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16.9.04

Utilitarian Stem Cells

Philocrites has a post up expressing concern about cloning and destroying embryos for stem cell research. He objects to the practice as being "utilitarian" and a "commodification" of human life. I agree that utilitarianism* would tend to support stem cell research, but I think Philocrites is wrong in explaining why.

His argument has two main premises. First is the idea that the embryos used in stem cell research are human life (albeit of a lesser category than that of adults). I'll accept this premise for the sake of argument, since without it the question is uninteresting. He is concerned to reconcile that with the Unitarian Universalist "covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person." As he sees it, stem cell research denies the second premise, at least with respect to embryos -- stem cell research is centrally concerned with the dignity and worth of people who suffer from Alzheimer's, etc. That may be commodification, if the incentive is financial. But it's not utilitarian.

I'm no expert in UU exegesis, and I suspect it's standard to take a deontological view of the "dignity and worth" principle. But something like "affirming and promoting the inherent dignity and worth of every person" is also the central axiom of utilitarian reasoning. Behind all the debate over happiness versus preference satisfaction is the idea that some metric of human well-being -- perhaps "dignity and worth" -- is the fundamental goal, and all action should be instrumental toward that goal. The real point at which Philocrites' view and that of a utilitarian would diverge is not whether to affirm the human dignity of the embryo, but how to deal with conflicts between affirming the dignities of different people.

The existence of advanced medical science forces us to answer a question about the conflicting interests of embryos and people suffering from disease. In simple terms, we can create and kill embryos to save sick people, or we can let sick people suffer in order to avoid creating and killing embryos. A deontological perspective on affirming dignity places a high importance on the do/let distinction -- it's more immoral to do something than to let it happen. We're morally prohibited from killing anyone no matter how many people we have to let die as a result. A utilitarian, on the other hand, would say that doing and letting amount to the same thing -- we have the power to cause either outcome, and the embryos or sick people are just as dead at the end. Without the strict lexical ordering of principles implied by the let/do distinction (ie, one side taking total precedence), the utilitarian has to make a tradeoff. My intuition is that the dignity and worth of the sick people would outweigh the dignity and worth of the embryos, but I haven't done any sort of detailed analysis on it. The basic point here, though, is that in a utilitarian system the dignity and worth of the embryos are not ignored, they're outweighed.

*Of course, he may be using "utilitarian" in a casual commonsense way, rather than in specific reference to the philosophical position of Bentham, Mill, Singer, etc., in which case this post has no dispute with Philocrites's.

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