“We should resolve our national debate over embryo-destructive research on the basis of the best scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and the most careful philosophic reasoning at what is owed to a human being at any stage of development.”
Robert P. George Embryo Ethics Daedalus Winter 2008
It is vitally important that you understand what I say next. From here on out, the scientist’s job is done. You see scientists sometimes think that their job in step 1 is so important that they get to freeze the process and hold the discussion hostage. But as the boat leaves the dock wave bye-bye to the spitting and foaming scientists. We are moving into a new area that really is beyond the Scientific Method. If you see any of them hanging on to the boat or trying to pull us back ashore feel free to stomp on their fingers or push them overboard. Some of them will be civil and come along for the ride, but some of them are notoriously cranky and will resent the next phase of our journey.
In order to properly address step 2 in this splendid sentence we must engage in “the most careful philosophic reasoning at what is owed to a human being at any stage of development.” This means that weighing, measuring, observing, testing, and retesting will no longer be of any use. The realm of the scientists does have distinct borders and there are a great many intellectual pursuits that fall beyond the pale of their expertise. You see, science helped us determine that a human being exists at fertilization. It can not tell us what our duties or obligations are to that human being. A worshiper of scientism may claim that any answer that can not be validated through empirical testing can not be trusted or meaningful. But the power of philosophical argument weighs against this very invective. If the statement is true, the statement is meaningless and can not be trusted as the statement itself can not be tested in this manner. So again, wave a confident wave and thank the scientists for their help.
What do we know? What do we think? What can we prove? We know that a new life is present and we can prove that the evidence most reliably indicates this life is a human being. We have a strong case that the embryo is a human being. Now how do we determine what we owe to this life?
In light of the strong case for the basic identification of the embryo as a human being, the embryo destructive research supporters must argue one of these two basic positions:
1) The embryo is a human being, but not a person and therefore we owe them nothing in regard to moral treatment. In fact, the very idea of moral treatment of embryos is meaningless because they lack a moral value to restrict our actions against them. These arguments concede humanity, but deny a more important necessary characteristic of human life; personhood.
2) The embryos are human beings and they have some moral worth, but the resulting benefits of their destruction for all people places the greater moral emphasis on being free to use them for research in an effort to benefit the maximum number of people. They matter, but curing diseases and scientific advancement matter more. Think of the bodily autonomy rights in abortion arguments. They are based on a concession that the unborn are humans. It is an uncontested and trivial observation. The rights of the pregnant women are simply more important than any acknowledged rights of the unborn life.
So I think we can reasonably fit most arguments into these three different statements:
1 – Embryos are human beings, but not persons and therefore we are not morally obligated in our behavior toward them.
2 – Embryos are human beings with some moral worth, but the greater moral good is served by being sensitive to issues of greater moral importance such as near miraculous cures and therapies for millions of suffering people.
3 – Embryos are human beings and of moral value based on their nature or substance and ought to be treated with the same moral obligations and duties that are extended to all human life in later stages of development.
Note that we are all making claims. In a balanced and fair pursuit of the right answer, we would suspend any presuppositions and establish which claim has the best supportive arguments and can most reasonably seen to be true. This is not a level playing field, though. All three of these positions must acknowledge that human beings are actively being destroyed every day all over the world in the name of progress and medical advancement. That people are already doing this often confuses the proponents of this research into believing that those of us who hold to position (3) have an extraordinary burden of proof on us to make them cease a commonly embraced practice. That is simply not the case. The willingness of people to engage in unethical and immoral behavior without philosophic and moral reflection does not validate the unsupported presuppositions that embryos do not morally matter. It merely demonstrates something about the nature of competitive science.
Next we will start with statement (1).