Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Sat Mar 14 2009 - 14:15:00 EDT

You anticipate the problem, Don, but you don't really offer any solution.
The problem of euthanasia and what "capable" means is one reason why I think
the potentiality principle remains important (though, as we have noted ad
nauseum, "important" doesn't in my mind mean "conclusive" or
"incontrovertible.") . A human embryo is in fact more "capable" of having
"spiritual interaction" than a 90-year-old person, if "capabilities" include
all potential interactions over the course of an average human lifetime.

This ties into a very important strand of theory in virtue ethics related to
global development, Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach." Note that I
am NOT suggesting Nussbaum applies this in the same way I might to our
present discussion -- in fact, I think Nussbaum's articulation of
"capability" is too individualistic. The point is simply that
"capabilities" or "potentiality" remain important for many normative
theories of ethics.

IMHO, both on either scientific or theological grounds, it is presently
impossible to state with any reasonable degree of certainty when
"personhood" begins. In my view, this means it's equally impossible to draw
meaningful lines about when it is permissible to terminate a human life
having some potentential to exercise at least some of the capabilities we
associate with personhood -- whether at the very start or very end of
biological life. Given that, and given the immense value (not "absolute"
value, but immense value) we place (or ought to place) on human life, in my
view the precautionary principle strongly weighs against intentional
termination of embryonic human life.

Further, I think the view I'm taking here is the most consistent among the
presently competing views with a Christian understanding of the human
person, the relationships among human persons, and the role of the state. I
take as a central ethical imperative Jesus' restatement of the law: to love
God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love one's neighbor
as one's self. I further take as a central ethical imperative the repeated
Biblical injunction to care for and defend those who are unable to protect
themselves against the exercise of power by others. And, I think the state
has a particular role as God's vice-regent over human affairs to promote
laws consistent with these imperatives.

If there is any reasonable doubt at all about the status of an entity as
"human," then, IMHO, the love command and the injunction to defend the
powerless compel us to oppose the intentional termination of embryonic human
life, as well as human life in its end stages, EVEN IF the purpose of that
action is to promote research that might benefit us.

Now, someone might take the line here taken by Ted Peters: beneficence and
the love command suggest exactly the opposite -- that we ought to resolve
this doubt in favor of persons who unquestionably presently possess human
capabilities but who are damaged by illness. (Peters argues this in
"Playing God?", in which he acknowledges the potentiality principle, BTW).
I can't agree.

 Among other things, I think this view ultimately devalues people with
disabilities. Disabled people who might benefit from embryonic stem cell
research -- whether a paraplegic or my own son with his neurological
misfunction -- remain able to exercise human capabilities, with excellence,
dignity and beauty. The fact that society views my son as "marred" or
"impaired" doesn't justify *completely extinguishing* the capabilities of
another person or potential person. A better approach, IMHO, is to pursue
other avenues of research while at the same time exercising love and
beneficence by helping people like my son to live meaningful lives within
the context of their unique physical abilities. At some point, after all,
every one of us must learn to live with the unique limitations fate, or
providence, or karma, or whatever you want to call it, hands us.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 3:03 AM, Don Winterstein <>wrote:

> IMO abortion, while always traumatic, distasteful and a thing that should
> be undertaken only as some sort of last resort, isn't murder unless the
> organism aborted is capable of spiritual interaction at the level of
> persons. Capability for spiritual interaction at the level of persons,
> which I regard as tantamount to "having a soul," among humans requires a
> fairly complete body. A few million cells won't do. In other words, humans
> don't get souls at conception but at some much later stage of development.
> In other words, the soul is an emergent property of the body--and you can't
> prove me wrong on this from Scripture.
> If you amputate someone's leg, you're killing human tissue but you're not
> guilty of murder because you're not killing a person. Destroying a frozen
> embryo is in a similar category.
> Does this mean I'd support mercy killing for the mentally defective on
> grounds they can't be spiritual? No, because no human can tell where the
> boundary is between having capability for spiritual interaction and not
> having such capability. But I'm comfortable sticking my neck out to say
> that frozen embryos don't have it.
> Don
> ----- Original Message -----
> *From:* John Burgeson (ASA member) <>
> *To:* David Campbell <>
> *Cc:*
> *Sent:* Tuesday, March 10, 2009 6:47 AM
> *Subject:* Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?
> Doug posted, in part: "public policy should be based on scientific
> facts not ideology.
> I think this is an awful statement. It's a false dichotomy.
> Scientific "facts" don't make public policy; they form a necessary
> informational base, but every action based on that knowledge also
> requires a moral/ethical/ideological decision."
> I don't see it as "awful," but a simple factual statement. If one
> takes it to mean "based ONLY on scientific facts," then, of course,
> I'd agree that it is "awful." I'd probably use a stronger term.But it
> does not say that.
> Relative to the stem cell issue, it really boils down to the question
> "does a frozen embryo have personhood -- a soul?" For those asserting
> "yes," the issue is clear; stem cell research is immoral. For those
> who assert otherwise, stem cell research in morally OK.
> Having read a lot on this, I tend toward the latter position, but I do
> NOT claim certainty. I don't know that any of us can claim certainty
> on the issue.
> It is a classic case that whichever side of the issue you choose, you
> run the risk of doing harm (or not avoiding harm).
> jb
> On 3/10/09, David Campbell <> wrote:
> > Yes, in the case of embryonic stem cells there is little disagreement
> > about the science, and the self-identified "scientific" policy is
> > merely one ideology among many.
> >
> > In other cases, such as environmental or evolution, there is denial of
> > the science that could be described as disagreement about the science.
> > Nevertheless, even in such cases, science is still descriptive.
> > Science cannot be morally prescriptive, as that is outside its scope.
> >
> >
> > --
> > Dr. David Campbell
> > 425 Scientific Collections
> > University of Alabama
> > "I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
> >
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> --
> Burgy
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Received on Sat Mar 14 14:16:10 2009

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