Human Exceptionalism

Will Saletan Hits a Home Run

I am a big fan of Slate’s Will Saletan. He is a wonderful writer, he has a way of looking evenly at all sides of biotech issues, and even if I don’t always (usually) agree with him, he is always well worth reading and pondering. Saletan scores in his newest column, about attending a “Progressive” bioethics conference. Please read the whole thing, but here are few choice tidbits:

Lately, “progressives” have taken to issuing talking points. Every time a peer-reviewed science journal reports some new way of deriving embryonic stem cells without having to kill embryos, I can count on receiving a “progressive bioethics” e-mail that warns me not to be distracted by such fantasies. Bioethics has become politics by another name.

Why are liberals playing this game? Because conservatives beat them to it. For the past several days, while eating lunch at my desk, I’ve been watching video of the liberals at a conference they held last year. I know, I need to get a life. But the video is kind of poignant. It shows a bunch of nerds commiserating about being beaten up by a gang of bullies. The bullies, according to the nerd movie, are Bush-appointed neoconservative bioethicists who do the bidding of the Christian right.

To fend off the bullies, the nerds have seized on stem cells. Some of them think embryonic stem-cell cures are just around the corner. Others know better but believe in the research anyway. What unites them is awareness that stem cells score very well in polls, much better than anything else on their agenda. Of 32 commentaries posted on the Web page of the “Progressive Bioethics Initiative,” 26 focus on stem cells. Some don’t even address ethics; they just lay out the polls. Stem cells are a chance for liberal bioethicists to beat the living daylights out of their opponents.

Good stuff. I have noticed too, that many on the Left are substantially reactive, which gives the “religious right” a lot of power: They get to decide what they believe and, because “the Left” reflexively take the opposite view, they get to decide what “progressives” believe, too.

Saletan then pronounces why he is a liberal, about which I have a bone to pick:

[W]hat makes me think I’m still a liberal? I guess it’s a stubborn belief that liberalism isn’t whatever dogmas currently possess this or that lefty camp. Liberalism is an admission of uncertainty. It’s open to self-correction and to the complexity and unpredictability of life. Many ethicists and other self-described liberals don’t fit or accept that definition. But I do.

No, that is a relativist. People need to be open-minded, sure. Open to persuasion and new ideas, absolutely. But not uncertain about critical truths. Indeed, liberals of my era were not at all uncertain. They were for civil rights unequivocally. They were against Vietnam, unequivocally. They believed that it was the duty of government and society to protect the weak and vulnerable, unequivocally.

What went wrong with liberalism, in my view–or better stated, one of the many things that went wrong–was that it lost its certainty about the intrinsic value of human life. So today, true liberals are called neo-cons. Go figure.

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