We can’t be all negative all of the time. Sometimes praise should be given where it is due. Today, suprisingly, George Will takes on those on the extreme right who would challenge what he takes to be Bill Frist’s eminently reasonable and (as it turns out) scarcely modified position on stem cell research. According to Will,
many thoughtful people fear that the House-passed legislation puts the nation’s foot on a slippery slope leading to such a commodification of life.
This is not a thoughtful way to argue, as Will correctly points out:
Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.
Good points all of them. We might add that the slippery slope is not some kind of physical or logical law; it’s a fallacious form of argument, an error in reasoning, and therefore a form of deception.
Unfortunately, Will cannot sustain this positive momentum; he is quick to return to battle the straw men that populate the imaginary cohorts of his argumentative opposition. In the first place, he cannot help himself from quoting a doctored version of a John Edwards quote about stem cell research under a Kerry presidency. Will says,
It is carelessly said, and hence widely believed, that in 2001 President Bush halted ongoing stem cell research — “banned” it — thereby denying suffering Americans imminent medical marvels. Remember John Edwards’s fantasy that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”
First, probably few people believed that. Second, John Edwards never said that. What he said was this:
Christopher Reeve just passed away. And America just lost a great champion for this cause. Somebody who is a powerful voice for the need to do stem cell research and change the lives of people like him, who have gone through the tragedy. Well, if we can do the work that we can do in this country — the work we will do when John Kerry is president — people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.
Which is more or less what Bill Frist is saying. In the second place, Will takes issue with those who would question the motives of either Frist or Bush on the matter of stem cells (or for any question of deeply held beliefs).
The minor disagreement between Bush and Frist refutes the crackpot realism of those who cannot fathom the fact that people in public life often do what they do because they think it is right. Both Bush and Frist have thought seriously about this subject and come to mildly divergent conclusions. But neither conclusion crosses the scarlet line of supporting the creation of embryos to be mere sources of cells. And neither conclusion is the result of the sort of slapdash thinking that exaggerates the differences between them and explains those differences in terms of banal political calculations.
Will is certainly correct to point out that one should critique an opponent’s views on their merits, not on the motivations for them. But Will should also know–and he relished the Kerry flip-flop talk as much as the next conservative–that politicians do very little by accident (isn’t that what their media advisors are for?); so people are rightly skeptical. Besides, even though he is returning to his original position on the matter, Frist has stopped supporting the President’s position of stem cell research (he even apprised the President of this fact in a phone call before the change became public). It makes perfect sense then to ask that, if the facts surrounding the President’s policy have not changed, why has Frist stopped supporting it (or why has he returned to his original position)? In the end Will’s insistence on the principle of charity–on considering the stated justifications for someone’s position–for such thoughtful people as *Bush and Frist* (but not, mind you, for academics) raises another more important question: how do we decide when to apply, as Will has here, the principle of charity? I suggest we do so all of the time.