Re: BIOETHICS: Blackford versus Somerville

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Wed Jul 18 2001 - 10:07:11 MDT

Russell Blackford wrote:
> I'm finding how tricky it is answering someone who uses motherhood
> statements such as "we should have a deep respect for life in all its forms
> and manifestations" as a starting point for philosophical argument. I think
> this is pretty much irrationalist nonsense, at least in the way that I
> understand Somerville intends it (eg, she seems to think we must show
> reverence to embryos, so we can't ethically do stem cell research). However,
> attempting to debunk it runs the risk of alienating some readers, for whom
> it may sound very sonerous and attractive.

Ask Samantha Atkins - she thinks you're allowed to say things like that,
she should have to handle the response. <smile>

Okay, just kidding. Actually, there are several things you can say to
someone who says "We should have a deep respect for life in all its forms
and manifestations". I can guess what Samantha Atkins would say:

"Creating a stem cell embryo for the specific purpose of curing Parkinsons
need not involve disrespect for the embryo, nor especially the human
cured; a stem cell embryo has a high purpose, just not the usual high

"An embryo has the potential to develop into a human being *or* to cure a
different human being of Parkinsons. Until it develops into a fetus, it
hasn't been irrevocably committed to the destiny of being a human, and can
have other purposes that are just as beautiful."

I would say:

"I think that calling for 'a deep respect for life in all its forms' is a
high-sounding but empty statement that dodges all the real moral issues.
You don't say what 'disrespect' is, or why, or explain how disrespect is
the proper subject of government legislation; you simply look at a new
technology, experience future shock, say 'eeeww', and regard this as
sufficient cause to ban medical research that could save thousands of
lives. Whether using a stem cell embryo to cure Parkinsons is
'disrespectful', i.e., 'morally unacceptable', is not a take-home issue;
it is the whole of the argument. Every advance in medical technology,
from smallpox vaccines to pacemakers, seems strange to someone. This
doesn't prove that 'disrespect' is a nonissue, but it does demonstrate
that it takes more to establish moral horror than someone saying 'eeeww'.
Myself, I don't think a stem cell embryo is a human being any more than an
unfertilized egg cell is a human being or a two-by-four is a finished
house. I don't see how a stem cell embryo could possibly count as a
sentient being when it takes until the second trimester of pregnancy for a
fetus's neurons to even begin forming synapses. I understand that some
people may feel differently, but I don't think that feeling has enough
basis in fact to direct the course of medical research."

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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