Will on Frist’s stem cell flip flop

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.

4 thoughts on “Will on Frist’s stem cell flip flop”

  1. Two comments:
    Not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Some slopes once you slip you find yourself at the bottom. These are always going to be inductive arguments, so the question is the likelihood of ending up at the bottom.

    Krauthammer is an example of someone who thinks that the slippery slop is a reasonable argument in the case of stem cell research, and that it provides a secular argument against Frist’s position (at least that was his argument a few years back in the New Republic.)

  2. Good point–it’s important to stress that fallacies in informal logic are often tricky business; since as you point out we are dealing with inductive arguments, it’s often a question of likelihood. Clear distinctions concering human behavior are often very difficult to make, but their absence does not make all slopes to be of the slippery variety. It’s unlikely, for instance, that the pre-viability abortions will lead to the killing of live born children, even though one may have a difficult time pointing to the moment the child is “viable” or “independent.” Nonetheless, one often sees employed in arguments such as these slippery slope type forms. These tend to presume the existence of some fixed and immutable point and suggest that in the absence of such a point nothing keeps one from drawing the obvious absurd conclusions. But such conclusions are not drawn, because one cannot have deductive certainty in matters such as these; and so the reductio type argument does not work.

  3. On intentions and results: Why must an argument be judged by its merits rather than its intentions?

    1) Because we can have no certain knowledge of the intentions of others

    2) Because consequences/results are more tangible than qualities, and therefore more easily refuted/ upheld

    It seems that the academic position that professor Casey is surreptitiously implying here is the “logical” or dispassionate position, which is contrary to the persuasions of government. This really appears to be the running theme behind all of the “Non Sequitur” articles. It also seems that the “conservative” genus does not reflect these same ideals, and is, to be charitable, trying to inject a little heart and soul into the discourse, rational or not.

    But we all know what the road to Hell is paved with, and its not “Practical Reason.”

  4. That’s an excellent point. To develop the point a bit further, we might see it is the distinction between rhetoric and logic–and there is no clearer formulation of the ability to separate the former from the latter than Plato’s Gorgias in which Socrates confronts a series of rhetoricians who see the power of persuasion (apart from the truth) as the greatest good.

    In a very real sense, the columnists we are analyzing don’t need to care (and many probably don’t care) about logical rigour. Their goal is to produce an effect–to cause persuasion, or to confirm their partisans in their beliefs.

    And they do this by a sort of deception and trickery (in many cases perhaps not even deliberately). We doubt that we will persuade these columnists to be more self-critical and rigorous. We can, however, pull back the curtain and show the man behind the microphone.

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