Appealing to justice and reason in the Age of Confusion

I traveled to western Massachusetts one weekend during March to staff an information table at the Annual Catholic Men’s Conference in the Springfield Diocese. One of the attendees who came up to the table to talk to me was Bob Taylor. I first met Bob four years ago when he had come to the State House with his family to testify against an eventually enacted bill authorizing the killing of human embryos for research. Our recent conversation prompts me to share some preliminary thoughts on the meaning of justice and reason in our confused age.

One of Bob’s sons, Austin, now 13 years old, has muscular dystrophy, and he, along with other members of the family, spoke eloquently against taking life to cure life. As the Boston Pilot reported at the time, then-nine-year-old Austin told a state house committee that embryonic stem cell research would involve “killing a human being, and I don’t think it’s right.”

His parents spoke of the challenges of caring for a child with an incurable and progressively debilitating disease, but insisted that society must protect the dignity of all human life. They informed legislators that they understood the trials that their son’s disabilities bring, but they rejected any cure obtained at the cost of an embryo’s death.

Bob brought me up to date, telling me that Austin now needs to use a wheelchair all the time as his physical abilities continue to deteriorate. Bob related that many people in his community have supported the family’s position, but he indicated that there also have been exceptions. One person told Bob that while he and his family had every right to refuse embryonic stem cell research for themselves, it was “unjust” for them to try to persuade legislators to deny it for others.

We also discussed the recent decision of President Barack Obama to promote embryonic stem cell research. He has signed an executive order removing limits on federal funding established by his predecessor George W. Bush.

In his accompanying statement, President Obama commended the lethal practice of cannibalizing stem cells from living embryos as “the proper course” because his faith tells him that “we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering,” and that “we have been given the capacity and the will to pursue this research.”

The President does not name names here, but it is obvious from the structure of these phrases that the calling and giving is to be attributed to God. We are led to consider that, as a matter of the President’s religious belief, God himself endorses embryonic research.

The President applauded the “power of science,” and referred to the “urgent work” of “seeking a day when words like ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ are finally retired from our vocabulary.” That is to say, if scientists are promising us that killing embryos will help the rest of humanity someday to live forever--to banish all our pain and even death!--then it would be “irrational” to allow, to use the President’s own terms, any countering “point of view” or “concern” to interfere with “using every resource at our disposal.”

The Catholic Church and its allies appeal to principles of social justice and to reason when taking up the pro-life side of the argument, an argument that President Obama characterized in his remarks on embryo experiments as nothing more than “manipulation,” “coercion,” and “ideology.” I have been thinking about these two concepts--justice and rationality--for a long time now. My conversation with Bob Taylor and our mutual lament over the actions of our state legislature and the moves by President Obama brought the concepts I have been mulling over yet again to the fore.

Justice and rationality--are they to be treated as only “I know it when I see it” kinds of things, defined not by any immutable content but by the “beholder’s eye,” as changeable as the variety of beholders and the eyes through which they see? Or are these concepts to be understood only by taking some neutral or “value-free” stance, assuming a position of purely scientific objectivity completely untainted by bias?

How else to explain the seeming lack of success of the Church and its allies in convincing society, and especially the organs of our community which produce our cultural and political leaders, that killing embryos, or protecting abortion, or legalizing same-sex marriage, or promoting contraception, or encouraging in vitro fertilization, is wrong as a matter of justice and reason? Maybe justice and reason are inadequate to the task of moral persuasion?

My intellectual pursuits lately have lead me to read the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic philosopher and historian of ethics, whose thesis is that justice and reason have been robbed of their normative force by the influence of deeply erroneous notions about our capacity to know truths beyond the physical and emotional worlds. Our society’s prevailing ethics have fallen into a crisis of profound moral confusion because most of those who twiddle the levers of academic thinking have lost all confidence in knowing what is truly right and truly wrong.

There is more to be written about this quest of mine to understand the plight that confronts us, but suffice it to say for now that neither of the two most culturally prominent views of justice and reason mentioned above, the “everything is relative” view and the “absolute neutrality” view, best describes what Professor McIntyre and others, including Pope John Paul II, deem to be the actual nature of justice and reason. There is a way to rethink and to more fully understand the concepts of what is just and what is rational that can guide faithful Catholics through these very confusing and depressing times.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.