A moral anecdote that I don’t know exactly what to do with

Recently my wife told me about an argument she had many years ago with a political philosopher who, though  he was very Catholic on most life issues, was in favor of embryonic stem cell research since he thought it showed promise of helping his diabetic wife. His objection, though it didn’t convince my wife, nevertheless stopped the argument cold, since no one feels fit to argue for the continuation of another person’s suffering. If the argument was made with sufficient vigor, it would probably persuade the majority of people just as it persuaded this extremely intelligent (and rather famous) political and moral philosopher.

After my wife told me the story I asked her “don’t you wish he would have given you that argument now?” (our two-year-old son is a type 1 diabetic- lifetime insulin dependent, sugar tests four to six times a day, controlled diet and exercise routines, etc.) My wife, who had mentioned the argument in the random context of telling me about what happened the last time she was at some restaurant in Hollywood, was taken aback by the irony and laughed. It wouldn’t even cross her mind to change her position on ESCR because of our son. I honestly don’t feel  the least temptation to change my mind, and I’m horrified at the thought of even feeling tempted to change.

My point here is not about ESCR. One could replace ESCR with some other moral problem and make the same point- which is that It seems more the case that our morals shape our opinion of our sufferings than our sufferings shape our morals. Our moral convictions are more verified or brought out by suffering than changed by it. That famous moral philosopher wanted his wife to be taken as the justification for an act that I would be horrifed to have anyone commit for the sake of my son.


  1. Mike said,

    November 29, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Suppose it were not merely “embryos” but “embryos of Africans” that supposedly held the promise that the lame would walk and the blind would see and the diabetics be cured? Would that change someone’s mind?

  2. a thomist said,

    November 29, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I was struck by a cynical bolt of lightning shortly after reading this. One of five responses would be possible if your scenario came to pass:

    1.) Some news editor would spend the whole night trying to come up with a scientific sounding euphemism for “African Embryos”

    2.) The media would discover the great virtues of “colorblind reporting”.

    3.) Libertarians would gush about new possibilities for African industry.

    4.) Academics would do whatever is most cowardly and irrational.

    5.) Everybody would be mildly outraged for a slightly longer news cycle.

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