Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Moral Reasoning

There are a few moral issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research that should be confronted from the Christian perspective.  The fundamental worldview in place is a compassionate utilitarianism or “spiritualistic naturalism” as Dennis Hollinger describes.  On this view the ultimate virtue of compassion is exercised in the pursuit of greater well-being for the greatest number of people, which then justifies the means toward that end in utilitarian fashion.

There are problems on both sides of the coin here from the secular mindset.  First, compassion cannot stand alone as a virtue.  Consider the scenario of a child molester.  One could say that we should be compassionate to the victim and incarcerate the perpetrator.  One might also say that we should be compassionate to the perpetrator and release him (thus giving him a second chance).  Compassion alone cannot decide between these two alternatives, but rather our compassion must be informed by our virtue (in this case justice).  Thus uninformed compassion is as often evil as good and informed compassion relies on virtue.  In the debate about stem cell research it seems that justice is violated in the destruction of innocent human life, and therefore compassion is mis-informed if it proceeds.  It is for this reason that an appeal to compassion alone cannot justify embryonic stem cell research.

Utilitarianism in this context is similarly problematic.  We are assuming that the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people is “the good” to which we should strive.  Why is this the case?  Underlying this approach seems to be the commitment that human beings are intrinsically valuable.  If, however, we accept the intrinsic value of human beings then we must admit the intrinsic value of human embryos.  Thus the test subjects become a part of the “greatest number of people” for which the utilitarian calculus must be run.  Immediately we see, however, that destroying many individuals for the benefit of other individuals does not increase the overall flourishing of human beings.  It is for this reason that a utilitarian calculus with the principle of the intrinsic value of human beings must find itself opposed to embryonic stem cell research rather than in favor of it.  Utilitarianism, as a moral system, fails on other grounds but its internal incoherence in this matter prevents it from providing sufficient justification for the aim of its users (embryonic stem cell research).

It is for these reasons that neither the compassion nor the utilitarianism of these compassionate utilitarians can provide sufficient justification for embryonic stem cell research.


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