Outrage is not an argument

Among the pundits, Charles Krauthammer has a particular authority on questions of bio-medical ethics. As a member of the president’s commission on Bioethics and a medical doctor, he displays a level of scientific understanding and a grasp of the philosophical analysis of the relevant moral concerns which is not generally considered a necessary prerequisite for the national publication of one’s opinions.

This doesn’t stop him, however, from running afoul of the canons and standards of argumentation with which we concern
ourselves here.

Last Friday (Source: WaPo 10/15/04) he jumped on the Senator Edwards bashing bandwagon with an editorial on stem cell research and Edwards’ sloppy comments during a speech earlier last week in Iowa. Here’s the relevant sentence from the speech:

>”If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that 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.”

It was undoubtedly a poorly formulated claim on an issue that the Kerry campaign has been treating with some degree of care. Krauthammer doesn’t, however, give any credit to Edwards’ intentions.

>In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery. Hope is good. False hope is bad. Deliberately, for personal gain, raising false hope in the catastrophically afflicted is despicable.

So Krauthammer argues that John Edwards deliberately raised false hope in the catastrophically afflicted for personal gain. We can concede the further, seemingly uncontroversial, claim that such an act is “despicable.” Whether such a “despicable” act is a disqualification for the vice-presidency is a question we cannot address here.

Krauthamer thus needs to show (1) intention to deceive and to profit from the deception and (2) the falsity of the hope.

In a presidential campaign it is easy to infer the second part of (1) from the very fact that Edwards said what he said as a candidate. He seeks to profit from everything he says. But it is much harder to show that Edwards intended to deceive, or to raise “false hope.” Before we turn to consider whether these are “false hopes” or not, it is worth commenting on this political rhetoric.

Politicians like to talk about ends and not the means to attain them when they are campaigning. To put it simplistically, means are boring and often difficult to understand, while ends are inspiring and seductive. From Kennedy’s call to land a human being on the moon, the war against terrorism, or the goal of bringing democracy to the middle east, politicians propose lofty goals leaving the implementation to the policy makers. Hopefully those ends are attainable and beneficial. But there is nothing unusual about politicians promising great benefits that are just down the road–in fact, if they were to abstain from this it isn’t entirely clear what they could still talk about.

But, perhaps there is something particular about the case of the “catastrophically afflicted”? The hopes and desires of the catastrophically afflicted are presumably much more easily played upon by the unscrupulous than our desires to reach the moon (as shown by the failure of Bush’s Kennedy act earlier this year). I cannot easily determine whether promising jobs, affordable housing, or health care, are more like the case the the catastrophically afflicted than the desire to go to the moon. Nevertheless, until we decide whether Edwards was fostering a “false hope” or not we can leave this question aside.

Krauthammer “deconstructs” Edwards’ “outrage” with three points:

>First, the inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edwards did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous.

This involves a significant mis-characterization of Edward’s claim. He is certainly not arguing that the mere fact of electing Kerry will solve the “great mysteries of biology.” He is, of course, arguing that the ability of researchers to do so has been hampered by Bush’s appeasement of the religious right: Electing Kerry will result in a policy that does not depend upon particular religious beliefs, but instead secular arguments about the status of and necessary protections for embryos. And this in turn, if we believe some scientists working in the field, could bring about clinical trials of some therapies by the end of the decade. Admittedly not imminent, and admittedly not certain, but also not quite as absurd as Krauthammer endeavors to make it seem.

>Second, if the cure for spinal cord injury comes, we have no idea where it will come from. There are many lines of inquiry. Stem cell research is just one of many possibilities, and a very speculative one at that. For 30 years I have heard promises of miracle cures for paralysis (including my own, suffered as a medical student). The last fad, fetal tissue transplants, was thought to be a sure thing. Nothing came of it.

Certainly we do not know what the outcome of this research will be, and Edwards is wrong to state the outcome so assertorically. Nonetheless, there seems good reason to believe that promising therapies may be derived from this research, and that clinical trials of some therapies could begin within a decade. Even Christopher Reeve–who is supposedly being exploited by this sentence–said that with increased funding it is possible–according to unnamed researchers–to have clinical trials for therapies for spinal injuries in six or seven years. (On this, see the discussion of the California stem cell funding ballot initiative in the recent issue of the New Yorker.)

But, this is a matter for experts to decide. If the therapies are unlikely then we should reject funding *on that basis* not on the basis of a religious view that life begins at conception. As they stand, Krauthammer’s arguments look like either arguments from ignorance or fairly weak inductions. We do not know for certain whether the therapies derived from this research will be useful. But from this claim we cannot conclude that therefore the hope is “false” as Krauthammer wants. Only perhaps that Edwards should be more measured and state the point in terms of possibilities not necessities.

So there doesn’t seem to be good reason to believe that Edwards is fostering “false hopes.” Undoubtedly he is fostering hope, and the ground of the hope (that we will discover these cures) should not, perhaps, be promised. But neither of these things make the “hope false.” Or more precisely, neither of the arguments that Krauthammer advances are strong enough to show that the hope is false.

Edwards did not formulate this cautiously and the picture he draws is easy to caricature. Nonetheless, his intentions seem somewhat clear. Bush has limited access to stem cell lines and federal funding. Kerry would reverse that decision, enabling researchers access to the funding that is needed to determine whether these therapies will be available or not. In this case, Edwards is arguing in favor of a means (looser strictures on funding for stem cell research) on the basis of the promise of what might be attained.

The third criticism that Krauthammer advances is the weakest:

>Third, the implication that Christopher Reeve was prevented from getting out of his wheelchair by the Bush stem cell policies is a travesty.

There are two concerns with this. First, there seems no reason to think that this is an “implication” of what Edwards said. Second, contrast this with Reeve’s own words several years ago: “If we’d had full government support, full government funding for aggressive research using embryonic stem cells from the moment they were first isolated, at the University of Wisconsin in the winter of 1998, I don’t think it unreasonable to speculate that we might be in human trials by now,”

Krauthammer’s point here, however, is to defend the Bush position against the suggestion that it has retarded the development of useful therapies. He does this by arguing that there is no ban on stem cell research and that there is not that much likelihood of many of these therapies being developed from stem cell research. On this question we would need to ask the researchers who are affected by the Bush policies, few of whom seem to agree with Krauthammer on either of these points.

But more to the point, Krauthammer himself supports a position essentially identical to Kerry’s and opposed to the Bush administration’s, though he seems to bend over backward to allow his conservative friends to have some purchase on the issue, requiring that their religiously motivated views be treated with an undue degree of respect in this political debate, (and has even attempted to fashion a “secular” argument against stem cell research which he himself does not seem to find convincing (the centerpiece of which is a fairly bad slippery slope argument that is easily countered, see his argument in the New Republic in 2002).
So what is Krauthammer’s argument ultimately? It seems to be that the Kerry campaign wants to use the stem cell research issue for their own political ends. Since the justification of their policy is the possibility of therapies that will help the catastrophically afflicted, their arguments, however carefully they are formulated, will always run afoul of Krauthammer’s concerns. But this does not seem to be a reasonable restriction on political argument. Policies must always be justified by their promise, whether that promise is certain or not.

Perhaps then we are brought back to the wisdom of Bill Clinton–“it all depends on what ‘is’ means”: a sentence perhaps only a lawyer or a philosopher could love. Nonetheless, it contains a lesson that it would behoove Edwards to learn. If he had had said “may possibly walk” rather than “will walk,” there would be less for his political opponents to latch on to in order to divert the debate on this important question of policy. Then we would be having a conversation focussed on the substantive differences between and relative merits of Bush’s and Kerry’s policies, rather than on the supposed immorality of the use of these differences in a stump speech.