Philosophy: August 2009 Archives

I've found the same gross misrepresentation of the pro-life position on stem cell research in several different places over the last few weeks. The most surprising place to find it is in a philosophical work in a chapter on the moral status of the fetus. Referring to the position that moral status begins at conception, Anne Fagot-Largeault says:

Since the 1980s, however, there have been extraordinary advances in scientific technology, and these have brought into sharp relief some of the drawbacks of the preceding position. In fact, the position leads to some unconscionable outcomes. On the one hand, it implies that an embryo that is, for example, the carrier of the genetic defect that results in Down syndrome has the same right to live as a non-carrier. On the other, the view entails that we must not use embryonic research in order to strive to eliminate such maladies as Thalassemia -- to do so, according to this view, would entail choosing between the lesser of two evils. In general, this implies a very tragic conception of the moral life, namely that whenever humans substitute their choices for those of God, they can only make matters worse.

Nowadays, this position has lost much of its force. With the explosion of stem cell research, there are so very many cells that have embryonic potential that the supposed natural organic distinction that was once relied upon has crumbled under its own weight. The claim that stem cells have an enigmatic ontological status itself now seems enigmatic. [Fagot-Largeault, "The Fetus in Perspective: The Moral and the Legal" in Laurence Thomas, ed., Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, p.117.]

What seems enigmatic to me is why anyone would think the pro-life view on stem cells is that stem cells themselves have any moral status. If you stuck a stem cell in a woman's uterus, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for it to implant itself and begin developing. You have to alter a stem cell to make it an embryo for that capability to develop, just as you have to alter an egg by fertilizing it or turning it into a clone to give it that potential. No one thinks stem cells themselves have any special status. The only opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that acquiring the stem cells involves killing an embryo. It's not that there's anything special about the stem cells that should lead us to protect them. It's that the embryos should have protection as human beings. Stem cells can be acquired in other ways, and no one objects to those ways. It's hard to exaggerate how unfair it is to the pro-life view on stem cells to claim that anyone assigns some enigmatic status to stem cells themselves or that the embryonic potential of stem cells somehow undermines the distinction between what counts as an organism and what doesn't. There's no scientific reason to support the confusion of (a) stem cells that have potential to become embryos and (b) embryos themselves.

This isn't the first time I've seen this ridiculous portrayal of the pro-life position. I've seen it several times now, but it's pretty disturbing to find it in an academic paper in a philosophy textbook. The author isn't actually a trained philosopher. She's a biologist. But that's no excuse. biologists should be aware of the positions they're writing in response to if they're going to publish essays in philosophy textbooks arguing philosophically against those positions. That I've seen the very same argument in unrelated places suggests to me that perhaps there's a more widespread misconception going around among those who favor killing embryos for the greater good of people who weren't killed at the embryonic stage.

It's hard for me to resist commenting, while I've got the above quote in front of me, on her line about an embryo with the genetic defect leading to Down syndrome and an embryo without such a defect. It's hard to see how it's unconscionable to think those two embryos have the same moral status. It's hard even to see how it's conscionable to think the two embryos have a different moral status. Even those who immorally think it's perfectly all right to abort a fetus purely because it has Down syndrome (a view that a lot of pro-choicers think is horrific, I should add) do not justify such an argument on the view that such a fetus has less moral status than any other fetus. They justify it based on compassion for the fetus that, if they abort it, will never have the supposedly-awful life that they project Down syndrome people to have. There's never any suggestion of the fetus itself having less right to life. It's that view that I find unconscionable, and my reasons for finding it unconscionable make as much sense even on pro-choice premises.

There's one other argument in the quoted passage that makes no sense to me. A lot of people think there are some things that are wrong enough that it requires a huge amount of good being at stake to overcome the moral resistance to doing it so that it would be potentially all right. Killing a human being is one of these. On pro-life principles, it's not going to be easy to get around this problem for policies that lead to killing a lot of human beings whose existence only occurred in order to kill then, in order generate lines of stem cells that have some undefined possibility of leading to some good medical treatments if they can get around the tumor problem and if the more promising stem cell methods without the moral problems doesn't get there soon. That's a pretty clear moral argument, one that I admit involves controversial premises, but none of those premises involves a distinction between (a) making choices and (b) refraining from making choices so that God's can occur instead. The important distinction in the pro-life argument about embryos is that the moral prohibition on killing human life doesn't get easily overcome even if there's a great potential for good that comes from it, as anyone outraged at Joseph Mengele's research could attest to. It's not that making any old choice between two evils should lead to inaction, as if inaction means we don't interfere with God but action means we do. It's that doing some things would be so bad that even good consequences wouldn't be enough to overcome the moral wrongness of the action. You can only conclude that it's opposed to what God wants once you establish its moral wrongness. That's not part of the argument at all. It's the implication of the conclusion of the argument.

I'm always trying to keep my students' textbook prices down. Here are some of the lower-priced books I've found. I'd be glad to hear any other suggestions any other philosophy instructors have found helpful.

For the ancient and medieval historical intro class that I've taught a number of times, there have been two books that I've liked. I had settled into Julia Annas' Voices of Ancient
Philosophy
at one point, since it organized the material by topics (which is arguably better suited for an intro class in some ways than working through the material chronologically, which admittedly does have other advantages), and I love a number of her more idiosyncratic choices of texts. Amazon sells it for $52, though, and I still had to provide some medieval sources. The college bookstore always jacks the price up noticeably above list price, too. I've used Penguin's edition of Augustine's City of God, and I've tried a few different Aquinas anthologies, one from Oxford World Classics and the other from Hackett (Aquinas: A Summary of Philosophy). Along the way, I discovered Nicholas Smith's (et.al.) Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary, which contains a pretty large amount of material for only $35.

I should say that the best inexpensive texts for historical sources are from Hackett, Penguin, and Oxford World Classics. The two things I look for are readability (at least in intro courses) and whether they include marginal page numbers and such markers, since some of the texts for ancient and medieval sources don't, and it's much harder to find a passage if you don't have those. I've looked at Amazon's preview function to compare translations for a number of these books. Sometimes one translation is much harder to introductory students to grasp.

For early modern texts, I usually use Jonathan Bennett's online translations. Those are free, and they're much more readable than anything you can buy. For an advanced history of philosophy class, I might hesitate to use these, although I'd probably do it for a 300-level survey. I don't hesitate at all with intro courses.

Other books I've used include Greg Ganssle's Thinking About God, which is an excellent introduction to philosophy of religion. It's the most readable introductory book I've ever seen. It's fun and funny. But it seriously looks at the issues, and while I don't agree with Ganssle on every point I think he's especially fair on some pretty controversial questions.

Ted Sider and Earl Conner have put together an introductory-level metaphysics book called Riddles of Existence. I think Ted Sider's chapters are better-suited to an introductory class. Conee's are generally harder and often on more obscure topics. In a few places in Conee's God chapter, I found myself wondering if he'd even looked at the literature on these questions, since the objections he were presenting were not just easily handled but known to have been dealt with by those familiar with the philosophy of religion literature. (This is a disturbingly-common trend among specialists in other fields who throw philosophy of religion into their intro works on more general topics. James Rachels had the same problem with divine command theory and natural law theory in his intro to ethics, which I've nonetheless used a number of times. The new editions edited by Stuart Rachels have improved in some ways but not at all in that aspect.)

Speaking of ethics, I have trouble using the Rachels book that I previously liked to use. It's gotten too expensive without getting any longer. I remember when it was $35 for the same content, and I was shocked to discover a few years later (after ordering it for my class) that it had jumped to about $50. I don't think I've used it since then. Now it's more like $70. It's not much longer than the Sider/Conee book, but the price difference is huge. For ethical theory, my favorite book that costs very little is an anthology edited by Louis Pojman for Hackett. Last I knew, it was about $20 for a book most publishers would probably charge at least $50 for. The title is Moral Philosophy: A Reader.

I haven't had a chance to teach applied ethics inexpensively except when I've picked a couple topics and ordered books focusing on those. The typical anthologies are far too much money for me to want to have students use them, but sometimes I've decided that it's easier to use one huge textbook than to have them buy several smaller books on other topics, which could add up to too much if I want sufficient variety of topics.

Prometheus Books has a cheap but fairly comprehensive anthology on abortion edited by Baird and Rosenkrantz. It's not as good as the similar volume edited by Pojman and Francis Beckwith, but the price difference is large enough that I'd use the Prometheus. Prometheus also has a low-priced anthology of articles on the philosophy of sex and love. There are a few volumes you can get on that topic, but theirs costs the least. I've occasionally used other books that don't cost too much, but there aren't any that stand out in my mind as particularly compelling for repeated use. I did recently come across two low-priced anthologies that I haven't had a chance to look at, but I might consider them for future classes. One is Laurence Thomas' Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, and the other is Andrew Cohen and Christopher Wellman's Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. I'm curious if anyone has had a chance to look at these and offer advice about their suitability for an intro ethics class or a 300-level applied ethics class.

One other source that I like is Hackett's dialogues. They are especially helpful in an introductory class. My first philosophy class as an undergrad used the free will one by Clifford Williams, and I've used that in my own teaching. The two that I most use are Jay Rosenberg's Three Conversations on Knowing and John Perry's on personal identity and
immortality. I haven't spent any time in their others, but I know there's also one by Perry on the problem of evil (or maybe on theistic arguments for and against) and one by Rocco Gennaro on philosophy of mind.

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