April 3, 2008

Embryology Bill

Embryology Bill

WARNING: If you are religious and intolerant of other people having a negative view of religion, don’t to read this post.

The discord around this subject fits a pattern I have seen before. Some people, I will call them moral fundamentalists, think they have the right to try to impose their moral systems on everyone. Their guidance and edicts should be directed only toward people who have agreed to adhere to their moral code. They have no mandate to affect anyone else. In this particular case religious moral fundamentalists also presume to know better than anyone else the correct treatment of complex issues concerning genetics, despite having no expertise in the area. They have extrapolated some principles from ancient texts that they have been able to associate with the issues. In truth they have no original text guidance on these issues, the associations they make are loose, the extrapolations fanciful and containing surreptitious motives, and they are made by contemporary administrators, not deities or prophets. Like all fundamentalists, they are a danger to themselves and everyone that comes into contact with them, because they have an uncompromising extreme stance that they insist on everyone conforming to and they cannot see that they are fundamentalists. If you are disagreeing with this now you are probably a fundamentalist, but you will also deny it.
These religious moral fundamentalists are using this issue to support the supposed currency of what is an anachronistic and mostly static system in an increasingly sophisticated and rapidly evolving world. As ever more complex new issues arise this overextending of their original texts becomes increasingly obvious, so that today a smaller proportion of well educated people than ever are interested in their views. Their problems are rooted partly in the need to imply authority through the use of absolutes, tradition, longevity and divinity, and partly in using static texts as a basis for all their views. For those views to be taken seriously they also must either be static or evolve very slowly to give the impression of considered authority. Obviously, this requirement is out of step at a very basic level with an increasingly rapidly evolving world.
Good science can prove itself and delivers tangible benefits, where religion cannot prove it is correct and its benefits are mainly intangible. I suspect that most modern religion is a way of obtaining power and money and to do this it takes advantage of the less well educated in society. As the quality or at least the pervasiveness of education has improved there has been a corresponding decrease in interest. To survive they need to change their strategy to provide other services.
One would think that members of the Catholic church would have the sense to keep a low profile on science based issues, having an extremely poor track record in this area. Are we still supposed to be at the centre of everything according to them, or has that changed now the scientists have shown this to be false? One member of the Catholic church cynically appealed to the least well educated in society with scare stories of Frankenstein creations, shamelessly courting publicity. Worryingly a number of politicians who are supposed to running this country turn out to have sympathies with religious groups. Gordon Brown should remove anyone from government that allows any such views to influence their roles in government; mostly because promoting a religious view is not in their job description, but also because they have a dubious grasp on reality, probably because of a deficiency in their education. Why is he allowing them a free vote anyway? They were given office to serve the people and that includes the people’s well being, not to promote their respective religions. Members of the government need to adhere to government principles and they should be to promote the health and wellbeing of all the people, not the influence any religious group.
Some religious groups believe there is one fundamentally important and valuable aspect of a person, often referred to as ‘the soul’, which is present even in an embryo. The concept of soul is useful to provide differential status and hence treatment, between for example people and animals. Disproving the existence of a soul is probably an intractable problem and a battle that need not be fought. One may circumvent this issue by encouraging the religious to reinterpret their own texts. A new interpretation could extricate them from their moral dilemma. For example, selective divine intervention to prevent misuse of souls, whether retrospective or proactive. One could also envisage a special case where addition of a soul is conditional upon a priori knowledge of the embryo’s destiny. There are probably some other schemes that could be employed, but the latter has the advantage that it could be applied in tragic cases such as prenatal death. All they need do is pick such a scheme and use their talents for interpretation to find some text to support it. Then they can gain even more publicity by announcing that in fact their religion was in already aware and prepared for these discoveries hundreds of years ago and that science has just caught up. Sadly, some people will believe them. Hopefully they will reinterpret, then we can all move on peacefully and the scientists can continue to save lives.



  1. “Conceptualizer,” I don’t use an “ancient text” to make the case that life should not be destroyed for the sake of stem cells. It is not a religious issue, but it is an inherently moral one though. And there are moral absolutes…

    For example, is it moral for an Islamic extremist to kill “infidels” simply because they refuse to convert to their religion? My guess is that you would say no, but the radical Islamist believes that it is right and even honorable to do so.

    By your reasoning, however, you could not condemn such an action. After all, wouldn’t it be erroneous for you to think that you “have the right to try to impose” your “moral systems on everyone?”

    By that same reasoning, (ironically), how can you say that Gordon Brown’s method of running government is wrong. If “moral systems” are so diverse, why is yours the only one that should have a voice in government? That seems a bit hypocritical, don’t you think? Plus, if it can’t be known who is right and who is wrong, how can you say that you are right he is wrong? You can’t “impose” your “moral systems” on him.

    My next point is also not a religious issue, but is simple science, provable with two basic principles. Life begins at conception.

    1) We know that tissue is living if its cells reproduce itself (tree=living; rock=nonliving). Obviously, an embryo is living tissue, by definition.

    2) Next, we would need to ask if that living tissue is a whole, unique life or simply a cell from a donor that can be discarded (like an appendix, tonsils, or adult stem cells for instance). Simply put, the DNA from that embryo uniquely differentiates it from any other living creature, including its “donors” (parents). If destroyed, that unique living being ceases to exist.

    The entire bases of your argument – that there is no definable morality and that all objections to the destruction of life in the farming of embryonic stem cells are based on ancient orthodoxy rather than provable scientific principles – are blatantly false.

    Comment by JLG — April 8, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  2. Thanks JLG for your comments.
    If as you say, your objections are purely based on a moral stance and you claim there are moral absolutes, then our differences are philosophical rather than having an ecumenical dimension. Then they resolve to the old absolutist verses relativist debate, in this case as applied specifically to morality. That is a well know intractable problem, partly at least because each can always reframe the others views using their own system, so each does, entrenching into their position and we have a stalemate. So I don’t think I will try to convert you, I am not likely to succeed. However, I will address a couple of your points.
    Firstly, regarding your ‘Islamic extremist’ scenario. You point out that there would seem to be an inconsistency if I condemned the Islamic extremists in your scenario (I would) while applying my moral relativist / pluralist position. I think you misunderstand my position. If I condemn Islamic extremist actions I don’t need anyone else to concur with me, it is my personal view. The carefully selected word ‘impose’ is vital to this point. It is one thing to have a view, it is quite another to impose a view. I am pointing out, rather clumsily it seems, that some members of the Catholic church are trying to impose their moral view by influencing our government. I by contrast am not trying impose my moral view, I am simply expressing it. I have made no petition to the government to change any parliamentary bill. It is obvious that there are many moralities and we will not agree on which is the correct one, so I hope for an amoral standard from our government. When government starts to take moral positions they will alienate some people. If they are amoral then they will only alienate the ‘moral fundamentalists’ who like your Islamic extremists are hopefully rare, because they make life difficult for everyone. I can say Gordon Brown is wrong because he is giving into pressure from one facet of UK society; in doing so he is failing to represent all of its diversity and that is his job, regardless of his or his colleagues’ views on the matter.
    Secondly, I would like to agree with your view that life begins at conception. However, I suspect that the matter is more complex than that, because doubtless conception is complex and not an instantaneous event. So I think I am not well enough informed to say that with certainty, but I am prepared to go along with it for now. I would though like to differentiate between a bunch of cells and a human. The latter is seems more important to me. We are asked if an embryo with potential for life is as valuable as an actual human life. I have to say the actual human life is more valuable. Potential is a fine thing, but not as good as the real thing. The treat them as equal to me seems ridiculous. I accept that some people may see this differently, but I think they are deceiving themselves. Put in the position of choice between a loved one and a bunch of cells with the potential for life I think if they were honest they would come to the same conclusion. I suspect that the people who assert otherwise are those fortunate enough not to be in such an invidious position. It would be interesting to hear from anyone in that position. However, whatever their individual view I would be unhappy if they try to tell someone else in a similar position what to do. The rest of us are speculating about what rights to allow someone else in that position and that feels wrong to me. I know this is not carefully reasoned but it is my view, this is an individual choice.
    Thirdly, at the end of your contribution you misrepresent me, although I am not sure if you did it wilfully, so to call those misrepresentations “blatantly false” is meaningless. I will explain: I would say that my moral pluralist / relativist position is not congruent with saying that I think “there is no definable morality”. I thought that I was clear, at least I intended to be so; there are many definable moralities, but there is no unanimity on which, if any, should be imposed, so I assert that it is better not to impose one. Perhaps you meant to say ‘no practical morality for the UK government’. In which case I would say that is a correct reading of what I am saying specifically about our government, who represent all UK people with a broad range of moral systems. There are definable and usable moralities, but in my opinion no practical moralities for our government to use. I think moralities should only be applied by individuals because of their diversity. Some countries might have a more coherent morality in their people and their governments can impose that. It is unreasonable for the adherents to any one morality to insist theirs is used exclusively, because that is to deny every other morality. Also I don’t assert anywhere that “all objections to the destruction of life in the farming of embryonic stem cells are based on ancient orthodoxy rather than provable scientific principles”. I have highlighted one example concerning the Catholic church, but that is not the same thing. In fact, although I go on to explore what I see as the flaw in the Catholic church view, or at least the view of some of its officials, which is I think interesting because they are so numerous and those officials so voluble, it is ultimately tangential to my main point about the undesirable imposition of a single morality.

    Comment by conceptualizer — April 9, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

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