Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

March 10, 2009

Conservatives Say the Darndest Things About Science and Ethics

by @ 10:45 AM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Biotechnology, General, General Science, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Personhood, Reproductive Ethics, Theory

Yuval Levin was a staff manager of the Bush-era “President’s Council on Bioethics”, a body widely derided for its almost comically right-wing leanings and gross intellectual malfeasance. Today he steps in it trying to say something all clever and sophisticated about the new authorization for stem-cell research. I got as far as the second paragraph before the crankery blew me away:

What you think of his policy depends on what you think of the moral status of embryos. 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. But if you think an embryo is not quite a person, or that its immaturity or inability to suffer pain or its other qualities mean that destroying an embryo does not amount to taking a life, the promise of stem cell science might well outweigh any doubts.

I hope at least some of the lameness of this nonsense is apparent to all, but I recognize that it involves issues and terms that are somewhat restricted in usage. Here is my response, as buried deep in the comments section of the WaPo‘s online edition:

Yuval Levin’s remarks on the morality of stem-cell research policy are simply incompetent.

He is correct that much hangs on the moral status of the embryo. He then makes basic factual and logical errors – ones characteristic of the right wing – in saying:

“If . . . conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, . . . [this] research raises profound moral problems. But if you think an embryo is not quite a person, or that its immaturity or inability to suffer pain or its other qualities mean that destroying an embryo does not amount to taking a life, the promise of stem cell science might well outweigh any doubts.”

It is difficult to count all the errors in that short statement.

Most importantly, he contrasts “a human life” with “a person” – but the first describes biological status (human embryos, as right wing “ethicists” tediously remind us, are indeed human), and the second describes moral status (not everything human has moral standing; “persons” are members of the moral community, but human embryos, fetuses, and brain-dead vegetative bodies, to name just a few types of human beings, are not generally regarded as persons).

Levin implies these are identical categories – if an embryo is a “human life” then it must be a “person”, or those who believe it is not a “person” are contradicted if they believe it is also a “human life”. But this is a simple logical error – the two terms pick out utterly distinct qualities, and virtually no one but religious dogmatists believes the categories are even coextensive, let alone identical.

Note also that the category Levin defends – biological “life” – is the one that does not imply moral status.

To anyone who did not follow the travails of Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, the idea that its former staff director could indulge in thinking this bad must be shocking. Sadly, it is all too characteristic of the work of that body.

He also posits a straw-opponent argument so bizarre he must have made it up, since no serious proponent of stem-cell research has made it: the claim that an embryo’s “immaturity or inability to suffer pain or [similar] qualities mean that destroying [it] does not amount to taking a life” is, of course, false, but utterly irrelevant to any moral question, and is one that no one defending stem cell research would think of making. Of course destructive research on embryos involves “taking the life” of that embryo (another biological fact), but, because the embryo is not a moral person, it does not involving killing a person (a moral issue). And of course qualities such as suffering, self-awareness, and the development of other moral capacities are part of the definition of personhood, but not of the definition of “a life”. No ethicist is confused by these distinctions. That Levin jumbles them into a mythical argument he imagines his opponents making proves only that he does not understand the most basic terms defining this issue, or that he uses them dishonestly.

Minor errors: the Declaration of Independence does not say that “every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections”. It says, quite explicitly, that “all men” are endowed with certain “unalienable rights”, specifically including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is quite a puzzle what is meant by “all men”, since many sub-categories of human persons were not, at the time of the signing of the Declaration, accorded full human rights. Historically, the inclusion of some of those excluded categories, blacks and women particularly, as “men” hinged on recognition of their personhood – that they had feelings and capacities equal to those of white men; there was never any confusion as to whether they had “a life”. Note also that abortion was generally legal in England and the US at the time the Declaration was written, though the killing of “men” was not. Levin is not merely wrong on the simple fact of the actual words used in the Declaration (the phrase “human life” appears nowhere at all in the document), but their meaning as well.

The Declaration also does not posit “minimal” (or other) degrees of rights. It is categorical: certain beings have certain specific rights. It is a very great stretch to assert that blastulas or embryos are such beings.

The decision whether stem cell research is allowable is also categorical: it is not a question of “promised” benefits “outweighing” “doubts” about beings who are “not quite” persons. Embryos either are or are not persons, which is a factual question. It hinges, as Levin notes, on a value question – but about the qualities defining personhood, not, as he claims, about biological category membership.

In short, Levin’s entire discussion of this issue proceeds from such gross, possibly deliberate, confusion and falsehoods it cannot be regarded as a serious contribution, still less in any way convincing.

He goes on to castigate Obama for stating that science policy would be based on”science, not ideology”. He is technically correct in saying there is a preliminary question whether the subjects of this research are moral persons on whom such research should not be conducted, in the same way that that question could, conceivably, be asked of any research subject, including rocks or atoms. But it is only to religious wingers like himself (and, more notably, Leon Kass and most of the rest of the former membership of Bush’s Council) that the moral status of an in vitro embryo even arises as a question. To virtually everyone who understands the issue – and make no mistake, the kind of slovenly mental ill-discipline that Levin brings to it is absolutely characteristic of the right wing, all the way up to and including the level of hand-picked Presidential advisors – there is no meaningful question of that kind.

Obama’s policy eschews ideology in authorizing research on embryos, since only an extremist and intrusive ideology upholds the moral status of the embryo – let alone embryos residing in laboratory apparatus with no possibility of development into a human person in the first place – as being a relevant consideration. Levin, the PCB, and their ilk are welcome to get all het up about whatever weird obsessions define their moral universe, but they’re not entitled to demand than anyone else take it seriously, let alone that an entire nation stop doing anything they personally don’t happen to approve of. As to moral questions about in vitro embryos, there is no fact-based argument, grounded on any value positions other than mere whim or dogma, that cannot be, and has not already been, dealt with decisively and easily. The ideology that has characterized this made-up debate has long been laid to rest; it’s past time for the science to proceed.

UPDATE: Somehow I didn’t even notice the title of Levin’s stupid piece: “Science Over All” – a not-subtle invocation of the phrase “Über Alles” that characterized Nazi-era Germany’s racial and geographic hegemony which included famous medical atrocities. Because embryonic stem cells in a laboratory flask are just like Jews at Buchenwald. Christ, these assholes make me tired.

Crossposted from Lean Left, the general-issues blog I contribute to.

One Response to “Conservatives Say the Darndest Things About Science and Ethics”

  1. Sufficient Scruples » Blog Archive » Kagan Trifecta: Conservative Reading Comprehension Disorder, Utter Mendacity, and the Noise Machine Says:

    [...] Riehl calls it “misrepresenting science” and “dishonest”. Yuval Levin, the severely bioethics-challenged former staff manager of Bush’s Presidential Council on Bioethics, declares this to be a [...]

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