The Wisdom of Doubt, Part II

Yesterday President Bush vetoed a bill that would have provided for federal funding of some embryonic stem cell research. John Amato writes,

He falsely asked for Congress to stop politicizing Stem Cell research, but that’s what he did today and took a ridiculous moral position. This is why we need separation of Church and State. Religion cannot dictate Science. Here’s the role call of the vote … Update: Fact Check Bush on Stem Cell via The Democratic Caucus’s Senate Journal. 68 percent support funding, in the latest ABC/Post poll to measure views on the issue, in April.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times,

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said during a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He called America “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.”

Picking up where the last post left off … Our culture places a high value on certainty and considers not-knowing a flaw. And moral clarity is ballyhooed as the sine qua non of all that is Good and Righteous.

As I’ve written elsewhere, achieving moral clarity is remarkably easy.

First, take a firm and inflexible position on a moral question. Then, studiously ignore any factors that might call that opinion into question. If the factors refuse to go away, make up lies to neutralize them.

See? Nothin’ to it.

If you are foolish enough to take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear. In fact, the more gut-level honest you are about a messy, unpleasant issue, the less clear you are likely to be. And this is a problem for conservatives, who by nature cannot stand ambiguity. One of the most basic traits of conservatives, in fact, is a compulsion to sort the world into rigid binary categories — right and wrong, good and evil, white and black. Any muddling of categories sends them into nervous fits. But once all things and all issues are properly sorted, they can relax and bask in their moral clarity.

The standard way to achieve moral clarity on the abortion issue, for example, is to completely disregard women. Examples of such “clear” moralizing include this op ed by Dean Barnett and this one by Michael Gerson. See also Digby:

This is not the first time I’ve heard this argument and it’s always quite compelling to hear a man make such a stark and simple logical argument about something which others seem to find so complicated. I suspect that is because there is one person involved in this great moral question who is rarely mentioned in such pieces. In fact, if you read the whole thing you will find that this man has managed to write an entire article about fetuses, pregnancy and abortion without even noting in passing the fully formed sentient human being involved so intimately in this that the whole argument takes place inside her body.

Abortion presents a painful choice, and although I oppose criminalization I understand why people agonize over this issue. But embryonic stem cell research? Particularly when there are boatloads of frozen embryos that will almost certainly be discarded anyway? You’re balancing the “rights” of a cluster of frozen cells against sentient children and adults suffering from terrible diseases. I see absolutely nothing “ethical” in Bush’s veto.

Weirdly, people who have “moral clarity” that embryonic stem cell research is bad often are compelled to lie — to us, to each other, to themselves — about the facts of the embryonic stem cell issue.

Satyam writes for Think Progress:

Faced with the opposition of nearly two-thirds of Americans, White House spokesperson Tony Snow today attempted to spin the veto as a positive development. Snow claimed that Bush has a “unique and unprecedented role” in supporting stem cell research, and attacked critics for “misstating” the administration’s policies, claiming that Bush was in fact “putting science before ideology.”

In an attempt to drum up support for less potent alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, Snow falsely characterized the science behind stem cell research, claiming scientists “are not even entirely sure about what the possible benefits of embryonic stem cells [are].” …

…Snow’s claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. Contrary to what Snow says, Bush has held a backwards and overly ideological perspective on scientific research. In 2001, Bush neutered the ability of scientists to engage in stem cell research by curbing funding for new embryonic lines. In 2006, he vetoed legislation lifting those restrictions. Even Bush’s top scientists have criticized him for these actions.

Currently, “not a single scientist who is pursuing research on any kind of cell has said that research involving embryonic stem cells should stop.” And scientists have seen potential treatments from embryonic stem cell research for a variety of ailments.

The only thing stopping federally-funded stem cell research from progressing is the White House’s insistence on putting right-wing ideology ahead of science.

UPDATE: More on the administration’s misinformation here and here.

As I said, whenever any messy facts get between you and moral clarity, just lie about them. That’s the ticket.

There is something self-evidently screwy about “ethics” that value frozen blastocysts above children and adults suffering and dying from terrible disease. But “moral clarity” on the stem cell issue — born of a stubborn refusal to look at all facets of the issue honestly — results in myriad unfortunate side effects. As explained here, for example, thanks to morally clear policies doctors performing in vitro fertilization cannot research ways to reduce multiple births. And multiple births increase the risks for both babies and mothers.

In other words, the rigid “right-to-life” policy is killing babies.

Essentially, “moral clarity” is about bullshitting yourself. It’s about not dealing honestly and compassionately with all aspects of a moral issue. Instead, the “morally clear” begin with the position they want to take and work backward to justify it, scamming themselves and others when necessary to achieve the desired outcome. This twisted way of achieving “clarity” is founded in the dualistic thinking Glenn Greenwald writes about. This dualism assumes one side of an issue must be “good” and the other must be “bad.” Thus, in much anti-choice literature embryos can talk and women who choose abortions are either ignored or assumed to have evil or selfish motivations. But real-world moral issues often involve multiple “good” sides. It is actually quite rare for people and facts to so neatly sort themselves into “good” and “bad” boxes as the morally clear want to sort them. And by achieving “clarity” based on lies and false assumptions, the “clarifiers” actually create more pain and complication.

Moral clarity takes inflexible positions based on rigid, narrow concepts of good and bad, life and death, self and other; see the “One Watch” series for further explanation of this. The morally clear like to talk about “standing firm.” The philosophical Taoists would tell you this is a bone-headed and disastrous way to approach morality. The Tao (way) is harmonious and does not take sides. Taoists call the Tao “soft,” and like water it naturally finds its best course without having to be forced. You understand it not by its actions but by its effects. The American Right is the Anti-Tao, always striving to impose their hard will on others and refusing to acknowledge how much harm they do and how much suffering they cause.

In John Wu’s translation of verse 38 of the Tao Teh Ching (Shambhala, 1989), I think the word ceremony can be read as either “organized religion” or “social convention.” I say that because other translations use ritual or etiquette instead of ceremony. Other than that, I think the verse applies as well to 21st century America as it did to China in 500 BCE.

High virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.

High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.

High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds to response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.

Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.

As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.

Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.

See also:Mr. Bush’s Stem Cell Diversion.” Click here for The Mahablog stem cell archives.

16 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part II

  1. I have long held curiosity about the anti-abortion/pro lifer’s thoughts and feelings that fuel such stridency. They want to protect the fetus that can not protect itself from death and so appear to project a strong resonance with the experience of helplessness in the context of survival.

    In the instance of anti-abortion Christians there may be a connection to the roots of historical persecution embedded in their meta-psychology. Human beings have strong reactions to differences in others, especially at the ethnocentric level of tribes and clans, and when the difference is great enough humans will kill it. In their claims of exclusive validity (No way to the father except through [Jesus]) Christians in the one-up position make themselves different and IMO precipitate much of the hostility directed at them (My Jesus is red hot, your X ain’t doodly squat).

    So while acting from their conscious moral position about preserving helpless life are they unconsciously acting out their paranoia about not only the expectation of rejection, but of persecution and elimination?

    BTW, knowing you don’t have enough to read in preparation for the panel on religion, (ahem), I have found Anthony F.C. Wallce’s, Religion An Anthropological View of some interest.

  2. Those I call the Bushistas do often care most about the flower than the fruit. Or more correctly, the description of the flower with the attached sound bite in the media coverage. Not the fruit, not the flower, but the wire service photo of the flower, if you will.

    Perhaps because they start with the position they want to take and work backwards to the “moral” justification, but the “principles” they espouse as justifications seem never to apply in the same way twice. In this speech, Bush said “Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” yet we daily destroy human life in Iraq, and all manner of vile behavior is being justified by dubious claims that it will ‘save American lives’.

    It’s not only their ‘moral certainty’ that I find annoying, it’s the way they combine it with ‘moral simplification’, inevitably, as you say, ignoring the difficult (and obvious) complexities.

    And they keep simplifying! It was not so long ago that someone in Bush’s position would have said “innocent human life” when referring to that bunch of cells in liquid nitrogen, which at least suggests an awareness that sometimes societies do find it ethical to take human life, when it isn’t ‘innocent.’ But nowadays they don’t even bother with that trapping of a more complex moral argument. So, being reduced to utter simplicity in each situation, no single example of ‘morality’ can be used as a guide for any other question.

    And they accuse people on the left of ‘situational ethics’!

    One thing they were working hard to ignore yesterday was why, if indeed America believes in “the principle that all human life is sacred”, and indeed America believes those frozen cells are human life, why are we going to throw them all away, and not even dignify their ‘sacrifice’ by giving them a chance to die in defense of their nation from the scourge of disease? Why doesn’t Bush “support the blastocysts in their fight against the enemy!”? Does he want us to lose?

  3. Often wondered if the fundie love of fetuses is because the fetus is without “original sin”? Certainly once the little bugger is born it’s a whole new ballgame. OTOH, Terri Schiavo seems to say that it’s all about helplessness, vulnerability.

    It’s a (perhaps morbid) fascination of mine – how they manage to completely sweep out the middle. On one side you’ve got life with holiness fairly dripping from its pores; on the other side dirty rotten subhuman scum who deserve everything our defense contractors / jailors / Ann Coulter can dream up.

  4. Ron Reagan was on Hardball supporting your position last night.

    “Morality is about suffering and blastocysts do not suffer”.

    This distinction between embryos and blastocysts is not ancillary to the discussion. Whatever position one wants to take on the appropriate point abortion becomes morally untenable, the blastocyst has no human form. Once again we are governed by silly counterproductive positions.

    Further quoting Ron, “So, apparently, if you use these pre-embryos to develop life-saving therapies, you are committing murder. If you throw them into a dumpster, however, that appears to be, I don‘t know, spring cleaning perhaps”.

  5. If I may play devil’s advocate a bit, fundie Christianity places great emphasis on knowing right from wrong. There are many stories in the bible about how people or cultures went astray because they lost the ability to make this basic discrimination. These lessons are perpetually retold to get this fundamental point across.

    I’ll go further and say that moral clarity is a basic need for most people, regardless of belief. The basis for my own leftie outrage over the far right/the Bush years is: How could these people be so morally obtuse? How can they be so ignorant and defiant of basic moral and spiritual laws, that they themselves claim to follow? How can they not know right from wrong? Or not care?

    What’s troubling in the conservative psyche is not the need for moral clarity, it’s their lack of honesty about the real world – as you put it, they’re bullshitting themselves. This lets them take the easy answers instead of wrestling with the ambiguity inherent in most real world situations. In this way, they never grow as people, and they become morally lazy. They become the people who most badly need to hear the lessons fundie Christianity is trying to preach to, were it being honest as well.

  6. Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” Mr. Bush said during a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

    Isn’t that what war is all about?

  7. Laying aside the apparant ethical contradictions that are characteristic of the last six and a half years of this administration, i have been questioing what claim to morality can be made by the anti-stem cell research bunch when the source of the conflict is not addressed. To be consistently ethical, the Bush administration would have to address the source of the moral dilemma– kinda like destroying the coca bush to eliminate crack. Why aren’t the right-facing anti-stem cell folks calling for restrictions on the procedures and clinics that produce oodles of extra fertilized eggs as a matter of course. Could it be that such consistent morality would not fit on a bumper sticker, or at least one that fit on the luxury vehicles of the medical science and scientists who have made production of fertilized eggs for heart-sick wanna parents and mega-million dollar industry?

  8. He called America “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.”

    This coming from the man who started the most egregious war ever! He has killed approximately 600,000 innocent Iraqi people, including women children and the elderly! He has tortured other human beings including children! Give me a break! Why aren’t people laughing out loud in his face????!!!!!! I have absolutely, positively no respect for this scumbag.

  9. I had nowhere else to share this, and this post made me think of this:

    Shall we be led by those who seek
    The truth or those whose truth is found
    In volumes deep with faith so bound
    To tie us to the bloody ground
    With query signaling the weak
    Whose truth the seekers dare not speak
    For enemies might hear the sound
    Of those who seek to heal the wound
    Or those who seek to know beyond
    The truth of those whose truth is found
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    We seek we find we have not found
    Only the drum and angry pound
    Of flesh exacted without cause
    We cannot know the truth that was
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    God give us faith to doubt
    Let all the truth come out
    Lead us to those who seek
    The truth
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    Infallible unshakable
    Apparently unbreakable
    Gotta keep movin’ on …

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