Philosophy: March 2008 Archives

Fetal Skin Cells

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Jay Watts, in the midst of saying a lot of other things, argues against using the skin cells from aborted fetuses for research. I'm not convinced that there's a strong pro-life argument against this practice, though. What follows is my comment on Jay's post:

I think we need to separate the following acts:

1. Taking skin from a dead human being in order to save thousands of lives.
2. Killing someone in order to save thousands of lives by using their skin.

There might be general moral disagreement over 2 among different ethical theories, but I don't think most views have problems with 1 unless they assume the libertarian premise that people's body parts shouldn't be used without permission, even if the person is dead. I generally share that premise when it comes to something on the level of whole organs, but I don't think it's a big deal if the government scrapes some skin off me without my permission after I die and then uses it for saving thousands of lives.

So what's different with abortion? The only difference I can think of is that these fetuses are being killed immorally, even if it's legal. But suppose it were even illegal. Once you allow what I allowed for in 1, it shouldn't matter if I happened to have been murdered or if I died of a disease in the hospital that no one was morally responsible for giving me. So why should it matter with aborted fetuses?

I'm not seeing a strong pro-life argument against this except maybe on consequentialist grounds, and that would only be because people might improperly draw the wrong conclusion from allowing this to the view that the killing itself was justified. But is that a good enough reason to avoid saving thousands of lives?

I wanted to write up a careful argument about this, but I've got enough things to blog about that take time that I'll just post this now with a question. A couple weeks ago Eugene Volokh pointed out a case where two lawyers' insistence on attorney-client privilege allowed someone to go to prison for 26 years. They knew their client had done it, but someone else was tried, and they couldn't bring the information forward by the ethical standards of their profession. It sounds as if they would have come forward if it had meant saving his life but not in the case of a very long time in prison.

Is this a case where the prevailing ethical norm is just wrong? Is attorney-client privilege isn't worth allowing someone to go to jail for 26 years (as it turned out; it was a life sentence, but they didn't know if their client would even die before the innocent guy who was convicted, so it could have been the rest of his life for all they knew). Perhaps this is just a case where you have a moral obligation to break the ethical rule of the profession and take the consequences of disbarment. A lot of commenters on the post seem to think that, anyway. If so, it's a nice case of a very strong prohibition on something that nonetheless is not absolute. (Even on the view of these lawyers, there was at least one exception, the case of capital punishment. But if there are more exceptions, then I think it's a nice case of a difference of degree making an ethical difference.)

Rick Love and John Piper have reinvigorated the debate over whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians. See Justin Taylor's summary of the reasons for the Piper position. I'm of course on record taking the opposite view (see here), but in contributing to the comments on Justin's post I ended up putting my reasoning in a different enough way that I wanted to post it here as well. What follows is a slightly modified version of my comment on Justin's post.

First, let me present an issue in the philosophy of language. There's some difference of opinion about how words acquire their reference, i.e. how it is that a word comes to refer to the thing that it does. The dominant view in philosophy of language today is that a word comes to refer to what it refers to because of an initial "baptism" that declares what it refers to, along with various processes that happen along its continued usage. But there's a causal chain back to the original "baptism".

The name "George W. Bush" refers to the guy who happens to be the current president because his parents gave him that name and continued to use it to refer to him without changing it, and he continued to use the name without changing it. Its reference is because of that causal chain back to when his parents declared it to be his name.

Now suppose someone comes along and enters into the causal chain, calling him George W. Bush and engaging in the normal process of using the name. But this person starts claiming that the guy called George W. Bush is a clone of the original and has only existed for a few years. That amounts to denying an essential property of George W. Bush, i.e. his origin. Someone can't be him without having that origin. Nonetheless, the person with the cloning theory successfully refers to the real George W. Bush, despite having a view that denies one of his essential properties. So it can't be that denying an essential property of a being means you're not referring to that being. Some claim that because one of God's essential properties, according to Christianity, is his existence in three persons, then someone who denies that element of God's nature must be talking about a different (and non-existent) being. Not so. That's not how language works.

Muslims use certain words to refer to the being they worship (to remain neutral at this point). The linguistic practice that involves those words referring to the being they worship traces back to the time of Muhammad, who wrote a series of Surahs that ended up becoming the Qur'an. In these writings, Muhammad claimed to have received them from an angel, and they spoke of the being worshiped by the Christians and Jews. The word 'Allah' was initially a description for a divine being in Arabic, not a name, although perhaps it now functions in a namelike way, much like 'God' in English. 'Allah' thus referred explicitly to the God that so far had been worshiped by Jews and Christians. Muhammad went on to say a whole bunch of things about God that Christians would deny, including some things that amount to denying some essential properties of God. Islam is a false religion that is worthless in terms of knowing God, according to Christian teaching, and the worship of this being under Islam does not count as genuine worship.

Nevertheless, it seems completely ludicrous to me to claim that this being that is falsely and ungenuinely worshiped by Muslims is not God. Muhammad intended to refer to the God long worshiped by Jews and Christians that Muhammad when he said all those false things about God. The being he misrepresented and twisted all sorts of things about is the God of the Bible. I don't know how the historical facts can get around that.

There is an issue of how a Christian should make this point. Perhaps Love didn't go far enough in distancing himself from how people might hear it. But that doesn't mean what he says is false.


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



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