Believe it or not, ancient Chinese philosophy can add to our understanding of the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. Hear me out.
In the US, debate on stem cell research centres on the question of whether destroying an embryo is tantamount to killing an individual person. Opponents believe that, since an embryo has the potential to become a person, it should be treated as a person and not be subjected to scientific experiments that might cause its destruction. Supporters argue that embryos are not yet fully formed persons and thus can be used to harvest stem cells for scientific study. In addition, proponents of stem cell research would add that the social benefits of science outweigh the destruction of individual embryos.
The US controversy pits devout Christians, whose religious beliefs lead them to see embryos as persons, against utilitarian liberals, whose definition of an "individual" does not include fetuses before the third trimester of pregnancy. The issue has become politicised of late, with the US Congress ready to pass legislation supporting embryonic stem cell research and the President threatening a veto.
Unsurprisingly, the US debate has called upon various strands of Western philosophy and religion. But Daoism and Confucianism can add something to the conversation.
A modern-day philosophical Taoist would likely be sceptical of the entire scientific research enterprise. The Dao De Jing has this to say in passage 29: "Longing to take hold of all beneath heaven and improve it; I have seen such dreams invariably fail. All beneath heaven is a sacred vessel, something beyond improvement. Try to improve it and you ruin it. Try to hold it and you lose it."
Religious Daoists (dao jiao) are famous for their search for a death-defying elixir of life. Philosophical Daoists (dao jia), however, are more accepting of the inevitable demise of the human body. Zhuang Zi is marvellously free of anxiety and resentment about death. Indeed, the notion that purposive human activity can overcome the natural aging process is contrary to the general Daoist attitude to do nothing (wu wei) that might get in the way of Way.
If confronted with the question of stem cell research, therefore, a philosophical Daoist might say: "why bother?" It may help a few people with certain maladies, but it will not fundamentally transform the human condition. Such Daoists would generally dissent, not because embryos might be persons, but because science cannot define destiny.
Contemporary Confucians, on the other hand, would probably find themselves aligned with supporters of stem cell research, but for somewhat different reasons.
For a Confucian, persons are defined socially. Our identities are shaped through our daily cultivation of our closest social relationships. The question of whether an embryo is a person is, therefore, nonsensical: how could it be a person if it was not yet actively engaged in social relations. A person becomes a person at birth.
Furthermore, if stem cell research helped to cure disease, allowing people to better perform their social roles and duties, then the science would be advancing the cause of Humanity (ren), the highest Confucian virtue. Confucians would emphasize, even more than Western liberals, these sorts of social benefits. It is less about individual rights and accomplishments for a Confucian, and more about the mutual realization of individual and social morality.
We learn more when we consider the widest possible range of ideas in any debate. Adding Confucian and Daoist perspectives to the American discussion of embryonic stem cell research gives us insights into the issues, and into ourselves, that we might otherwise overlook.
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Sam Crane teaches Chinese philosophy and politics at Williams College in Massachusetts, USA, and is the author of Aidan's Way.
(China Daily 07/27/2006 page15)