Utilitarian Philosophies Bless Morally Suspect Bio-Tech Advances

We now receive the news that biologists are taking cells from very young human embryos and multiplying them in petri dishes. These cells are so primitive, they are so early in their development, that they may be able to develop into various kinds of tissue to be used in curing diseases or to grow human skin or cartilage. These developments in biology seem to be coming along faster than our ability to think about them ethically.

Almost everyone wants to act morally. Regrettably the kind of ethical thinking which is dominant in the United States is one which is derived mostly from English and American thought and is ill-suited for helping us make moral decisions about these challenging developments in biotechnology.

England and the United States have been the sources of the industrial and technological revolutions which have radically altered our life on earth. But the techniques which worked very effectively to enhance manufacturing are now being applied to human beings, so that in the realm of biotechnology, the human person is increasingly viewed as a machine which can be altered and/or discarded, not according to the laws of morality but according to the laws of efficiency.

Philosophers in England developed an approach to morality which considered human actions good or bad according to their utility, their usefulness. Their measuring stick for determining if something was right or wrong was a function of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

If you asked these philosophers what constituted “the greatest good,” they responded that it was whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. It can easily be seen how such a philosophy would come to value only those humans capable of enjoying the greatest pleasure. Those who can no longer “enjoy” life may indeed, according to this kind of thinking, be locked in “a life not worth living” and would be better off dead. There is no question that such thinking lies behind the abortion and euthanasia movements in our day.

Such a way of thinking was easily exported to the United States, where it was developed into a “philosophy” known as pragmatism. Americans have enjoyed remarkable growth in wealth and power because they are very pragmatic. They look at a problem and find ways to solve it, without being bound by old ways of doing things. This may work very well in manufacturing, but it is a poor way to deal with human beings.

The man who developed pragmatism was a professor at Harvard named William James. He applied the same measuring stick to both thinking and to acting. Does it work? As he put it, “the true ... is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving.” Whatever works is true; whatever works is good.

Joseph Fletcher was an Episcopal theologian who worked hard to introduce this way of thinking into Christian circles. He developed what he called “Situation Ethics.” He insisted that we could judge something to be good or bad only by its consequences. As he said, “for the situationist there are no rules—none at all.” He did not shrink from teaching that “the end justifies the means.”

Fletcher one time addressed a Planned Parenthood convention and had reassuring words for them. “I want to say carefully and without elaboration: Sex is morally acceptable in any form. Hetero, homo, auto, bi or poly. And looked at from the ethical perspective ... I want to add that what makes any sexual act right or wrong is its consequences.”

This man went on to teach medical ethics at the University of Virginia medical school. It is this kind of thinking which is dominant in the field of biotechnology today. Do we think that the brain cells from unborn babies will help improve the condition of people suffering from Parkinson's disease? Well, then we will simply procure the brain cells from them and try it. And we have done just that. Do we need organs to transplant? Does this dying person have a life worth living? Clearly not, in the minds of these people. So let's not wait until they die before we harvest their organs. We will put these poor people out of their misery, and we will have fresh organs to use for those who are suffering.

Only one moral tradition will keep us from preying on one another. Only one moral tradition will keep us from reducing human beings to machines or manufactured products or mines from which we harvest organs and cells. It is the moral tradition of Moses, of the noble pagan physician Hippocrates, and of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the moral tradition which insists that the human person is noble, that he is the image of the divine and therefore sacred. It is the moral tradition which says that virtually everything which was created can be used for the good of man. There is only one thing which cannot be used for the benefit of the human person—and that is another human person.

Dr. John Haas is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston.