Obama’s skepticism and the morality of embryonic stem cell research

So Obama has decided that federal funds should go to embryonic stem cell research.  For those unfamiliar with the debate, pro-lifers have no issues with stem cell research per se (they are not anti-science).  Rather they are opposed to scientific research that crosses ethical boundaries.  Some will say that they are putting ‘ideology ahead of science’.  This is a convenient and intentionally deceptive line because everyone thinks ethics should constrain science.  For instance, no reasonable person thinks it would be morally permissible to use people as involuntary subjects of scientific studies.

I won’t bother here with the more dogmatic argument that life begins at conception.  If we had dogmatic understanding, the matter would be easy to discern.  One of these two scenarios would hold:

(a) The embryo is human (has human rights) and we know that. 

(b) The embryo is not human and we know that.

I think most would agree that in case (a) the destruction of embryos for scientific experimentation is morally wrong and that in case (b) there is no prima facie moral reason to refrain from the destruction of embryos.

While this is an important discussion, I am more interested in starting on Obama’s own turf.  Obama claims to not know when human life begins (that is, when the unborn has recognizable human rights).  It is, as he famously remarked, ‘above my pay grade’.  So let us assume that no one knows when human life begins.  Objectively speaking, there is a metaphysical fact of the matter, but we will assume a kind of skepticism as to those metaphysical facts.  Then what?

Assuming this skepticism, it seems to me there are then 2 possible scenarios:

(c) The embryo is human, but we don’t know that.

(d) The embryo is not a human, but we don’t know that.

What of the moral permissibility of destroying embryos, assuming Obama’s skepticism?

Let’s look at case (c) in this way:  Imagine you are in the demolition business.  If you are going to blow up a building, you have the moral responsibility to be sure that there are no people inside.  If you blow up a building and it turns out there are people inside, you bear moral responsibility for their death.  It is not murder, but it is manslaughter.  Pleading ignorance would not exonerate you.  Sure, you did not know there was a person in there, but you didn’t know there wasn’t either.  The act was, at best, incredibly irresponsible and involves real moral culpability (even if that moral culpability falls short of murder).

Let’s turn to case (d): Imagine your demolition company blows up a building without first checking that it was empty of people.  Even if you luck out and there are no people, you’ve still acted in an incredibly irresponsible way – really every bit as irresponsible as in case (c).  We call this criminal negligence.

Based on these arguments that start with Obama’s own proclaimed ignorance of when human life begins, he has just allowed for government sanctioned and funded manslaughter or, at best, government sanctioned and funded criminal negligence.

That seemed too easy – what have I missed?

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

77 thoughts on “Obama’s skepticism and the morality of embryonic stem cell research”

  1. The embryonic stem cell research debate will almost certainly be made moot with scientific advancements. We can already manipulate adult stem cells to be almost as versatile as embryonic ones.

    That said, you did miss something. It’s not as if the embryos in question would be carried to term were they not used for research. There are thousands unused embryos (in this case, zygotes developed for six or fewer days) in frozen storage at in-vitro fertilization clinics across the country. If these fetuses are not used for research, they are literally thrown away.

    Now, I suppose you could open these frozen embryos up for adoption. And some have been adopted–“snowflake babies.” But to adopt a frozen embryo over the hundreds of thousands of born children wanting a home and family strikes me as profoundly immoral. What’s more, the vast majority of these embryos do not survive the thawing process.

    Finally, some of the surplus embryos kept frozen from the 1970s are set to expire soon–they will no longer be viable. These older embryos would not likely get adopted, as some of they embryos are (or will be soon) in a state of decay. If they made it to term, they would not likely die in the womb or shortly after birth. So for these embryos, the choice is either immediate research or the garbage.


  2. Good to see I am not the only night owl on the blog. A few thoughts.
    Yes, science will eventually eclipse this issue. Of course, that embryonic stem cell research will soon be (if it isn’t already) unnecessary just goes to show how the pro-choice lobby is putting ideology above science! This is a sacred cow for pro-choicers, and it has nothing to do with scientific progress. It has to do with the danger (to their ideology) of people thinking that there is something morally wrong about destroying an embryo.

    I am well aware of that many of these unused embryos are just ‘thrown away’. What to do with them once we consider the possibility that they have human rights (again, assuming Obama’s claimed ignorance) is a difficult question, but one we can consider after we first decide whether it is morally permissible to use them as a mere means to our ends (to destroy them for science). That is why I took up that issue first.

    One of real villians in this moral fiasco is the IVF industry, which is technological thinking run amuck. The fate of these embryos should be discussed before they are created. Of course, now that we have hundreds of thousands of them in storage, we have a moral dilemma on our hands. But I am totally unmoved by the moral argument that since these embryos will die anyway (their ‘viability will expire’) we might as well use them for our experiments. Generalize that principle and it won’t take long to see the moral monstrosity of it. That said, I don’t know what to do with all of them, since you are right that a massive snowflake baby adoption drive is just not workable.

    This issue is taken up in Dignitas Personae, a Vatican document on bioethical issues. I will quote it at length here:

    ‘ All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons.” ‘

    Whatever we do with them, they demand dignity. That pretty well eliminates destroying them as a means to our ends. Again, I am at a loss for other suggestions as to what to do with them, there is going to be injustice. Perhaps letting them die naturally ( by withholding extraordinary measures to keep them alive) as we would terminally ill patients? Rather than considering this option ‘tossing them in the garbage’, presumably a dignified treatment could be worked out which would at least minimize the moral wrong done.


  3. On the IVF industry being guilty of technological thinking: Agreed. I did cringe at reading things like “harvesting surplus embryos.”


  4. On the one hand: there simply is no fact to the matter as to whether an embryo is a human being. It’s up to us to decide whether to treat it as one or not. If we decide not to, and start harvesting away, we’ll do a lot of good for a lot of beings we’ve all decided to treat as human beings, and we will at the same time cause only negligible suffering to a bunch of shrimp-like creatures.

    On the other hand: every time in history when we have collectively decided “I shall not treat that thing as a human being,” disaster ensued.


  5. Is Huenemann a positivist? I suppose Huenemann might be skeptical that there are any ‘metaphysical facts’, and particularly skeptical that human personhood is a metaphysical reality. But the notion that humanity (or human rights) are posited representations rather than being metaphysically inalienable risks dangerous slippery slopes (you allude to this) and I am not sure you could develop a sufficiently robust theory of rights out of that view.
    Once again the Catholic sounds more liberal than the liberals!


  6. My trick knee tells me that this debate is completely tied up with a defense of abortion rights and has little to do with the scientific merits of embryonic stem cells (as mentioned, adult stem cells are very promising). It’s about being pro-abortion. After all, if you can’t destroy embryos for harvesting their cells in the name of science, why should you be allowed to destroy embryos for no reason at all except that you will it?


  7. Objectively speaking, there is a metaphysical fact of the matter, but we will assume a kind of skepticism as to those metaphysical facts. (Kleiner)

    Really? I’m skeptical that there is a metaphysical fact of this matter. And, to take up RyanS’ suspicion, especially of late, in consideration of how the institution most famously confident in the metaphysical facts of these matters — the Vatican — declares it God’s law that a 9 year old rape victim should give birth to twins:


  8. Rob’s point is off the subject a bit, but I’ll bite (only up to the point that the conversation ceases to be civil). It is God’s law (and indeed a natural law that can be known by reason alone) that the intentional taking of innocent life is morally wrong. I am going to assume – I hope safely – that this moral claim is not controversial. In asserting this morally basic claim, no one is trying to diminish the horror of rape. It is a tragedy, and when pregnancy results tragedy can be redoubled for the victim. But in what other crime does the harshest punishment fall on innocents who had no role in committing the crime?
    In any event, this does not alter my original argument.

    (Aside: as a matter of political pragmatism, I support laws that ban abortion in all cases except the life of the mother, rape, and incest. That would eliminate over 95% of abortions in the United States).

    Obviously more is at stake here than just stem cell research. Both sides know that. I only wish Obama would be more forthright about his position. Why hide behind spin about ‘ideology standing in the way of science’? Let’s have an honest and direct conversation about what it means to be a human being and about human rights. If Obama does not think human life begins at conception, then say so.

    For those that deny some metaphysical fact like ‘human nature’ on which human rights are based: how are you going to get a theory of human rights? I don’t think you can come up with something that is hefty enough. If you want to abandon rights talk, feel free. But that will put you way outside of the mainstream in terms of the moral conversation. I am fairly confident that any merely posited account of who will count (and who will not count) as ‘human’ will be subject to morally grotesque slippery slopes.

    How do you sort out rights without making at least implicit metaphysical claims? Cats don’t have the right to free speech or the right to vote because they are not rational. But since they are capable of suffering, they have the right to not be tortured. Rights talk and morality talk in general depend on ‘metaphysics’ (talk about reality) in order to get off the ground. As such, ‘metaphysical’ questions like ‘what is an embryo?’ and ‘are embryos human?’ are unavoidable.


  9. I mention the rape case partly to temper Huenemann’s remark about disaster ensuing when we collectively decide something’s not human. Given recent high profile cases concerning, say, euthanasia, or, what is surely closer to a ‘disaster’ — anti-prophylactic policy — when you consider the numbers of AIDS cases which might have been prevented (not to mention empowerment of women), in say, India, or Africa. The point being that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing when we collectively agree that something isn’t human.

    The problem in discussing the rape case, is that we can’t even agree on the stakes involved since we can’t agree that what the girl is pregnant with are human beings. (My view is that as potential human beings, their status isn’t stable: up to some arbitrary point, I think the mother is entitled to do what she wants with the stuff inside her; yet during the time well before that point, I’m inclined to feel that were someone else to intentionally damage those contents, a crime other than merely assault to her person may have occurred and merit special sanction.) Apologies for rambling!


  10. Interesting that if someone else damaged the ‘contents’ inside her you would think some special sanction was required.

    Anyway, Rob is quite right that the discussion revolves around agreeing on the status of the unborn. My point in saying that there was, objectively speaking, a metaphysical fact of the matter was this: unless we are going to be pro-choice about the principle of non-contradiction, then an embryo either is or is not a human person. But, as Rob says, we don’t agree on these stakes. So this brings us back to my original post. What I tried to show is that even if we avoid dogmatic assertions and admit that we don’t know the status (or perhaps even cannot know, so as to include very skeptical skeptics like Huenemann), the intentional destruction of embryos is still morally questionable.


  11. Rob – total aside and not related to the above philosophical point (Catholic social teaching prohibits contraception for very different reasons than the prohibition of abortion or embryonic stem cell testing). We don’t need to get into it, but I thought I would suggest a few contrary facts and views about the Catholic teaching on contraception:

    1) The statistics show that African countries with the largest Catholic presence actually have the lowest AIDS rates. Burundi, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria all have 40% or so Catholic populations and 6% or lower AIDS rates, as compared to the 35% infection rates in other countries (Botswana, Swaziland) with very small Catholic populations and often aggressive prophylactic policies. Uganda is particularly interesting. Large Catholic population and an abstinence/fidelity national policy that has dropped infection rates from 23% to 6%. Granted, there are might be other contributing factors, but the first look is at least counter to the conventional wisdom about such things.

    2) Follow the link to a nice article on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, offering a view that runs counter to the too quickly received conventional wisdom about such things (whether artificial contraception has helped women, helped children, or helped society).

    We don’t have to agree, but I thought you might find the article interesting.


  12. We need to consider another group that has interest in Obama’s executive order: “pro-sciencers.” I made up that funny word to describe the people who feel that the Bush administration has been choking science out of government. For example, I used to work with a bunch of botanists on the state payroll. They felt that although the Bush administration allowed them to work and received their reports, nothing ever came of their recommendations. A disconnect had developed between the political decision-makers on the top and the field scientists at the bottom.

    These “pro-sciencers” are very likely to see this issue the way Obama pitched it: an overturn of an archaic administration’s determination to ignore science. Although they would probably consider the moral dimensions of Obama’s decision if they were prompted, the first thing to their mind would be the question of pro/anti-science. In fact, I heard an NPR story tonight in which the commentator seemed primarily interested in the pro/anti-science aspect of the order.


  13. I want to clarify what I said. I didn’t mean that the pro/anti-science aspect of this order is more important than the moral aspect. I just wanted to say that perhaps Obama did see this as he pitched it, a pro/anti-science issue. If the scientific value of adult stem cells is near that of embryonic cells, then by all means we should avoid falsely casting this issue as primarily pro/anti-science.

    While I was trying to find the NPR piece I referenced above, I found an article that says “embryonic stem cell research is believed to hold the key for better treatments and possible cures for diseases, including diabetes and paralysis.” It seems that at least some people believe that embryonic stem cells are especially special.


  14. Kleiner, do you have a source for those statistics? Correlation doesn’t imply causation but I’d still be interested to see them in whole (well, as long as they’re using scientific ways of knowing).

    My friend who spent a few years in Uganda said people would get involved with all sorts of religious groups when they helped them with their basic needs but their beliefs remained a fairly mixed bag (of usually local superstitions slightly tinged by whatever groups they were involved with). But of course that’s just an isolated example which also doesn’t have any larger implications by itself.

    I’m also a bit more interested in how the contraception issue relates to poverty and education than how it relates to AIDS.


  15. Kleiner, that is indeed eye-opening data. And it tallies with my bleak suspicion that the world may well need to become more Christianized before it can become safely secular — since the most of the Godlessly prosperous nations celebrated by folks like Ronald Aronson (Living Without God) are post-Christian ones, like Denmark and Sweden.

    As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God


  16. I got those statistics from an email from a friend, so I don’t know specifics about the studies. The Uganda policy has been in the news some – its success has been incredibly inconvenient (and infuriating) to western pro-condom groups.


  17. I looked up the Uganda story, and there are complications. It seems the initial numbers were inflated, and so the decrease in AIDs wasn’t as dramatic as reported; the story got wide coverage as a result of the Bush policy to promote family values around the world. A UN report finds no evidence to link the decrease in AIDs to abstinence.


  18. Dropping those stats without doing much research on them was probably a little irresponsible. It does sound like there was success with the program, but perhaps it has been overstated. Frankly there are lots of reasons on both sides to try to spin the numbers. Religious groups tend to get more blame for this, but we should not underestimate the contraception cultural powers and their vested interests (some of which are historically quite ugly, look up Margaret Sanger). I am sure I will get called a fanatic for this, but I don’t see a UN report as being particularly unbiased (in fact, the UN is occasionally a major player in promoting a ‘culture of death’).
    I raised the statistics (as a non-expert) to point out that the conventional wisdom that Catholic social policies are doom for AIDS intervention are not so obviously true. I will stand by that weakened claim. In fact, I googled around and found several apparently independent articles that did attribute success to the abstinence/fidelity program, though not as much success as some pro-Catholic sites suggest.

    I wanted to say something about Source’s point regarding ‘pro-sciencers’. Obama certainly wanted to frame it in this way, and by doing so he taps into legitimate complaints about the Bush administrations political interference with science (in particular with global warming). But I think there is something disingenuous about pretending that the stem cell question is just part of righting that wrong. Almost everyone agrees that the question about embryos is a legitimate and difficult moral question. It is not simply a scientific question, it is a value issue. Global warming, on the other hand, appears to be a ‘purer’ science question (one intentionally frustrated by the Bush administration thanks to their unfortunate marriage to the interests of big business). By way of trying to flesh out that vague ‘pureness’ attribution: The value question regarding global warming (what ought we do about it) comes after the science. The value question regarding embryonic stem cell research comes before the science.

    Also – I still have not heard a counter-argument to my original post. If we are going to be skeptics but not dismiss the law of non-contradiction, then is embryonic stem cell research either manslaughter or criminal negligence?


  19. Let me try this out as a response. I’m genuinely not sure I believe it.

    If I have to pretend there’s a fact as to whether a fetus is “human”, I would say “no.” I think the core feature of humans, so far as moral treatment is concerned, is higher cognitive functioning, which leads to the capacity to enjoy and suffer in ways unknown to other kinds of animals. A Martian with those higher functions would be judged as deserving of the same moral treatment as humans (ideally), so the presence of homo sapien DNA isn’t crucial. Fetuses manifestly do not have those higher cognitive functions, so it’s ok to treat them as we treat animals with similar levels of function (with a proviso I’m just about to give).

    Now I know the objection: what about babies? They’re like helpless monkeys, right? So can we experiment on them? No, I say, but for reasons different than the ones I just gave. For an obvious evolutionary reason, we care about infants, and making them suffer makes us suffer. So even though, from a cold and rational point of view, there’s no reason to be more upset at the screams of an infant than the screams of a vivisected animal, as human beings we can’t help feeling as we do.

    Now for the proviso: don’t many or all humans have the same empathy toward fetuses? Yes, I would say, though the feelings are tempered a bit, in proportion to the distance from viability. So while I think it’s okay to abort fetuses or use them for research, the bar needs to be set relatively high for admissible purposes. Not anything goes, out of respect for our nonrational feelings.


  20. If there’s something Kleiner has missed in his guess at Obama’s argument I would say that his building analogy misses the point that lack of embryonic stem cell research also costs lives. So there could be some sort of utilitarian argument about greatest number of lives and preferring the known to the unknown and all that. Also the building analogy implies something that obviously could be done “look inside the building” but no such process is available in the embryonic stem cell case. Ergo, the analogy falls apart.


  21. Mike – We don’t know that this research will save lives. It seems promising, but there is no guarantee. In fact, I’m inclined to think some of the alleged promise of this research is overblown, but that is as much due to my general inclination to be pessimistic about technological gods. Still, you are right that the utilitarian might need to take the possible return into account. Good thing I am not a utilitiarian! Actually, I am not sure the utilitarian would justify this anyway, depending on how much of a rule utilitarian you are about rights. For my part, I get pretty Kantian when it comes to using a person as a means to the ends of others, particularly when it means using a person as the means to the potential ends of others.
    I don’t know that the analogy falls apart, because I think there is something we could do to ‘look inside the building’. Namely, have an earnest and reasonable investigation into the meaning of a human being, at least up to the point of having some political consensus on when life (or personhood) begins. One might object that we already have this consensus with embryonic stem cell research (some 70% in favor). But there are odd incongruities – depending on the kind of question the poller asks, the same people might say the embryonic stem cell research does not destroy human life but also say that human life begins at conception. Lots of confusion out there.

    Huenemann: A solid response. But it leaves me, for lack of a better way of putting it, feeling really uncomfortable. You seem to have Mary Anne Warren’s basic view: some homo sapiens are not human persons. When do they become human? I understand that the question will be difficult to answer, it will be at some vague point when they have a sufficiently high level of cognitive function.
    But there are at least uncomfortable consequences of the view. Some humans are never human persons (mentally handicappd, etc). Some are persons but then cease to be persons (elderly with dementia or alzeimers, patients in comas, etc). Rights talk gets really weak here, and discernment will be very difficult. You save yourself from the potential for moral monstrosity with a basically emotivist view. But it only takes a sensible knave (Nz is the sensible knave par excellence) to realize morality is an opt in or out game of feelings. Yikes!
    Isn’t my 7 month old daughter (at this point not a lot more complex in cognitive functioning than my dog, who is potty trained!) deserving of dignified treatment? You say yes – so long as we all feel that she is. I say yes, because of the KIND of thing she is. I get really worried about moral positions that dispense dignity based on functionality rather than KIND. It seems just silly to me to say that a newborn infant is not a human person. As JPII puts it, ‘How could something be human and not be a person?’ Seriously, this is the most basic root of the culture of death – the view that the most vulnerable and weak members of a species (the young, the old, the crippled, the mentally handicapped) are not intrinsically worthy of dignity, respect, and rights.


  22. Right now I’m reading “The emotional construction of morals” by Jesse Prinz, so that’s probably where my emotivism is coming from. That, and watching too much “House.” I am worried too about the feelings/intuitions of others or a community being the sole determinant of how a being should be treated. But, then again, ain’t it so? My skepticism gets in the way of finding any other reliable determinant.


  23. Kleiner, I’m not too utilitarian on these things either, just trying to follow out the argument since you seemed to want that. I still don’t think “look inside the building” is anything like “come to a political consensus”. And on whether we know that research will save lives or not would be better answered by those who are doing the research but I’m fairly certain they’ll answer in the affirmative.

    In general I think it’s always better to err on the side of endowing entities human rights where they resemble human beings because undermining those rights erodes our empathy (which we’ll certainly need for real human beings). That’s my take on AI and animals as well (though I continue to unplug computers and eat meat, I’m not entirely rational).


  24. Huenemann – I am going to exaggerate the progress we’ve made here to press a question: Is the morally untenable consequence of your skepticism enough to push you back into the arms of a more optimistic view of human reason? As a matter of autobiography, it was for me. I ended up trusting my Implicit Philosophy enough to dramatically shift philosophical views.

    Mike – Of course the researchers will make big promises about their embryonic stem cell research – the grant writing process has put them in the habit of making overheated claims about their research! Most honest researchers admit that the most hyped cures from stem cells are a long way off. Of course, there is the point that Jon raised early on, many think that non-embryonic stem cells will do the trick anyway.
    You might be right, the analogy might be weak. Is there a way to tinker with it to make it better?


  25. Ok, those particular researchers might be biased but what I mean is we could ask other scientists deeply familiar with the problem domain. That’s how I’d go about answering that question instead of this sort of guessing game we do here. Scientists are actually decent prophets.

    I think an analogy that hinged upon political consensus would work better but I’m having a hard time coming up with one.

    It’s not related but for some reason I keep thinking about how we decided by political consensus that “all men are created equal”. It is obviously false but I’m so glad we did it and stick with it.


  26. I’m certainly glad no one tries to legislate my morality. If they did, we’d all be in jail.

    “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.” — Philip K. Dick


  27. Most honest researchers admit that the most hyped cures from stem cells are a long way off.

    These sorts of statements are vacuous without citation.


  28. Come on, Mike – am I supposed to write a freaking research paper for every blog post? Unless you want to argue that cures are right around the corner, you are just nitpicking. Googling around, I can’t find any on-politicized site that promises an imminent cure for Alzheimers and Parkinsons (the two most ballyhooed diseases with stem cell research). Every non-political statement I found in my quick search about the research calls cures ‘a long way off’ and ‘far from inevitable’. Most of our understanding of stem cells is still highly theoretical. Politicians are the ones making big promises (remember John Edwards claiming Reeves would get up out of his wheelchair and walk again). One particular citation I recall is Ron McKay (head of National Instiuteof Health) admitting that the publicized hopes around stem cell research and Alzheimers are a ‘fairy tale’ (that was in the Washington Post). In the same article (I am drawing from memory here) McKay also discussed the failure of the scientific community to insert itself into the public dialogue in order to correct the gross misconceptions about both the promise and the nearness of stem cell based treatments.


  29. Well, no one is forcing you to make those sorts of claims in your blog posts. “Most honest researches” implies that there’s some sort of study that 1) surveys most embryonic stem cell researchers and 2) tests their honesty level. There’s also the implication that if they disagree with you they’re dishonest.

    The nature of embryonic stem cells (that they have the possibility of becoming any cell in the body) is where the “inevitability” of them saving lives lies. I think “most honest researchers” would agree with that nature of embryonic stem cells.

    But I wouldn’t mind a legitimate source or two just because I haven’t really looked too deeply into the science (which is what I would want to do before arguing in earnest about it, so far I’m really just trying to guess at Obama’s possible utilitarian response).

    I’m also just annoyed at how often people who call themselves conservatives (I don’t call them such) make claims without citation. For some reason my conservative “friends” on facebook seem to love to make unqualified and uncited assertions as if they’re definitive (when I just take it as noise from a source with a poor signal to noise ratio). No, I don’t approve of facebook, I just linger there because I have an app to maintain.


  30. The nature of stem cells is not in dispute. The question is when (indeed if) we can harness them to cure things like Alzheimers. Anyway, consider my remark amended to: ‘most non-politicized researchers I have read or heard comment on the matter have said …’. I take it that the Ron McKay reference was legitimate (see below for link). Otherwise my ‘citations’ are limited since my assertion was based on accumulated information over the years reading articles about this (though I am not in any way claiming to be an expert on the science).

    Anyway, this whole bit of bickering has pulled us off track from the philosophical point. To my mind it doesn’t matter if a cure could be had next week since it is wrong to use another person as a mere means to the ends of others. I’m just not a utilitarian. But even if I were I am not convinced a rule utilitarian that cared about rights (and Mill might be included there) would think it justifiable either. Off the top of my head (read ‘I could be convinced otherwise’), the only kind of utilitarianism that might justify such a thing is a primitive act utilitarianism which has all sorts of troubles of its own.

    Are liberals somehow less guilty of making unqualified and uncited assertions? And isn’t the blogosphere just one giant unqualified assertion? Hey, I’m just trying to fit in!



  31. Are liberals somehow less guilty of making unqualified and uncited assertions?

    Only in my limited facebook world. That would be a fairly difficult study to attempt more broadly but I think people are basically the same. I don’t even know entirely how to decide who counts as conservative and liberal (except those who loudly proclaim themselves such). I guess if I were really motivated I could write a program that would probably give me some decent data on all that but this is no time to be adding weird projects to my to-do list. Maybe some methodologically sane sociological studies of that nature already exist.

    Hey, I’m just trying to fit in!

    Yes, you’re in good(?) company. :)

    I’m just thinking of a skeletal utilitarian/consequentialist approach and I’ve never, in the end, found those all that compelling. I don’t think it’s a simple question and I’ve played that line out as far as I care to take it.

    Long interview with Ron Mckay on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

    From another discussion of the issue:

    Slippery slopes run both ways. Let’s call that Human Nature’s second law. 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.


  32. Mike,

    Yes embryonic stem cell research may save lives. However, if we take the moral position (which one-third to half the taxpayers have) that the embryo is human. Then it would be a crime to destroy it. Is it right to force a large portion of the population to fund something they think is wrong?

    ——- Extreme—
    Let’s categorize a human as someone with the cognitive function to feel certain pain and emotion that animals can’t. This is interesting because this premise can be a slippery slope towards mistreatment of Alzheimer’s patients as mentioned earlier, but what about a person in a coma? It seems like a shame to let his organs go to waste when his kidneys and liver could be harvested to save lives. In fact embryos don’t give any promise that a life will be saved whereas chances are excellent that the liver will save a life.

    I know that people will not automatically jump to these conclusions and this is extreme thinking. However if this “culture of death” that Kliener speaks about is accepted by a culture it can create an environment in which all sorts of crazy theories can foster, grow, and be made real down the road.

    Going back to Hueneman’s cold rational of equating a vivisected animal to a baby. People have before embraced this sort of thinking. Josef Mengele, the doctor at Auschwitz, may be the most notorious example.

    “In May 1943, Mengele entered Auschwitz as an educated, experienced, medical researcher. With funding for his experiments, he worked alongside some of the top medical researchers of the time. Anxious to make a name for himself, Mengele searched for the secrets of heredity.”

    Mengele vivisected babies. He didn’t have the strong evolutionary compulsion that most people have and he was in a position of power over a group that did not have “human rights”. The rational was that these babies were going to die anyways, we may as well use them to further our scientific ambitions.

    This post could cause some flak for me. :(


  33. However, if we take the moral position (which one-third to half the taxpayers have) that the embryo is human. Then it would be a crime to destroy it. Is it right to force a large portion of the population to fund something they think is wrong? (Clay)

    Excuse me, Clay, but for half to two-thirds of the taxpayers (if not more), the moral position is that other considerations over-ride those marshaled on the basis of the dubious assumption that “the embryo is human”.

    Such complexity-exorcising, faith-based mendacity does more damage to the cause of your camp than any actual head-to-engagement with it because it strongly suggests than any such engagement is a futile waste of intellectual energy better spent in the culture war front.


  34. I should have concluded with:

    ‘…a futile waste of intellectual energy better spent in the culture war front (where scorn, ridicule, mockery, and shaming are the appropriate tools of engagement).’


  35. Clay,

    I’ve never really liked consequentialist type arguments that are willing to exchange one person for the sake of many. I’m not sure where we should fall out on the question, “does the embryo count as a person?” (In general I’d rather give the benefit of the doubt to entities that resemble human beings at least for the sake of actual human beings.) And politicians make these sorts of barters all the time.

    Is it right to force a large portion of the population to fund something they think is wrong?

    Like the Iraq war?

    I’m fairly certain this line of thinking will keep you busy protesting for the rest of your life (which isn’t an argument against it, just thought I should give you a heads up to make sure you’re up for it).


  36. Robsica – the argument that pro-lifers make about embryos is not ‘faith-based’. You’ve never heard me appeal to faith in making my arguments about the personhood of the unborn. Speaking from the Catholic position, the Church has never seen itself as making a sectarian argument. Rather it is making an argument about human dignity based on publicly accessible moral ground – that killing the unborn violates a first principle of justice, a principle of justice that is available to natural reason and that is, in fact, basic to the moral foundation of a free society.
    To borrow an example from Weigel: Catholic opposition to abortion is not at all like Mormon opposition to alcohol or caffeine. It is not faith-based. You don’t have to believe in Real Presence or the Assumption of Mary to be persuaded by the argument. The argument is quite simple, and makes no appeal to God: Conception results in a genetically unique human being [this is an undeniable fact]; that human being never will be anything other than a human being [this is the debate, are all human beings persons?]; as innocent human life, it is inviolable and deserves the protection of the law.
    Liberals, PLEASE set aside the false spin that pro-lifers make ‘faith-based’ arguments. That is an intellectually dishonest response. If you disagree, at least be honest enough to disagree with the actual arguments put forth rather than dismissing them as ‘faith-based’. One cannot argue with the claim that the product of conception is a genetically unique individual. One could argue (as Huenemann does) that not all humans are human persons. Or one could argue that not all innocent human persons have an inviolable right to life (as Judith Thompson does). Those are intellectually honest – albeit wrong! – responses to the pro-life argument. :)

    I don’t know that I want to go with Clay on the political point (since 1/3 are against it, should we force them?). This is a civil rights issue, and civil rights issues are not the sorts of things that should be decided by popular consensus anyway. I don’t care if only 1% of the population thought it was wrong. Like all other civil rights issues (protection from discrimination, political freedom, etc), this is not the sort of thing that is determined by popular vote.


  37. Fair enough, Kleiner. However, by ‘faith-based’ I don’t exclusively mean an argument premised on a dogmatic principle — which I appreciate that you don’t do — but arguments whose attractiveness is parasitic on a pre-existing allegiance to a religious faith. Accordingly, I take it as fairly obvious that a readiness to accept an embryo as morally tantamount to a human person is a symptom of a piety-generated or -correlated predilection.

    Also, I would think that most sectarians don’t typically see themselves as making sectarian arguments. They regard those who don’t accept their dogmatic starting points as the ones whose moral cognition is blinked.


  38. I imagine that, as a social fact, more religious people are pro-life than non-religious. If that is your point, all right. Religious persons have tended to be ahead of the curve on civil rights issues (I am thinking in particular about the American civil rights movement), so maybe that is just what we are seeing here. Perhaps this might be connected to your view that the world might need to be Christianized before it can be safely secularized.
    Anyway, I don’t see why the social fact that religious people are more likely to be pro-life matters. The argument is the argument, people of various religious and non-religious dispositions should be able to understand it and be moved by it. In fact, there are some well known atheists who are moved by the arguments (I forget the names, but Jon will likely know).

    So I don’t think I am a sectarian that is merely taking myself to be making a non-sectarian argument when my argument will actually only have traction with the pious. Looking at the above argument, there is just nothing sectarian about it!

    Now, I do want to backtrack a bit. Now that I think of my wife’s evangelical cousins, they don’t make non-sectarian arguments at all. I think it is fair to say that some (perhaps many) pro-life people do make faith-based arguments. So I should weaken my point to saying that they should not and they need not, and that I try not to.

    Aside: Prof Sherlock and I have been talking recently about how Mormonism is not quite ready for the public square. Her arguments with respect to gay marriage were (usually) deeply sectarian. Since Mormonism has historically been culturally isolated, she has not had to deal in universal language much. But as Mormonism grows, she is going to have to learn how to do that.


  39. I’m not actually in any camp. I’m undecided on the embryo issue. That is precisely why I am reading through this blog post and try to listen to the arguments from both sides.

    To say that my mind-set is faith-based just isn’t true. Please dismiss my questions as such. I never once mentioned “God” or any other religious concept.

    Actually I want to know what the scientific community, and the religious community have to say on the issue. To fully understand this issue I need to appeal to science for empirical information, sadly, science can’t answer the moral questions one may have about this. For this reason I will read discussions like the one and I will read articles arguing for and against embryonic stem-cell research.

    Honestly I lean towards allowing embryonic stem cell research. I just have a hard time committing myself to either side. In truth I have a vested interest in stem cell research because there has been promising research for a regenerative therapy that can be used to repair my own spinal cord.


    “I’m fairly certain this line of thinking will keep you busy protesting for the rest of your life (which isn’t an argument against it, just thought I should give you a heads up to make sure you’re up for it).”

    Thanks for the Sage wisdom. :)


  40. My apologies, Clay, for seeming to lump you into a group or type to which you don’t belong — though I think it’s unlikely that any but very few ever escape captivity to some type or other roughly definable in terms of a fairly recognizable constellation of values, commitments, concerns, predilections, etc. You sound like how I suspect the majority of Americans feel about stem cell research: pragmatically in favor of it, in light of the hopes, not certainties, it holds of medical breakthroughs.

    Also, I consider the mere holding of certain propositional attitudes (“I believe in God”) to define membership in the climate of opinion designated by “pious”. (I Leave it to the theologians to sort through the epidermal doctrinal differences among the faithful — one of the few justifications, in my view, for theology to remain in existence as a discrete discipline in accredited institutions of higher learning, as opposed to it being sliced, diced, and scattered among the humanities, social and medical sciences for vivisection and analysis.)


  41. Robsica, what did you mean when you said:

    “it’s unlikely that any but very few ever escape captivity to some type or other roughly definable in terms of a fairly recognizable constellation of values, commitments, concerns, predilections, etc.”

    It sounds to me like you are saying that some people (most people? religious people? I’m not sure who “any but very few” refers to) can be understood to have a set of beliefs that they share mostly uniformly with other members of their social/religious group. It seems that you believe very few of these people ever break out of their group’s predetermined beliefs and think for themselves. I don’t want to misrepresent you, so I’d appreciate some clarification.

    In my opinion, the belief forming process of most people works like this (it’s a long explanation and sort of tangential; you can skip it and probably not miss anything):

    1. An individual inherits a large set of foundational beliefs from his/her parents (or guardian[s], whatever).

    2. As the individual grows, other influences (vaguely referred to as “cultural,” and including peers, media, and whatever else) combine and synthesize with the individual’s already held beliefs. Often the individual will seriously reflect to choose between or synthesize conflicting beliefs, but often the individual will decide among beliefs with a minimal reflection.

    3. Most individuals end up believing a large part of the things they learned at home, and a good measure of what they learned from “cultural” sources.

    4. Of course, people can reflect on their beliefs and consider other ideas than those of their direct culture. (I’m sorry that I can’t think of a better word for culture; I’m trying to refer to all the influences thought of as most immediate and direct after the parents. So for someone from Cache Valley, his/her real culture could be mostly Mormon with a sprinkling of media and other outliers. Even though this person confronts many different beliefs through the media, the culture that matters most to him/her is probably Mormon. Thus, even though he/she likes books, movies, friends and so on that don’t represent Mormon values, he/she values the ideas that come from the “Mormon” culture more than those from the “outside” culture. You can see this often on campus in those students who watch sexy violent movies [and enjoy them] but wouldn’t hesitate to award far greater moral authority to their Bishops and Mormon peers than to those films. What I mean by all this is that often the ideas we learn early [from the parents] guide which ideas we accept later.)

    If this is what you meant, Robsica, I would agree. Many people do not reflect enough on their beliefs to know why they hold them. These people get many of their beliefs as a “package deal” from their parents and culture. Each individual has a unique experience, however, so we can’t use their agreement on one topic, religious belief, to determine their position on stem cell research. Although an individual’s belief can be a good predictor of that individual’s other beliefs (because religious belief often acts as the underlying belief, deciding which cultural ideas will be accepted and which rejected), we can never be sure about any individual because even if we ignore an individual’s capacity to reason and form his/her own beliefs each individual has been given different beliefs by his/her culture. Thus, even if we posit an individual who never reflects, accepting all cultural beliefs blindly, we can never determine from looking at one aspect of the culture what beliefs that individual will have. The “culture” is too complex; this is why I hated pigeonholing this concept under the word “culture” above.

    I want to draw two conclusions from this. First, ideas based on unexamined religious belief have no traction with anyone, because they are not determined by any “good” reason, just the culture. Second, unexamined secular beliefs have just as little traction because they are derived in exactly the same way.

    As an example of this, I can contrast Pope John Paul II to the kids in my anthropology of sex and gender class. John Paul II has a very well reasoned argument for avoiding artificial birth control (something I disagree with) while the kids in my class have no argument for using it, just the weight of their cultural influences. They can’t explain why they believe birth control should be used. All they can offer is, “Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that.” The obviousness comes from their cultural influences unthought, and for this I don’t trust it.

    May the Gods of Blogging forgive me for this iceburg post.


  42. Source — you pretty much get the drift of what, in my typically inchoate way, I’m getting at. However, it’s less beliefs than attitudes, orientations, and predilections I’m really getting at — the non-, sub-, and quasi-belief-like psychological back- and underground from which beliefs — at least those concerned with ethical or ‘ultimate concern’ issues — draw more of their effective succor than our pride in rationality likes to admit. Nietzsche, as ever, I think gets it right:

    >> Moral feelings and moral concepts. — It is clear that moral feelings are transmitted in this way: children observe in adults inclinations for and aversions to certain actions and, as born apes, imitate these inclinations and aversions; in later life they find themselves full of these acquired and well-exercised affects and consider it only decent to try to account for and justify them. This ‘accounting’, however, has nothing to do with either the origin or the degree of intensity of the feeling: all one is doing is complying with the rule that, as a rational being, one has to have reasons for one’s For and Against, and that they have to be adducible and acceptable reasons. To this extent the history of moral feelings as quite different from the history of moral concepts. The former are powerful before the action, the latter especially after the action in face of the need to pronounce upon it. <<

    So, I’m inclined to reverse your conclusion: what’s primary is the content of the belief, however acquired and however unreflected upon; and, moreover, it might even be that what some very important beliefs are about is better served by belief that is relatively unexamined and for whose justification its bearer has little aptitude or ability. Such might be the case with your Pope example. It might be a mark of moral progress that the kids in your class have so thoroughly (that is, thoughtlessly) absorbed the acceptability of birth control that they lack any more ready ability to argumentatively engage with the Pope than we have with, say, Aristotle’s defense of slavery (or, some distant day, believers in the Christian god).

    Wherever the mob once learned to believe without grounds, who could by providing grounds — overthrow it?
    And in the market one convinces through gestures. But grounds make the mob distrustful.
    And if truth achieved victory for once, then ask yourself with healthy mistrust: ‘What might error has fought on its behalf?
    ( — Thus Spoke Zarathustra)


  43. Good posts Source and Robisca.

    Interesting side note: I have been googling and I found out that the LDS church has taken no position on embryonic stem cell research. Furthermore all the Mormon 5 Mormon Senators have in the pass voted in favor of embryonic stem cell research. This includes Orin Hatch (R) Utah and Harry Reid (D) Nevada. There really shouldn’t be a knee jerk reaction from the mormon culture in either direction on this issue.


  44. “Nearly all unsafe abortions (97%) are in developing countries. An estimated 68,000 women die as a result, and millions more have complications, many permanent. Important causes of death include haemorrhage, infection, and poisoning. Legalisation of abortion on request is a necessary but insufficient step toward improving women’s health…”

    Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic, World Health Organization:

    Click to access article4.pdf


  45. I want to first make absolutely clear that I am not insensitive to the terrible suffering these women endure. There are no winners here, and my heart bleeds for these women just as it bleeds for those that they abort. The predatory and discriminatory social environments many of these women find themselves in (and which are very often contributing factors in abortion decisions) is difficult in every possible sense.

    What the WHO proposes here is one ‘solution’ to this tragic situation, a solution that enhances women’s health at the expense of the murder of innocents (approximately 40 million worldwide abortions per year). So if you want to enhance health for population A through the intentional killing of population B, then you have a ‘solution’ on your hands. I hope it is obvious that as a generalized moral principle this is monstrous. Obviously I am speaking from a pro-life point of view, but the point is that these ‘solutions’ only make moral sense if you have already decided that the unborn is not a person. If you think the unborn is a person, it is (or at least should be) immediately obvious that this is morally monstrous.
    Another solution is developing cultural attitudes (abstinence, fidelity) that reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and also developing social systems that can affirm children. That would include encouraging sustainable, local, and non-predatory economic development so that women in developing countries don’t have to choose between starvation/jobs/security and saying yes to a child. This approach has the benefit of respecting the rights and interests of everyone involved (born and unborn).


  46. Yes, argument seems pretty much futile in this area, given the mutual intransigence of basic intuitions at work between the two camps each of us roughly represents in this matter. However, I think my side might be at something of an advantage when it comes to the available material at our disposal for the purposes of persuasion: the suffering both sides can agree upon, namely — that of the women dying and suffering from unsafe abortions. In other words, whereas I think it’s doubtful pro-choicers can be persuaded to relinquish any of the moral claims these women have on access to safe abortions, I think there’s reason for some measure of optimism that some anti-choicers can be persuaded by the reality of the aforementioned suffering and death to soften up their resistance to access to safe abortions. Of course, I may be totally dreaming.


  47. Oh god, not the ‘anti-choicers’ label. Are you ‘anti-life’? Let’s stick to the arguments instead of playing semantic tricks. (Of course I think that framing it in terms of ‘choice’ in the first place, while a brilliant political ploy, conceals the real issue at hand!!)

    I am cautiously optimistic about the pro-life cause. I think advanced ultrasound technology is having an incredible impact. Indeed, it moved my wife away from the pro-choice view when my endless arguments could not! And the genetic evidence is indisputable – after conception you have a genetically unique individual human. And I think there is potential traction in the way the issue is being reframed (rightly, I think) as a civil rights issue.

    Of course, I might be totally dreaming too!


  48. From my vantage, the semantic trickery happily coincides with the reality of what’s fundamentally at issue: providing or withholding safe and legal abortion services to women. This seems to be yet another manifestation of mutual intrangiency. What’s basal for me is the mother; what’s basal for you is the mother and what’s inside her. Just looking around the world, though, it does seem that approval of the legality of abortion is more closely correlated with the nexus of democratization, rising standard of living, education, and popular culture of respect for civil liberties. It seems like these things tend to promote tolerance for abortion among the majority of the affected populations, no?


  49. Predictably, I would submit other factors as the cause of growing approval of abortion – disordered Western notions of freedom, consumerism, materialism, and moral relativism. These sicknesses are global, but are particularly acute in western democracies (Europe more than America I think, largely due to the de-Christianization of Europe).


  50. I agree with you that Western notions of freedom are disordered; but I think this is a by now permanent condition underwriting too much of what we value for us to regret it. However, to the extent that better ordered notions of freedom have existed (as Bernard Williams, taking his cue from Nietzsche, thinks was the case with Greek antiquity), their having obtained in cultures which tolerated inequalities and cruelties it pleases us to deplore should, I think, give serious pause as to what, precisely, the benefit is supposed to be of recovering them. (My own view is that such a recovery project might do little to vindicate our modern liberal pieties, if not worse, which is why Nietzsche encourages it.)

    By aside from my all-too-personal speculations, how do square the responsibility de-Christianized Europe has for those sickness with the fact that the most de-Christianized of Western democracies has such an apparently swell quality of life?

    “Scandinavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists”

    I would think that these societies are better characterized as post-Christian, and are serious candidates for emulation and aspiration.


  51. Yes, the question of whether a proper notion of freedom (assuming it is recoverable) could be made compatible with liberal democratic sensibilities is a difficult question. In Catholic circles, two different schools tend to battle this out. On the one side, you have the so-called ‘Whig Thomists’ (the late Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak) who want to accommodate Thomism and the Catholic tradition with some modern enlightenment values. On the other side you have the ‘Augustinian Thomists (Alisdair MacIntyre, Tracey Rowland) who hold on to a ‘two cities’ view (a basic incompatibility between secular and Christian conceptions of the good).
    There is a nice review of these issues in a book called ‘Culture and the Thomistic Tradition’ by Tracey Rowland. Or read this quick summary of the issue:

    Consider me a fence sitter on this debate, I am just not sure what I think. With JPII, I am interested in using rights talk. But with the Augustinian Thomists, I am concerned that our rights talk has disordered foundations. In fact, I think the tension between the two cannot be resolved, since our world is a world that is in the midst of an ‘already not yet’ (it is neither purely a city of man since Christ has come, nor is it purely a city of God since Christ is yet to come again).

    Regarding de-Christianized western democracies:
    Wow, a NY Times article on the virtues of a post-Christian world. Shocking. In all seriousness, in order to answer your question I’d need to know more about Scandinavia, and we would have to agree on what counts as a ‘swell quality of life’. Needless to say, I do not think materialism, for instance, can provide an account of genuine human flourishing.


  52. The latest impertinence by mere experts against the infallible wisdom of the Pope:

    “When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record…”


  53. Thank you, Rob, for being fair enough to post the last article. Nothing will be less surprising than the western media completely ignoring articles like this, all a part of a the convenient forgetfullness (and occasional willful disregard) of actual empirical facts about the success of condom programs in Africa. It must be very lonely indeed for Green, a self-professed liberal and Obama supporter, to speak such things. I don’t think it overstates it to call that courage.
    I say it is time that we trust Africans to be sexually responsible (might there be a bit of racism in thinking they cannot?). It is, much to the shock of western liberals, possible for human persons to control their sexual desires. As I suggested above, evidence suggests that abstinence and fidelity programs have had the most success. It is unsurprising that Green’s views have been silenced by international health organizations and the western media that clearly have other idols to serve in this debate.
    I will stop before I start sounding too much like Sean Hannity! (Actually, a bad Catholic, he publicly supports artificial birth control).

    I should add, regarding the 2nd article you cited, that the BXVI papacy has shown an uncanny knack for bumbling in the public square. It is something that is all the more noticeable after the JPII papacy (a man who, despite being hated by western liberals for his views, was nevertheless almost universally lauded upon his death for his goodness).


  54. I’m still unclear as to how out of step Green really is with pro-choice, pro-contraceptive advocates.

    He has been sharply criticized by some public health experts for supporting sexual partner reduction programs and for endorsing the so-called ABC method (“Abstain, Be faithful, or use a Condom”) for fighting the transmission of HIV.

    Who, among contraceptive advocates don’t support partner reduction programs — as long as they don’t exclude promotion of contraceptives?

    Now, if Green could come up with evidence that C-promotion undermined A- and B-promotion, and that this had the cumulative effect of doing less to reduce AIDS than a program which excluded C-promotion — then, it seems to me, he’d be on to something discomfiting to liberals. (I suspect the purpose of the interview is to underhandedly insinuate this thought.)


  55. This is not news, for years now most American ‘Catholics’ have not been all that Catholic. They are ‘cafeteria Catholics’, thinking they can choose for themselves which teachings are authoritative and which aren’t. Believing that, of course, means that they are not really Catholic at all. An essential and basic part of what it means to be Catholic is to believe that the Church (the Magisterium) is authoritative in its teachings. If you do not believe that (and a sizable chunk of American Catholics don’t), then you are just Protestant with a liturgy.
    On my ornery days, I wish these cafeteria Catholics would just go elsewhere. If you don’t like the idea of an authoritative Church but can’t live without a liturgy, become an Episcopalian (they hardly insist on anything anymore). Pope Benedict, upon taking office, suggested that the Church shrinking (by these non-Catholic Catholics leaving) might be a good thing, that it might be an era in history where the Church is a ‘mustard seed’.
    At any rate, I hardly take the slipshod moral thinking of polled American Catholics (not to mention the moronic Catholic rationalizations of Pelosi and Biden) to be, in itself, an argument against the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church.
    Anecdotal evidence of cafeteria Catholicism: I gave a talk last night at our local Catholic Church on the theology of natural family planning vs contraception, and my wife then spoke on the ‘how-to’ of NFP. 10 people showed out of perhaps 3000 in the parish, and 4 of those had to come to fulfill pre-marital spiritual counseling requirements. Most Catholics would think my wife and I are just plain weird for doing NFP.

    One more thing: The article you linked referenced the uproar over Notre Dame (a ‘Catholic’ university) inviting Obama to speak and honoring him with an honorary degree. The university is defending the decision to honor him by calling this a part of a ‘broader dialogue’. All right. Here is, then, the best suggestion I have yet heard (from Hadley Arkes of Amherst):
    ‘As H.L. Mencken used to say, people ought to get what they want “good and hard.” If the university excuses itself in this instance with the claim that the president is coming to Notre Dame to have a serious conversation, well … let’s have that serious conversation. Notre Dame is amply supplied with people who can articulate the Catholic position on abortion and the taking of innocent life. Why not have a debate/discussion? The legendary Ralph McInerny is on the scene, and so too is Gerard Bradley at the law school. But also there are others among us, as they say, who “Have Argument, Will Travel.” ‘

    Now THAT would be a public service, and ‘must-see tv’ if it were broadcast. Perhaps Obama could squeeze in this serious public debate before his next Tonight Show appearance? I won’t hold my breath – what could possibly be more dangerous to the anti-life cause than having their Messiah get beat down by Ralph McInerny on live television? Even more dangerous for the anti-life cause – I think most Americans would be shocked to find out how intellectually serious the pro-life position really is.


  56. An essential and basic part of what it means to be Catholic is to believe that the Church (the Magisterium) is authoritative in its teachings.

    I just don’t see how intellectual seriousness is compatible with being a Catholic, by your formal criterion here, when all the cogitation, all the dialectical rigor, finesse, and audacity, ultimately has to subserve a normative entity (as distinguished from a normative route of reasoning).

    (I remember in my Philo 101 class how the “benders” among the pious students, as opposed to the “breakers”, seemed to be the ones who were most unscathed by our reading of Euthrypho.)


  57. Catholicism is a faith, after all, so being Catholic means believing things for which there is no evidence in the ordinary sense.
    That said, it depends on what you count as intellectual seriousness. If one can only be intellectually serious if their beliefs have some clear and certain rational foundation, then I think we’ll end up excluding a whole lot of people from intellectual seriousness. I also don’t consider skepticism to be the hallmark of intellectual seriousness, for I don’t think it is possible to think outside of a tradition. I would stake out this position:
    The Church herself imposes nothing but rather proposes. I would certainly not claim that all of my beliefs spring from pure reason. Of course, I don’t think anyone’s beliefs spring from pure reason, I am much too Gadamerian for that attitude. Catholic beliefs arise out of a tradition, a tradition that welcomes and encourages intellectual rigor. Of course, what I consider intellectual rigor is probably marked more by ‘wonder’ than ‘skepticism’, and we might be different on that score. But still, Aquinas argues that one could show, in principle, that every argument against the faith is fallacious. True faith cannot conflict with true reason. Of course, this would involve admitting that one cannot positively prove certain doctrines of the faith, one could at best show that some doctrines (Trinity, Incarnation) are not themselves irrational. In any case, that does not mean that one would have ‘no reason’ (broadly construed) to believe these things. I would appeal to ‘meaning’ here rather than ‘truth’ though – the way in which the doctrines inform and elevate my experience with the human question. I would appeal to intellectual rigor in the sense of ‘deepening’ rather than ‘proving’ in this regard.

    JPII argues in Fides et Ratio that ‘Faith and reason are two wings by which the mind rises toward wisdom. I think faith heals reason and perfects it, I am attracted to the Augustinian model of faith seeking understanding. Or, as Heidegger puts it, authentic unconcealment occurs within a clearing made possible by a listening and an attunement. We are not the masters of truth, rather we ought to let truth master us. Part of this will involve enfolding ourselves into a tradition that speaks us as much as we speak it. The ‘proof’, if we can speak of such things, will be in the pudding. As Pope Benedict puts it,

    ‘All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose”: In other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?
    The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.” …
    [And so] I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated.

    Faith is not proven, but that hardly means it cannot be intellectually rigorous. But what matters is the heart. I will happily discuss with as much intellectual rigor as is possible doctrines like the Trinity. But the best argument for Christianity is Bach or Michelangelo. All that being said, when it comes to discussions in the public square with non-believers, one must operate from natural reason alone. I work very hard to do this. And it just so happens that natural reason leads one (less fully but still ably) to some of the teachings (moral in particular) of the Church.


  58. As I’ve indicated in other posts, I’m extremely skeptical that reasoning and reasons go very far towards explaining how we’ve actually arrived at our moral views ( –instead, I think they are largely post hoc self-deceptions for which we, both as individuals and as society, have much to thank and curse). But it does seem to me more intellectually serious to think of oneself trying to get normative matters right in terms of how things are, in contrast to doing so in terms of correspondence to an entity supposed to be an independent normative source.

    That’s an interesting anecdote. Bach is an essential part of my daily subsistence, but the pathos for me is almost precisely contrary to yours: a consoling reassurance of godlessness.

    Bergman got it right, I think, in his reply to a Bishop in 2005:

    “I believe in other worlds, other realities. But my prophets are Bach and Beethoven, they definitely show another world.”



  59. Again, I think you misstate what ought to be the right relationship with the teaching authority of the Church. The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. In a sense, one need not even refer to the teaching authority of the Church on moral matters. The Church says – follow your well-developed moral conscience. It just so happens that whatever a well-developed moral conscious would say is in fact what the Church teaches.
    In other words, there is no rejection here of the personally developed and intellectually serious moral attitude. Moral views are not ‘made true’ in light of corresponding to the Church teaching. Rather one gets normative matters right by getting serious about the nature of man and the good of man. This should be done in ‘the inner life of the subject’. Now, what that ‘inner conscience’ will say about moral matters will end up conforming with objective norms (natural law, etc) and what the Church teaches, but it is not ‘made true’ by corresponding with the Church.
    For example: If I want my daughter to learn how to best make a souffle, I will encourage her to practice and experiment. Over time, she will discern truths regarding souffles (that whisking egg whites in a copper bowl, for instance, makes the eggs fluffier). Now, the tradition already has borne out that truth (ask expert chefs) and there is an objective fact of the matter. But for her to be a good cook, there is something useful in her sorting this out for herself rather than appealing to a pre-set list of (albeit true) deontological rules of cooking. Same goes for moral formation – a morally serious person will have worked out the nature and good of man on her own. It just so happens, that others have already worked it out and articulated those findings in the teachings of the Church Tradition.

    Great Bergman quotation. And it makes for some progress for us. If we are both convinced that there are ‘other worlds’, then our question can cease to be the traditional ‘atheist-theist’ debate and can instead become a question about ‘the Other’ (to use pomo lingo). Who is the Other, how do we relate to the Other, and – most importantly – how does the Other reveal itself to us? To me, human beings are this question – the relationship between the immanent and the transcendent (if I may be permitted the metaphysical jargon).


  60. …a morally serious person will have worked out the nature and good of man on her own. It just so happens, that others have already worked it out and articulated those findings in the teachings of the Church Tradition.

    So, what about people whose ostensibly serious pursuit of the nature and good of man results in substantive disagreement with the teachings of the Church Tradition? It seems that either (1) moral seriousness and the Church are not essentially coincident, or (2) moral seriousness is a retroactive designation conferred by eventual coincidence with Church Tradition.


  61. I think of conscience as a kind of attunement. A conscience can, then, be more or less attuned to moral realities. Conscience does not mean mere feeling, and my own conscience is strangely not my own. It is in and through the conscience that the Other speaks. This is where the exterior is interiorized.

    Of course all sorts of things can go wrong in the formation of a conscience. Bad examples, false beliefs about man and the good, enslavement to various passions, lack of charity, etc. Even ‘ostensibly serious’ pursuers of the good can be prone to such things.
    But there is an even sneakier danger – what can destroy the proper formation of conscience is also regarding the conscience as autonomous. Rather, the conscience is principally marked by its heteronomous quality – it speaks for the Other! So an ‘ostensibly morally serious person’ who begins with a disordered notion of conscience (and of human nature generally) – that the individual conscience is autonomous – is prone to moral error. In other words, I don’t think conscience (or religion, for that matter) is private, I think it is public and the inner life has to be sorted out corporately (I am, after all, Catholic and not Protestant, and I take it this is the real divide between the two). I have an almost thoroughly sacramental attitude, including in my philosophy.

    I don’t know if any of this responds to your point, I am just trying to unpack my notion of conscience (as much for me as for you). I think (and I believe the Church teaches) that one ought to follow one’s own conscience at all times – even when it contradicts the Church teaching. However, from the Catholic point of view such a situation already discloses the extent to which conscience is thought of as private and distinct from the tradition it has inherited. My focus here is on following rather than leading, listening rather than demanding. In other words, one TRUSTS the Church Magisterium. I don’t have any ready-to-hand evidence that the Church teaching is authoritative, I just believe it. (I have officially taken off my philosopher’s cap now!). I have plenty of anecdotal instances of Church moral teachings being confirmed by reason, but again I think they are mostly confirmed in the heart. In any case, I think the Tradition speaks ahead of me rather than thinking that the Tradition plays catch-up (retroactive designations).


  62. Not sure where else to pose this question, but I’m genuinely curious as to how Kleiner would address it:

    Who is the better, truer member of your movement? The man who murdered serial “baby killer” George Tiller? Or […] (comparative) moderates, who reject the use of violence to save the innocent?

    Also, just wanted to mention two highly relevant films which don’t pander to (my) left-wing pieties on this subject:

    Lake of Fire ( –an outstanding documentary canvassing the entire spectrum of attitude towards abortion; and I think it features Tiller)

    Palindromes ( –in addition to dramatizing liberals’ most formidable opponent [the anti-choicer who practices, rather than merely pays lip service to, adoption, features a splendid soliloquy on fatalism and the illusion of free will)


  63. I am not a utiitarian- the ends don’t justify the means. The blogger you link to argues that morality would seem to demand vigilante killings, but his mistake is to presume that morality properly understood is consequentialist.
    I don’t consider anyone who murders to be a part of a pro-life movement properly understood. The pro-life cause is based on the inviolable dignity of every human person, period. While George Tiller will have plenty to answer about when he faces the Lord (and that is his affair, not mine), his murder was a tragic violation of basic principles of justice.

    I have seen Lake of Fire, but not Palindromes. I’ll put it on my list.


  64. But wouldn’t that make the “pro-life” cause an instance or application of pacifism? How could any use of lethal force be justified if it can’t be morally justified on behalf of the utterly defenseless “unborn”?

    If the “unborn” possess the same inviolable dignity as ourselves, our spouses, children, and fellow citizens, then how could it ever be morally legitimate to pick and choose among this series any others on behalf of whom it would be moral to intentionally kill, if it’s not so on behalf of the most defenceless and innocent of them all?


  65. Not a bad question, Rob, and I am probably not treating it with adequate care (I hear rumblings upstairs so I think my nap break from kids is over).
    I am not a pacifist, and neither is the Catholic moral tradition (though both I and the Catholic moral tradition have pacifistic tendencies since warranted violence will be quite rare). So why is this murder still unjustifiable? I’d appeal to just war theory. In this case, the action fails because – at least – it was not waged by a legitimate authority. Of course, I don’t think the US government could rightfully execute abortionists either. Though this would not be intrinsically evil (abortion and capital punishment are different here), it would be cruel and unnecessary.


  66. Maybe, then, the inauguration of a tradition of Just Abortion Theory or Just Murder of Abortionists Theory is in order.


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