Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Burning Research Lab, Part 4,999,999 [SK]

Defenders of Destructive Embryo Research never tire of the following dilemma, which they think kills the pro-life case against ESCR. The alleged dilemma goes like this: Suppose a research lab is on fire. Whom should you save: a vial full of frozen embryos or a newborn? Ellen Goodman is famous for this question and she's banking that our moral intuitions will drive us to choose the newborn, thus proving we don’t really think the embryo is human after all.

Melinda Penner nails the primary reason the example fails: It proves absolutely nothing. She writes:

The only reason it's a dilemma is because it pits the value of both against each other. A dilemma is a difficult choice pitting competing values against one another. It wouldn't be a dilemma if there weren't two valuable things at stake. Something valuable is going to be lost with either choice. So the fact that it's a dilemma assumes the value of the embryos, otherwise it would be easy.

I'd probably grab the baby, assuming it was as easy to grab as the embryos, only because of it's viability to survive since the embryos need to remain frozen. After all, the point of saving someone is survival. The embryos are unlikely to survive the rescue in any case because they require strict conditions that probably can't be found in such an emergency. The baby will survive with easily provided help.

Now new variable could be introduced to the dilemma that change that survival calculation - a lab nearby could keep the embryos in their optimum condition, the baby has a terminal disease, etc. There are circumstances where I'd choose the embryos. But it's that issue of survival that determines the choice, not that deep down I think one is really more valuable than the other one. So the dilemma just doesn't prove anything.

I'd also probably save a 30-year-old gall bladder patient over someone hooked up to a respirator from a hospital fire for the same reason, but that doesn't mean one is more valuable than the other. (Emph. added)

There are other problems with Goodman's case. Here's what I said for an upcoming publication:

First, how does choosing to save one human being over another prove the one left behind is not human? Given a choice between saving my daughter and a building full of other people, I would save my own kid. Would that prove the others were not human beings?

Second, the debate over embryonic stem cell research is not about choosing who we’re going to save—as in the case of the burning lab. It's about who we're going to deliberately kill to benefit us. Saving my own kid first is permissible. Shooting those left behind is not, even if it would increase my chances of escape.

Third, moral intuitions are important but they are not infallible. We must examine them in light of reason. A little over a century ago, many Whites thought it unthinkable that anyone would consider Black slaves human beings. Hadley Arkes recounts one such example from chapter 32 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck contrives a story to explain to Aunt Sally his late arrival by boat:

“We blowed out a cylinder head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Notice it’s simply assumed the black man is not one of us. Thus, it’s no stretch to imagine a proponent of slavery putting the following challenge to a northern abolitionist: “Your barn is burning. You have a choice of saving a Negro slave or a white schoolboy. Which would you choose?” If a majority of abolitionists leave the black kid behind, does that change the kind of thing he is or, more to the point, justify us killing him to get the white kid out?
Ramesh Ponnuru demonstrates just how crazy the alleged research dilemma really is with the following considerations:

If I were in a burning building and in one room was a neighbor's three-week old triplets and in another was your own nine-year old daughter, and I only had time to get into and out of one room safely, who would I rescue?

If I were in a burning building and in one room was the healthy mother of four small children who were utterly dependent on her, and in another were two patients in the final stages of terminal cancer, who would I rescue?

If I were in a burning building and in one room was a research scientist who was making great strides towards a cure for Alzheimer's and in another room were four heroin addicted fifty-eight year old men who move in and out of the penal system and will likely do so for the rest of their lives, who would I rescue?

If I were in a burning building and in one room was a five-year old child and in another were seven people in comas, who would I rescue?

If I were in a burning building and in one room was a five-year-old child and in another were two older women suffering from advanced cases of Parkinson's disease, who would I rescue?

If I were in a burning building and in one room were five men and in another were three pregnant women, who would I rescue?

I could go on.

Answers to any of these questions do not justify actually killing anybody or treating anybody as unequal to anybody else precisely in respect to basic human dignity and the right to life (i.e., the right not to be killed or have one's life used as a mere means to benefit others). In all of these cases, there is no question of my actually killing anyone. The question would be whether I was showing unfair favoritism toward some over others. In answering that question, all kind of things become relevant that would not be relevant to a decision on whther to kill: family ties, the life prospects of the potential rescued beings, the suffering they would undergo if not rescued, etc. (Emp. added)


  1. "First, how does choosing to save one human being over another prove the one left behind is not human?"

    Is E. Goodman really trying to use the dilemma to show that embryo's are not human? I agree that this would be silly. But surely the dilemma is instructive in other, more obvious ways.

    Btw, what's the policy on comment moderation and approval here? I won't bother writing out comments if you guys are arbitrary here.

  2. Yes, Kazimir, Goodman is using the dilemma to try and show that belief in the humanity of the embryo is counterintuitive. It fails for the reasons we highlight.

    You say her proposed dilemma is instructive in other, more obvious ways.

    How so? If the only reason there's a dilemma at all is that two sets of valuable human beings are involved (the newborn and the embryos), how is her point "instructive" other than to demonstrate that it doesn't prove what she wants it to?

  3. Let's grant that the embryo is human. Let's even grant that the human embryo is a human being.

    Suppose there are two burning buildings in opposite directions. Since the buildings are far apart, you have time to save the occupants of only one of the burning buildings. One building has five occupants and the other has only one occupant. Other things being equal, most sane people would judge that you ought to save the five and let one perish, rather than vice versa. I will assume that this judgment is correct.

    The "other things being equal" clause is quite important. Our judgments might change (notice I only say "might") if some of the occupants happen to be terminally ill, or if they are evil dictators, or if they are responsible for setting the fire, or if they are related to us, or if they have three young children, etc, etc. Call the features which should change (or at least affect) our judgments "relevant features."

    There are some features, however, that are clearly not relevant. The hair color, height, or shoe size of the human beings involved generally shouldn't enter into our consideration of whom to save.

    But what do we say about the following feature: whether or not the human beings involved are embryos? Whether or not this feature is relevant (in the sense defined above) is a question that the "burning research lab" case might help us to explore.

    Those who hold that the feature is not relevant should say that we ought to rescue the five embryos and let the newborn die.

    If we reject the judgment that we ought to rescue the five embryos and let the newborn die, this pressures us to conclude that embryo-hood is a relevant feature. But if embryo-hood is a relevant feature here, it opens the door to the possibility that embryo-hood is a relevant feature in our other decisions. That is, we should not just assume that we should regard the lives of embryos as if they were just like the lives of newborns (contrary to some of the pro-life rhetoric).

    (Note: we should of course be careful to "equalize the cases", in order to control for other factors--such as the pain that the newborn might experience, or the grief of the newborn's parents.)

    Again I will ask: what is the policy on comment moderation and approval here? If indeed you contend “that the pro-life message can compete in the marketplace of ideas,” then let’s just see how it goes. I challenge you to stand by your words. (As it is, this blog doesn’t appear to getting very much traffic. Disabling censorship might help.)

  4. Kazimir,
    Nice try, but we don't censor comments that disagree, unless there is a compelling reason to do so for other reasons (profanity, certain trolls who try to embed our site with bugs, or repeated challenges that I debate so and so in a public forum to prove my worth., etc.) For you to suggest we do censor simply because people disagree is a joke.

    As for your claim about the relevance of Goodman's example, everything you brought up is a question of fairness (is it right to show favortism saving one person over another) and not a question about the humanity of the parties involved.

    Please stick to that question. In other words, how does Goodman's example prove the embryos in question are not human?

    That's what you need to answer.

  5. Kazimir,
    You are herby censored. Come back when you stop calling names.

  6. Scott's absolutely right about how Goodman is not analogous to the ESCR debate.

    However, even if I as a pro-lifer, were to rescue, the infant instead of the frozen embryos *because* they are embryos, that doesn't make me inconsistent.

    Frozen embryos have about a 40% chance of dying after being thawed and on average only about 20% of implanted frozen embryos develop into full term babies (according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the UK; numbers are similar here).

    In other words, those frozen embryos have a high chance of not even surviving the thawing and implantation process (even the process of taking them out of the lab would threaten their survival).

    This does not mean I'm saying people with shorter lifespans are less valuable than ones with longer ones.

    But by saving the infant, I would only be practicing a form of triage: Acknowledging that I'd like to save two groups of people but that I have limited resources (in this case time) to save both. Doing my best to calculate who has a better chance of survival, I would choose the born infant.

    Is "embryo-hood" a "relevant feature" in Goodman's situation? Of course it is. Does it mean we should allow ESCR? Of course not!

    Because just as we wouldn't experiment on dying soldiers who may not be treated in a triage situation on a battlefield, we shouldn't experiment on human embryos just because we couldn't save them from a burning building. "Embryo-hood" doesn't change personhood.

  7. You handled this scenario quite well. I'm also against ESCR but I too would save the child, and that's not inconsistent as you aptly argued. My problem is that I thought of a worse situation while reading this that I can't reconcile. What if for some reason I had to destroy the embryos to get to the child. Say the embryo cryo-freezer was in the way and I had to knock if over and mangle it etc.

    The point is I would have to actively kill human life to save the child. I would still do it though. I don't think I could live with myself if I left the crying child to burn because I couldn't actively take action that would likely destroy the embryos. This leaves an opening for an ESCR supporter to accuse me of hypocrisy because they too are killing embryos to save lives. There, it's people with diseases.

    I know this blog entry is ancient but I'm hoping you can respond. I'm a young guy still trying to establish my views and this has me really flummoxed.

  8. Any response to Aiden's question? I'd love to hear your thoughts, Scott.

  9. "First, how does choosing to save one human being over another prove the one left behind is not human? Given a choice between saving my daughter and a building full of other people, I would save my own kid. "
    Thats messed up dude!


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