Down the Docks

May 21, 2007

Ethical Minefield

Filed under: General — ealing @ 1:02 am

Here’s a tough little moral puzzler.

It’s reported that embryos are now being screened for some non-fatal conditions, such as dwarfism and deafness, on behalf of parents who suffer from the same conditions. Embryos are then selected for implantation on the basis that they will suffer from the same condition as their parents. The conditions given as examples are those that can be identified with distinct sub-cultures, and the preservation and continuation of cultural identity seem to be at the root.

My instinctive reaction is that this is wrong and should not be allowed, but I’m having a lot of trouble fitting this into a logical framework that I can subscribe to. Of course, I think it’s probably a mistake to expect to fit my moral intuitions into a logical framework, but I can’t help but try.

To start with, two definitions in order to make a distinction: a human is any member of the species homo sapiens, of any age or size, no matter what their age or state of physical or mental health is. A person is anything that is capable of reflecting upon itself, has a sense of identity, and is capable of having experiences of the world around it. Most humans are persons, and all of the persons I know are humans*. I am sure that persons have rights which should be legally protected. I am not sure what rights humans which are not persons are entitled to, although they are entitled to be treated at least as well as other mammals. This does not necessarily preclude being killed, although it does preclude deliberate mistreatment.

If we allow embryo screening, then we’ve already subscribed to the view that human embryos are not persons, which I have no trouble with. Most would agree, I think, that selecting embryos to carry to term on the basis that they would have terminal diseases or have severe developmental diseases would be wrong, because if the embryo has no future other than suffering, it would be cruel to bring it to term. Instead we pick a healthy embryo that we believe can live a life of something other than suffering.

My moral intuition is that people should not be doing this. The best explanation I can come up with for this is that the parents and medical staff in question are actually going out of their way to create a child that is not as healthy as possible, and I think there’s a moral requirement to create the healthiest child possible for a particular couple. Intentionally creating persons to be less healthy than they could be seems wrong, ignoring the fact that the human in some part determines the person (we are products of our genes as well as our environment).

On a related note, I see that Gervase Markham is trying to systematise the legal rules around abortion in Britain in order to try to isolate a legal notion of personhood. I suspect that he knows full well that no such thing exists, and his systematising efforts are an attempt to show, by reductio ad absurdum, that we cannot derive a necessary and sufficient definition of a legal person entitled to protection from death. I think he pretty much nails it in the comments, though, when he says:

The “personhood develops over time” argument runs into trouble here, because you get all sorts of arbitrary justifications about where the save/no save line should be.

This is exactly my argument – any such line must be arbitrary. This still doesn’t make me think that a human zygote is a person. Opinions?


*Whether is is possible for animals or machines to be persons is an interesting question but not relevant here.

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4 Comments »

  1. This is where religion used to serve a useful role, for all its faults. While judgements are made solely on scientific and commercial merits, they will tend towards ethical bankruptcy, adopting the ethics of “what we can do without getting lynched”.

    The line is necessarily arbitrary. Since science does not acknowledge any concept of an objective soul, there can be no absolute knowledge of the right or wrong of an action or thought.

    The certain knowledge that your immortal soul would burn forever used to be a convincing argument that you shouldn’t be doing this stuff.

    Comment by sweavo — May 22, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  2. But that didn’t make the judgements any better, it just meant that people could rid themselves of moral responsibility.

    Also, I have to take issue with this: “Since science does not acknowledge any concept of an objective soul, there can be no absolute knowledge of the right or wrong of an action or thought.”

    – I see no necessary connection between religion (via the soul) and morality.
    – I see no reason why science’s inability to speak on morality means there can be no moral judgements, just that there can be no scientific moral judgements.

    Comment by ealing — May 22, 2007 @ 11:09 am

  3. Hmm, yes. Apologies: I am being (typically for me) vague in my thoughts and expression of same.

    The connection between the soul and morality is that if you believe that death is the end, in other words there is no ultimate consequence of a life spent “in sin”, then we end up with a sort of post-modernism of morality, wherein the question “why act morally?” becomes harder to answer.

    Arguments become pragmatic rather than principled: I will avoid this action because I believe I will be caught and fined, or I will take this course of action because there is a market in deaf parents wanting deaf children.

    Comment by sweavo — May 31, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  4. Coming back on topic:

    “My moral intuition is that people should not be doing this. The best explanation I can come up with for this is that the parents and medical staff in question are actually going out of their way to create a child that is not as healthy as possible, and I think there’s a moral requirement to create the healthiest child possible for a particular couple.”

    This is interesting. I can imagine a PoV (which I don’t necessarily agree with) that says: “Who are you to judge that deaf children are less healthy than children who hear? That is only your narrow view of ‘normal’ and is a first step on a path to eugenics and the sterilization of all ‘imperfect’ bodies”.

    While that PoV doesn’t really stand up (After all we are already talking eugenics when we select embryos) it’s politically quite strong because the Stupid Masses will quickly leap to the defence of the underdog, the minority deaf parent.

    My gut reaction to the news is that by taking that action, they are effectively rejecting the hearing world, and seeking to create a separate race. On an animal level, it feels like an attack on “my kind”.

    But as to the “should” or “shouldn’t”, that’s where we come back to the “post-modernism” of morality. Shoulds and shouldn’ts only have logical meaning relative to some arbitrary point of reference.

    Comment by sweavo — May 31, 2007 @ 10:20 am


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