Even Homer Nods
David Gelernter is wrong on his James Dobson criticism.


Hadley Arkes

I count myself an ally of David Gelernter in almost all things, but in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, he offered a stinging reproach to James Dobson for invoking the experience with the Nazis and German science, in drawing lessons that bear on the current argument over embryonic stem cells.

Gelernter’s reflexes, in the past, have been reliably right, but in this case, he was not his usual, precise, just self. In fact, as he accused Dobson of sweeping judgments, without discrimination, he swept quite injudiciously himself. He remarked that “morally serious persons” will be sensitive to the differences between the killing of embryos and “full-fledged human beings.” Just where the difference finally turns he did not finally say, but he remarked that, “It’s not just that embryos … feel no pain when they are destroyed. Not just that they leave no grief-stricken survivors in the sense that full-fledged human beings do, and rip no comparable hole in the community and the universe when they are murdered.” We gauge persons as “morally serious” when they offer morally serious reasons, but surely Gelernter must be aware that these grounds of distinction are patently untenable: The victim who is anaesthetized and feels no pain; the homeless person without relatives who leaves “no grief-stricken survivors” or rips no hole in the memory, and stirs no sense of loss–nothing in these features would establish that these people have lost their standing as “full-fledged human beings.” If the embryonic Joe DiMaggio had been swept away, he would not have left the enduring memory, and sense of loss, that David Gelernter and I may share. But that embryo was distinctly, solely, identically the same being, and he was never anything other than human at any stage.

Gelernter accuses Dobson of being too freewheeling in making comparisons with the Holocaust. Since my wife and I lost members of our own family in the Holocaust, I think I can claim a certain license to object to those too quick to censure all comparison with the Nazi experience. They curiously sail past at least two points that bear on the current controversy over embryonic stem cells, and which cannot be rejected without a certain obtuseness: (1) It was quite wrong to subject Jewish prisoners to lethal experiments even though “they were going to die anyway.” (2) It could have had vast utility, even for people who were not German, to find out just what temperatures the body could sustain in waters freezingly cold. But we seem to understand now that it would have been legitimate to impose a moral refusal on that kind of “research,” even though it would have blocked researchers from investigating what they passionately wished to know, and discover things that might have saved lives.

In the case of stem cells, Gelernter notes that “some Americans support expanded stem-cell research because they are frantic for science to find new cures for desperately ill friends or family members.” He then asks, “Is Dr. Dobson so small-hearted that he can’t cut such people a little slack?” Of course, that connection is quite speculative–there haven’t even been any clinical trials yet of any of the therapies that are projected from the embryonic cells. In striking contrast, there have been dramatic gains through the use of adult stem cells, which don’t require the destroying of human beings in their embryonic stage. Would Gelernter really regard it as hard-hearted if we insisted first on pursuing the research whose dramatic promise has been foretold already by its dramatic accomplishments–while we avoid research that is lethal?

As it turns out, that research conducted by the Nazi doctors did yield some results, which have proved useful for people who have been neither German nor Nazi. And yet, I don’t think David Gelernter would have regarded himself as “small-hearted” if he had refused to “cut such people a little slack” in pursuing their research, hoping to save the humans they happened to care about.

I understand, of course, David Gelernter’s concern: There has been a recent tendency in our politics, to invoke the Nazi analogy in a manner so untethered, so detached from any sober moral judgment, as to be nearly obscene. When George Soros compares George W. Bush to Hitler he suggests that he recognizes no moral difference between a regime of genocide, utterly detached from any restraints, legal and moral, and a conservative administration, operating under the constraints of law, and taking seriously the principles of the American Founding. But James Dobson does not fall into this class. And it would offer a moral instruction, quite as clumsy and wrong, to jump on people who invoke the lessons of the Nazi experience, in the places where those lessons remain chillingly apt.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.


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