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Take A Life, Save A Life

Will Saletan says it's inconsistent to say you shouldn't take life to save life in the context of stem cell research but then support the death penalty which, presumably, is supposed to be a way of taking life to save life. A Corner reader writes in to say you can make the rhetoric match up by saying you shouldn't take an innocent life to save the lives of others. That does work, there, but I seriously doubt anyone actually adheres to the implications of this principle. Virtually everyone believes there are circumstances in which it's acceptable to undertake military actions that will inevitably lead to civilian deaths. Lots of people think it's wrong to deliberately target civilians as a military strategy, but everybody understands that any sort of military action winds up killing civilian bystanders as well as damaging civilian infrastructure leading to further deaths. The Just War tradition relies on the doctrine of double effect to explain why these sorts of predictable civilian deaths (but not deliberate targeting as a military strategy) are unacceptable. Make of double effect what you will, the point still remains that the view that it's always wrong to kill innocent people has some very far reaching consequences and leads to some rather extreme conclusions. Of course, some people find those conclusions convincing, but I don't, and I take it that neither National Review nor George W. Bush do either.

May 25, 2005 | Permalink

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A new round of debate on stem-cell research opened Monday with emotional appeals by people who have [Read More]

Tracked on May 25, 2005 6:02:28 PM

Comments

It's always wrong to INTENTIONALLY kill innocent persons. People do things every day that have a small, but non-zero, chance of killing innocent persons (such as driving an automobile). Just like the military does things that have a small, but non-zero, chance of killing innocent persons (although, due to the nature of the activity, the chance is slightly larger than driving an automobile). One could avoid taking these chances by not taking those actions. But that doesn't make it wrong if you decide to take the actions.

Posted by: Al | May 25, 2005 4:50:05 PM

Should say "But that doesn't make it NECESSARILY wrong if you decide to take the actions."

Posted by: Al | May 25, 2005 4:51:59 PM

In my experience dealing with the right-- in the Bible Belt, which of course is outside the mainstream but politically dominant right now-- "innocent" doesn't just mean "not guilty of any crime", but "unsullied." That's why the description applies almost exclusively to embryos, fetuses, and very small children; while they're not free of original sin per evangelical tradition, they're under the age of reason and therefore aren't deliberate sinners. Regarding wartime casualties that fit this definition of innocence, well, that's cognitive dissonance at work, with many right-wingers letting their nationalism trump their religious principles. After all, a lot of those kids would eventually become terrorists, as far as they're concerned... and plenty of the surviving ones still might.

Posted by: latts | May 25, 2005 4:52:36 PM

It's even incorrect to say that babies are innocent in the context of standard Christian theology. Standard Christian theology says all people are born with original sin so none of us are innocent because all of us have original sin.

Posted by: Dan the Man | May 25, 2005 4:57:01 PM

And don't forget original sin. My Catholic theology is a little shaky, but aren't we all born in sin? Who is really innocent?

And of course, if human life begins at conception, a defensible but not scientifically certain position, then using an IUD is an attempt at mass murder: baby after baby will likely be aborted since IUD's prevent implantation, not conception.

And the death penalty does involve taking innocent life. Unless you can demonstrate that no mistake will EVER be made, you concede that we will occasionally execute an innocent.

Posted by: epistemology | May 25, 2005 4:57:09 PM

everybody understands that any sort of military action winds up killing civilian bystanders as well as damaging civilian infrastructure leading to further deaths.

I think the large number of people who refuse, against all reason, to believe a certain recent, well-conducted epidemiological study that showed just this is evidence that your generalization is a bit off.

Posted by: Kieran | May 25, 2005 5:08:26 PM

My Catholic theology is a little shaky, but aren't we all born in sin? Who is really innocent?

Jesus and Mary. Yes, definitely shaky. Mary's innocence is the famous but usually misapplied doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Hope this helps.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:08:55 PM

Al's distinction is also imaginary. What does it mean for something to be intentional? Are you trying to say that in Stem Cell research, the scientists are aware of what they are doing when they kill embryos, but in war, all of the bombs drop by accident when people aren't paying attention?

Both in war and in stem cell research, the killing of innocents is not the primary purpose of the endeavor, if one even grants that a blastula is a person, which no sane person does. Both in war and in stem cell research, this 'killing' is also a totally inevitable side effect of the achieving the main goal.

Al wants to pretend there is some critical ethical difference because in war there is only a "chance" of innocents dying ("if we close our eyes and don't take counts, maybe it never happened!") whereas in Stem Cell research it is apparently inevitable, but the Bush Administration has carried out an enormous number of operations that I'm sure Al supported where the killing of innocents was totally inevitable.

And you know what? I'm sure those Iraqis were a whole lot more pissed off about being murdered by the US Government than those blatulas would be.

Posted by: Gabriel Rocklin | May 25, 2005 5:09:03 PM

Oh, now that we're back to stem cells, I found this fascinating:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0526/p01s01-uspo.html
At his White House event on Tuesday, featuring 21 families whose children had developed from adopted embryos, the president sought to present an alternative to the destruction of unneeded frozen embryos from fertility clinics. In 2002, Bush signed legislation granting $1 million a year for the Department of Health and Human Services to promote adoption of embryos.

Donation, adoption, and study

The Snowflakes Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, run by Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Fullerton, Calif., says 81 children have been born through its services, with embryos given up for adoption by the biological parents. It is not known how many other children have been born through this kind of adoption, but the Snowflake program, which began in 1997, is the first of its kind.

So, lemme get this straight. We're going to reconcile IVF with the "culture of life" by starting an embryo adoption program. This means that every time an infertile couple decides they want one new genetically related child, we're going to insist on bringing several of their blood siblings into the world.

I'm not really sure what goes into embryo screening, but I would imagine that the implanted embryo is probably judged to be the most fit. The duplication is to increase the odds of an imperfect process. But through embryo adoption, we're going to try to bring every one of those babies into the world.

Is this a joke, or is somebody going to try and convince me that the scheme is workable?

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:16:56 PM

So, all you guys are going to accept the premise that a blastula deserves full standing as a human being?

Sorry, but no way. Blastulas are routinely flushed out of the body when they fail to implant. They are not babies. They are seeds that may or may not grow into viable human beings.

Posted by: cmac | May 25, 2005 5:29:41 PM

A lot of people wouldn't accept the Sidgwickian definition of "intention:" all the consequences of an act that are foreseen as certain or probable. So long as it is, in some sense, accidental, even if a very likely accident, it's somehow okay.

I think the truth is that a lot of people's queasiness regarding stem cells comes not from the fact that innocent human life is destroyed, in spite of the benefits, but rather it is precisely BECAUSE of the benefits that they feel queasy. They feel that benefitting from something they believe is bad does not ameliorate the badness of it, but compounds it. A lot of people believed that the data Dr. Mengele collected in Auschwitz should have been destroyed, rather than used, because even though the suffering of his victims was a fait accompli, using the data, however useful it was, would have somehow selfishly disregarded those who suffered as his hands.

Posted by: Julian Elson | May 25, 2005 5:30:59 PM

I've often thought it's just a quirk of evolution that humans don't easily bud the way most plants do and many invertebrate animals do. We're all made out of the same kind of cells. Ours just suppress some capabilities.

It's also a feature (not really a quirk since we invest so much effort in raising offspring) that we have small, usually single, births instead of laying out thousands of eggs that hatch into a battle royale of deadly sibling rivalry (like spiders for instance).

If we reproduced by these other mechanisms, we'd have a very different notion of the value of "nascent" life. Assuming there's intelligent life somewhere else, these possibilities aren't completely hypothetical.

Now I'd be very happy if a method were found to create universal stem cells from adult cells. To begin with, that's what you'd want anyway to avoid tissue rejection, but it would also finesse a lot of the ethical issues. On the other hand, if the method amounted to creating a cloned embryo first, then it would raise more ethical questions than it answered.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:34:25 PM

Sorry, but no way. Blastulas are routinely flushed out of the body when they fail to implant. They are not babies. They are seeds that may or may not grow into viable human beings.

Yeah, it's an interesting point that if you believe that every embryo has a soul, then you wind up with an afterlife populated mostly by souls who never made it past the first trimester. I suppose some people feel comfortable working this into their theology, but it seems a little nutty to me.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:40:12 PM

Paul,

I'm not a Catholic but i think the immaculate conception just requires that Mary was a virgin, not sinless.

Posted by: Eric | May 25, 2005 5:40:39 PM

So long as it is, in some sense, accidental, even if a very likely accident, it's somehow okay.

That bullet I just shot at you might have passed through harmlessly due to some very improbable quantum tunneling phenomenon as I intended it to. It's not my fault if through some very likely accident it did not.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:44:55 PM

Kant would say, "who wills the end, also wills the means which are indispensably necessary and in his power," except he'd say it in German. Someone who believes that killing innocents is never justified, but is okay with bombing might say, "you see, if I bomb this factory, I would achieve my end just as well -- better, in fact -- if there were no civilians around. Killing the civilians isn't indispensably necessary to the my end of blowing up the factory." He looks at stem-cell researchers in dismay, and says, "you see, in your case, killing the embryo is indispensibly necessary as a means to your end of curing Parkinson's or whatever. Therefore, I don't will that civilians get blown up, but you will that embryos get torn apart. Since morality concerns willing, you're bad for doing that!"

Maybe I'm just attributing an otherwise incoherent position to Kant because I'm bitter about how badly I did on my ethics midterm, which involved a lot of that stuff, so I'm making Kant look like a worse philosopher than he really was.

Posted by: Julian Elson | May 25, 2005 5:45:48 PM

I'm not a Catholic but i think the immaculate conception just requires that Mary was a virgin, not sinless.

Since you're not a Catholic, the mistake is understandable. Unfortunately, a lot of Catholics make the same mistake (as well as others such as casting their vote for Dubya, but I digress...). The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the virgin birth, but rather the sinless state of Mary at her conception:

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm
In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:47:55 PM

except he'd say it in German

Which would be pretty scary, what with the word "will" coming up repeatedly.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:49:07 PM

What would Kant say about harvesting cells from the unfortunate victims of the fertility industry?

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:50:20 PM

"you see, if I bomb this factory, I would achieve my end just as well -- better, in fact -- if there were no civilians around.

Sorry, to be serious for a second here, I think this is coming close to the doctrine of double effect. I agree that you (or Kant) are making an important distinction.

Posted by: PaulC | May 25, 2005 5:52:48 PM

then you wind up with an afterlife populated mostly by souls who never made it past the first trimester.

Hmmm. Oddly enough, reincarnation would square that circle. Some historical strains of christianity were certainly comfy with the idea...

Posted by: Wrye | May 25, 2005 6:09:26 PM

innocent" doesn't just mean "not guilty of any crime", but "unsullied." That's why the description applies almost exclusively to embryos, fetuses, and very small children; while they're not free of original sin per evangelical tradition, they're under the age of reason and therefore aren't deliberate sinners.

We have a winner. The life of a fetus is by definition worth more than the life an adult, or even a child. You can't even begin to have an abortion conversation unless you get this out of the way first.

Posted by: Adonais | May 25, 2005 6:20:08 PM

That Kant might try to say that (that some things are indispensably necessary) doesn't make it any less confused and backwards. Dead innocents are dead innocents whether they are killed out of indispensable neccessity or whether they are killed merely out of the extraordinary difficulty of avoiding it. Like Paul said, it isn't indispensably necessary that the gun I fire at you kills you, but that doesn't absolve me of anything.

Posted by: Gabriel Rocklin | May 25, 2005 6:26:02 PM

The moderate reformer's instinct is generally better than the extreme idealist: look for a compromise in which reasoning from differing points of view intersect in recommending a course of conduct, whose material consequences for real people are, at least, a immediate marginal improvement with a reasonable prospect of continuing future improvement.
Holding out an ideal of the good, which is purely abstract, while ignoring its material consequences for real people, is always a mark of extremism.
The contradictions in Bush's policies on "life", however, are not the logical contradictions of an imperfect idealism. Rather, they are a reflection of a political alliance. Lots of Republicans, Bush included, mimic a "concern for life" and an opposition to abortion, etc., to cement a political alliance with people, who really are passionately (if irrationally) opposed to abortion.
Political "philosophies" are often a jumble of contradictory ideas and policy positions, precisely because of their instrumental value in maintaining stable political coalitions among people, who, on matters of genuine personal conviction, are anything but like-minded.
I applaud Saletan for holding Bush up to ridicule. It is exactly the kind of subversive attack, Democrats need to make on the Bush coalition.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | May 25, 2005 6:36:32 PM

' "innocent" doesn't just mean "not guilty of any crime", but "unsullied." That's why the description applies almost exclusively to embryos, fetuses, and very small children; while they're not free of original sin per evangelical tradition, they're under the age of reason and therefore aren't deliberate sinners. '

We have a winner. The life of a fetus is by definition worth more than the life an adult, or even a child. You can't even begin to have an abortion conversation unless you get this out of the way first.

Is it reasonable to suggest that a fetus or infant has also not taken any positive action to do good, and so has a life worth less than, say, mine, given that I occasionally choose to do kind things for people, and rarely choose to do hurtful things? I'm honestly jus' asking.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | May 25, 2005 7:08:45 PM

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