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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stem cell nonsense from Saletan

William Saletan recently published an essay at Slate, in which he compares research on stem cells with torturing accused terrorists, suggesting that there is an important moral line crossed in both cases.

This is infuriating nonsense.

"Embryos are the beginnings of people," Saletan says. "They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject."

Wrong. An embryo is not a subject in any sense.

Unlike accused terrorists, the embryos that we're talking about are not creatures that even have nervous systems, much less nervous systems developed to the point where they can feel terror or pain. Such an embryo cannot fear death, or sickness, or injury. It has no hopes or fears at all, and it certainly cannot lie awake dreading its own destruction. It has no subjectivity, no inner experience. Our sympathies should not be engaged in any way by the plight of an early embryo that is selected for destruction in stem cell research. Not if we're rational about it. Nobody who destroys such an embryo is being callous towards its interests, let alone cruel. You cannot show cruelty to something that can't experience any physical or psychological suffering whatsoever.

Saletan says, "It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won."

I beg your pardon, sir, but there is a huge difference between a so-called "5-day-old" with no nervous system and the predicament of an adult human being of 50 (or 40, or 60, or any other age) who might be diagnosed with a serious illness. For the 50-year-old, a prognosis of increasing pain and impending death is tragic. The destruction of an early embryo is nothing of the sort.

Even if death were painless, we'd have good reason to treat it as an evil. Once we are old enough to be conscious of ourselves as existing in time, we have many reasons to want to stay alive, at least until life becomes so restricted and painful as to be a burden. Until then, we have powerful forward-looking reasons to want to go on living, immersed in our relationships and projects. Take a man in his early 50s, for example ...

In fact, let's keep this real: take me, for example. I may wish to complete whatever book I'm currently working on, to see progress with political causes that I've taken up, to watch how my loved ones fare in life, and on and on. Speaking of my loved ones ... yes, various people love me, and some would be emotionally shattered by my death. And I care deeply about this because, as it happens, I love them.

No one in my situation could be indifferent to a medical prognosis of imminent death. For me, or anyone at all like me, it would be a terrible evil, snatching away all my hopes while also inflicting great loss on the people I care about most. If it happened to someone else I know, or whose predicament was brought home to me, I'd be moved by pity and a degree of futile anger.

By contrast, an early embryo harvested for stem cells has no plans for the future and cannot imagine the future at all. It cannot commit itself to any projects that give it reasons to want to go on living and developing. Indeed, it has no concepts, or experiences, or wants. There is nothing at all that it is like to be that embryo, and if its destruction is a misfortune for it in some way, it is certainly not in the same way as death is a misfortune for a human adult (or a human child, if it comes to that). When we decide how to conduct ourselves towards it, there is no reason to be motivated by sympathy. That would make no sense. Nor is there anyone else whose interests come into the decision - it has no networks of kin, loved ones, dependents or colleagues. No one will be left behind with a broken heart. Its situation is radically different not only from that of a 50-year-old man or woman but also from that of a child or even a newborn baby.

We have no reason, none at all, to refrain from stem cell research, merely on the basis that it destroys early embryos.

Why the hell shouldn't the 50-year-olds prevail in any supposed "fight" between their interests and whatever bizarre interests can be attributed to the so-called "5-day-olds"? Saletan is not being rational.


Anonymous said...

That is well argued, but it ignores the possibility that the embryo has a soul. If it does, that soul has a future and interests which can be affected by an abortion. It's not clear to me that such effects are necessarily bad - it might go straight to heaven - but the moral calculus must be different for believers in the soul.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, sure. But, leaving aside the implausibility of "souls", etc., that's not Saletan's argument. At least not explicitly. If he's relying on a religious doctrine such as ensoulment, he ought to say so.

Jim Lippard said...

You don't need souls to argue that potential persons or even future persons have interests. One of the main arguments for protecting the environment is to leave a livable world for future generations, who don't yet exist.

I think you're right to leave open the possibility that the death of an embryo is "a misfortune to it in some way"; I think it is. But I agree with you that it is one which is different from the death of a child, which is in turn different from the death of an adult. In all cases there is an objective deprivation of a possible future life; there is, as you point out, a clear difference in interests, plans, social networks, and a difference in what is actually lost.

Thomas Hendrey said...

Hey Russell,

I have to agree with you of course - a very strange article by Saletan. I do have a couple of questions for you though:

Firstly it seems masses of people claim to have significant preferences that embryos not be destroyed for medical research; what sort of weight should we put on this sort of preference? Does the fact that these sort of preferences are based on false beliefs about the world, and/or confused philosophical ideas change things? Secondly what do you make of the rhetoric referred to in the article of not allowing ideology and politics to interfere with science anymore? This article is the first I have read on Obama's position on this so I don't know what the claim is, but since the difference in positions between Obama and Bush would seem to be about the moral status of embryos rather than the relationship between science and politics it sounds suspicious to me.

Anonymous said...

There is a group of physicians, patients and other interested people working together to get treatment with adult stem cells legalized in the U.S. as it should be. Please ask your family and friends to sign up ("JOIN"), and get as many doctors to sign up as well. See The American Stem Cell Therapy Association site at



Joshua said...

"One of the main arguments for protecting the environment is to leave a livable world for future generations, who don't yet exist."

There is a key distinction here. One needs to actually come into existence to be harmed. So, a person may be harmed by being brought into existence into a world of suffering and hardship, but nobody is harmed if such a person is never brought into existence in the first place.

Russell Blackford said...

Thomas, I'll come back to your second question (feel free to remind me). With your first question, are you asking from the viewpoint of preference utilitarianism or from the viewpoint of democratic theory?

For the moment, I'll assume the first.

I think a preference utilitarian like Peter Singer should support the funding of stem cell research even after taking into account (as he should) the fact that a lot of people have a preference the other way. That's because preference utilitarianism doesn't just take a vote of current preferences, not even a vote that weights current preferences in accordance with their intensity.

Rather, a preference utilitarian has to do a probabilistic calculation (or, more likely, a guess) as to which course of action will maximise the sum of preference satisfaction into the indefinite future. So, somebody like Singer also has to take account of the probability that if stem cell research goes ahead it might become accepted by most future people. Not only that, it may actually contribute to the development of medical therapies that will, in turn, satisfy the preferences of people in the future for their own health or continued life, the health or continued life of loved ones, and so on.

Because preference utilitarians are taking all this into account, they can, quite properly, support some policy positions that are currently unpopular. So, even if public support for stem cell research fell away quite drastically, and it became a minority position, Singer might still have a very strong case (from the viewpoint of preference utilitarianism) that the morally right decision for a government is to fund it.

Although I have some problems with preference utilitarianism, I think it's near enough to the right approach with cases like these involving government funding decisions. Maybe governments have some legitimate discretion to take actions that won't actually maximise preference satisfaction ... I think they do, but I'm not sure what to say about it in a short comment. But surely at least one of the things we'd like a government to take into account in such a case is its best educated guess as to the respective effects of different policies on overall preference satisfaction into the future.

Russell Blackford said...

On the second point, it's often claimed that there was a pattern in the Bush administration of hostility to advice coming from scientists. I suppose this issue in isolation doesn't necessarily confirm that - as you say, Thomas, it could just be seen as a one-off disagreement about the moral status of the embryo. However, there's a case that the Bush administration was unwilling to accept advice from scientists on many issues, such as climate change and the teaching of Intelligent Design, as well as the dispensability of embryonic stem cell research, and that policy in these areas, including some funding decisions, was not driven by scientific consensus but by what was convenient for the administration to believe, given its moral and political priorities.

I'm sure some of my American readers will be eager to comment or elaborate.

Anonymous said...

Oh, forget embryos! Think of all the murdered sperm! You all know how the song goes:

Let the heathens spill theirs o'er the dusty ground; God will make them pay for each sperm that can't be found!

Sperms have feelings too you know, and a conscience, internal organs, a nervous system - it's just all too small to see at that stage.