of the interesting aspects of the current debates about stem
cell research and human cloning is that even much of the media
buys into some alleged conflict between what is technologically
useful and what is morally right.
In fact, the former may well be fully consistent with the
example, to have created effective means by which to improve the
likelihood of surviving heart disease, through heart transplants
and artificial hearts, is not only technologically useful but
morally praiseworthy. To
reduce the frequency and intensity of pain while obtaining
dental treatment or chemotherapy, via technology and
pharmacology, is again not only something technologically useful
In fact, the
whole point of much of technology is to make things better for
people – to reduce poverty, suffering, misery, disease as well
as to enhance life in innumerable ways.
What else would count as morally praiseworthy if this
But let us just
look at the matter directly.
What makes something morally good or right?
This is vital
since those who oppose, for example, stem cell research or human
cloning claim that they are arguing from a moral position
against technology and science.
The Reverend Jerry Falwell, for example, was urging
President George W. Bush on August 9 to do the morally right
and oppose stem
cell research funding. Others
were just as vehement about demanding a ban on human cloning,
claiming that theirs is the moral point of view.
So to have a
sense of who is talking sense and who is merely perpetrating a
ruse, pretending to occupy the moral high ground, it is
necessary to be straight about what it means to be morally
right. We all
invoke morality and ethics in our arguments but do we give
enough thought to what these really involve?
To start with,
in ordinary discussion “ethics” and “morality” refer to
the same thing, principles that guide us in living properly, as
a human being ought to live, decently, rightly.
“Ethics” is sometimes used to refer to a code, such
as what is adopted in the legal or engineering
but that is derivative, not the basic meaning.
Also, some think
“morality” means “mores” but, in fact, mores are
customary ways of acting which may not be moral at all.
But what then is
moral or ethical in the basic sense of these?
This has been a subject of debate from time immemorial.
Most college graduate ran across the substance of these
debates in philosophy courses. We also get proposed moral principles from different
religions and from certain prominent philosophers such as
Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Marx and Mill.
So the first
thing to be aware of is that the basic principles of ethics or
morality are widely disputed, not at all self-evident and
at the least it should be clear that any claim that the moral or
ethical opposes the technological and scientific is brazenly
question begging, presumptuous.
Apart from the
ongoing philosophical debate, we do have some clues lying about
us as to what counts as basic in ethics or morality. Generally
speaking, what is moral must be in support of human life.
That is why murdering people gets such severe rebuke in
the law and in public opinion.
of us, even without much reflection, realize that negligently or
intentionally killing another human beings who hasn’t provoked
this by some equally egregious act is terribly wrong.
From this it is
pretty clear that morality or ethics have to do with supporting
and not destroying human life.
Anyone who willingly acts to support such life is doing
something morally or ethically right, and those who willingly
act to destroy it are doing something morally or ethically
although often extremely complicated and involved, is generally
clear enough: acts that help advance human living are right to
the extent they do this and acts which help destroy human life
are wrong to the extent they do so.
into practical, day to day moral or ethical judgments can be
very difficult and all of us are saddled with the responsibility
to do so. But at
the end of the day what is ethical or moral is most probably
going to be what is supportive of human life and what is
unethical or immoral is what is destructive of human life.
we then look at the current public disputes, we have to ask
whether banning stem cell research or cloning does more to
support or to oppose human life.
Answering this doesn’t solve all aspects of the debate
but it does at least set us on the proper course to reach some
sensible ethical or moral position.
And it makes clear that both sides have a plausible moral
position and it is deceptive to appropriate that for one side