A Pluripotent Problem: The Ethics of Stem Cell Research

by A Hand Wagon on February 10, 2017 - 2:09pm

            In recent years, stem cell research has been a cause for debate among scientists, doctors, and philosophers about the implications of the fundamental methodology encompassing said research. Most stem cell research is performed by destroying a human embryo that is several days old, harvesting the cells from the blastocyst for testing and experiments (Stem Cell Basics III). Fundamentally, this debate can be framed as a particular case of the more general conflict between deontological and teleological ethics, where a deontological, ethical rationalist system prohibits this type of research while the teleological, utilitarian perspective encourages and in some cases, will even command it. Overall, the utilitarian perspective produces the best arguments when it comes to the stem cell debate.

The Ethical Rationalist Approach

Ethical rationalism is associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is trying to find an objective standard for right and wrong in every single situation. Kant states in his text Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals a distinction between categorical imperatives, actions that are good in themselves and hypothetical imperatives, actions that are only good because of their outcome, encouraging people to act according to categorical imperatives (Kant). Kant’s conclusion is that the only categorical imperative that exists is the will to do actions that are good universally (Kant). Also important is the distinction that rational, human beings cannot in any circumstance be used as a means to an end (Kant). Since people are destroying potential human life when they engage in stem cell research, and there are many situations where destroying a potential life is an ethically wrong action, this type of research fails the categorical imperative test, making it unethical.

The Utilitarian Approach

Utilitarianism’s most major proponent was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who advocated it as an intuitive and logically consistent outcome based system of ethics. In his text Utilitarianism, Mill outlines the basic tenets of utilitarian ethics: Utilitarians base their system on what is called the Greatest Happiness Principle, where the goal of each action is to increase pleasure and alleviate pain (Mill). When it comes to stem cell research, it is the alleviation of pain portion of The Greatest Happiness Principle that is used, as most people that will benefit from the research usually are suffering from debilitating and painful diseases, such as Parkinson’s, while a blastocyst at the ethically deemed age of fourteen days in the womb is incapable of feeling any sort of pain or suffering. Since the outcome of such research is possibly better treatments and even cures to such diseases, the Utilitarian perspective encourages doctors and scientists to continue their stem cell research, and may even consider it unethical to opt out of said research given the proper resources to conduct it.

Resolving The Issue

While the two ethical theories differ completely in their assessment of the issue, the utilitarian argument is more convincing for the following reasons: Firstly, consider the fact that happiness is a zero-sum game according to utilitarianism; Any prevented suffering counts as increased happiness for the general population, which is an intuitively noble goal. Since the blastocyst cannot feel any suffering, this is a case where utilitarianism can define a clear answer. Secondly, deontological ethics has a problem defining whether the blastocyst is really a person, creating the issue of whether or not it can be used as a means for an end, which means that in the case of stem cells, ethical rationalism fails at its intended purpose of being unambiguous in its morality. Finally, utilitarism is simply more intuitive in this situation, because of its appeal to human empathy which is a trait all humans share. In conclusion, the utilitarian approach to stem cell ethics offers the best resolution to the problem.


Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Handout. Marianopolis College. Westmount, Quebec. 1785. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Handout. Marianopolis College. Westmount, Quebec. 1861. Print.

“Stem Cell Basics III.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016, stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/3.htm.

About the author

I am a student at Marianopolis.