There's a certain laughable cluelessness about George Will. One can seriously wonder whether he really knows that most of his columns advance the shakiest and silliest of arguments. The same is not true of Charles Krauthammer, his arguments advance a fairly malicious brand of sophistry–in particular, the sophistry of wrongly or dishonestly (i.e., by distortion) claiming others guilty of sophistry. See for instance his column on Friday (cf., the greatest non sequitur ever foisted)
Today the topic is stem cells. Two things. Krauthammer is not incapable of making a reasonable argument, and the stem cell issue deserves to be approached with some amount of seriousness. Having said that, it seems that Krauthammer in his most recent column does not approach the issue very seriously. Here's the first bit of unseriousness:
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.
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.
The first part of the second paragraph is false in the sense that Obama does not leave the matter entirely to scientists. But the second part is a bit of ridiculous hyberbole of the slippery slope variety: if we leave the matter entirely to scientits (who are amoral!), we will get Joseph Mengele (that's a very swift violation of Godwin's law by the way). Here, for reference, is the relevant section of Obama's speech:
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.
Moving on to the more malicious bits. Here's Krauthammer again:
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.
It's not a stretch to suggest that the Bush administration had a particular disdain for science and scientists who disagreed with their policy agenda. See The Republican War on Science, 238ff, for why someone might plausibly assert such a thing about the Bush administration (so spare us the feigned shock please). But more specifically, the "implication" (that's a logic term) is not that Obama is guided soley (you'll see what he does with this in a moment) by science. That is an overly strong and decidedly uncharitable version of the claim Obama is making. Continuing:
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." 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."
No straw man has been identified, however: Obama has argued that the choice between the two is false, so naturally he does not choose between the two! (See the quote above). Besides, Obama obviously does not share (see quote above) Krauthammer's nihilistic conception of science, nor does he intend to allow such a science to exist or flourish on the federal dime. Obama has made it pretty clear that he thinks Bush's restrictions, however surprisingly or drammatically delivered, to be out of sync with where we are scientifically and ethically. Such an argument, outlined earlier in the speech, does not entail now that anything goes or that there is no moral basis for his view–that would be a falsely dichotomous understanding of ethics and a complete distortion of what Obama said. The weirdest thing about all of this is that Krauthammer seems to agree with Obama's position.
In any case, it is obvious that the issue of stem cell research is a morally intricate one–one that deserves more serious discussion than Krauthammer would allow.