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Brent Waters

The most important word in this question is “appropriate,” for it implies that religious traditions and communities are capable of making inappropriate contributions to the public debate on embryonic stem cell research. Yet before we can begin to identify the difference between what is an appropriate and inappropriate contribution, I think we first need to spend some time on defining what we mean by “public,” and describing what type of debate we should be endeavoring to undertake.

What is “public” is not restricted to legislation, legal jurisdiction, activities conducted by governmental agencies or are tax funded. This would mean accepting a very narrow understanding of what is public (as well as what the public is), thereby constraining both the breadth and depth over the morality of embryonic stem cell research.

Rather, a public is comprised of a highly complex nexus of various forms, or social spheres, of human association. These associations may be voluntary or non-voluntary, relatively large or small, formal or informal, highly institutionalized or loosely knit together. Some of these associations may be self-contained, while others are closely related. Moreover, virtually every individual lives in a series of these overlapping associations.

I lift up this image of a series of human associations or social spheres to remind us that public life (and the life of the public) is not simply a relationship between the state and its individual citizens. It is instead mediated by relationships and institutions which comprise civil society. It is within and among such associations as families, religious communities, charitable organizations, corporations and the like (associations which in the US have oddly come to be perceived as “private”) that virtues and values are formed which either serve us well or badly in forming the contours of our common, public life. We learn how to be a public in our daily interactions with neighbors near and far, as well as in addressing political and policy issues.

Consequently, the two most appropriate contributions that religious communities and traditions can offer to the public debate on embryonic stem cell research are as follows:

First, religious communities should keep in mind and remind others of the larger or more expansive public context in which this debate over embryonic stem cell research is being conducted. Admittedly, this debate will be conducted largely with legislators, government agencies, and the courts in mind. Enacting suitable legislation, establishing just policies, and setting legal precedents are certainly important tasks. And religious communities (as well as individuals motivated by religious faith) certainly have a right to influence the course and outcomes of these events. There is much at stake in the laws, policies, and procedures that will delineate and govern this research.

But this is not the only venue in which this debate can or should be conducted. It is not only laws, policies, and procedures that will effect us. Rather, the very manner in which this debate is conducted will have a formative influence on the human associations comprising civil society, as well as our very perception of what it means to be a public. The rhetoric we employ, for example, to describe what an embryo is and what it is not, or how it is related or not related to larger dimensions of human communities will shape our perceptions of the relative strength or weakness of the biological bonds that bind people together, as well as the moral duties and obligations accompanying those bonds. It seems to me that it does make a difference if we come to perceive (at least some) embryos as being more akin to property that can be used, exchanged, or otherwise developed for purposes unrelated to procreation, as opposed to perceiving embryos as in some sense already related to or a part of the human communities which have created them.

Again, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that issues concerning legislation, policies, and funding are trivial or unimportant. But the largely procedural rhetoric that discussions of these issues entail cannot provide an adequate basis for public moral debate that the gravity of embryonic stem cell research requires. Perhaps the most important role religious communities and traditions can play in this debate is to offer richer and deeper vocabularies that take into account a more expansive vision of the life of the public to describe what we are endeavoring to do, and what foreseen and unforeseen consequences we might achieve, in the research now envisioned. In this respect, I believe that religious communities can offer alternative accounts of the bonds of human communities other than a thinly conceived notion of a social contract that can all too easily exclude something like an embryo as an irrelevant consideration in pursuing healthcare goals and objectives.

The second appropriate contribution that religious communities can offer is that they express in as clear and forthright manner as possible the principal beliefs, convictions, and claims that inform their moral assessment of embryonic stem cell research. I realize that I am running counter to the common sense wisdom of our day which insists that it is precisely these larger and divisive declarations that need to be excluded from the public arena. As Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin contend it is turning to “matters of principle” that stifles public moral debate on highly controversial issues.See The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1988).We are better off concentrating on specific objectives and fair procedures for achieving them. By encouraging religious communities to focus on normative beliefs and convictions, we are also submitting ourselves to the “tyranny of principles” because we will become bogged down in interminable and irresolvable debates over such contentious issues as when life begins or when is personhood present. Individuals are, of course, free to hold whatever private opinions or beliefs they may choose about these issues, but they are not admissible for the sake of public deliberation.

Rather, we must create a bland or neutral public vocabulary, reflecting what John Rawls describes as an “overlapping consensus” on a set of minimalist and largely unspoken values.See Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).In respect to stem cell research, for instance, you and I may disagree over the moral status of the embryo but agree that such research will result in the development of highly beneficial therapies. Consequently, our task is to hammer out policies regulating this research that we can, through the give and take of compromise, both live with while avoiding any distracting discussion of our disparate views on the moral status of embryos. As Rawls admits, this results in a rather thin or diminished understanding of our life together as a public, but it is the best we can do in a highly diverse or pluralistic society.

Although I acknowledge that there are short-tern advantages in this approach for addressing policy questions in an expeditious manner, I fear the costs are too great in terms of long-term consequences. Over time, the so-called public square becomes increasingly vacuous as more and more complex issues are reduced to the lowest possible common denominator among an increasingly diverse range of private interests. Indeed, the very nature of public moral deliberation becomes transformed from assessing the veracity of competing claims and arguments, to concocting the best strategy for silencing one’s opponents while marshaling support from as wide a coalition of interests as possible. Or to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, it is waging civil war with words (or better, slogans and sound bytes) rather than weapons.See After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

What is lost in this scenario is the possibility that the process of public moral debate itself might lead to discovering something previously unknown that might alter, broaden, or deepen our understanding of our life together as a public, or the life of those communities and associations which comprise. Nor is the possibility entertained that through public deliberation we might actually encounter a truth that would require us to refrain from doing something despite the clamoring of public opinion.

In practical terms, I do not think that those entering the public debate over embryonic stem cell research have done so with an assumption that they might be persuaded to change their minds, or that they will change the opinions of their opponents. Rather, they enter the fray by searching for a strategy that will most effectively mute their opponents’ claims, while simultaneously appealing to those who at present remain undecided. Under these circumstances, the best role a religious community could play is to offer spiritual aid and comfort to those partisans attempting to shape public opinion which best approximates its particular beliefs and convictions.

It may be objected that my admittedly uncharitable characterization of the current state of public moral discourse is not as bleak as I portray it to be. Although a pluralistic society necessitates a relatively thin or minimalist understanding of our life together as a public, we are compensated by potentially rich moral lives of private communities and associations. The procedural character of public moral deliberation does not necessarily diminish the quality of the normative commitments and values that we share with like minded people.

Yet this reassuring objection assumes that the quality of public life, however thin it might be, is unrelated to the normative convictions of the human associations and religious communities that comprise civil society. The objection fails to recognize that the vitality of public life is proportional to the strengths of these associations and communities, and to insist that they strip themselves of their core convictions in their interactions with one another is ultimately to diminish the life of the public they are seeking to form. Moreover, the alleged value neutrality of this type of public moral discourse may very well have a corrosive influence on the vitality of so-called private moral life. If religious communities, for instance, want to influence legislation or policy formulation governing embryonic stem cell research, will they not be sorely tempted to reformulate their normative claims embryos in terms that lend themselves more easily to manipulating the trends of public opinion rather than reflecting a depth and breadth of conviction? And is succumbing to such a temptation ultimately an injustice, because we do not take those outside our communities with enough seriousness to honestly share what is believed to be good, and right, and true?

Do I have any reason to believe that if religious communities take my advice the public debate over the morality of embryonic stem cell research will be qualitatively any different than what has occurred in the recent past? I have read too much Augustine to be overly optimistic, but I think it is nonetheless worth the effort. I hope it is recorded that in this debate that we are now entering, at least some religious communities chose to argue from the strength of their convictions rather than strategic or tactical considerations for swaying public opinion. And furthermore this approach was adopted not to trump the opposition but to designed to promote a conversation resulting in a richer fabric of public moral discourse. For it would be a conversation requiring attentive and disciplined listening, as well as taking the risk of having a community’s convictions transformed and possibly enrich in the process.

I believe such an alternative is particularly needed in the case of embryonic stem cell research. For if embryos come to be popularly perceived, at least partially, as biological or medical commodities, the already fragile bonds that bind us together as a public (especially in regard to its weakest and most vulnerable members) will be further strained. Or in short, the most appropriate contribution that religious traditions and communities can offer in this debate is to insist that we not rush too quickly to plunder embryos for their healthcare benefits. And playing this important role requires a strength of conviction rather than an effective political strategy.

Brent Waters

Other Presentations:

Play Video Welcome: Brent Waters and Jennifer Derryberry
Play Video Opening Remarks: Brent Waters
Play Video Laurence O'Connell
Play Video James Peterson
Play Video Sondra Wheeler
Play Video Ronald Cole-Turner
Play Video Robert Song
Play Video Stem-Cell Colloquy - Index


Science & Spirit Magazine and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Pain and Suffering
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology