Freddoso Responds: More on the National Review & Stem Cells Debate

Freddoso responds, and again, I think there’s plenty I agree with him on (as long as I grant, for the sake of argument, his belief that its morally wrong to destroy embryos at all).

I’ll just cover what I think he gets wrong.

First, I’m not sure he understands how I meant “hypocrisy.” Unless he’s simply issuing a technical correction, I really meant it. Not based on inconsistent arguments, but based on being outraged by shoddy Democratic science when you aren’t prepared to be just as outraged by the misrepresentations and omissions by fellow conservatives. The fact that most of the Cornerites neglected to mention that the breakthrough they are heralding itself relied on knowledge gained from the destruction of embryos (and will likely require the destruction of yet many more embryos to further validate and perfect) is pretty darn glaring, for instance.

Secondly (although he may not have meant to imply I was grudging), I’m not “conceding” that John Edwards was a pandering flake on this issue, or that Chuck Schumer was totally out of his gourd to claim that ESC cures already exist: I’m agreeing! As I wrote in my first Debaterama post, the stakes for embryonic stem cell research are finite, and actually not all that high in the long run. The restrictions on them are, really, pretty minor and ineffectual. There may still be real costs to handicapping research in this area, but those costs are measurable and really can be legitimately weighed against other important values.

Whether you think what boils down to a few years jump on medical research is worth missing out on depends whether you think it makes sense to think of embryos as morally important beings. I don’t think it does make sense, of course, and I’ll lay out why in the next few days (as well as discussing the arguments in the Ramesh Ponnuru’s deathbook, which, if it has been overlooked, is no one’s fault but his own). But those are the (moderate) stakes, and exaggerating them is flatly dishonest.

Finally, as sort of a side note, I’ve also always been highly skeptical of the argument that the “end never justifies the means.” Not that I don’t agree that this is a good principle in theory, but rather because I don’t think that most people really mean it.

The same President who claimed, with any caveats whatsoever, that it is wrong to save one life at the expense of another has argued for the death penalty on the grounds of its potential deterrent effect. Now I don’t think the President is wrong to cite deterrence as a real justification, and I don’t want to debate the morality of the death penalty here. But deterrence through death is unavoidably an ends/means game: we kill this otherwise helpless human being so as to scare others into not killing.  We use his life to save others. (If you want Kantian purity on the death penalty, you avoid the deterrence angle and just stick to mortal retribution)

Adding the predictable ad hoc caveat of “oh, well, I only meant innocent people, once they commit a crime we can use them any which way!” just isn’t convincing here. Plus, it would be pretty darn lame coming from anyone that just got through insisting that there are no exceptions: that if it’s genetically human, that’s that… oh wait, I meant except for convicts.  Again, I’m not saying that that isn’t a reasonable exception.  But if someone wants to make a “did a bad thing once” exception, then why can’t I make my eminently and equally reasonable “doesn’t have a nervous system” exception?

The same applies (as Freddoso references) to justifying the Hiroshima, Dresden, or Tokyo bombings, in which we incinerated hundreds of thousands of men women and children. All of it, at best, because American leaders believed doing so would scare our enemies and save even more lives. What’s justifying what there? Oh right…

Again, I’m not trying to argue here that war is immoral: I just want people to acknowledge that in wartime, the ends justify the means all over the place! If you really don’t want to justify means with ends, then you could do worse than to become a Jainist. If, on the other hand, you want to be Commander in Chief, however, you’re pretty much Mr. Means 24/7.

And contrary to Freddoso’s assurances of consistency, claiming the ends never justifies the means is just as much of (if not altogether more of) a philosophical mess than strict consequentialism. Worse, I think it’s by and large an exercise in self-delusion rather than a real moral principle (because weighing some lives against others is simply unavoidable fact of even the most routine daily life, at least once you really understand the tradeoffs we all make). Personally, I go in for a non-straw man sort of consequentialism, wherein we can admit that unmolested moral principles and strongly defended rights have far more benefits in the long run than any fleeting good that comes from violating them might do in the short run.

But that matter, like the science and moral status of embryos, will have to wait until the Thanksgiving leftovers are fully processed.

2 Responses to Freddoso Responds: More on the National Review & Stem Cells Debate

  1. Bush, Solomon, & Stem Cells: Yuval Levin at National Review

    Yuval Levin has some more to add on the stem cell debate as well. Like many of his fellows, Levin also rather overplays the science here: painting the currently discovery as any sort of conclusion is, simply, silly.  The technique in question answers …

  2. […] on a rather weighty piece on stem cells, making my case for their moral meaninglessness that I promised at the end of several rounds of back and forth with bloggers from the Corner at the Natio…. Plus, hasn’t the aptly named alt-med woo-site NewsTarget published dozens and dozens more […]

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