mad in pursuit journal


Stem Cells & Ethics

After last week's entry on stem cells, I had a good e-mail exchange with Ellen. She has qualms about embryonic stem cell research. I don't. But both of us were careful not to polarize our perspectives. Both of us were willing to poke at the boundaries of our beliefs. The brief dialogue left me thoughtful: what is really at the heart of the issue?

It isn't about "life" per se. That debate will go on for a long time among philosophers, theologians, and scientists. And the lines will continue to be redrawn as new knowledge and new wisdom and new arguments emerge.

For me, I think the issue boils down to whether some actions are intrinsically wrong or situationally wrong. We write laws against actions we feel are intrinsically wrong, but we still have investigations and trials to see what the circumstances were. Murder is wrong... unless you were defending yourself... unless you were insane... etc. Stealing is wrong... but what if you needed bread to feed your children? The other day I heard a religious scholar say: "You do what you gotta do, then argue with God about it later."

"Situational ethics" has a bad name these days. People throw it into the "end justifies the means" bucket. But it has more to do with the long-term consequences of your action.

Situation Ethics is a Christian ethical theory that was principally developed in the 1960s by the Episcopal priest Joseph Fletcher. It basically states that sometimes other moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if love is best served; as Paul Tillich once put it: 'Love is the ultimate law’. The moral principles Fletcher is specifically referring to are the moral codes of Christianity and the type of love he is specifically referring to is 'Agape' love. Agapē is a term which comes from Greek which means absolute, universal, unchanging and unconditional love for all people. Fletcher believed that in forming an ethical system based on love, he was best expressing the notion of 'love thy neighbour', which Jesus Christ taught in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Through Situation Ethics, Fletcher attempted to find a 'middle road' between legalistic and antinomian ethics. Fletcher developed Situation Ethics in his books: The Classic Treatment and Situation Ethics. [Wikipedia]

Many people — Christians, Buddhists, and others — believe there is a moral force in the universe, as real as gravity and magnetism. I wonder about that. Karma is an appealing idea. What goes around, comes around — not necessarily in this life but the next. If you make your choices based on greed and pride, you'll be reincarnated as a beetle. If you make your choices based on compassion, your next life will be better.

Luckily, most of us won't have to face beginning-of-life decisions. But more and more of us will have to face end-of-life decisions. I hope that whoever is presiding over my deteriorating body will make their decision out of compassion and not out of a rule book.

Okay for personal morality and choices, but how do you turn that nuanced decision-making into public policy? Where is the government obliged to invest its money or withdraw its money? Where is agape written about in the Constitution? Oy. Topic for continuing discussion...


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