Crooks and Liars posted a clip from John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” providing criticism of the Bush Administration’s policy on stem cell research.
Through a series of clips, Stewart points out that the Bush Administration approaches the issue of stem cell research with the view that every life is sacred and, effectively, that no amount of good could possibly justify the taking of an innocent life. Yet, when it comes to justifying the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has continually told us that some “carnage” is an unwelcome but unavoidable part of bringing about democracy in the Middle East.
The message seems to be that the Bush Administration is being somewhat inconsistent in this.
Yet, if the Bush Administration’s view is inconsistent, then the opposite view also has its problems. If we look at Stewart’s argument as an argument in favor of stem cell research, we must take the argument as beginning with the premise that the war in Iraq is justified. We have to begin by accepting the principle that some “carnage” is legitimate if it brings about a good end, so that the “carnage” of doing research on embryonic stem cells can be justified.
Now, I am well aware of the fact that many defenders of embryonic stem cell research deny that a clump of cells without desires or interests can be morally harmed. That is my position. However, that is not the argument that is going on here. That premise cannot be used in claiming that the Bush Administration is being hypocritical. The only reasonable charge of hypocrisy must depend on the premise that the Bush Administration is willing to defend “carnage” against the people of Iraq for the sake of democracy, but not “carnage” against (what the administration takes to be) young boys and girls to produce medical breakthroughs.
In defense of the Administration, there is a legitimate moral distinction to be made here – which is the same distinction that I made between Israel and Hezbullah. It is the distinction between intentionally taking an innocent life (Hezbullah firing rockets as Israeli cities intending to kill as many innocent people as possible), and Israel firing at Hezbullah targets with no intention of killing innocent civilians (they would probably be happier if no civilians were killed), but not really concerned enough about innocent life to prevent those deaths.
Similarly, stem cell research (if we accept the assumption that the embryo is a person) involves intentionally killing an innocent person to bring about desired ends (like Hezbullah), versus the war in Iraq which knowingly but unintentionally brought about the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
This, then, leads to the question of the moral legitimacy of misrepresenting somebody else’s view in order to ridicule it. In this case, it involves first making up a claim about what somebody else has done, then laughing at them and holding them up for ridicule for something they did not do. It may be entertaining sport, but is it right?
I know full well that if I were to discover somebody giving an absurd interpretation to something I have written, showing this absurd interpretation to others, and instructing those others that I am a legitimate object of ridicule and contempt on the basis of my holding this view, I tend to react more with anger than with laughter. I tend to react with a fair amount of anger as I say, “You are a liar. That is not what I said. You have twisted my words and attributed to me something that I do not believe, and used these lies to generate a public impression of me that is not at all true.”
This is what John Stewart did with respect to the Bush Administration’s view on stem cell research versus the war in Iraq by failing to make the distinction between intentionally taking a life (which crosses a moral boundary) and knowingly taking a life (which is inevitable in war).
If we take this view and reverse it we get a somewhat different description of the Democratic side of the fence. Democrats, it turns out, are people who are willing to intentionally take the life of a child if some good will come of it, but who are unwilling to even knowingly take innocent life in order to preserve basic human rights (such as the right not to have one’s life intentionally taken for any purpose).
Now, many Democrats deny that a clump of cells lacking desires and interests can be a person, which allows them to justify all sorts of violence against their victims. Yet, it is always the case of those who intentionally do harm to others that they first seek to dehumanize their victims – to conceive of them as some sort of “other” in order to make “justify” the evil they do in their own mind. The slave owners did this to the slaves. The Nazis did this to the Jews. Islamic fundamentalists do this to the infidels. Democrats do this to embryos.
They laugh at Republicans seeking to promote the idea that intentional killing an innocent person others crosses a moral boundary that ought never be crossed the way that Nazis laughed at those who protested the killings of the Jews.
Okay, I know. I am a very anti-fun person who takes all of the enjoyment out of life. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from ridiculing people we do not like, and it is such a spoil sport who robs us of this fun.
Yet, I suspect that many of us know people who write on political issues who make the most horrendous protests when political rivals distort their position in order to ridicule it and make it the object of jokes. And if those political rivals were to claim, “We are just having fun. Quit being such a cry baby,” these writers would protest, “It should not be considered ‘fun’ to distort somebody else’s view for the purpose of making it a joke. If you see a mistake in my position, please have the integrity to give me honest criticism. Don’t misrepresent my views and go around telling people that this is what I really think.”
Ultimately, I think that the Bush Administration makes a serious mistakes. What I am saying here is that it is not a mistake to recognize that there is a moral distinction between intentionally killing a group of children and knowingly killing a group of children – the mistake that John Stewart charges them with. In this case, it is John Stewart who is laughing at others because he cannot recognize a moral distinction of great importance.
The mistake that the Bush Administration makes is that – while, it is true that many villains in history justify their actions by dehumanizing their victims, sometimes these claims are true. We could say that foresters justify the violence with which they commit acts of mass genocide against acres and acres of trees by denying the moral worth of their victims. We could say that the farmer minimizes the moral crime of cutting down acres of wheat only because they are capable of making themselves believe that wheat plants have moral worth. We can say that, in doing this, the lumberjack and the wheat farmer are like the Nazi and the slave owner.
The difference is that Nazis and slave owners denied the moral significance of beings with desires and interests, while lumberjacks and wheat farmers deny the moral significance of beings that lack desires and interests. Of these two, the blob of cells that make up an embryo have more in common with trees and wheat than with Jews and slaves.
Though an embryo may be a necessary ingredient to creating a full-fledged human, it is not a sufficient ingredient. Air and water are also necessary. Yet, air and water molecules are not “persons” in any morally relevant sense.
(Note: Some argue that an embryo is special because, if you leave it alone, it will become a human. When, the fact of the matter is that if you leave an embryo alone, and do not nurture and feed it, it will die.)
Also, evidence suggests, as I have argued, the Bush Administration treats knowingly killing innocent people far too lightly. The Administration is correct to note that there is a moral distinction between intentionally and knowingly taking a life. The Administration is wrong to treat the former as absolutely prohibited and the latter as morally trivial.
Yet, they still recognize a distinction between intentionally and knowlingly killing -- a distinction that some critics seem to lack the ability to grasp.