The Spectacle Blog

Stem Cell Honesty

By on 7.7.06 | 11:07AM

Michael Kinsley should have read Robert George and Eric Cohen's op-ed on stem cells in the Post yesterday before he weighed in today.

Kinsley's article is a self-parody of his third-way liberalism. He compliments pro-lifers "as that rarity in modern American politics: a strong interest group defending the interest of someone other than themselves." Be careful: when a columnist lays on such heavy compliments, he is softening his target for the sucker punch.

He delivers in the next sentence:

Or so I always thought -- until the arrival of stem cells. Moral sincerity is not impressive if it depends on willful ignorance and indifference to logic. Not every opponent of stem cell research deserves to have his or her debater's license taken away. There are a few, no doubt, who are as horrified by fertility clinics as they are by stem cell research, and a subset of this subset may even be doing something about it. But these people, if they exist, are not a political force strong enough to stop a juggernaut of medical progress that so many other people are desperate to encourage. The vast majority of people who oppose stem cell research either haven't thought it through, or have thought it through and don't care.

I wish they would think again.

Kinsley is gambling that opponents of federally funded embryonic stem cell research are not willing to extend their moral logic to in-vitro fertilization. Examples would be helpful here, because most morally serious writers do oppose both -- George and Cohen addressed the subject this week. President Bush has suggested as much by touting "embryo adoption," whereby mothers carry such discarded embryos to term.

Both embryonic stem cell research and in vitro fertilization are wrong because of their violence toward human life. But Kinsley doesn't bother to engage this principle or moral reasonsing. Instead, he levels the cheap charge of hypocrisy: because the believers of a moral principle do not consistently apply it, that principle must be invalid.

Jeremy Lott dismisses such poor reasoning in his excellent book In Defense of Hypocrisy. Using hypocrisy against the underlying moral principle is just a weak attack on morality in general.

If embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) proponents hope to win over pro-lifers, they will have to dig up better moral thinkers than Michael Kinsley. He commits basic moral errors such as thinking that two wrongs make a right, and fails to distinguish between the intentional killing inherent in ESCR and the unintended death of embryos in the course of "normal human reproduction." Intellectually honest writers engage the ideas of their opponents, rather than reducing them to convenient caricatures.

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