Useful Barbarism

Earlier this month, “advocates of embryonic stem-cell research” from “academia, politics, health care, and medicine” met in Houston. Not to share the results of their research, but to plot strategy, specifically, how to beat the political opposition and “get the research money flowing.” As has been the case since the start of this debate, the preferred tactic is to promise the public the moon. Paul Mandabach, who helped convince California voters to spend billions on state-funded stem-cell research, summed it up: “As the realities of these cures become clear, the morality arguments will be lessened.” Set aside the inconvenient fact that the “cures” Mandabach mentions don’t exist and aren’t likely to anytime soon. If they did exist, should it make a moral difference? For many people, especially Americans, the answer is “yes.” Of course, many of us, consciously or not, subscribe to a philosophy known as “utilitarianism” that judges actions by their usefulness. What is usually meant by “usefulness” is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For the utilitarian mindset, Mandabach’s argument is a slam-dunk: the possibility of cures and therapies that may benefit millions of people over against a group of cells whose humanity, from their point of view, is in dispute. Throw in pictures of diabetic children and a celebrity suffering with a debilitating disease, and the calculus becomes irresistible. And even if the humanity of the embryo was not in doubt, that would not make a difference. The most famous ethicist in the country, Peter Singer of Princeton, is a utilitarian. His utilitarian logic justifies, among other things, infanticide and euthanasia as ways of promoting happiness. While Mandabach and others would probably dispute and resent any connection to Singer’s views, their protestations would ring hollow. If the idea is to weigh “cures” over against “morality,” why stop at embryonic stem-cell research? If the potential benefits justify cloning embryos to harvest their stem-cells, why not implant these embryos and “harvest” full-grown body parts? That’s what happens in the acclaimed new novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. In a world where one scientific breakthrough followed another, he writes, “there wasn’t time to take stock [and] ask the sensible questions.” All people could see were the “new possibilities” laid before them. And once the organs from clones appeared, they “preferred to believe these organs came from nowhere.” Nothing in the argument made by the people who gathered in Houston can prevent Ishiguro’s science-fiction dystopia from becoming moral and social fact. Utilitarianism can’t keep us from descending into useful barbarism because it rejects all absolutes except the maximizing of happiness. And because it rejects first principles like the sanctity of life, it can’t draw bright moral lines. It’s an eraser, not a pencil. Fortunately, we still have time to ask those “sensible questions”—but not for long. The promises being made in Houston are tailor-made for Americans who love the “new” and view promised cures as their birthright. If Christians aren’t ready to take on the worldview that underlies them, then something besides “morality arguments” will be lessened: It will be our own sense of the dignity and sanctity of life.


Chuck Colson


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