Reason, Sentiments, and Personal Significance
Family North Carolina MagazineMarch/April
The political scientist Jon Shields claims in the journal Society that the opponents of killing embryos for medical research and therapy are bound to lose. That’s because they are incapable of harnessing human emotion on behalf of reason. They face “the impossible problem of sentimentalizing the non-anthropomorphic.”
In this political conflict, those who would place limits on scientific research claim reason as an authority, and those who would free science from more limits claim that reason is incapable of judging whether an embryo is a human being with rights or not. These alleged conservatives say that rational reflection on what we know through the science can show us what kind of being even an early-stage embryo is. The alleged liberals or libertarians say that “philosophy is powerless to shed any light on the ontology of embryos,” and so our “assessment of what an embryo is” must be “based on how we feel about it.” And nobody feels any love for an embryo.
As Shields argued in an earlier Society article, “it is actually the secular left that has undermined a rational discussion of vital biological questions by depicting them as fundamentally religious and therefore beyond legitimate public debate.” This denial of the power of reason on behalf of convention or religion is, he goes on, actually a fundamentally conservative strategy. It is part of the more general conservatism of “the pro-choice movement,” which aims “to protect the status quo enshrined by Roe v. Wade rather than radically change public opinion or policy.” Our liberals or libertarians actually portray themselves as conservatives or, better, traditionalists.
The pro-life movement, from their view, is a radical effort to deploy the rhetoric of reason to mask sectarian dogmatism to impose innovative and repressive public policy on all Americans. The religious right is talking less about the imperatives of the “biblical worldview” and more about the natural law that all rational beings can know in common. “Most of the enthusiasm for natural-law advocates,” moderately liberal William A. Galston complains, “relies on what I regard was excessive confidence in reason’s power to resolve our deepest differences.” Rational enthusiasm is no less dangerous than religious enthusiasm; both produce tyranny based on excessive confidence that I am right.
The way to put the brakes on rational enthusiasm, in Galston’s view, is to show that we are necessarily and beneficially guided by tradition. And so he patiently explains that Jewish orthodoxy and Catholic traditionalism have different views of the embryo based on “the unchanging fundamentals of their respective theologies.” “The Talmud,” Galston explains, “distinguished between embryos prior to the fortieth day and those that develop past that point.” It is only after forty days that an embryo deserves any protection at all, and so there is no theological barrier to destroying an early-stage embryo to enhance the health and save the lives of actual human beings.
Galston doesn’t bother to show that the traditional theological distinction of forty days makes any scientific sense today. His goal is simply to show that our theological traditions have different fundamental views that can’t be resolved rationally. The opinions that embryonic life deserves protection at fertilization or fourteen days or at any other relatively early point are all promulgated by religious minorities. Once we see that, we can understand why the law in a free and democratic country can’t be used to arbitrarily prefer one theological tradition over another.
But a pro-lifer would be quick to say, against Galston, that the natural-law view of the status of the embryo is not really based in immutable Catholic tradition. Centuries of Catholic theological reflection is actually somewhat ambivalent on early abortion and more or less silent on embryo protection. The current proponents of natural law, such as Robert George and Patrick Lee, get their confidence from recent breakthroughs in embryology. They are certain that the scientific evidence now shows that the existence of the human individual begins at fertilization, that from that point the embryo is a complete or whole organism with the “active disposition” to develop into a mature or adult human being. If every human life is dignified or significant, the natural-law pro-lifers argue, it is so from the time that it possesses a distinct genetic endowment that guides its development into a unique and irreplaceable human being. As William Hurlbut explains, “the act of fertilization is a leap from zero to everything.”
The natural-law view probably does have a theological presupposition in its conviction concerning the dignity or significance of every human life. But very few Americans would deny the self-evidence of that egalitarian view of human dignity or the rights of the human person. The pro-life natural law argument is reasoning on the basis of that shared first principles, principles that find profound expression in the first of our nation’s political documents, the Declaration of Independence. Natural-law pro-lifers have the distinctively American or Jeffersonian view that tradition must give way to what we can affirm with our own minds. What we now know about natural law and natural rights take precedence over what we can now see was traditional ignorance or superstition.
Reason vs. Sentiment
The conflict over the status of embryos has had the theoretical merit of clearly distinguishing the pro-life party of reason from the pro-choice party of sentiment. On abortion, both sides employ a mixture of reason and sentiment. The pro-lifers have benefited from advances in imaging technology to make the “anthropomorphic” case that a fetus looks like a human being, and they have used those pictures to give emotional force to their rational words. And the pro-choicers have had to caution us not to succumb to sentimental seduction by deceptive images. Any human significance anyone attributes to an image of a fetus is merely sentimental. The sentiments of the woman who chooses the abortion is likely quite different, and we should get sentimental about the cruel suffering that would be imposed on her by an unwanted child or a back alley abortion. When sentiments conflict, rights do not exist.
But the pro-choicers have a hard time explaining why the distinction between the human form in and the one outside the womb isn’t also merely sentimental. The argument that denies the fetus all claims for protection might open us to, say, Peter Singer’s argument that there’s no reason why women can’t retain the right to choose until their babies can actually talk. Why isn’t our attachment to postnatal babies who are dumber or less self-conscious than dogs also merely sentimental? And the same goes for old folks in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. But most of us are more than sentimental enough not to want to limit the possession of rights to those strong enough and self-conscious enough actually to exercise them on their own.
The pro-choice appeal to the abstract right of women to control their own bodies seems to have been eroding in the face of the undeniable evidence of the human form of the fetus. That’s why the secular or libertarian left has welcomed the battle over embryos, where all the visible or sentimental evidence is on their side. The embryo, of course, doesn’t look at all like any of us, and so the case for its humanity or personhood is necessarily abstract. It can’t rely on images we can see with our own eyes.
Microscopic beings without brains, hearts, and nervous systems surely don’t suffer or deserve our compassion, and that’s why it seems reasonable to saywhen it comes to destroying embryosno brain, no heart, no problem. Our compassion might be quite limited for a woman who won’t choose for her own baby or who chooses sexual irresponsibility. But nobody, of course, has even chosen the cruel suffering and early death of Parkinson’s or type-1 diabetes. Opposition to abortion is rather easily seen as on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, but so too can the choice for the destruction of embryos for regenerative medicine. In both cases, a key goal is to save children, and nobody has ever mistaken an early-stage embryo with a child. The choice of the life of a childespecially one’s own childover an embryo doesn’t strike us at first to be tragic or even morally ambiguous enough to be a genuine ethical dilemma. Killing early-stage embryos to acquire pluripotent stem cells to help suffering children can seem to be a no-brainer.
Our inability to identify emotionally with particular embryos is probably why so few Americans experience moral revulsion when thinking about their routine killing. That fact even seems to be in accord with the Darwinian or sociobiological insight that all morality is based on natural feelings or instincts given to all social beings. The inevitable priority of sentiment over reason in moral judgment seems supported by the latest scientific studies. Even the sociobiological conservative James Q. Wilson claims “that people endow a thing with humanity when it appears, or even begins to appear human, that is, when it resembles a human creature. The more an embryo resembles a person, the more claim it exerts on our moral feelings.” While Wilson seems to deny that either an embryo or a fetus is a “human creature,” it’s clear to him why it’s natural for us to want to protect a fetusor at least relatively late-stage fetusesbut to be indifferent to embryos. He criticizes the pro-choicers on abortion and the pro-lifers for embryos for claiming that appearances mean nothing. For him, visible resemblances are almost everything.
But surely Wilson is too sanguine about the reliability of our natural instincts as a foundation for morality. Human beings, through most of their history, have denied the full or equal humanity of many members of their very own species for no good reason. The power of the doctrine of rights is that their source isn’t self-endowmentwhich is both too easy and too arbitrary. Those who are certain of the significance of every human life are very likely to believe that each of us is endowed by our nature or Creator with inalienable rights. Rights are given tonot made bya certain kind of being. Most human experience suggests that our eyes alone can deceive us about who genuinely resembles us. It is not for us to say, by following our feelings, who is human and who is not. The discovery of the inalienability of rights requires the rational acknowledgment of what about each of us demands respect independently of our sentiments.
The indignation the pro-choicers feel for women and their rights and pro-lifers feel for fetuses and even embryos and their rights, finally, depends upon the idea of the free and rational individual trumping traditional and even natural feelings based on observed natural differences. But most of our mainstream scientists actually believe that there’s no natural support for any claim for individual autonomy or personhood. The deepest reason why our scientists mistakenly believe that the pro-lifers are unscientific or irrational is that they mistakenly see no scientific or natural evidence for any claims for personal significance. The evolutionary theorist does think he knows, through reason or science, what kind of being the human being is. He thinks he knows that each of us has a lot less status or is a lot less important than we, in our vanity, tend to think on our own. We, in truth, exist for the species, and not for ourselves, and our species, finally, is one accidental emergence among many with no special or privileged place in nature.
If all human claims for dignity or rights are sentimental, pro-lifers and pro-choicers actually share the same unscientific illusions that privilege the free and rational human individual. From the perspective of our scientists, those illusions should give way to the unfettered progress of their scientific efforts to relieve the suffering of unfortunate animals. The beginning of wisdom is to see that those who defend the moral status of even early-term embryos are especially devoted to defending the reality of the moral status of each unique and irreplaceable human being. And those who see the embryo as nothing at all can’t help but be inclined to think in terms that deny the dignity or personal significance of us all.
The compassionate conservatism that does so well in defending mothers and children and opposing at least most abortions doesn’t work in causing us to care for beings we can neither see nor even imagine. But perhaps stronger than compassion is anger or indignation against those who would expertly deprive particular human lives of their dignity or irreplaceable significance, who would reduce us to beings only worthy of compassion. We insist, in fact, on being free and rational animals, or not merely being governed by the social and fearful feelings we share with the other animals. Anyone who has read Harvey Mansfield on manliness knows that there is or can be powerful emotional or passionate support for the rational defense of the rational and moral kind of being human individuals or persons alone are.
Science to the Rescue?
It turns out that the progress of science will probably resolve this controversy soon. Scientists are very close to developing a variety ways of acquiring embryonic stem-cells without actually destroying embryos. But the most promising recent development concerns the stem cells found in amniotic fluid. While possessing many of the “pluripotent” or flexible, plastic qualities of embryonic stem cells, they’re not so wild or undirected as to cause the development of tumors in the animals into which they are ejected. And they may well solve the rejection problem that has plagued the use of stem cells in regenerative medical research so far: Perhaps children could be equipped with future “repair kits” from their mothers’ fluid; the body doesn’t reject its own cells.
But maybe the controversy won’t be resolved. Scientists who continue to believe that embryos are nothing special may well continue to balk at any limitation on their freedom with their well being in mind. And similar controversies involving the clash between the irreplaceable significance of every human person and the unlimited and surely compassionate progress of science and technology will continue to arise.
Peter Augustine Lawler, Ph. D., is a professor at Berry College and a member of the President’s bioethics commission.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.