Liberal Governments

PZ writes about how because the US Government won’t fund stem cell research, interested billionaires step up to the plates, to the tune of millions or even tens of millions of dollars per individual. He editorializes, and I agree, that it’s a good band-aid, but no substitute to flush government funding based on rigorous peer review (as a side note, all donations listed together amount to $150 million, the amount California spends on stem cell research every six months).

What I’m more interested in is the assertion contrarian commenter Bob Koepp makes that it is wrong for the government to fund stem cell research because as it is morally controversial, it forced people to pay in taxes for something they hold a legitimate moral beef with.

If you’re a liberal of the traditional stripe, the sort who believes in freedom of conscience, then there’s a problem in relying on tax dollars to support ethically contentious research — even if you happen not to agree with the moral qualms of others. The traditional liberal line is that in order to trump such moral objections, you have to show that extracting support from dissenters is necessary to the maintenance of a well-ordered society, that society would suffer irreparable harm if moral dissenters were exempted from supporting activities to which they object (BTW, even if, like me, you find the arguments unpersuasive, it’s by appeal to the requirements for a well-ordered society that some liberals try to justify war taxes). That’s from Liberalism 101.

Bob makes several faulty assumptions on what a liberal society is allowed to do, as well as what ethical dilemmas there might be. That a substantial minority of people find stem cell research immoral is in itself not a good reason to let them opt out of supporting it via taxes. Otherwise, it would be acceptable to maintain racial segregation on the grounds that it’s immoral to force white people to pay for black people’s health care, as segregationists argued in the 1930s, causing Roosevelt’s universal health care scheme to fail. If you think that this is still somewhat reasonable, consider that a similar argument could be made against letting black people drink from the same fountains as whites.

Legitimate moral controversies only come when the people opposing the practice field a serious argument against it. Even war, something few people doubt is legitimate for a liberal state to wage, has serious ethical issues surrounding the killing of innocent people. Stem cell research doesn’t kill people; it uses leftover embryos from IVF clinics that would have otherwise been destroyed. Even if you believe in embryonic personhood, you need to show that embryos feel pain or have independent desires to make your view fit reality.

So there’s no controversy. But even if there was, the standard of “well-ordered society” is either excessively stringent or duplicitous. Even a pacifist like me admits that it is often necessary for the state to engage in war. In particular, although I oppose unnecessary conflicts such as the Iraq War, neither I nor any pacifist I know of ever makes an argument based on tax payment.

The government does various things that the free market can’t do, even if they aren’t absolutely necessary, and even if they are sometimes viewed as immoral. A society can live with privatized health care; I have the misfortune of living in one. A society can live with privatized social security, privatized education, privatized epidemiology, privatized utilities, and so on. Each of these alone will cause serious repercussions, but no social breakdown, just like privatized stem cell research, and all of these are politically controversial. It’s just that taken together, these privatizations will give us The Iron Heel.

A liberal government is about freedom of conscience, it’s true. But first and foremost, it’s about being practical. Any principle that produces not a liberal government but a libertarian dystopia isn’t worth it. Setting unreasonable standards for government funding of science, without which research can’t proceed properly, is bad enough on its own; done to something as socially relevant as stem cell research, it’s criminal.


9 Responses to Liberal Governments

  1. bob koepp says:

    You argue, in effect, that if I was right about what’s required to respect freedom of conscience, then the gates would be opened to discrimination against people. That’s not at all how the principle is generally understood. The moral objections in question must be to particular actions — not objections to particular kinds of people, and must be reasonably integrated into a recognizably moral point of view.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Bob, the problem is that the objection to stem cell research isn’t recognizably moral. Hardly anyone is objecting to IVF clinics, which is where all the embryonic stems come from. Government funding of stem cell research doesn’t destroy any embryo that wouldn’t be destroyed either way.

  3. bob koepp says:

    I’m not sure I follow your reasoning here. Are those with moral objections to killing embryos funding IVF clinics through their tax contributions?

  4. Alon Levy says:

    If they’re not, then they’re not funding killing embryos via their tax dollars regardless of whether the government dabbles in stem cell rsearch.

  5. bob koepp says:

    At least one of us is logically challenged. I’m still not following your reasoning.

  6. […] A while ago, PZ and I made some points about governmental versus privately-funded scientific research. PZ wrote about the problems of privatized scientific research, while I wrote about the moral and political issues surrounding public research. A government flush with science funding will give money to every team that is willing and able to tackle a difficult problem with significance for either pure discovery or public health. The free market, on the other hand, gives money in big chunks instead of properly spreading it out, and does so for glamorous rather than interesting or useful projects. […]

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