Monday, July 17, 2006

Pascal on justice and stem cell research

Well, not stem cells. I made that part up, but I'll get to that later. Both of my regular readers know that I am plodding slowly through the writings of Pascal. This voice from the past (350 years ago) went silent with an early death. Blaise Pascal never saw his fortieth birthday. Had he lived another twenty or thirty years he might have consolidated his "Thoughts," scattered all over the place, into a more organized form. But what he left is a rich source of thought-provoking observations, timeless in their generality.

Take, for example, "When a man does not understand the truth by which he might be freed, it is expedient that he should be deceived." [Footnote 4 to #294, attributed to St. Augustine] This clever aphorism provides the justification for Lenin's vanguard of the proletariat as well as the everyday reasoning of all three of the US branches of government. Naturally we hotly deny this, saying ignorance is not excuse for the law. But ignorance is for most people the foundation of most laws. (Good citizens go about their daily life believing that they are law-abiding people, while expecting no major consequences from lying on their tax returns or exceeding the speed limit. Criminals who are "caught" and punished more severely, however, deserve the punishments they receive.)

Reflecting on how man arrives at an idea of justice, Pascal turns up a good many contradictions in what most people would call "common sense."

In the letter On Injustice can come the ridiculousness of the law that the elder gets all. "My friend, you were born on this side of the mountain, it is therefore just that your elder brother gets everything."

"Why do you kill me?" (He lives on the other side of the water.)

"Why do you kill me? What! do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just."
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... On what shall man found the order of the world which he would govern? Shall it be on the caprice of each individual? What confusion! Shall it be on justice? Man is ignorant of it.

Certainly had he known it, he would not have established this maxim, the most general of all that obtain among men, that each should follow the customs of his own country. The glory of true equity would have brought all nations under subjection, and legislators would not have taken as their model the fancies and caprice of Persians and Germans instead of this unchanging justice. We should have seen it set up in all the States on earth and in all times; whereas we see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession; right has its epochs; the entry of Saturn into the lion marks to us the origin of such and such a crime. A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.

Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country. They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law.

Theft, incest, infanticide, patricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions.
Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?
The result of this confusion is that one affirms the essence of justice to be the authority of the legislator... another, the interest of the sovereign... another, present custom, and this is the most sure.
Nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself; all changes with time.
Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it.
Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults. He who obeys them because they are just, obeys a justice which is imaginary, and not the essence of law... it is quite self-contained, it is law and nothing more.
He who will examine its motive will find it so feeble and so trifling that if he be not accustomed to contemplate the wonders of human imagination, he will marvel that one century has gained for it so much pomp and reverence.
The art of opposition and of revolution is to unsettle established customs, sounding them even to their source, to point out their want of authority and justice. We must, it is said, get back to the natural and fundamental laws of the State, which an unjust custom has abolished.
It is a game certain to result in the loss of all... nothing will be just on the balance. Yet people readily lend their ear to such arguments. They shake off the yoke as soon as they recognise it... and the great profit by their ruin, and by that of these curious investigators of accepted customs. But from a contrary mistake men sometimes think they can justly do everything which is not without an example. That is why the wisest of legislators said that it was often necessary to deceive men for their own good; and another, a good politician, "When a man does not understand the truth by which he might be freed, it is expedient that he should be deceived." We must not see the fact of usurpation; law was once introduced without reason, and has become reasonable. We must make it regarded as authoritative, eternal, and conceal its origin, if we do not wish that it should soon come to an end.

I understand the Congress in this time of conflict and stress on nearly every issue have cobbled together a package of three bills concerning stem cell research. Play a game with me now and go read about this package as reported in today's Washington Post. But as you read try to listen to the voice of Pascal droning in the background, complaining that it is sometimes expedient for people to be deceived...

Look down in the piece where it says "the Senate took up a package of three-linked bills, all of which are expected to get the 60 votes required for passage," followed by "The embryonic bill passed the House..." and eventually gets around to "Bush backs the other two bills, which the House plans to take up later this week."

Don't get lost now. I heard it explained on the radio and this is what I understand it means:

1. There are 3 individual bills regarding stem cell research.

2. One bill extends the number of sources for scientivic research beyond the now mandated "available lines" to include unused fertilized eggs now being generated by in vitro fertilization which would otherwise be either destroyed or frozen, presumably indefinitely.

3. Another bill would prohibit the intentional use of in vitro fertilization for the puspose of (I love this phrase) "fetus farming."

4. Yet another bill, third in the series, provides funding for the first two. The interesting part is that the President can selectively veto the third bill, thus continuing funding as currently allowed, while enabling broader research including more sources of stem cells.

In other words, our elected representatives in both houses, in cooperation with the Administration, have carefully orchestrated a legal means to extend stem cell research while at the same time allowing a presidential veto. This is a win-win situation where everybody gets what they want: science gets permission to harvest more stem cells and the president gets to appear to oppose stem cell research by a presidential veto.


Here is another explanation from NPR.
The Senate opens a new debate over stem cell research, as three bills are under consideration. One would overturn President Bush's restrictions on research. The president is expected to use his first-ever veto if that bill passes.

More likely to take effect, observers say, are two other bills meant to define the scope of research.

One would outlaw so-called "fetus farming," the creation of embryos that would be destroyed for research -- a method not currently in practice.

Another bill would encourage research into alternative ways to develop the properties of stem cells without destroying embryos now in existence.

I guess they were right...Pascal, Lenin, Congress, all those smart guys...

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