Monday, March 9, 2009

Embryonic Souls and Moral Standing

You gotta love the religious argument pretending not to be a religious argument.
Princeton University politics professor Robert George, a Catholic and another member of the Bush-era Council on Bioethics, said the moral argument over embryonic stem cell research is not rooted in religion but in ethics and equality. He said research shows that an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development, so we have to ask ourselves whether all human life should be treated equally, with dignity and respect.
Wait, what? How do we read the claim that "research shows that an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development"? Let's look at the claim: "embryo"="human being in its earliest form of development." Well, uhm, duh. If we're talking about human embryos, and we agree with the (to my knowledge uncontested) research that humans develop from human embryos, I suppose this is mostly right. Of course it is also ambiguous and clearly unfit--at least as it stands--as a premise in a moral argument for the moral considerability of embryos.

1: The statement might be claiming that an embryo is the earliest form of development of a human being. This may, however, be viewed as arbitrary: Why is the embryo the earliest form? Why not sperm and ova?

2: If we take the statement literally, however, it is claiming that a human embryo is a human being, though one in its earliest stage of development, just as infants are human beings in an earlier stage of development than tenured professors. This reading seems to me to resolve the arbitrariness problem above. But it obviously fails as a premise for any moral argument:

(a) If "human being" is meant simply in some biological sense of having the right sort of genetic make-up, no moral conclusions can follow from the true premise that a human embryo has human genes. (Unless having human genes guarantees possession of a soul, but George rules out this reading.)

(b) If the claim is one of potentiality, that a human embryo can, under appropriate conditions, develop into a human to whom we have moral obligations, then it gives in itself no reason why embryos should have the same moral status as the humans into which they will develop--if anything, it seems to support the opposite conclusion.

(c) If, finally, the claim is that human embryos are human beings in the sense of having the moral standing properly accorded to, say, adult human beings, it is obviously question-begging as a premise in the argument that embryos have the same moral standing as adult human beings.
"I don't think the question has anything to do with religion or pulling out our microscope and trying to find souls," George said. "We live in a pluralistic society where some people believe there are no such things as souls. Does that mean we should not have moral objections to killing 17-year-old adolescents?"
I can't imagine how this is relevant. Obviously if the only reason human beings have moral standing is that they have souls, it will follow that anyone who does not believe in souls has no reason not to kill 17-year-olds. Fortunately, soul-ownership is not the reason why killing people is wrong. (I am still not entirely sure how it could be any kind of moral reason in the first place.) The question, then, is whether our moral reasons for not harming other human beings can be extended without degradation of meaning or moral force to embryos. But that question obviously cannot be resolved by simply stipulating that embryos are human beings in the relevant sense, in the way that 17-year-olds clearly are human beings in the relevant sense. So if you don't assume from the outset that moral considerability depends on having a soul and that, furthermore, embryos have souls, the supposedly research-based claim that "an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development" is hardly helpful.