in the way of scientific mystery or dispute... Let's leave religion out of this. Let's agree to resolve our difference of opinion strictly on the basis of the best available scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins.
In his subsequent post, Prof. George then recites the standard scientific account of the developing embryo from union of sperm and ovum to single cell to two cells, etc, reaching the conclusion that "the human embryo, from the zygote stage forward, is a distinct, unitary human organism--a human being." However, a subtle philosophical slippage is evident between the sharp analysis with which he begins his first post and the scientific detail of his second, and reflects a linguistic conflation between scientific and moral terminology:
Anyone who wishes to know when he or she as a distinct living member of the species Homo sapiens came into existence need only open any of these books and look up the answer. So I have a proposal for people of goodwill who wish to affirm the inherent and equal dignity of all human beings but disagree with those of us who are opposed on moral grounds to embryo-destructive research [emph added]
I would argue that Homo sapiens is a term developed by biological taxonomists to classify a certain kind of animal, whereas "human being" has a far longer (and richer) philosophical history, with frequent application to the fundament of moral agency and value. In explaining the inability of the "root cause" Left to identify evil as a motive force, I previously wrote that
any complex phenomenon can only be explained in the context of its relevant frame of reference. And the one frame of reference that has been written out of Western scientistic discourse is the moral dimension.
Similarly, it would seem that Prof. George does not believe that strictly moral considerations can be brought to bear on question 2. But I believe that his search of cellular activity for the "root" of human-ness is analogous to the search of brain scans for the root cause of crime. In his book The Ethical Brain, which I promised to review last month (just before the 7/7 attacks), eminent neuroscientist Mark Gazzaniga makes a critical, and quite humble point:
neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans - to people - not to brains...the idea of responsibility, a social construct that exists in the rules of society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain. (pp. 101-2)
Gazzaniga makes an analogy that I would apply to George:
optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/40 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus
Similarly, embryologists and molecular biologists can provide tremendously important information about the division of cells, but will necessarily fall short in answering the key moral dilemmas opened up by the field of embryonic stem cell research.

It seems to me that, by the end of the day, John Podhoretz realized that he had been painted into a corner (forgive the pun) by George's initial setting of the terms (biological) of the debate. Podhoretz's e-mailers have already chastised his own multiple commissions of the naturalistic fallacy, as he played the miscarriage card and the twin card, so I will not belabor the point here. Moreover, I don't think he wanted to be in that position, as he self-mockingly confesses he did badly in science, and most importantly states:
the thought of that 25-percent failure rate killing off human life "naturally" is a matter of horror to me...and I need something more than nature to make it tolerable. I need faith. I need the sense of a divine plan. I need the sense of something more, something larger...I think it is a demonstration of the limits of logic. And this is the crux of the problem with your assertion that we can use science and logic alone to find our way out of the embryonic stem-cell conundrum. [emph added]
I would probably say that it demonstrates the limits of scientistic reasoning as applied to moral dilemmas (rather than the limits of logic). I should also note that I do not have a firmly settled position on human embryonic stem cell research. Still, I obviously am inclined to agree with Podhoretz's point in his last post, which admittedly leaves us in very murky territory. Prof. George would seem to suggest that it leads to a slippery slope of Peter Singer-ism. Having thought about these issues for a long time, I must admit that, for practical purposes, he might be right. It is very hard to draw a clear distinction between forms of humanness that leave a bright line between acceptable research and, say, infanticide. And it is very possible that other technologies may moot the point.

But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't keep trying to find a moral language that can reconcile our Western traditions and moral sensibilities with the technological possibilities created by those very traditions.

Finally: isn't it ironic, that it is the "pro-life" debater appealing to science, and the somewhat more pro-choice (as relates to embryonic research) writer who appeals to religion?


Anonymous Chris O'Connor said...

We'll be discussing ethical Brain on during the last quarter of 2005, and then inviting the author to a live chat session with us.

10:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home