Friday, July 28, 2006

Human Rights and the Limits of Utilitarian Calculus

Those who read the World-Herald are familiar with the column of retired publisher Harold Andersen, who frequently comments on public matters. Yesterday's column lamented the Bush veto of stem-cell research funding as "theocratic". Compounding his consternation was the fact that the EU had decided to fund embryonic stem cell research despite complaints from the Catholic Church. And of course, he could not avoid bringing in the "religious right" as targets of his displeasure.

Andersen reflects the views of many in this country that religiously-based values are inherently suspect and should, therefore, be banished from the public square, especially when they come from people with pro-life or other conservative values. (The religious left can emote all it wishes, it seems.) He states: "Most Americans -- a strong majority, I believe -- resent the implication that religion-first believers are best qualified to bear on public issues. Most standards are not absolute verities simply because they are laid down by ecclesiastical authority -- or by a president who is not above staging a deceptive "adoptive baby show" to justify his decision to go against the will of the majority of the people's representatives in Congress."

I don't know precisely what "religion-first" means, but keep in mind that nearly all formulations of human rights have their foundation in some metaphysical beliefs about human beings. The founding fathers agreed that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Modern efforts to emancipate slaves and to establish civil rights for all are rooted in Judeo-Christian foundations. Across the world, human liberty flourishes where those foundations are in place, and it whithers where those foundations have crumbled.

One may disagree with the President about the particulars in this matter, but the principle of respecting human life is an important one. The belief that we are accountable to something greater than the state and to something greater than the will of the majority is a powerful constraint on the exercise of raw power against individual liberty. I'll take that over the "state first" or "popular will first" alternatives every time when it comes to protecting human life.

Mr. Andersen's remarks are telling, in that he seemed more than willing to dismiss the verity of ecclesiastical authorities or of this President, but not of the majority will. Remember that sometimes the majority gets it wrong. And sometimes the Europeans have not been the best examples to follow when it comes to the ethics of medical research.

Although we often focus on the significance of scientific means of resolving problems, there are limits to the cold calculus of utilitarianism. I find it interesting that Mr. Andersen so casually dismisses the principle invoked by the President: that human life is involved at the core of embryonic research -- not by refuting it, but by agreeing with it. The young children surrounding the President indeed testified to this truth. But he nevertheless resorts to the fact that only a few of the embryos are adopted - some 128 out of 400,000 by his figures -- as a basis for continued experimentation. That is a troubling position, as it seems to say that killing all when only some would live anyway is an acceptable moral resolution. (Consider the implications for the ill and the aged, for example. Moreover, if embryos are discarded en masse, one might also ask the further question of whether it is morally responsible to create them in the first place. But that is another debate.)

Questions like these do not get easily resolved without some references to beliefs that are not solely based on science alone. If utilitarian calculus is the answer, then perhaps we should vote on who should be harvested to provide organs for the many. I know of no one who does not blanch at that prospect.

It is a great country where people like Mr. Andersen can complain about the beliefs of others so freely. It is important to engage with one another in reasoned debates, and to struggle with one another as to whether we have it right or not. But he should realize that his freedom, and fundamental human rights, depends on the foundation he is so quick to chip away at. People have long been chipping away, but fortunately the foundation seems pretty hard to crack. At least I hope so.


No comments: