March 12, 2004

Cloning, Values, and Emotions

The very day after I write a review of C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, a book in which Lewis argues for the notion of "objective value" or "natural law", I read this post on Banana Oil. The post is a hodgepodge of linkage; the second entry down deals with Leon Kass and the president's Council on Bioethics.

I don't really want to talk about cloning here, as I've not thought much about it. What I find fascinating are some comments made on both sides. Ian quotes a post which says, in part,

[Leon] Kass [Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics] has written in the past about how we should base our moral judgments in part on what he calls "the wisdom of repugnance." In other words, the feeling you get in your bones that something is wrong is a reliable guide to what really is wrong.

Ian's response:

It is genuinely sad that both left and right in the US now believe that feelings trump facts and reason. There can be no productive argument in such a situation. One side feels one way, the other side another, both say so, and then the name-calling begins.

I don't know to what extent the quoted post is an accurate description of Kass's belief....but if it is, it seems to me that what Kass is saying is that some things are objectively wrong--wrong on the face of it. His mistake is in using the language of emotion, rather than the language of natural law.

In my experience, I might add, the feeling in my bones that something is wrong is always worth listening to. In technical matters, it's called the voice of experience; in moral matters, it's called the voice of conscience. Please note, I don't say that this voice is invariably correct--sometimes the problem is in my understanding, and sometimes I'm simply confused. But it's always worth listening to.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 12, 2004 09:38 AM

Ian said:

Carl Zimmer's full post goes into greater detail, making it clear that it is not only the "language of emotion."

In the April issue of Discover, [Zimmer has] an article about one of the leaders in this new field of "neuro-morality," a philospher-neuroscientist named Joshua Greene at Princeton University. Greene argues that feeling that something is right or wrong isn't the same as recognizing that two and two make four, or that the sky is blue.

An example Virginia Postrel used elsewhere (can't find the link, sorry) was that in the late 1960s the majority of Americans were against in vitro fertilization - something like 60% said it was immoral. In the late 1980s, over 80% were in favor of it.

I did not mean to imply that "gut feeling" should be dismissed outright. But neither should it be one's first or only guide.

Ian said:

And lest I be misunderstood, some things are objectively wrong. But to me objective means you can refer to reality and logic to demonstrate your point, not that it is so obvious that argument is futile.

Again, if you rely on feelings and nothing more, then what makes my feelings more objective than those of an EarthFirst freak, or of an al Qaeda operative?

I'm just waking up, so this probably all seems hostile. If so, I do not mean it. Simply defending my position.

Will Duquette said:


We've all been raised to think that good ideas can be defended logically, and that we shouldn't base our judgements on mere feeling. Nor should we base our judgements on mere feeling.

In practice, though, we can only defend the value of an idea or action by invoking some other value. Ultimately, we either get to a value that both parties agree is self-evident--or we don't reach agreement at all.

And a typical argument used by moral innovators is to deny that a particular value is self-evident--to deny that certain actions are wrong on the face of it. No matter that most men in most times and places would agree that these actions are wrong and self-evidently wrong; suddenly the burden of proof is on those who would uphold the established order.

And one of the symptoms of this is the notion that if I can't give logical reasons for why I believe a particular action to be wrong, then I must be judging based on my feelings alone. It's Lewis' argument that this is not necessarily the case; and the wise of most recorded generations agree with him.

Will Duquette said:

Oh, and I apologize for picking on you; your post just happened to be conveniently timed.

Phil said:

Will, your point is the reason I've read some apologists ask their questioner whether he honestly believes killing a child on stage or whatever example given is right, and when the questioner admits that he doesn't believe it's right to do that, then the apologists reply, "Well, we agree on that; so let's move on to the issues you truly doubt." It helps move beyond the theoretical to the practical.

In the same way when discussing the Gospel, a person may ask, "What about the Africans who never hear aobut Jesus? Are they going to hell without even having a chance to believe?" The repsonse is "God will have to deal with them Himself. Let's focus on your response to His message."

Will Duquette said:

Phil, I'm afraid I'm not following your comment. Could you elaborate?

Will Duquette said:

I should add, in case I wasn't clear, that Lewis isn't suggesting that all moral dilemmas admit of self-evident, axiomatic solutions. Clearly they do not. Much as a proposition is established logically from the facts via a chain of intuitively obvious steps, so moral decisions are based on a chain of reasoning. This chain must ultimately be based on the axioms of natural law--on axiomatic, self-evident values. He explains this very clearly--more clearly than in The Abolition of Man in his essay "Why I am not a pacifist", reprinted in the book The Weight of Glory.

Phil said:

I think my comment is poorly written. Sorry.

Your point is that some things are self-evident, just as Paul writes at the beginning of Romans. "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Like you said, if someone refuses to acknowledge that he has understanding of plain or self-evident ideas, then you can't get anywhere with him.

That's the reason an apologist turns a broad, theoretical question back to one about personal conviction. Someone arguing that morality has no foundation in reality, that it's relative to an individual, may say, "How do we know killing children is wrong?" The apologist says, "Well, do you honestly believe it's wrong to do that?"

"Yeah, but that's just me."

"Then let's talk about an issue you honestly wrestle with," meaning let's avoid pretending that we don't agree with our current moral sense and build a moral understanding on what little foundation we have.

Will Duquette said:


Ah! Yes, absolutely. I hadn't made that connection, but yes, that's a good way to handle that.