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 scientific endpoint is simply silly. The technique in question answers some questions and opens new avenues of possibility, but it does not by any stretch negate what there is still to learn. Nor does it, as many have suggested, take embryonic stem cells out of the picture. Despite surely having heard about it by now, he apparently still can’t quite bring himself to tell his readers that this somatic research owes much, and will continue to owe much, to knowledge gained from studying embryonic cells, even those outside Bush’s stand. Researchers in Japan, of course, work outside of American restrictions, and have created and delved into embryonic lines and their mysteries. As such, his picture of how the breakthrough was attained by proudly holding firm against immorality is still a distortion.

But look: if you believe the things Levin and Bush believe, their core position is reasonable and perhaps their Solomonic moderation was indeed laudable. I can empathize with that, and appreciate the back-patting that’s going on as legitimate for how they view things.

Fair enough.

But can they do the same? What if those ethics are mistaken? Then their decision is not laudable, and is, simply put, immoral. It would indeed be wrong to overlook some moral importance to developing embryos, but it would also be wrong to falsely ascribe moral importance to something that doesn’t have it. There’s harm either way.

The best conservatives seem to be able to do in empathizing with our position is in arguing that by avoiding embryonic research, we are “playing it safe.” Maybe they can’t convince us for sure that embryos are morally important, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the possibility and be more careful? They even seem to imply that we should now universally agree that handicapping the research was and is a good idea.

No. There is no playing it safe when it comes to moral decisions. Putting undue value on something leads to harm just as surely as overlooking its value. Reading the Bible such that you believe that blood transfusions are immoral, for instance, can lead to death. There is no “playing it safe” by avoiding blood “just in case” it turns out that it’s wrong to take it.

I can put myself in people’s shoes and see why they feel embryos are worth saving. But instead of doing the same and appreciating the values that suggest to us that they are not, polemicists on the right generally prefer to ignore our values and paint us as nihilists: rapacious scientists who are driven to devalue human life so that we can use it as raw material for our obsessive devotion to experiment. Surely they know that this is precisely the opposite of our position: that in fact it is a deep respect for human life and human dignity that drives us as well. But, they prefer to argue otherwise.

Unfair enough?

5 Responses to Bush, Solomon, & Stem Cells: Yuval Levin at National Review

  1. Yuval Levin says:

    That’s certainly reasonable. Yes, if my view of the moral question is wrong, then the policy I advocate on this issue would also be wrong. I don’t dispute that. The policy is certainly grounded in the view that a commitment to human equality requires us to avoid intentionally harming human embryos. I think that view is true, but also that opposing views are not ridiculous or unimaginable, and that if you take such an opposing view seriously, you would reasonably support a different course of policy. The debate is fundamentally a debate about human equality, and everything else grows out of that.

  2. Bad says:

    I probably should have made it clearer that the latter part of my rant wasn’t targeted at you specifically. Your first Corner post on this issue, was, I thought, pretty much a laudable expression of hope that if ESCR could be more and more avoided, that this would benefit everyone involved in the debate. As I hoped I conveyed earlier, I think given that the stakes are not that high, that even someone who thought that embryos were completely worthless could still oppose their use simply because they thought pluralism and not fighting a culture war over the matter was more valuable than a small head start on research.

    But I also think there is a real ambiguity in the kudos going around on your side. You guys are quite right to say to people like Michael J. Fox: “see, look, ESCR wasn’t quite as necessary or as urgent as you made it out to be.” But at the same time, there is this easy slide into the idea that this vindicates your side on the level of moral argument as well, and I wish more folks would (like Freddoso said about applied research) more plainly say that it does not really bear on that issue at all. “See, we were right and we did a great moral thing by holding out against you” can be temptingly ambiguous.

    As to human equality, I obviously disagree: to think of embryos as relevant morally is, I think, to fundamentally misunderstand the reasons why human equality is important. That view has always seemed to me to simply literalistically overextend moral rules originally developed in a very different context, all while missing what I see as the whole point of what we value and are trying to protect with concepts of equality in the first place.

    Reducing persons down to the mechanics of what genetic species we are and how we are constructed (for embryos are fundamentally that: they are copies of a recipe and a only a few of first bulldozers that lay the groundwork for the construction, not the product or thing itself) and arbitrarily picking conception as an important line in a process that really has no worthy lines at all (since sexual reproduction is really just a subset of asexual budding, not a break with it) doesn’t do us any credit to our dignity. Nor does it explain anything at all about why persons should consider each other as moral equals in the first place. It’s the why that’s important, not the unexplained rule, and I don’t think a non-theological why can possibly support human embryos when it won’t support even the most intelligent non-human species (while I don’t think theological whys that I’ve heard actually really explain anything whatsoever).

    But that short retort probably doesn’t do your arguments enough justice either, which is why I’m going to have to explain myself more fully later.

    I’ll close for now (or, until then) by pointing out that if partisan folks on my side of the fence aren’t reading National Review or the Corner because they think it’s a rich-man’s WorldnetDaily, they’re really missing out. You guys post an admirably high volume of things that my politics might not want me to hear, but I would leave me a far simpler fool without listening to. As I say: high information content.

  3. Yuval Levin says:

    Thanks for the good words. The closest I’ve come to laying out a case for protecting human embryos because of human equality is http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/19/opinion/19levin.html . But that too is brief, and I’m certain wouldn’t do justice to your objections. An argument worth having.

  4. Bad says:

    I’ll check it out, thanks! My major holdup right now is getting another copy of Ramesh’s book, which I intended to talk about a bit, but realized my copy, along with most of my books, are many states away. I’ve struck out at all the local Borders so far, so it’s all down to the library system. :)

  5. […] life quite abhorrent.” Ramesh Ponnuru responds… or does he?!?! That reminds me: I still owe readers an promised comprehensive essay on stem cells. It would be easier if I could find another copy of Ramesh’s book, but it doesn’t seem […]

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