With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, March 09, 2009

Machiavellian Agnosticism

Today one of the (in my opinion few) praiseworthy acts of the Bush administration was overturned by President Obama's executive order on funding for embryonic stem cell research. Bush's policy wasn't even perfect, and now the problematic contingency of something like an executive order on this issue comes to light. I could rant for hours about the loss of a common understanding of natural law, the common good, a shared moral culture, and basically all of the conceptual and practical resources required for an ethical appeal to something more fundamental than the whims of positive law. But I'll spare you...most of it.

One aspect of the issue that really grinds my gears is the rhetorical framing game that's going on. MacIntyre once noted that one of the deepest flaws of modern political culture is that "professional" politicians and their parties often actively discourage the kind of communal reasoning about the proper ends of politics itself. Too often they succumb to Machiavellian tendencies, framing the debates ideologically and supressing the most relevant questions from even being raised. The political gerrymandering between the parties on "life issues" is a testament to this, and today the news stations were flooded with it.

The way commentators have been spinning the issue is a bit frightening. Much of what I heard has tended to portray this as something like an issue of "science verses religion," as if the discourse of science were offering us one ethical judgment derived from the scientific method (this stuff is good), and revealed religions were offering us the negative judgment in stark contradiction to scientific methodolgy and simply as a tenet of blind belief. Underlying all of this is the problematic assumption that common moral reasoning, rational conclusions about the goodness or badness of human action, is simply an impossibility. Moral opposition here is thus part of the fabric of essentially irrational faith commitments that people are legally free to have. Yet this seems to suggest that non-believers have no good reason- no resources, in fact- to have any ethical problem with it. Why? Because the science part shows us that we can likely cure the sick if we follow it, and therefore it seems to provide some moral guidance.

Frankly, I'm not sure why the scientific part of this is even in the spotlight. It is not an aspect that should even enter the debate (because nothing scientific is being debated by rational people!). When it does, we have the voice of an empirical truth-seeking metholdolgy being employed to weigh-in on judgments that are simply "above its pay grade." Of course then what is really being imposed is a presupposed anthropology and ethics which avoid the critical gaze that an environment of common moral reasoning should be designed for. Use of the language of "science" in this kind of discussion then becomes frighteningly equivocal: shifting back and forth from referents about empirical data on the one hand and evaluative moral judgments on the other. What's scary is that when the discourse of scientific research is not complemented by a proper discourse about human action and human ends, and science is used to try and fill the void, we end up with dangerous beaurecratic logic: the question of means will eclipse questions of ends, and suddenly the utilitarian value of curing countless numbers of suffering people will eclipse the moral weight involved in killing countless unborn children in order to achieve this. This may be no problem for a Scientism, but has little to do with science per se.

The result of all of this is of course that the most relevant question is skillfully avoided: whether or not the embryo that is destroyed to fuel the research is a human life. The more we can avoid making any explicit judgments on this issue, the less the terms of the debate will be understood, the less common moral debate can happen with the promise of common understandings, and the more ideological, hidden presuppositions about ethical value can remain behind the curtain, exerting their influence through manipulation.

Just listen to the talking points: what is emphasized, how questions are dodged and redirected, what stats are used. Note especially how the proponents attempt to appropriate their opponents' supposedly essential "religious" logic, by noting that their faith is one that respects life and encourages us to heal the sick by using this knowledge; without, of course, ever addressing whether they are taking life in order to acheive that oh so pious end.

The nail in the coffin for me was when one CNN anchor (a light in the rhetorical darkness) was bold enough to ask the only question that really mattered of his guest, a congresswoman in favor of the President's move. After her few attempts to duck and weave, he asked: but is this a human life, or only a potential human life? To which she responded: that is "above my pay grade." Here she echoes the now infamous words of President Obama on the abortion issue (which is really the issue in question here). And what this represents is a remarkably clever but remarkably monstrous kind of agnosticism. It is the queen of moral anti-reasoning and rhetorical inconsistency.

If I lived in a country like our own which (now) recognizes that NO man or woman has the right to enslave other human beings; but for some inconceivable reason (maybe extreme ignorance), I believed it to be "above" my epistemological "pay grade" to determine whether or not African Americans are in fact human beings; one would assume that I meant the jury is out, and while it is possible (in this messed up world) that they are not human, it is also certainly possible that they are. If I am committed to African Americans being even potentially human, it wouldn't make much sense to enact a bunch of Jim Crow laws or even policies protecting the right of whites to enslave them, in effect acting as though they were not humans with the same human dignity. By enacting such policies, the commitments entailed by my actions grossly betray the commitments and judgments I expressed through words. So while I say the jury is out, my actions imply a swift verdict, judge, jury, and executioner.

This isn't rocket science. If someone pleads ignorance about what is and is not a human life, but then strongly pushes policy entailing that these things are most certainly not human lives, that is monstrous deception. Anyone who claims that the jury is out, but drops the guillotine, is simply lying, and lying with a purpose.

This is clearly a kind of agnosticism designed to aid a Machiavellian, ideological policy judgment. It is an agnosticism that does not extend beyond words. It is an agnosticism that simply makes no sense. The only truly relevant question here, and the only one that can actually make it a debate, is whether or not in order to get the stem cells you are in fact murdering young human beings. A judgment on this is necessary, and it is either explicitly declared or it is deceitfully hidden. To follow the analogy: there is no policy move for the agnostic; there is only room for the atheists and the theists.

The other problem is that the implications of the judgements is, perhaps purposely, never fully illustrated. Let's use todlers. Say, for the sake or argument, that I was able to grow a batch of ten 3-year old children that sprouted up from the ground; but only one was adopted by parents and the rest will slowly die within a month. Their hearts are all amazinly strong and have the unique ability to adapt perfectly to any body they may be placed in without any signs of rejection by the host body; and in fact, those hearts can be used to clone millions of hearts just like them; but once the children die, the hearts are no good. It sure would be a shame to let those hearts go to waste especially when there are so many suffering people in need of hearts. But...how to get them. Can we harvest those hearts without, by definition, taking the lives of 9 innocent three-year olds, i.e. murdering them?

That is the question everyone must grapple with. Even if folks (like Peter Singer perhaps) say "sure, no problem," at least they've addressed the issue consistently, rather than suppressing it. This would then allow us to argue about the coherence of different ethical systems, and from this dialectic come to radically more informed conclusions about issues like this. At least people would know what is at stake...

For any ethic that houses notions of intrinsically evil actions, the murder of innocent children is an action that can never be ordered to the final human good, and thus no matter how good the result (curing countless millions), or how grim the circumstances (the kids are going to die anyway, no matter what), its never morally acceptable to take the children's lives. And this is a completely reasonable conception of morality! It is not nonsense or something only indoctrinated believers would be willing to accept. It is something that, given a culture that encourages it, reasonable people can grasp and debate.

Pax Christi,


  • At 3/09/2009 5:36 PM, Blogger Zombie said…

    Very well said. I cannot believe people are letting the "Above my pay grade" answer fly, especially coming from the most powerful people in the world.

  • At 3/10/2009 10:31 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I caught this in your piece:

    ..and revealed religions were offering us the negative judgment in stark contradiction to scientific methodolgy and simply as a tenet of bling belief.

    "Bling belief": either that's more of your clever word play, or one of the greatest typos ever.
    Bling belief - we could really develop this idea.
    Bling, Bling, baby....

    Great post. Very insightful, though until I saw you had written it, I wasn't sure. It wasn't your normal voice, which is not a measure of its value.

    "Above my pay grade" : yeah, what does that mean anyway?

  • At 3/10/2009 10:39 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    I failed to do full justice to your piece.

    I think it might be worth the time to really expose the rhetorical evil in the phrase "above my pay grade." Now that this woman you mention has used it, it is bound to become a sort of battle cry.

    But as you so articulately illuminate, it is empty rhetoric designed not only to dodge the real foundation issue, but to diffuse the entire circuit, to make the issue go away.

    Nice work!

  • At 3/11/2009 3:19 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Ah, that's supposed to be "blind belief." Freudian slip: I am all about the bling.

    I think to a certain extent that phrase is already becoming a battle cry, because President Obama used it (I believe) during the debates when asked about abortion. Now, it seems, we see it being used by other politicians when difficult issues like this are on the table.

    That strikes me as a real danger: to reinforce, through a kind of false modesty, the notion that the answer to the question of life's beginning is well beyond our capacities. That would be all fine and good, except that its being employed as a kind of odd justification for our "freedom" to act as though we know for sure that there is no life here. It seems to encourage the public that we need not come to a conclusion on this tough question in order to carry forth these kinds of policy; and somehow our actions don't really imply a judgment on it.

    Clever, but devoid of reason.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 3/11/2009 4:49 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    True, true.

    And the more it is employed, the more it will become a way of escaping moral culpability. Just think about it.

    CIA Agent: Yeah, of course I tortured him.
    Judge: Did at anytime during this torture did you think this is a human being?
    CIA Agent: no, that's above my pay grade.


    Student: Yes, I know I looked at the other student's test for answers, but whether or not that's cheating is above my pay grade.

    President: I have ordered the immediate dropping of another atom bomb, which may kill many innocent people, but it's ok - whether that's right or wrong is above my pay grade!

    It's a universal get-out-of-jail-free phrase!



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