Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Sun Mar 15 2009 - 13:16:28 EDT

I don't think I tied the ethical imperatives I mentioned to "the gospel."
Certainly one can believe the gospel -- the life, death and resurrection of
Jesus -- and disagree with my application of some of the ethical imperatives
that flow from the gospel. Yet, I think those ethical imperatives do bear
closely on our subject. Again, I'm basically a MacIntyrian, so I'm not
suggesting the love command et al. offer a simple deontological rule that
directly overlays this situation. The question for me is what kind of
tradition to we want to extend? I think a tradition in which doubt is
resolved in favor of life, in which the most helpless are given the most
protection, is most consistent with a genuine expression of a Christian
tradition. That is a strong claim, for which I don't apologize, but it's
not the same as linking the claim with "the gospel."

I also think there's a burden of proof issue here that no one's touched on.
The public debate in favor of ESCR seems to say this: we have a technology
with some possible promise; the burden of proof is on any objectors to show
that the research might impinge on human dignity. I think the burden of
proof should properly be on the research community. You have a technology
that requires research on human embryos: prove that such embryos are not
human beings in the sense that they can ethically be sacrificed in the
course of the research.

The best response I've seen so far is that it isn't immediately certain
whether a fertilized human egg will deveop into an individual because of the
possibility of twinning. It's been suggested that "science" in this sense
determines that an early-stage embryo can't be a "person." But this just
begs the question of what constitutes a "person." Given likely advances in
cloning technology, for example, every one of us could possibly "split" into
another human being. Are we therefore not individual "persons?" Of course
not. It simply means that one of the capabilities of personhood includes
the production of additional persons. And this is hardly surprisng --
humans have been doing this through sexual reproduction for millions of

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

On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 9:25 PM, Stephen Matheson <>wrote:

> David, first of all I'm uncomfortable with the suggestion that the
> asserted "impossibility" of identifying when personhood begins is enough to
> fully empower the precautionary principle. Uncertainty regarding the
> beginning point does not entail uncertainty throughout the entire lifespan
> of a cell or embryo. For example, we may be uncertain of the time at which
> a human becomes "conscious" by some definition (and this would apply to any
> definition that I know of), but we could simultaneously identify with
> confidence certain stages at which the human is and is not conscious. It
> simply does not follow that uncertainty regarding beginnings means
> uncertainty in toto. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but it looks to me that
> the agreed-upon uncertainty is being used inappropriately here.
> This is especially important since you have linked your preferences to
> very basic claims of the faith. I hope you'll agree that your threefold
> defense of your own position, which includes Jesus' summation of all the law
> and prophets, is meaningless outside of the *a priori* definition of the
> subjects of those imperatives. It seems to me that the discussion here is
> not about whether Christians ought to love others, or even about how to love
> others. It's about whether very early human embryos (but not ova or
> cultured pluripotent cells) are properly the subject of such imperatives.
> Can we agree that perhaps even nasty old Steve Matheson has read the
> gospels? Do you mean to suggest that someone who thinks a zygote is a whole
> lot different from a fetus is someone who might hesitate to affirm the
> Golden Rule? This is EXACTLY why the discussion makes me nervous: debatable
> opinions are too closely associated with the gospel itself.
> Note that I'm not assuming any ignorance on your part, and I agree that
> the combination of the precautionary principle and potentiality should lead
> us to protect human life even when we're not certain of its "personhood"
> etc. I'm NOT attacking your opinions regarding these principles. I'm
> expressing disquiet about the trajectory of the analysis -- it just happens
> to end at fertilization -- and especially about what I see as an
> inappropriate association of opinions (however noble or excellent) with the
> gospel.
> Steve Matheson
> >>> David Opderbeck <> 03/14/09 2:15 PM >>>
> 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 Sun Mar 15 13:17:13 2009

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