Amoral Scientists or Ethically Serious Presidents

Krauthammer enters into this week's stem cell fooferaw  today. Krauthammer has consistently generated more serious commentary on embryonic stem cell research than his fellow wapo-cons, Will and Gerson. His view on the issue is measured and reasoned–he engages the moral, scientific, and political questions on this issue with a seriousness so often lacking on op-ed pages. He reproduces his position here:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

This led him to argue that Bush was right to draw a moral line, permitting the 20 or so (Bush claimed 60) existing stem cell lines derived from destroyed embyros to be used in federally funded research, while denying the use of funds for the creation of new lines (either from discarded embryos or research cloning). Krauthammer, however, disagreed with where the line was drawn, holding that research involving new lines from discarded embryos should be able to be federally funded. (Though the Dickey-Wicker amendment is the real force behind this "ban" and neither Bush nor Obama have the authority to revoke the ban against federal funds for the research involving the destruction of embryos–for Bush to suggest that he was the real authority on this question was false).

Obama however is "morally unserious" in his executive order when he turns the decision over to the scientists.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

He repeats the argument that we've examined this week that scientists are a-moral and so can't be trusted to devise reasonable and responsible policies. Once again I'll note my hesitation in regards to this inference. Unless the President is the only person who can make ethical judgments on this matter, or scientists (Sec of H&HS and Director of NIH) are incapable of ethical consideration in their judgments it wouldn't seem to me to follow from this:

Sec. 2.  Research.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.

 But, setting that aside for the time being, Krauthammer takes offense at the less reported memorandum signed at the same ceremony.

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out. 

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

The contrast between Bush's televised speech and Obama's address is striking. Of course, we might remember that Bush was presenting the results of the policy process, and Obama is initiating a process. The real disagreement, however, seems to be on the question whether the President should decide this issue himself (on the basis of his moral beliefs) or delegate the formulation of policy to others (with presumably the authority to intervene or reject their policies).

I'll leave the question of whether Krauthammer has correctly identifed a straw man aside here. But Krauthammer smells a contradiction between resisting the "false choice between sound science and moral values" and Obama's view on cloning for human reproduction.

Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

This seems a bit forced. To claim that there is a "false choice between sound science and moral values" may be an unfair characterization of Bush's embryonic stem cell policy, but it would seem to claim that sound science and moral values can be made consistent with one another, not that moral values should never limit science. Obama's orders and address argue that the balance between scientific aims and moral values should be differently drawn, not erased entirely. Thus, there is no contradiction as far as I can see here:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

The last two sentences are troublingly open: Obama opens to the door to a policy that allows the cloning of embryos and their destruction for research and therapeutic purposes. What is meant by "cloning for human reproduction" is not entirely clear, but it seems to only rule out making new human beings (i.e., new "people"?). There are moral arguments that can justify these conclusions. Krauthammer seems to think that there are not and so describes them as the result of a sort of amoral pragmatism devoid of ethical considerations. I'm not sure I've gotten to the hearts of the matter here, but it seems as though we are circling around a dichotomy that depending upon how it is formulated and used may either be a false one, or may be an important piece of an argument about the dangers of allowing ethical decisions to be made by beauraucrats and scientists, and therefore a possible criticism of Obama's open-ended delegation of ethical policy.

But, even if it is the latter it needs to be more rigorously formulated than it is here. Krauthammer has argued the slippery slope before–if we allow scientists to decide to what uses embyros should be put, it is likely that we will end up with policies that are significantly beyond most of our moral intuitions and considered beliefs about the use of human life. As I've said  before, I think this argument can be reasonably made.  For the conclusion to be follow,  does not, however, require the premise that scientists are amoral pragmatists and must be restrained by ethically minded Presidents. The weaker premise that enthusiasm for scientific goals might lead scientists to ignore moral considerations is adequate for the inductive conclusion the argument advances and is plausibly true.Krauthammer's hyperbolic and false dichotomy between science and ethics goes much further than that. The weaker premise something that Obama is advocating be done by the relevant branches and offices of our government, and which on the issue of stem cells at least, Bush decided to do himself. 



2 thoughts on “Amoral Scientists or Ethically Serious Presidents”

  1. Beautiful analysis, Colin! I also love the fact that you added all those extra links.
    I think you forgot to add the link to the actual article. 🙂

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