Brent Howard, of Rydalmere, writes in El Pais de Murdoch:
David van Gend (Letters, 21/2) rails agaisnt the deliberate creation and killing of human embryos but offers no arguments. This process does not harm the embryos. Obviously, being created and then living, without consciousness, for a short period cannot be worse for an embryo than never existing at all. Even if we focus on embryos after their creation, they are not harmed by death. As eminent philosophers such as Michael Tooley and Derek Parfit have explained, unconscious embryos that have never had any desires or aspirations have no interest in ongoing life. The mere physical potential of the embryo does not impose any obligations upon others. We can uproot a sapling if we don’t want a tree, and John Howard’s potential to win another election doesn’t mean we must vote for him. We have no duties to embryos. Banning embryonic research that could help sick people is wrong.
If we have no duties to embryos- simply because all their capacity for suffering and joy, creation and destruction, lies in the future- than how can the potential existence of future generations impose any moral obligations on us?
It cannot. The particular comes before the general, and is the only reality. If the philosophers reject the moral obligation imposed by the embryo, which is actual in its potential, how much more must they reject the moral obligation imposed by those who are only potentially potential? It does not matter if we exhaust all fossil fuel resources: those future humans who might need them are only potential. It does not matter if we exterminate the last of the Surinamese swamp weasels. Their deaths are no more painful than their natural deaths would have been, and those future generations of swamp weasels were only potential: we have no duties to them.
These are only a few of the implications of the sophistry of those two philosophical gentleman. To reverence only the actual, and not the potential, is a religion for barbarians. It is appropriate for those who have no care for the past or the future, who are confident that each new day will bring a fresh hamlet to pillage to provide for all their needs. There is not only the moment. There is what a thing was, and what a thing will be, and these things should also inform our moral judgments.
One might argue: ‘Your fossil fuels, your Surinamese swamp weasels, those are things that are the common heritage of all humanity. I would not be so presumptuous as to judge that the rest of you should be deprived of their potential. But this embryo is mine, it belongs to me; its fate is mine to decide.’ This is a very old voice speaking. This is the voice of the Roman paterfamilias, with the acknowledged power of life and death over his children and his slaves.
But I say, no, that embryo is also part of the common heritage of all humanity. It does not belong to you, any more than the Surinamese swamp weasel belongs to the good burghers of Surinam. I will be diminished if I stand by while they clearfell the last stand of weasel swamp. I will be diminished if I stand by while that embryo is destroyed. I value it as a potential PhD student, as the potential drummer in the gurnge revival band responsible for the enigmatic concept album ‘Erklarungun der Kroten’, as the potential shopgirl who will smile- or scowl- at me at the checkout at Bi-Lo in 2025, even as the potential criminal whose wanton acts in a distant city will give me a momentary glow of Schadenfreude when I am a crusty old codger.
Destroying embryos that could grow up into any of those things, even if it could help sick people, is wrong.
[Editor’s note: The blogger had been re-reading Borges at the time this post was composed, which accounts for its almost unbearable pretentiousness. The previous post has no such excuses.]