Potentiality Principle Strikes Again

Someone asked,

OK, I’ll play, but only because I’m curious. What is the ethical problem with using embryonic stem cells from fertalized eggs that are being thrown away from a fertility clinic? They are other wise going to be thrown away or disposed of, so why not put them to use?

What I get confused with is how people are against that particular use, yet aren’t against the fertility clinic itself, which outside the scope of this argument is throwing away fertalized eggs…aka “murder” to the extremists.

Now granted, there are plenty of other ways to use embryonic stem cells as well, but weve completely killed on good use but claiming all uses are bad.

So this person responded,

What is the ethical problem with executing all the people in jail for life terms? They are otherwise going to die in jail anyways.

What is the ethical problem with using said prisoners in medical research when they are going be die anyways? They are otherwise going to be executed anyways.

Having looked upon those rationalizations look again at your arguement.

Typical Slashdot–fine, I’ll bite. You guys don’t read much actual Philosophy, do you? Makes it kind of hard to analyze Ethics if you’ve only done it from the comfort of the omniscient armchair.

Embryos being disposed of and prisoners who are given life terms being killed early are two very, very different things.

The main argument trumpeted by people against embryonic stem cell research is that embryos are worthy of “being saved,” which is to say, they have “moral value.” These same people, to be consistent, have to be against forms of very early abortion and even some forms (if not all forms) of contraception.

The basic thing that vexes these people is that they have never studied the potentiality principle. They think the mere fact that an embryo has the potential to become a human being gives it moral value, makes it “worthy of being saved.” This is because they know human beings have moral value, and so conflate “a thing with potential to be something of moral value” with “a thing that has moral value.” However, this argument is spurious, as I’ll try to show.

For one thing, many things have the potential (i.e., have some causal relationship) to the creation of a healthy infant child. As someone else once suggested to me, one such thing is a glance of flirtation toward a fertile young woman. From that glance, there exists the potential for intercourse; from that intercourse, the potential of conception; from that conception, the potential of a human child in the form of an embryo.

If that example seems too cooked up, think about miscarriages. Hundreds of thousands of “babies” die from miscarriages every year. So, since that constitutes an essential mass death of a significant portion of the human “population,” shouldn’t we be devoting massive scientific research dollars to stopping miscarriages?

The reason both these things seem absurd is because saying that embryos have moral value is completely arbitrary. Harm cannot be done to embryos in the same way harm cannot be done to chairs or rocks. The chair or rock doesn’t have a hope, an aspiration, or a direction which is thwarted by the said harm. The rock or chair doesn’t care about the said harm. The crux of the matter is, the rock or chair isn’t conscious, and that’s why they have no moral value.

The only people who might care about the rock or chair’s harm is the owner of the said rock or chair. But that is only due to a relational property between the owner and his objects, and hasn’t a thing to do with morality. (For example, when considering whether humans have the right to harm other humans, it serves no one to say, “Okay, but what if the person harmed were your mother?” Introducing the familial relationship simply distorts the inherent morality of a thing, since it makes the decision relational, based on other notions such as loyalty to one’s family, etc.)

The reason we see harms to dogs or cows as worse than harms to chairs is because we know that dogs or cows can a) experience pain, b) in dying or being severely harmed, be deprived of their right to continue the life they were already living. Chairs experience no pain, conceive of no harm, and have no life of which to be deprived.

One can make an argument for defending the late-term fetus (which may be conscious) from abortion, but preventing the embryo from use in scientific research based on the idea that the embryo is a “human life” is, morally speaking, quite unsound. This is because embryos have no moral value of their own. They are things which may, one day, become things of moral value, but that does not mean they are morally valuable now.

To take to your prisoner example, human beings have moral value even if they are savage criminals sentenced to life imprisonment. This is because they are conscious human beings who still have a right to life within our moral framework. Using them from scientific research sets a moral example that humans, in general, are usable in harmful scientific research, since the fact that this is a prisoner does not mean that this person has no moral value at all. Prisoners are not lacking in moral value, even if the individual’s morality might be bad.

This thoroughly shows the distorted logic of the parent poster, but I’d like to go on for one moment about yet another oversight in this argument. What’s funny about people who are against embryonic stem cell research based on the potentiality principle is that they often don’t realize that even the potentiality principle may not be able to help them.

Embryos are simply configurations of human cells, with genetic code to eventually become a human fetus, and, from there, a human child. But the embryo cannot make this journey without the support of a host mother’s biological system, and thus that biological system is just as accountable for the potentiality of the fetus as the embryo is (perhaps moreso). Once the embryo is removed from the mother, there exists no potential for this combination-system to produce a fetus: therefore, the embryo even lacks the said potentiality. In the end, embryos outside the mother’s system are like any other configuration of cells, and thus definitely do not have any moral value, even if you don’t buy my argument above.

To conclude, embryos have no inherent moral value. They only have moral value if you believe potential to have moral value gives something moral value, which I believe to be a kind of circular argument and a conflation of ideas. The example of embryos becomes even more difficult to defend when potentiality is removed. I have tried to show that it can be, and thus the position granting moral value to embryos is quite difficult to argue even for believers in the moral power of potentiality.

UPDATE: /. moderators liked my little piece of analysis above, and I got some nice responses. (“I just wanted to say that was one of the most intelligent and well thought out posts I have ever read on Slashdot. I truly enjoyed reading it and now I am even considering getting an [Intro. to Philosophy] type book to read” and “I rarely post on slashdot, but i just wanted to agree with zbode and thank you for one of the only ‘read more’ comments that i’ve read in its [entirety]. Very well done.”) This despite the fact that in the original post, I spelled “principle” as “principal” (what got into me?) and left out a word in a critical concluding sentence 😉

Nonetheless, I like the responses I got. One person pointed out that reading Philosophy is exactly commenting from the armchair. Well, not exactly. Philosophy, it’s true, doesn’t have much “action” associated with it, and is mostly thought, but when one says you’re an “armchair philosopher”, it means you just have opinions about philosophy without ever having “done” philosophy. In other words, you just perpetuate misleading preconceived notions. At least, that’s what I meant by it. Philosophy is a way of understanding arguments in terms of inherent properties to those arguments, and in terms of soundness and validity. People who shoot about talking about embryonic stem cell research as being “immoral” without a justification other than “God told me” are being lazy, armchair Philosophers.

the mere fact that an embryo has the potential to become a human being

There’s your mistake… I think those on the other side of the fence treat an embryo as a human being. Assume this other sider believes in a “soul”, and it is this “soul” that is the defining mark of a human being. I really can’t see any point for the soul to come into existence except at the moment the egg is fertilized. Though perhaps I have misunderstood those on the other side.

No, I think he did understand those on the other side. They do think humans have souls, which is an argument even I can understand, since I’ve studied it and the implications of not having a soul. But I don’t think anyone, not even Christians, can tell me that whether a thing might be connected with a soul tells me how I should treat it in this, physical world. There is simply no grounding for that. Furthermore, I don’t know how one is to know that fertilization is when the human being gets a soul. I think Christians for the most part used to believe that souls came at birth, not fertilization. Otherwise miscarriages means the embryo’s soul goes to hell, due to original sin, which doesn’t seem right.

“To conclude, embryos have no inherent moral value. They only have moral value if you believe potential to have moral value gives something moral value, which I believe to be a kind of circular argument and a conflation of ideas.”

Which would be a great argument if you were debating with a rational, scientific person. However, most of the objections come from people who have a religious orientation and some level of belief about association of a “soul” to the embryo (potential child). Miscarriage (many of which happen before the pregnancy is even evident) is a “natural” event and therefore within the realm of God. As in, you might not like it, but it’s in God’s plan and so it is acceptable. Deliberately creating and harvesting the embryos is not natural and not God endorsed.

Yea, I could see people holding this view, it just really is beyond me how they could. That’s not God’s will? Well, neither is giving poor, homeless people money to survive with. “It’s God’s will for the poor guy to die, God gave him that lot in life.” And for that matter, neither is amniocentisis or any other medical method God’s will. This argument isn’t very appealing to me. It sends you back to the stone age.

We don’t know what God endorses outside of the Scripture. God never mentioned embryos, therefore we can do what we want. “Guessing” what God endorses within your religious framework is nothing more than making moral policy based on your own whim. If you believe in the Scripture as the Word of God, then, by God, you better stick to the Scripture. If you don’t believe the Scripture is the end-all source of all your decisions, then you better not speak about God’s will, because you obviously haven’t an idea what God’s will is (since you are unable to communicate with him or witness any of his actions), and so you’re making it up.

One Response to “Potentiality Principle Strikes Again”

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