The best argument for embryonic stem cell research, and its relation to nominalism

Here I’m going to give the best argument for embryonic stem cell research that I can think of. Keep in mind that stem cell research is something the Catholic Church, and all persons of goodwill, endorse and promote – it is only ‘embryonic’ stem cell research which is opposed precisely because the embryo is destroyed, and thus a human person is killed. Perhaps we could say that human person has been sacrificed in the name of science and medical progress. However, one would then be liable to confuse the case at hand with the classical moral question “can we kill Peter to save Paul” which would be deeply misleading. To date there are absolutely no medical advances which have come about by embryonic stem cell research – it doesn’t even show promise. All of the advances have been in adult stem cell research. The question has thus become “can we kill Peter to see what will happen?”  Yet, the United States government, for one, has seen fit to fund, and make a public ordeal about funding, embryonic stem cell research.  Given that there is no good medical argument for the preference of embryonic stem cell research, what good arguments could there be. In what follows I present a moral argument for embryonic stem cell research, and I will then argue two things: first, that we should be morally outraged at embryonic stem cell research, and second that it is the far removed progeny of nominalism.

The argument

  1. Any promotion of such things as abortion will greatly increase the quality of life overall of all in our society.
  2. Embryonic stem cell research tacitly promotes a disregard for the kind of human life which abortion also targets; thus embryonic stem cell research helps to promote abortion.
  3. Increasing the quality of life overall in our society is a morally good thing
  4. Embryonic stem cell research is a morally good thing

 

If this is the best argument for embryonic stem cell research, then we really should be morally outraged at the United States government under Obama – along with all of the doctors and scientists who have gone along with, or promoted, or participated in, embryonic stem cell research. This seems evident to me precisely because abortion is the killing of an innocent human person who really does intrinsically have a legal right to life. For somebody to argue to the contrary, they must entertain a very odd, and probably incoherent concept of a human person. Instead of believing that human personhood is defined by ending in simples (that is, some immaterial atom), that person must be willing to entertain some kind of ‘bundle’-theory. However, if a person says that personhood is defined by physical composition, then we can point out that there is not a single cell in their body which belonged to them a decade ago, and yet the person they identify as themselves existed a decade ago (for conversations with people over the age of 10). If people, alternatively, locate the root of personhood in the amalgam of memories and temperaments which characterize them, then what of the person who has amnesia – when Susie has amnesia, is she Susie anymore? Yes, she is – the whole medical diagnosis is predicated on the idea that she is Susie, since if she isn’t, then nothing is ‘wrong’ with her; Susie is just dead. If people say instead that we have a right to kill human beings so long as they feel no pain, and it doesn’t contribute to the overall pain to pleasure ratio (and perhaps that it must also contribute to the overall pleasure to pain ratio) then what of cannibals killing a homeless person who has no significant attachment to another human person (will not be missed) in that homeless man’s sleep? Thinking through these kinds of questions makes it clear that we all naturally entertain the belief that, upon analysis, human personhood must end in simples to satisfy our moral intuitions apprehended in our moral experience.

These thought experiments, however, do something very useful; they show us that in order to justify the logic of abortion, one must deny that human personhood is defined according to the soul (and immaterial simple atomic substance). This is the intellectual progeny of Nominalism – mereological nihilism is just an extreme form of Nominalism. To see this, we can ask ourselves the following question: “can the mereological nihilist believe in human persons if she can’t believe in chairs, dogs or planets?” Indeed, can the die-hard Nominalist believe in human persons? I am tempted to agree with the Nominalist when and where she says that inanimate objects do not themselves have ‘substances’ even though we can speak of them as ‘subjects’ related to predicates (because there is no substantial form, and thus no substance). However, it is quite another matter to say that there are no substances – even in the composition of property-things like ‘mountains’ there must be substances – even composite objects must end in simples. Nominalism, coming from William of Occam, is itself a morally unhealthy philosophical perspective – quite apart from its incoherence when pressed and analyzed. I think that it is Nominalism, in one form or another, which lies behind the ideology justifying embryonic stem cell research, and the abortion enterprise. Once one abandons the natural belief in substances (‘things’), one naturally naively accepts that there are not human persons in the classical sense, and this paves the way for new definitions, and new atrocities.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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2 Responses to The best argument for embryonic stem cell research, and its relation to nominalism

  1. yousuf says:

    “Keep in mind that stem cell research is something the Catholic Church, and all persons of goodwill, endorse and promote – it is only ‘embryonic’ stem cell research which is opposed precisely because the embryo is destroyed, and thus a human person is killed. Perhaps we could say that human person has been sacrificed in the name of science and medical progress.”

    The people who endorse embryonic stem cell research do not see an embryo as a human person. So, it is not as though a human person is sacrificed in the name of science.

    What needs to be argued then is whether an embryo is a person (in the normal sense of the word) or not. And I dare say, to say that an embryo is a person is not altogether a popular opinion among scientists at least.

    To be fair, I could see how your position is consistent with perhaps less ad hoc stipulations than the views upheld by those who endorse embryonic stem cell research. But this, it seems, does not constitute potent undermining evidence against embryonic stem cell research.

    p.s. I do not wish to speak about the practical benefits of this research; I merely wanted to point out that at least a great many people who endorse this research do not share your assumption that embryos are persons.

    • I recognize that some persons doing embryonic stem cell research do not accept that the embryo is a person, though they usually naively believe in personhood as an objective quality which isn’t supervenient. I feel free to exploit the incompatibility of these assumptions and to expose what I see as the absurdity of conceding the classical and common sense notion of personhood on the one hand, and denying to an embryo that it too is a human – and by reason of that a ‘person’. However, I think it is rather unfair of you to suggest that all those who do embryonic stem cell research do not share my view that the embryo is a person – many of them may (implicitly or explicitly), just as many abortion advocates believe that the aborted fetus is a person (for instance, Christopher Hitchens, who was against abortion as a form of birth control, was also for the killing of the innocent human fetus, recognizing it to be a human person, in certain circumstances). I note that there is no scientific reason for saying that the embryo is not a person (since there is none for saying that it isn’t properly ‘human’), and what philosophical reasons there are for distinguishing personhood from being human lead necessarily to some counter-intuitive views (as far as I have been able to tell) of personhood, such as that ‘personhood’ is a supervenient quality which is irreducibly supervenient. Alternatively, some have believed that the state/government/community itself defines when some animal becomes a human with rights, and thus philosophers like Peter Singer have suggested both that some animals be treated as bearers of human rights, and that some very young newly born homosapiens be treated as animals which we may or may not want to dispose of for the good of society.

      I suspect that the real reason for the interest in embryonic stem cell research is, on the face of it, that only embryonic stem cell research can be patented medically, whereas nobody can patent adult stem cells. That’s an economic incentive, but it wouldn’t be as good as the argument I’ve presented (I think).

      Finally, whether or not some very clever or very naive person refuses to recognize that the embryo is a human person, it is objectively a human person, and as I provided brief arguments to that effect, I take it that the burden is on the antagonist to take their position and to point to what part of the progression of my thought they disagree with. For instance, what would you say a person is? Can person-hood be predicated of a dog, or can it be predicated of your mother, and if so can it be predicated of anything (such as a rock)? What, Yousuf, would you say a ‘person’ is?

      What individuals involved in embryonic stem cell research might respond to my argument outlined above may vary from person to person more than you have imagined. I am convinced, though, that the ad hoc and ultimately unintelligible positions I’ve hinted at, to which we would necessarily need have recourse if we rejected the classical position on personhood as being a predicate of one immaterial substance of a rational order, are themselves a higher intellectual price to pay than would be the admission that my argument is sound. In a sense, I feel free to push the antagonist to the intellectual precipice and show them why they must either jump down from the cliff of common sense and intuitive coherence, or else find some way to justify killing a human person.

      I hope that response goes some way towards answering to the objections which are latent in your brief response in the defence of those who support embryonic stem cell research. You not only assume too much about their views, but I’d be curious to challenge you on your own views about consciousness and personhood to see how far you could successfully play devil’s advocate in their place. Is personhood reducibly supervenient, irreducibly supervenient, defined by the communal ‘feeling’, or not a property of anything at all – or some alternative that I have here failed to think of? I would hope at least you would say that a person is a bearer of rights, and if so then how do we distinguish between persons and other animals (or are all animals bearers of rights – if you can eat a pig why can you not eat a young middle eastern child?)?

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