This is a follow-up to the post Of Eggs and Embryos which you may want to read first.
Let’s say there is a world much like our world. This world has golden sunsets, this world has blue-green seas and luminous nights. This world has animals abundant with might and people pursuing prosperity. Due to technological advancement, food is abundant and the common cold has been cured. Poverty has been beaten back and charity is common. Welcome to Gaia. Gaia is paradise attained almost. In Gaia, as in our world, not all afflictions have been defeated; some infirmity and distress still remain. But, as Monty Python said, “cheer up old chap” things look promising. The potential promise of a fulfilled, and fulfilling, utopia, might be found in a culture dish no larger than 10cm in diameter. The elixir found in this reddish – orange liquid medium are known as stem cells and not just ordinary adult stem cells but embryonic stem cells (ESC’s). That certain type of stem cell that hasn’t yet “pipelined” down their developmental pathway. As in our world, ESC’s do come with a contentious price; they require the destruction of an embryo. The value of that embryo is currently in discussion on Gaia. Comprising the populace of our anguished paradise are two predominant ethno-cultural communities, the “progressives” and the “recalcitrants”. The progressives see nothing wrong with the destruction of the embryo because according to reason the resulting promise of fulfilled paradise outweigh any “moral” considerations the recalcitrants bring. The recalcitrants disagree over the cost of fulfillment and argue that the life (or potential life) of the embryo outweighs any “utility” considerations the progressive brings. The progressives are derisive in their condemnation of the moralists, and the recalcitrants are dismissive in their contempt of the utilitarianists. Now, if you have been following along so far, and you are familiar with our nation’s current debate on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) you may be asking, “How is this any different from our world, apart from Gaia’s common cold being cured? One fact changes the assumed analogous positions of the participants in the debate: The requisite embryos destined for destruction are Ailuropoda Melanoleuca; commonly known as the Chinese Giant Panda.
In Gaia the precarious genetic fidelity of the Giant Panda is the same as it is on Earth. They are both endangered and are protected under law against improper handling, hunting, mischief and destruction of its kind. Therein lies the problem. The embryonic stem cells of the Giant Panda are the only type of stem cells known on Gaia that, upon experimentation, have increased motor coordination in rodents that were previously paralyzed.
A moral argument ensues upon the realization that these cells may have the capacity to bring about the utopia envisioned by forward thinkers against the traditionalists. The progressives see this as a Promethean necessity and argue that this is the cure they have been looking for to alleviate those Gaians afflicted with Earth’s analogous diseases: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, paralysis and diabetes. The recalcitrants want to retain the tradition of protection and declare it morally reprehensible to destroy the embryo of the Giant Panda to bring about a better quality of life for a limited number of individuals. Meanwhile a black market has risen up in Panda embryos and maverick scientists are already at work running embryonic stem cell experiments; apathetic and unconcerned with the “panda problem”, as long as their ego is appeased and their wallet is fattened.
Given the situation upon Gaia , “What makes panda embryos sacred while human embryos are rendered ordinary and common?” If the reader answers genetic availability; that is, in the genetic pool of life, there are more human genes than panda genes floating in that Sargasso Sea of fitness, then keep in mind that this is essentially how despots and tyrants answer similar questions as they govern the slaughter of ethnicity.
There is a bumper sticker that reads, “All things are sacred”. If I were to question the owner of this postmodern prosaicism I suspect that, under duress, they would admit the slogan should read, “All things are sacred if and only if I say they are, and only then; and of course, given the prerogative to change my mind upon conflicting feelings and experiences, given the nature of this transient life with it’s contingent realities, coupled with my subjective material nature, not being sure of anything, anyone, or any thought, forthwith, forthright, and so on and so on.” (Read in your best John Cleese inflections from Life of Brian, and if you haven’t seen Life of Brian for humor’s sake please do!) The only problem is this statement is not pithy (read concise), and doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker able to be read at 70 miles an hour by the driver behind you without risking a 9 car pile up on the 405. If you could ignore the horrible run-on sentence above, the contradiction between the naive sentiment of the slogan, and the imagined sidewalk confession of the auto’s owner, is an example of the conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic value statements mentioned in my Nov 2004 column.
If there are no such things as intrinsic value statements extrinsic value statements are what remain. Therefore, if the criterion of value rests on genetic contingencies, pandas and humans have disproportionate value where pandas are sacred and protected and humans are banal and trivial.
On Gaia the progressives are taking the position that pandas have less value than humans; therefore, it is incumbent upon the leaders of Gaia to responsibly and carefully construct a panda embryonic stem cell research program that affirms the inherent value of the panda while not displacing the just dignity of humanity. The recalcitrants claim that pandas have greater value based upon the extrinsic criterion of genetic availability and due to this rationale it is immoral and outrageous for panda embryonic stem cell research to continue. This illustration places the advocate for human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) in a revealing position.
That which has been revealed are the presuppositions of criterion. This position can be an uncomfortable place for the advocate of hESCR, if they accept the recalcitrant’s position; thus becoming analogous to the recalcitrant. On the one hand the advocate wants to affirm, not unlike the bumper sticker, that, “All humans have value” and “all things are sacred,” intrinsic value statements; while on the other hand, they are forced to admit that humans only have value against genetic considerations, or other similar extrinsic criteria, placing themselves in the same Venn circle as Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Milosevic. A most disquieting place to be indeed.