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Prior Knowledge

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Morally Right ?

Here is one of the questions that I am having difficulty in grasping.
Let us take the case of
A fire that has just started at a scientist's office (who works on stem cell research and the development of embryos and has just successfully developed the ideal set of 6 embryos). The doors of the office are unusable for exit since the fire has covered the entire corridor.So the fire brigade arrives and the fireman comes in through the window. He can only take one (thing) back.
Now, does he :
a) Rescue the scientist and let the embryos perish?
b) Rescue the embryos and let the scientist perish?

[First i would like to propose this to all the bloggers and then maybe put what i have figured out across!]

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16 Comments:

  • Well my vote is for the Scientist, as far as I can tell embyros are not morally considerable. Where as typically scientists are :)

    8/16/2005 06:21:00 PM  

  • Yeah, the scientist does seem the obvious choice. He has interests that would be thwarted by his death. The embryos don't have any interests (yet). They merely have the potential to develop into something else (i.e. a person) that would have interests.

    It seems worse for real interests to suffer than it is for merely potential interests to never be realized. (Billions of potential people fail to be conceived every day, yet we don't usually consider contraception or abstinence to be harmful.)

    So, the scientist has far greater intrinsic moral value than the embryos. But perhaps the embryos have great instrumental value? Just how "ideal" are they -- would they end up vastly improving the world? If so, consequentialism might recommend "saving" them instead. (Of course, as with the organ harvesting doctor, we should be suspicious of any real-life attempts to implement such reasoning, since it's so likely to misfire.)

    8/16/2005 06:51:00 PM  

  • The scientist. The the stem cell research can be duplicated, but not the scientist.

    8/17/2005 05:13:00 AM  

  • There is no morally right thing here. There are two morally wrong things to choose from.

    Ergo, whichever you choose, you choose a wrong.

    Personally, I would choose the scientist, since I would not want to be clobbered to a pulp by his irate widow (who would have a point). But that would still not make my choice morally right.

    8/17/2005 12:24:00 PM  

  • Being a firm skeptic about tragic dilemnas I have to disagree with Anonymous here, it is not the case that both actions are morally wrong (Since that would mean the agent is blameworthy) it is simply that either outcome is regretable.

    8/17/2005 11:17:00 PM  

  • I vote embryos.

    Say the ideal set of 6 could be used to treat tons of people, and the scientific principles could be reproduced.

    Then the scientist died a hero, and he has still succeeded to heal tons of people.

    Hrm - maybe not. Think I change my vote to the scientist.

    8/18/2005 01:57:00 PM  

  • I think most people would say save the scientist because lurking in the background is a view that embryos are merely collections of cells that have no more moral status than say a fingernail.

    So to make the case interesting, consider this variation:
    Case X:
    Assume embryos have the same status as babies. Think of them as little babies. Now the choice is:
    a) Rescue the scientist and let the embryos (babies) perish?
    b) Rescue the embryos (babies) and let the scientist perish?

    Richard seems to think the babies
    "don't have any interests (yet). They merely have the potential to develop into something else (i.e. a person) that would have interests"
    so he'd let the babies perish (Richard you cad!)


    Another way to make the case interesting is this:
    Case Z:
    Assume these and only these six embryos contain a stem cell cure for cancer. This cure could be developed by other scientists (ie the scientist isn't the only one who could develop the cure)

    Now I'd say save the embryos.

    8/19/2005 05:28:00 PM  

  • Although it didn't come out in my post, these two counterexamples were some of the orignal justification for me voting for the embyros. (I think embyros have value, just as other living things do)

    But, the scientist still wins out in the end.

    Case X: The "babies's" life purpose is to be destroyed, and harvested for stem cells. We are being asked to grant the value of personhood to an embryo, but we are forgetting that they will die anyway.

    (You can't* get stem cells without destroying the embyros)

    So, we are killing 7 people if we save the embyros, rather than 6 if we do not.

    Case Z: This case asks us to not to consider the scientist as necessary to future life. We should retain the embyros, becasue they are more important.

    But, all embryos are equally fine in terms of their potential to cure cancer. And, surely the scientist, who created the technique would be the best one to reproduce it. Therefore the scientist is again more important.

    Go the scientist.

    *There are a bunch of new techniques which may not require the destruction of the embryo in order to get benefit.

    8/21/2005 02:27:00 PM  

  • Hmm, I would have to say the scientist. As Richard noted the embryos(babies) have no immediate claim to be preferenced over the scientist.

    It is I think a little misleading and disingenuous to make it the case that the babies will go onto do great things or serve some great purpose. We could probably all make that claim about someone's future children or their children and if we kill them then we have eliminated what could have been the end to all disease.

    However, those considerations are minimal in my mind. Further, in a case like this, the decision is really kind of spontaeous. If the firefighter saved the embryos he get yelled at and if he did likewise with the scientist he would as anon said be clobbered and probably sued by the irate widow.

    9/10/2005 01:01:00 AM  

  • I don't know if the embyros need to have a great purpose in order to be valuable. The fact that they're alive makes them valuable, doesn't it?

    9/14/2005 01:25:00 PM  

  • t, the embryos are presumably deep frozen, in what way are they alive - i am not saying they are dead. this has always kind of bothered me

    9/15/2005 09:08:00 PM  

  • I have been asking my classes just this question for the past three years or so (actually, I have an unconscious secretary and a cooler with hundreds of embryos).

    Only one student in that entire time (I've asked literally hundreds at this point) have chosen the embryos. A vast majority of them think that whoever would choose the embryos should be punished severely by the law. They said they would convict this person of whatever crime they committed and seemed to hope this would be a criminal offense.

    What I think is interesting about this is that my students are predominantly religious conservatives. If asked, they will say that embryos are persons. If asked, they will more likely than not say that embryos have a right not to be destroyed. If you do not ask these questions and put these kinds of concrete questions to them, they do not respond in ways you might predict. There is quite simply no number of embryos they would rescue.

    [Oh, I thought I should respond to to think113. The suggestion is interesting, but it seems that embryos are no more duplicable in theory than scientists. Each is a unique particular thing, as is the scientist, but even if we had some crazy machine that could make molecule for molecule duplicates of the scientist that couldn't duplicate embryos, I'm still in favor of saving the scientist].

    9/22/2005 05:06:00 AM  

  • Mathew: I don't think being frozen is necessarily a major. Although you are right, that the embyro can no longer carry out any function when frozen, it is more akin to the pause button than the stop button. When considering your point, I found it helpful to consider adult human beings in cryostasis. They are verging on death also, in the sense that they cannot carry out any of the functions of a living creature. But, that doesn't mean that they are dead yet. There is that extra step required to kill them.

    Claton: I too find that really startling. If embyros are to be treated as morally equivalent to adult humans, the should aim to minimise loss of life, therefore we should save the embyros.

    The point about the criminal conviction is also really amazing. I find it astonishing that you people would want to criminalise helping that doesn't help who you want. Of course it seems a little odd to say that we have a duty to save hundreds of embyros - if they are people then I think we must.

    9/22/2005 12:35:00 PM  

  • maybe the point is that firemen are suposed to have a job. you rely on them to make the decision you pay them to make (and expect) - it would be a bit of a breach of contract to save the embryos UNLESS it was the cancer case in which case he would get a parade.

    10/20/2005 09:44:00 PM  

  • Looking at this rationally, the fireman is executing his job, he will not have been informed of the embyros and even had he been informed his job is to move "people" out of harms way. Morally or not he will execute his job and save the scientist.

    9/27/2006 01:35:00 PM  

  • Along the lines of what Simon Clarke is suggesting (hi Simon), I have a paper on this matter that could be of interest:

    http://www.smatthewliao.com/texts/embrescue.pdf

    8/12/2007 02:23:00 AM  

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