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Praise for Our Own Russell Korobkin's New Book:

From the Pure Pedantry blog, written by Jake Young, an MD-PhD (Neuroscience) student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "I can summarize my opinion of this book in one sentence: if every policy-maker and politician responsible for stem cell law were forced to read this book the world would be noticeably better." Plus the "book is useful for bench scientists in addition to policy-makers." The review is considerably more detailed than that -- read it, or, better yet, read the book.

Sk (mail):
"The intuition that a blastocyst lacks the moral value of a person is vividly demonstrated with the following hypothetical: Imagine that a fire starts in a fertility clinic and you must choose between saving a Petri dish containing two blastocysts and a five-year-old child. Is there any question that you should (and would) save the child? The appropriate answer to the question is just as obvious if the blastocysts would be destroyed by the fire and the child only injured. The reason is that the child possesses not only human DNA but also such qualities as sentience, consciousness, emotions, the ability to interact with the environment, and the capacity to experience pain."

How about:

"The intuition that a NEWBORN INFANT lacks the moral value of a person is vividly demonstrated with the following hypothetical: Imagine that a fire starts in a fertility clinic and you must choose between saving a NEWBORN INFANT and a 55 YEAR OLD ADULT. Is there any question that you should (and would) save the ADULT? The appropriate answer to the question is just as obvious if the NEWBORN INFANT would be destroyed by the fire and the ADULT only injured. The reason is that the ADULT possesses not only human DNA but also such qualities as sentience (WHICH THE NEWBORN HAS IN ONLY A VERY PRIMITIVE FORM), consciousness (WHICH THE NEWBORN HAS IN ONLY A VERY PRIMITIVE FORM), emotions (WHCIH THE NEWBORN EITHER DOESN'T HAVE, OR ONLY IN VERY PRIMITIVE FORM), the ability to interact with the environment (WHICH THE NEWBORN HAS IN ONLY MINIMAL FORM, and the capacity to experience pain (WHICH, PRESUMABLY, THE NEWBORN HAS)."

It is not at all obvious that my rewritten hypothetical is correct, in spite of the fact that is uses essentially the same argument as the actual hypothetical.

I have no dog in the stem cell research fight, but if the whole book is of the same 'self-evident hypotheticals prove that religious values are wrong' strain, its overrated.

Sk
1.10.2008 9:36am
mrshl (www):
"It is not at all obvious that my rewritten hypothetical is correct."

Indeed. Your hypothetical doesn't ask about the moral worth of a blastocyst. Your hypothetical allows you to clumsily duck the question at issue.

So, again, you're there outside the fire...are you saving the blastocyst? Or the 5-year-old? Or the 55-year-old? Or some cells in a dish?
1.10.2008 10:20am
TruePath (aka logicnazi) (mail) (www):
Sk:

Like in all hypotheticals this one asks you to make reasonable interpretive assumptions, for instance that we are talking about a case where both entities would be destroyed. And in this case yes I do think it shows that people have a greater moral worth than blastocysts.

However, while I'm about as pro-choice as one can get (I believe in abortion at any point before birth) I don't find this a very compelling argument for any sort of choice/abortion/stem cell research aside from the rare cases where we would be substituting human death for blastocyst death on a near 1-1 basis.

For starters this merely shows that the actual value of a blastocyst is less than that of a raised educated person. It doesn't show anything about the inherent value of the two. Presumably one would also save an educated genius rather than a nobody b/c they have a greater positive impact on society even if you believe they have the same inherent value (save the genius to benefit others). Additionally this argument seems to really too directly on pure sentiment in ways that seem particularly prone to bias, i.e., we save the thing that talks and crys out in pain. Finally, so what if we accept that a blastocyst has less value than a human if it has any substantive fraction of that value our policy choices should be the pro-life ones.

I think a much better argument is the lack of any natural boundary between fertilized eggs, unfertilized eggs and other body cells. This suggests that any theory that picks out fertilization as a fundamental change in moral kind is flawed. Now I happen to take this pretty far and conclude that the primary reason murder is bad is that it makes people afraid they will be killed and makes others sad (note even killing homeless people tends to have negative effects on society and our perception of safety). However, obviously one doesn't need to go that far.
1.10.2008 12:56pm
Sk (mail):
TruePath-
I think we are actually arguing the same thing. I am personally (probably) pro-stem cell research-but that doesn't make the hypothetical any more compelling. You have basically expressed my reservations better than I did. Even though most (all?) of us agree that a human being has more 'moral worth' than a blastocyst, the hypothetical doesn't really prove it*, and has no impact whatsoever on the argument as to whether blastocysts should therefore be used for research.

Sk


*It doesn't prove it because moral values cannot be proven. Ultimately, moral values are simply believed-are simply a matter of 'faith.' (you can't 'prove' that murder is wrong. You simply, ulitimately, believe it to be so). This hypothetical 'proves' its argument no better than the Bible 'proves' its own.
1.10.2008 1:51pm
AK (mail):
Oh good, the fire-in-a-fertility-clinic scenario. Stem cell research advocates and pro-choicers really like this one. It's clever, but it doesn't prove what they want it to prove. As TruePath said, "this merely shows that the actual value of a blastocyst is less than that of a raised educated person. It doesn't show anything about the inherent value of the two." That is its weakness.

The rhetorical leap is breathtaking. The fact that we would choose to rescue one person over others in a hypothetical triage situation does not give us the right to kill the disfavored individuals.

There's a fire in your house. You can only save your child, or your wife and your father, and you choose to save your child. Your choice does not give you the right, today, to shoot your wife and father in the face.
1.10.2008 2:01pm
Thoughtful (mail):
I think it's quite likely that the intuition to save the child rather than the Petri dish is due to the scientific unlikeliness of both blastocysts (or either) being developed into viable fetuses and subsequently living human beings. In other words, the scenario merely demonstrates the truth of the old "Better one bird in the hand than two in the bush" saying.

Consider the same hypothetical with the following addendum: "There is no question in your mind that, should you succeed in removing the Petri dish from the fire, two healthy babies will subsequently be born." Is the proper action to take then still immediately obvious? It isn't to me, and I'm a firm advocate of both abortion and stem cell research, and an atheist.
1.10.2008 2:15pm
Thoughtful (mail):
AK: "There's a fire in your house. You can only save your child, or your wife and your father, and you choose to save your child. Your choice does not give you the right, today, to shoot your wife and father in the face."

Unless, of course, you're Dick Cheney.
1.10.2008 2:16pm
AK (mail):
I'm going to amend what I said about TruePath's comment a little bit. He said that "this merely shows that the actual value of a blastocyst is less than that of a raised educated person."

It doesn't show that, at least not objectively. Suppose my choice is between saving TruePath's mother or my mother. I'm choosing my mom. That doesn't mean that the "actual value" of TruePath's mother is less than mine. Suure, my mother is more valuable to me than TruePath's mother, but that doesn't tell us anyone about their relative objective worth.

Suppose my choice is between:
-Serena Williams and Tiger Woods;
-Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett;
-Gary Kasparov and Johnny Chan;
-Soulja Boy and Will Smith

Do my preferences affect the objective value of golf vs. tennis, atheist biologists vs. atheist philosophers, chess vs. poker, or cranking that vs. getting jiggy with it?
1.10.2008 2:25pm
mrshl (www):
Suppose I am a drunk driver who crashes into the clinic, setting it ablaze. 2,000 such blastocysts are destroyed in the ensuing fire.

How many counts of homicide should I be charged with?
1.10.2008 3:08pm