Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stem Cells, Redux: The Art of the Silly Analogy; Over-Extended Arguments

I was accused of using a "sloppy parallel" in my last post. I believe I used a silly or ridiculous parallel, but I don't believe it was sloppy. To explain what I mean, I have to explain how parallels work in moral discussions. Towards that goal, this became far less of a response to the concerns of the last post, and far more a discussion of why I discuss ethics in the peculiar ways I do, using the last post as a backdrop. In fair warning, it is quite long, so reader beware. Update: Relevant links have been added since the original posting.

Part I: The Art of the Silly Analogy

Morality is an interesting subject for discussion. Answers in ethics are hard to verify, we cannot simply "check the math." Even so, we still have incredibly strong intuitions that the problems of ethics are generalizable.

By "generalizable," we mean that solutions to one ethical problem help us solve others. When I decide whether or not to kick someone out of my lifeboat to keep it from capsizing, that seems to be a similar sort of problem faced by spelunkers trapped in a cave wondering whether or not they should kill and eat one of their own until a rescue tunnel can be completed. When we know whether or not it is morally permissible to lie to Nazis at your doorstep asking for the man you are hiding in your basement, we know something about whether or not it is acceptable to lie to an abusive husband who knocks on your door and is seeking his wife who you know has fled to a halfway house down the street.

Because of this property of moral theory, because its problems lend to general solutions, the moral analogy is a profoundly useful tool in moral discussions.

The danger of moral analogies is that such analogies sometimes obscure relevant moral details.

If I say to you that killing your neighbor is wrong, and then try to generalize to say that killing a prisoner is wrong, a pro-death penalty advocate would rightly interject that his neighbor is an innocent, while a criminal is not. (I believe there are other grounds upon which to attack capital punishment, but the analysis in this analogy is, at best, incomplete.)

The quirky/fanciful/silly/absurd moral analogy is a special subset of moral analogies which also attempts to entertain. Partly these analogies are fun to read because they are incredibly ludicrous, but still somehow capture all the relevant moral details under discussion. Such moral analogies are the bread and butter of ethicist Judith Jarvis Thompson, and I have attempted to duplicate her style here, because I think it's a funny way to discuss ethics, and still gets the job done.

Such analogies can be attacked in one of two ways. The first way is to claim a disanalogy, the second involves fighting the conclusion within the analogy.

The first type of attack involves pointing out precisely where the analogy breaks down (it sometimes does), but resisting the temptation to simply stamp one's foot and say, "That analogy is clearly wrong, because it is wholly absurd."

Another path of attack is to say that even under the analogy, the moral conclusion would be other than the author intended. Judith Jarvis Thompson in one essay asks, if you were dying of a disease that could only be cured by the touch of Henry Fonda's (or Peter Fonda's, I forget) cool hand upon your fevered brow, would Mr. Fonda have a moral obligation to come to you with this cure? My answer, much to the disappointment of Thompson in that piece, is simply, "Yes, of course he would."

My analogy involved a choice between the blastocysts around the neck of a mad scientist, and the population of Eudora, and this choice symbolized the choice between engaging in stem cell research, or avoiding it. Perhaps this analogy breaks down because the population of Eudora would have their fates locked in stone in my analogy, perhaps it breaks down because we don't believe the scientist would have really implanted those blastocysts anyway. Perhaps your response is that it would be morally wrong to kill those blastocysts, because you simply believe that blastocysts have equal value to adult human lives. I believe each class of responses ultimately fails.

2) I find the discussions of stem cell ethics intellectually lazy, though I don't think willfully so, I don't consider anyone misinformed in this debate "evil."

One example of well intentioned intellectual laziness comes from Slate, via a link provided in the comments:
"Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject."

This is the sort of utterly careless reasoning that typifies mainstream thought about ethics. Let's examine it more closely.

The author is trying to say that embryos have special moral relevance. He does so by claiming two things about embryos, 1) embryos are "whole" people, not "parts." 2) (perhaps concluded from 1?) embryos are "subjects," not "objects."

Because blastocysts are "whole things," should they have greater moral weight than partial things? That sounds like absolute gibberish to me. The moral prohibition on destroying adult humans, or using them coercively in medical research, has nothing to do with the fact they are "complete individuals." An amputee is less complete than he was before the operation, but that does not make it suddenly more permissible to coerce him into medical research, that does not make his destruction no longer morally relevant.

Where did this whole/part reasoning even come from? Perhaps like so: "I can coercively experiment on human tissue, but not on human beings. Human tissue is only part of a human, where as human beings are whole humans. Therefore, it must be because tissue is only part of a complete human that makes these experiments morally acceptable."

This analysis is deeply misguided. Tissue doesn't have any history of experiences, rationality or susceptibility to pain. These are the sorts of items that makes destroying something, or coercive experimentation upon it, raise moral issues. Maybe that's not an exhaustive list, maybe some of those aren't as relevant as other factors, but the mere "being whole" is not the bright moral line the author thinks it is.

The second distinction permeates ethical thought post-Kant, despite being devoid of content. What does it mean to be a subject vs. an object? Well, in English, an object is at the end of a sentence, and a subject is at the beginning. I use the object, but the subject uses something else. But I can say that "The Bus took John to the store," or that "John rode the Bus to the store," and I don't believe one sentence is any *morally* different than the other.

Sometimes we mean something more specific by "object," we mean things like chairs and tables and hammers, while with "subject" we mean "other people." I can do things with objects I generally shouldn't do with people (sit on them, smash them, throw them across a room). But the reason I can do these things with objects has nothing to do with their "object-ness," it has to do with the fact that they have no experiences that are harmed by such treatment. If a hammer could feel pain and form memories, it would still be an "object," because it "has mass," but it would possess the moral weight of a moral "subject." If a man is born complete, but completely devoid of brain activity, such a man is not a "subject," under the moral use of the terms, because there is no answer to the question "What is it like to be this (encephalitic) man?"

Traditionally, in moral discussions, the subject/object distinction applies to the goals you have in the interaction. If you are "using" someone, or if you are "objectifying" them, then you have dropped any regard for how they feel, or what they are getting out of the exchange. But it is too easy a generalization to say that any time you stop considering how someone else feels in an interaction amounts to a grave moral wrong. Compare man who absent mindedly takes change from a clerk with a man who wonders with deep passion what it would feel like to get mugged as he takes your wallet. The former is not the villain of the piece, the latter not some saint.

The subject/object distinction causes far more confusion in ethical discussions than it effaces.

The Slate piece closes with a warning: "If you don't want to end up this way—dead to ethics and drifting wherever science takes you—you have to keep the dilemmas alive."

I would counter that if you engage in lazy moral thinking, like endorsing some part/whole line of moral relevance, then you are a far greater threat to society than those willing to discard hasty moral reasoning wherever they find it. Keeping false dilemmas alive is not some noble triumph.

Part II: The Over-Extended Argument

[T]he intentions of the pro-life crowd is to save unborn children who might make important contributions to future generations ...
I haven't heard the argument that "all additional humans are good.
In what way are the unborn children used in stem cell research, or even pending abortion, different from the unborn children who await if we all procreate more often? It is not in their potential for contributions to human society. If your goal is simply to encourage that potential, then your argument has very little to do with abortion or stem cell research.
"Assuming additional humans are good, cannot the relationship be other than directly proportional?"
Yes, it likely is. But any analysis of the value of new babies to society is not going to let you distinguish between the fetuses that the pro-lifers want to save and the teeming unconceived millions out there. If there is an argument that accomplishes what the pro-life crowd wants to accomplish, that argument must apply to fertilized eggs, but not to eggs that could potentially become fertilized but aren't currently, or it will fall subject to this class of attack.

Pro-choice arguments have a similar hurdle, over-reliance on properties like "rationality" make such arguments risk endorsing infanticide. The general point is that you must keep in mind the goal of the argument, and tailor the argument narrowly to meet that goal.

For the pro-lifer, the argument is that a certain class of potential humans should be born. That class (for the typical pro-lifer) includes fertilized eggs, but not humans who are not yet conceived. Arguments about the potential value of future human life risk falling into a trap of endorsing far more than the pro-lifer wishes, and falling into a reductio ad absurdam of implying that we should all procreate far more than we currently do.