Liberals, progressives, and biotechnology.

Science, technology, and life.
July 13 2007 3:14 PM

Rights and Wrongs

Liberals, progressives, and biotechnology.

Leon Kass, leader of the neocon pack
Click image to expand.
Leon Kass, leader of the neocon pack

This week, some big thinkers about biotechnology came to Washington for a "progressive bioethics summit." They invited me to go and talk to them. I like these people, but I'm not a progressive. I don't even think the word makes sense. And that made me ask something else: After two and a half years of covering moral debates about stem cells and other technologies, what do I think of this stuff? What the hell am I?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I have problems with liberals. A lot of them talk about religion as though it's a communicable disease. Some are amazingly obtuse to other people's qualms. They show no more interest in an embryo than in a skin cell. It's like I'm picking up a radio signal and they're not. I'd think I was crazy, except that a few billion other people seem to be picking up the same signal. At most liberal bioethics conferences, the main question in dispute, in one form or another, is whether to be more afraid of capitalism or religion.

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I also hate the word progressive. It manages to be arrogant and meaningless at the same time, as though anything the left wants to do is a good idea. I suppose it's no more arrogant than values, the Republican buzzword for whatever conservatives want to do.

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.

I don't like this gamesmanship. I don't even like the idea of taking a general position on biotechnology. The field is just too big and complicated to fit an ideology. In science, things change much more radically than in politics. One month, we're screening embryos for diseases, and everybody's happy. The next month, we're screening embryos for their suitability as tissue donors, and everybody's queasy. One year, ethanol is a corn product and makes no sense. The next year, it's a switchgrass product and makes a lot of sense. I like having the freedom to soak my head in a new topic and come out saying the opposite of what I expected. Committing to a political identity would just get in the way.

Then what 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.

So I went to talk to them last night. I bitched about the atheism, the talking points, and the word progressive. I made a pitch for my version of liberalism. The freedom to strip-mine embryos, have a baby at 60, or kill yourself can't be the end of the story. Not everything that's legal is moral. The most interesting moral questions aren't the ones you can settle with simple rules. They're the subtle ones you find in literature and real life.

Conservative bioethicists think that when we recoil at something in this gray area, our repugnance signals a moral problem. Liberal bioethicists dismiss this argument as "fuzzy intuitionism" based on an illogical "yuck factor." The liberals are making a big mistake. Fuzz and yuck are very real. They're a lot more real to most people than bioethics is. You can't just ignore them or wish them away. You have to help people sort them out and honor their concerns in a way that doesn't require prohibition. An embryo may be less than a person, but it's more than a tissue source. The government can't stop you from having a baby at 60, but don't be so reckless.

The best way to deal with repugnance is to listen to it, articulate it, and incorporate it. It's part of morality, even when, as an argument for prohibition, it's overruled. The answer to conservatives who believe in one truth is not that there are no truths but that there are many, and this one, while important, isn't final. The result shouldn't be chaos. It should be structure.

That's what I told the liberals last night. And you know what? They listened, asked questions, challenged me, admitted uncertainties, told me some things I didn't know, and gave me new problems to think about. Everything was open for debate: agreement, disagreement, and doubt. As long as it stays that way, I'll be one of them. I think.

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