Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama Takes the Politics (and Ethics) Out of Science

The moralistic smugness surrounding the Obama decision on embryonic stem cells is indicative of the fact that this new administration is no different from the previous one when it comes to ethics. Different issues - same ethical approach. The whole tone of "Now we will keep politics out of science" and "No more ideology in scientific decisions" betrays such a smug, shallow perception of the ethical issues surrounding this decision that it fails to rise above the level of the Bush-Rove-Cheney "patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundral" game.

William Saletan, in an article on Slate nails the similarity between the stem cell decision by the Obama administration and the torture decision by the Bush administration. There are two main points of similarity.

1. The rhetoric is strikingly similar. Everything is reduced to black and white; the universe in Manichean. In one case, it is the "evil-doers" who are out to attack America because she is free and so "you either are with us or you are with the terrorists." We have to practice intensified interrogation (torture lite) because they are so evil and we are so good. In the other case, it is a never-ending Scopes Monkey Trial in which the forces of obscurantism, reaction and fundamentalist fanaticism are arrayed against the saintly scientests (in white coats, of course) labouring selflessly day and night to find cures for deadly diseases.

Its funny how the liberal media can't spare five minutes for some investigative journalism into who stands to profit financially from this research in big Biotech. Somehow, the Pentegon and the CIA are utterly corrupt, but billion dollar corporations manipulating human life for profit are as morally pure as the driven snow. Not a word of caution is uttered here even by the neo-Marxists who make a career out of railing ceaselessly against the "evils of capitalism." Something strange is going on here. It couldn't be . . . ideology, could it? But wait, relax, Obama just abolished ideology in science. (Follow the link above to see the announcement and memo accompanying it.) Whew . . . that is a relief!

In both cases the extremity of the Manichean struggle of the war on terror and the war on disease justifies over-riding normal morality and assulting human life. Anyone who objects is a "terrorist lover" or "cares more about blobs of cells than real human beings." I'm afraid this kind of rhetoric would not get a passing grade in my college classes; but it apparently is A-OK for The New York Times and the Oval Office.

2. The ethical theory is identical. Saletan make the obvious point that the moral reasoning behind this superficial rhetoric is identical in both cases. It is utilitarianism and it presumes to make judgments about when some human life becomes expendable in the name of benefits to other human life. There are no absolute rules and no non-negotiatable boundaries in utilitarianism. Here we see how utterly necessar and practical is the stand taken by John Paul II in his magisterial encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he taught that some actions are just plain morally evil no matter what the circumstances or rationalizations. If we cannot live by some absolute rules, we will lose our humanity.

William Saletan gets it exactly right when he titles his article "Winning Smugly" and, having congratulated the Left on winning the stem-cell war, warns them not to lose their soul in the process. It is not clear to me, however, that it is possible to continue building a culture of death without losing one's soul.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For the record, nobody is out "expending lives" as you put it to engage in stem-cell research. People aren't out there harvesting living fetuses for their stem cells.