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May 11, 2011


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"It is hard to understand how advocating such an outcome can be considered the more moral position."

It's not hard unless you are a moral relativist.

You Break It is partly correct. One could also make the same decision as a utilitarian or other sort of consequentialist. But there are strong deontological ethical roots in Europe and even elsewhere. Kantian ethics would oppose means-to-ends arguments completely, especially where there are implications for human dignity, or other non-defeasible duties involved. Not everyone believes that the ends justify every means, Kevin, and there are good historical reasons to reject consequentialism in general.

Dear Break:

Not really. For example, I can put on the one hand the unused embryos that will be flushed down the toilet against all the (admittedly, potential) treatments and cures that can come from stem cell research (spinal cord injuries being one example relevant to the patent at issue). I have no difficulty saying without any relativism or reservation whatsoever that the moral position is advocating what will get such cures to people, as opposed to your conception (or anyone else's) of what is "moral." What's the problem with that?

Dear Break:

Unless, of course, your position is that stem cell research is itself immoral (rather than the position taken by the advocate general, that it is only patenting stem cells and methods of using them that offends public morality). The former position would (at least) be a consistent moral one. If on the other hand the idea is that destroying embryos and using stem cells for research is fine as long as no one has a patent on the cells or the process, then I think the scientists addressed that argument eloquently and succinctly.

All that's fine, David, but there are consequences to such positions, and the scientists laid out those consequences pretty well. When the "ends" are alleviation of human suffering, and the "means" are getting some usefulness from human material that would otherwise be discarded, I don't think that's "consequentialist" or "utilitarian", I think doing what we can to facilitate that outcome is the human, moral position to take. IF, as I said upthread, the position is that stem cell research is wrong per se as an assault on human dignity, and IF the possibility that human embryos will be discarded informs the position that in vitro fertilization is immoral, then I think there is a consistent ethical stand that can be taken. Frankly, I don't have a problem with moral positions taken on those grounds, but that isn't what's happening. Greenpeace isn't opposing stem cell research; this isn't PETA raiding biology labs and liberating the animals. The objection is patenting, not the research, and the basis for this isn't "human dignity" - where's the dignity in discarding a human embryo?

The objection is that someone may actually make money using this technology, and if that's the objection it is frankly naive. The "altruistic" impulse as the basis for economic behavior was tried ("from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"), famously, and didn't work out too well.

Using dead philosophers to support inconsistent positions may be fun, but until the ultimate question - should we permit stem cell research on moral grounds - is addressed, all the rest is politics. And politics, whatever its philosophy, has consequences (which Europeans may soon once again recognize, if the scientists' predictions are accurate).

A generation ago, Europe was slow in adopting patent protection for biotechnology, and suffered with being behind the U.S. and other countries until recently. If stem cell research will flourish in the U.S. and Asia to the detriment of Europe, it is decisions like this one that will be the cause.

Hope you are well. The pictures of your child are wonderful.

This sort of off-target nonsense is why I stopped sending my donations to Greenpeace and started sending it to real environmental action groups - like those irreverent outlaws Sea Shepherd. Greenpeace got all enviro-religious.

Kevin, the Kantian response is simply that consequences don't matter - if one is using a person as a means to an end one is per se violating the duty of respecting equal dignity. I don't view the use of human stem cells as problematic because persons are not used, though I do oppose monopolizing them ( or any non-engineered products) on different grounds, also deontological, as you know. As for biotech in Europe, given longer life expectancies, lower costs for medical care, and relatively higher standards of living here than in the US, it is arguable that Europeans lost little to nothing in "falling behind."

All is well here, thanks for the good wishes and I hope you enjoyed your birthday!


David: a good reason not to be a Kantian.

Thanks for the birthday wishes.

Kevin: I'm not a Kantian, actually. But Utilitarianism is not better. The "hedonic calculus" of Utilitarianism justifies using a certain number of persons to improve general happiness. It justifies slavery of a sufficiently small population for the good of the whole. Unless you accept that there are certain inviolable rights, and have some basis for believing such rights exist, utilitarianism is simply inhumane. My deontological ethics is rights-based, and as I point out in my GeneWatch article, rights to monopolize "commons-by(logical)-necessity" (like abstract ideas, natural phenomena, etc.) can never be justly granted to anyone.

Dear David:

I am not as theoretically pure as you seem to be. I don't think that it follows that granting rights to methods for using stem cells is the same as slavery - indeed, the stem cells at issue stem from embryos whose "owners" (which brings up a whole other set of philosophical arguments, don't you think?) have donated the embryos rather than have them destroyed. And remember, the patent at issue are not directed to the cells but to methods for making neural cells from stem cells - and wasn't it your position in the gene patenting debate that method claims would be patent-eligible?

Not something we are going to resolve, given our basic underlying differences, but hyperbole doesn't help.

Thanks as always for the discussion.

which phenomena aren't natural? Man is not somehow separate from the world, he comes from it and is part of it. Everything he does becomes part of that world. The technology he makes doesn't somehow opearte on laws outside of the world itself, it is part of them. Sounds like some artificial distinction left over from a western religious concept of man being separate from nature.

Kevin: you misunderstood my point, I wasn't equating anything with slavery, just pointing out the dangers of utilitarian ethics, which can be used to justify slavery, among other undesirable things. I don't think I've taken a position on the stem cell issue at all in this thread, and would not oppose method claims (just product claims). I was trying above to point out why utilitarian reasoning of the sort you rely in is flawed from a deontological standpoint, as well as attemoting to lay a theoretical foundation for a sensible philosophical standpoint taken by some in the debate.

GJ: the law distinguishes man-made from natural. The Supreme Court bars patents for abstract ideas, natural laws, and natural phenomena. I do think that, for instance, laws of nature are clearly not man-made, while steam engines, while they depend upon natural laws, are the products of human intention and thus not "natural" as the courts reasonably draw the distinction.


Sorry for the misunderstanding. I am not making a purely teleological argument, however; I think the problem with deontological arguments is that they rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on moral judgments and that those judgments tend to be imposed politically - which is just what we are seeing in the stem cell debate as well as the gene patenting debate.

I mistrust morality arguments just as much as you mistruct teleological ones; after all, 200 years ago (and in some places, even more recently) slavery or at least racist practices were justified by moral arguments that seem repugnant to us today.

Better in my view to take the view espoused by the US Supreme Court that "anything under the sun made by man" should be patentable, and to find patent ineligibility rarely.

Thanks for the comment.

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