Ethics: 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.)

One of the most irksome things about the fascination in cable news with certain missing persons cases is that virtually all of the cases they pay any attention to are of blond, white girls or young women, and they pay absolutely no attention to the vast majority of missing persons cases, and yet the few they can find with an attractive blond girl will get hours a day for months. It's such a clear example of a kind of white racism that isn't what most white people think of when they hear the word 'racism'. White people think of negative, overt, conscious attitudes against non-whites when they hear that word. This is clearly not that, and yet there's no way it's not a kind of racism.

In light of that, see this interesting poster campaign. [hat tip: Racialicious]

A janitor at the University of Indiana at Purdue is in their continuing education program, trying to improve his lot in life on the side. He reads during his break time. One book he reads is called Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. It's not exactly favorable to the KKK, but it does include their name in the title.

Somehow the university thought it was ok to ban him from reading this book during his breaks [hat tip: David Bernstein], because there were black people around him, and they were offended that the book mentions the KKK. Here is the statement from the affirmative action office on why this counts as racial harassment:

"You demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your coworkers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers."

First of all, how could someone possibly think that it's immoral to read a book that's highly critical of the KKK while in the presence of a black person? Second, it's not as if he was reading it aloud. All they had any access to was the fact that he was reading it. Third, even if it's immoral to read something in the presence of someone else, how does that give the university a good reason to ban it. It's not as if he was waving the book around and saying anything to anyone else about it. He merely had the book and was reading it. Fourth, why would they want to give the appearance that they're hindering a janitor, who does some of the dirtiest jobs at the university, from getting his education? It doesn't reflect all that well on them. Fifth, they accuse him of being insensitive and expressing disdain for his co-workers, when he's the one who tried to explain the book's content to several people who refused to listen to him and insisted that anything even remotely discussing the KKK is offensive. How backwards is that?

Well, they recanted while pretending to clarify their position. Some higher-up must have realized how silly the whole thing was.

I don't spend a lot of time harping on this point, but this is a pretty good instance of something I've tried to motivate a few times before. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement in how sensitive white people are to black people's experiences, and a lot of offense can occur that isn't intended. Nevertheless, it only hurts that cause to insist on offense over stupid things like this. The guy was reading a book whose very title shows that it's not in support of the KKK. It's not a good idea to try to get your employer to ban someone from becoming educated about the realities of race relations, something white people certainly need more of.

John McWhorter's stuff on victimology is often dismissed among those on the left who recognize real racial problems (not that McWhorter ever denies those, of course). But he's surely right that there's a culture of complaint about relatively trivial offenses and in many cases immoral complaints about non-offenses like this one. This kind of reaction only fosters the attitude among many on the right that racial problems are caused by black (or in general non-white) people who won't learn to get over it, because it confirms that at least in some cases there's some truth to that.


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