Jan Hartman
Principia, 31-044 Kraków, ul. Grodzka 52

Is the “Statistical Argumentation” also “Ethical”?

The essential idea of this short paper is an attempt to defend the thesis that the indifference to measurable, statistical consequences of an act, in particular the consequences of a legislative act, declared in the name of moral principles, is basically immoral. I shall refer to the examples related to the issues of abortion and the use of stem-cells in order to reproduce the tissues and organs. My position can be defined as classical, i. e. following the principles of traditional morality. It is postulated then that the ethical debate is to contribute to the spread of good, rather than to be limited to the study of theoretical truth for itself.

One of the seminal controversies in ethics could be summarised in the question whether the moral duty is indeed absolute and entirely autonomous or else, can be reduced, or at least compared to various psychic and social behaviour determinants, such as e. g. “utility,” “pleasure,” “profitability,” or “conformity to existing customs.” Those who believe that ethical problems (and morality itself) are strictly autonomous, oppose all attempts leading to the reduction of morality to the sphere of emotions and attitude (e. g. goodness, benevolence, solidarity), survival strategy (i. e. usefulness, power equilibrium, exchange of services), or even the affirmation of values (e. g. integrity or virtuousness). Those followers of Kantian classic example are persuaded that moral calling, duty, moral law are absolutely a priori and self-legitimising. Thus, the duty is a duty per se, rather than in response to other circumstances. The most popular version of this approach is theological, and somewhat undermining the autonomy of ethics. This view, which indeed should be called “sacred conviction” since the word “view” is inadequate, explains the absolute character of moral law by the will of God. It is God’s will that defines the watershed between the good and the evil.

The proponents of absolute adherence to ethical principles are apodictically minded by nature, trying to formulate the possibly general moral indications, allowing no exceptions. Due to this ideal of non-exceptionality, reflecting the absolute character of morality, they use extremely general formulations, possibly devoid of so-called material content, i. e. avoiding the reference to individual acts, defined as prohibited or obligatory. For example, the statement that killing other humans is prohibited is interpreted by self-aware autonomous ethics as concise and suggestive expression of the absolute though entirely formal -rather than descriptive- rule that every human being is expected to protect human life. The commandment “thou shall not kill” is not an abridged formulation of statements such as e. g. “refrain from inserting a knife into hearts of thy neighbours,” or “desist from placing poison in the chalices of your competitors to power,” etc. It happens that the material description of an act apparently indicates in a given case an encroachment of the moral standard commanding the protection of human life. Yet, a closer scrutiny would convince us that the true condition is quite different, e. g. in the case when the act of “inserting a metal object in the head of a young male” is translated as a shot fired in a justified defence war. In other cases, the protection of human life may mean more than the possible implications of any formula describing and prohibiting the known methods of killing humans. It is possible, for instance, to read this norm as prohibiting the development of industrial activities leading to intensive contamination of natural environment.

Let us consider the exact sense of the moral norm “thou shall not kill,” understood as an autonomous (or theonomic) rule, which is also apodictic-knowing no exceptions-though exclusively formal.

This purely formal norm is not related to an absolute commandment or prohibition of any act understood as corresponding to a certain external or physical definition. However, in proportion to description precision of given act, the probability grows that the perpetration of such act merits a moral assessment, which is expected by the formal norm related to such material context. Let us consider the following situational description: “stealthily break into a home of a wealthy citizen, shoot the resident, loot the money, obliterate the traces, escape and use the proceeds for personal pleasure.” Such description of action would hardly fit a context, which could counterweigh the introductory definition of events. Yet, it is not entirely impossible. The “physical” description of such behaviour cannot be conceived as its definition in moral terms. In effect, it is to some degree unfortunate, deficient, inadequate in relation to the statements which would be made from purely moral viewpoint. A similar situation is encountered when one tries to describe a musical piece by simple characterisation of physical phenomena which need to occur in order to play the piece on a given instrument.

In effect, it is possible to imagine situations when someone is killed, and yet the moral norm “thou shall not kill” is not violated. Paradoxically, it is the result of moral absolutism rather than relativism! In particular, we mean the absolutism pushed to such extreme that all statements of norms are treated as purely formal (at best only apparently material). The clear-cut differentiation between the formal and the material aspects of moral norms, was the contribution of Kant’s ethics. Yet, in the history of philosophy, it was not the onset of the rejection of literal approach in the interpretation of norms. It often happened that the traditional Christian moralists, who considered the norm, or indeed God’s commandment “thou shall not kill,” as unquestionable and absolute, approved of the acts which were apparently contradictory to this norm-in the material (descriptive) aspect. An example of such act can be found in the death penalty permitted as punishment for capital crimes, or approval for killing enemies in war conditions.

Thus, the proponents of autonomous ethics, and in particular the believers in theistic ethics, who are morally rigorous by nature, are perfectly aware of cases when the external features of the morally justified or permitted act indicate that it is contrary to absolute norm (moral law). Yet, the exhaustive discussion of this issue was not offered before Kant, Scheler, Hartmann, and others. As I have mentioned above, the central category is the opposition between the material and the formal aspects of the norm.

And yet, the same morally rigorous thinkers are ready to quote the purely material, or even naive material approach to the norm, in all those cases where they need to justify their opposition to all acts which seem to contravene the principles. The public life in democratic countries has provided two very clear examples of this type. One of them is abortion: for many decades the same discussion about permissibility of abortion has been recurring in the parliaments of many nations. The other example is quite recent, and relates to the permissibility of using human foetuses in order to procure the cells of maternal organisms.

In the case of abortion, it is striking that in the countries of somewhat less stable democratic culture, public discussion tends to neglect the empirical (statistical) issues and data. On the other hand, the discussion is more speculative and bears heavy rhetorical/ideological load. Moral persuasion, which is not inferior per se, though it is not equivalent to argumentation,often uses a pragmatic language. The persons demanding punitive treatment of the entire sphere of abortion tend to define their stance as “defence of life” and refer directly to the moral norm “thou shall not kill.” The term “defence of life” is intended to suggest that the restrictive law (the punishment of aborting woman and physician) results in saving many human lives. The user of such term commends him/herself as a practical person, demanding that the law be used to protect human life. At the same time, while calling on the absolute norm “thou shall not kill,” such term user does it similarly to theologians and defenders of autonomous (or theonomic) ethics, who relate the a priori character of moral norms to their “non-material” essence. Though, he/she understands the norm literally, i. e. no-one can be deprived of life. And yet, the very same participants of public debate usually show no interest for the empirical/practical issue formulated in the following way: “what should be done in general, and what laws ought to be enacted in order to reduce the number of abortion acts to possible minimum?” The answer to such question is generally known and excludes the solution to the effect that “abortion perpetrators must be punished severely.” Even the evident growth in number of fatal victims in abortion procedure (both foetuses and mothers) following the enactment of restrictive law, has failed to produce any exceptions in the principled beliefs of “life defenders.” Consequently, they appear as naive defenders of the
a priori norm “thou shall not kill” against those who fail to affirm the right of foetuses. The defence seems much less naive in the interpretation of permitted death penalty, which is often supported by the “defenders of life.” Indeed, they resemble the false mother facing Solomon’s trial, and ready to split the child in half in order to defend the principled alleged right.

The example related to stem-cells is quite similar. In a sense, the issue has become obsolete: even before it could be practically significant. In recent years scientists succeeded in obtaining stem-cells from muscle tissue. Thus, it can be reasonably belived that the techniques usukng human embryos can be dipensed of shortly, while similar effects can be obtained in a less ethically dubious way. Also, the regenrative cells will probably lose their privileged position of the “carriers of potential person, “ since similar effects can (probably) stem from muscle cells. Yet, the fact that science progeressively makes obsolate moral debates in particular cases, does not lead to disqualification of applied arguments. In result, the factually obsolete debate has the virtue of providing good example of a type of ethical argumentation.

The issue here relates also to the life of human embryos; though they may be at earliest stages of development and indeed created in order to serve medical purposes. In this case also, the divergence from restrictions prohibiting the killing of embryos in the name of literally and materially interpreted rule (“thou shall not kill”), opens the possibility to serve a number of other human beings. It is accepted that the “underground abortion” is more “lethal” than the process controlled by the state and related to public health service extended to women in “difficult situation.” On the other hand, in relation to human cells used for the “husbandry of tissues,” the expected benefit from the viewpoint of the number of existing humans relates directly to saving the lives of sick patients and the treatment of infertility-though at the expense of eliminating very many multi-cell foetuses. [Of course, it must be remembered that some individuals imposed on themselves a certain training of emotions, which taught them to extend the normal use of the term “human being” (with all related moral connotations) to mean also the smallest embryos. Such endeavours may be respected (even in the case of those who wish to extend the meaning of human person to individual genetic cells, which are “by nature” destined to be joined into a complex genetic cell). Yet, it is impossible to alter the fact that in publicly used language the set of signified entities indicated by the term “person” does not include the embryos.]

The analogy can be extended over the acts introducing restrictive laws. In both examples, no hope can be cherished that the potential prohibitions prove effective. In the case of abortion, the ineffectiveness of restrictive laws is a fact founded on empirical evidence. Small wonder that in relation to the issue of procuring and using stem-cells, we face the opposition of the same group of “life defenders,” who are not in the least interested in statistics and the social effectiveness of law. These people simply refuse to address such mundane questions as “what can be done to reduce the amount of suffering and increase the sum of good.” Very willingly they pretend to embrace the conviction that the moral norm “thou shall not kill” does not mean “act in such way that would protect the highest amount of human life.” They claim that the norm must be understood as “desist from destroying human life in any circumstances.” Indeed, they pretend since they also claim that the issue of death penalty is a “completely separate matter.”

An argument could be raised that I am engaging in combat with indefinite and probably infrequent cases of ideological fanaticism or “fundamentalism.” These issues ought to be considered in more ambitious intellectual setting. And yet no-I do address the very essence of the public debate in both exemplary cases. As an ethicist, I consider it my duty to explain the immorality of the popular behaviour observed often in public debates-on the grounds of relatively advanced ethical discourse. It happens, that it is necessary to tell someone straight in his/her face (though it is extremely rare): “Not only are you wrong. Worse than that. What you are saying is immoral.” My understanding of the ethicist’s vocation is that he/she does not refrain from telling such things. Doing so, the ethicist is able to rely on appropriate notions and vocabulary, which can be used to justify his/her judgement.

I am convinced that whoever “in the name of principles” (or referring to theoretically motivated adherence to moral motives), ignores the statistical (empirical) knowledge of the foreseen consequences of planned acts (including the planned legal acts), rejects not only the tradition of autonomous, counter-reductionist understanding of morality and ethics. In fact he/she perpetrates an immoral act. This immorality is two-fold, since through the ill-founded pride and indifference, the proponents of such laws are not only ready to perpetrate evil
(e. g. enact evil law) with clear conscience. Also, they compromise the moral principles in social reception. Subsequently, an evil shadow is cast upon those who-in the name of autonomous (or even theistic) ethics-are earnest in their quest for truth about life, suffering and death-also the truth reflected in numbers.

“Yes” is the answer to the question formulated in the title of this paper. The following arguments: “while allowing in certain cases legal abortion we helped to construct the system of activities effectively leading to the reduction in general number of abortions,” or “when using the techniques of orientated cloning of stem-cells, we save the lives of many persons,” are not only “ethical” but also basically ethical, conforming to the spirit of “autonomous ethics,” where moral norms are understood as absolute formal rules of procedure (e. g. “act in such way that contributes to preserve the highest possible amount of human life”), rather than primitive material behaviour determinants. In effect, these are just substitutes of morality for all those individuals who are basically deprived of moral principles.