The Corner

Derb On Embryos

Thanks, Ramesh. I guess we part company, as usual, where you say: “I think it would be wrong for the state to require parents to do a genuinely wrongful act–indeed, that parents would have a moral obligation to defy such a requirement. (Note that the wrongness or rightness of the requirement turns on whether the act is genuinely right or wrong. It does not depend on what the parents happen to believe about it or the sources of their conviction.)”

The phrase “genuinely right or wrong” implies an absolute frame of moral reference, which the people of the U.S.A., collectively, have not got. We “happen to believe” all sorts of contradictory things, drawn from many different sources. The trick is to get sufficient common agreement that we can write legislation and enforce it without inciting social disorder. Not many Americans think it is flagitious to destroy a week-old blastocyst. Not many Americans think it is not flagitious to destroy a nine-month fetus.

(I’m with the majority on both points.) So somewhere between the one week and the nine months we have to draw a line.

The line is an arbitrary one, of course; but absent common agreement on the underlying metaphysics, it has to be. Legal lines of this kind usually are. You can vote at age 18 in my state, but there is no implied metaphysical assumption that you suddenly acquire political wisdom at midnight on your 18th birthday. It’s just that a line must be drawn, and we put our heads together and agree where to draw it… Reserving the right to change our minds and draw it somewhere else if collective opinion changes, or if science uncovers some relevant fact. (Voting age used to be 21. We changed it, by common agreement. Something similar is happening in Britain with abortion law, as a result of improved womb-imaging techniques.)

If that sounds cold-blooded, I must say, the absolutist position seems to me more so. Human beings are much more social animals than they are metaphysical animals. We get along, and build societies and civilizations, by coming to common agreements on topics like this, after discussion and reflection, after grudging compromises and fudging of differences–hardly ever by whacking each other over the head with metaphysical theorems. Only intellectuals like to do that. The rest of us just want some sensible rules so we can get on with our lives in a society not racked by disorder.

I shall now get a flood of emails telling me that this is a deplorably “British” point of view.

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