Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Case Where President George W. Bush Is More Articulate than President Obama (and especially President Clinton)

"A Study in Contrasts

The differences between President Bush’s 2007 “Executive Order Expanding Approved Stem Cell Lines” and President Obama’s executive order overturning it are striking especially given the popular mischaracterization of both. Despite its demonization as a right-wing Christian rejection of modern science—if not of modernity as a whole—the language of Bush’s order manages to acknowledge the serious and profound ethical dilemmas that surround embryonic stem cell research and to clearly articulate both the scientific and moral principles that ground its conclusions. Thus, the order recognizes the great promise of biomedical innovation but also its potential conflict with “human life and human dignity,” making it “critical to establish moral and ethical boundaries to allow the Nation to move forward vigorously with medical research.” In fact, the entire document is a model of transparent political argument meant to broker some measure of civic compromise without sacrificing either clarity or conviction regarding moral principle. It even draws attention to the unique difficulties that present themselves to the federal government as a democratic body representing a constituency with diverse moral worldviews and therefore having a “duty to exercise responsible stewardship of taxpayer funds.”

In fact, the entire order is premised upon two forcefully stated moral principles and two empirically defensible definitions. President Bush objects to embryonic stem cell research on two grounds: first, that “the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another,” and second, that “human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold.” One could argue that the former principle is characteristically Kantian and the latter Christian, but Bush also marshals scientific support for the classifications his moral principles rest upon. He provides a clear and scientifically defensible definition of the term “human embryo” and explains in plain prose what counts as “subjecting to harm a human embryo.” One can certainly take philosophical issue with the substance of the argument, but there can be no doubt that an articulate argument is proffered, that it carefully balances the benefits of science against its moral risks, and that the argument is premised upon scientifically defensible categorizations of human life. President Obama’s executive order never attempts to reject the interpretation of human life offered in the Bush order it overturns, assuming instead that its celebration of science is evidence enough of its scientific superiority.

Furthermore, President Bush’s order is a legitimately political one in two important ways. First, it resigns itself to an irresolvable contest of interests instead of attempting a merely cosmetic harmony through demagoguery. The position espoused in his executive order is meant to be a respectful and equitable compromise between opposed constituencies, and it recognizes the real limitations placed upon the federal government as an arbiter of a moral dispute between such profoundly divergent convictions. Secondly, a democratic and representative deference to a split in the will of the people doesn’t necessarily justify the abdication of any and all moral principle or require a comprehensive moral skepticism; Bush’s political compromise regarding the federal funding of stem cell research still draws an unequivocal moral line in the sand—there are certain kinds of research he won’t prohibit but refuses to assist, and then some (human cloning, for example) he simply will not countenance. The great virtue of Bush’s 2007 executive order is that it is appropriately political without being merely political; he captures the need for compromise but also eludes the danger of brokering merely an amoral compromise. It is correct to say, then, that Bush’s approach is Christian but not in the sense usually (and malignantly) understood—it is Christian in the sense that it espouses some universal moral truths, like the unique dignity of each human life, but also accepts that such recognition does not undercut the need for prudence in applying these truths to the theater of real political experience. In other words, it is Thomistic in a way philosophically consonant with the principles of the American founding and the tradition those principles subsequently birthed.

President Obama’s executive order, by way of contrast, makes no mention of any controversy at all but rather prefers to tout the “broad agreement in the scientific community that the research should be supported by federal funds,” ignoring the more pressing question of whether this is essentially a question of scientific expertise in the first place. He does note that his order removes “barriers to responsible scientific research,” thereby indicating a distinction between that and the irresponsible variety; however, there is no attempt to address what counts as either. Obama never articulates any moral principle other than the absolute sovereignty of scientific activity. He makes it unambiguously clear in his memorandum on scientific integrity that the real issue is that the “public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” Obama fails not only to identify a genuine moral predicament worth mentioning but also any real participatory role for the public to exercise its consent. As he sees it, the public’s job is to accept passively the wisdom of technocratic experts.

In his remarks delivered to the press, President Obama does discuss the moral “concerns” of many “thoughtful and decent people” and the corresponding need to maintain the kind of “difficult and delicate balance” such concerns warrant. Yet despite the directive to “respect their point of view,” he marginalizes such dissent by claiming that the “majority of Americans...have come to a consensus” and that the “proper course has become clear”—a polite way of saying that these “thoughtful” dissenters are simply wrong and nearly everyone knows it. In fact, Obama implies less than subtly that the time for “discussion, debate, and reflection” has really passed and that there is nothing left but “a false choice between sound science and moral values.” For those who still cling to their now fully discredited religious reservations, Obama assures them that he offers this dismissal of their views as a “person of faith” himself. Likewise, for those who still insist there is any moral uncertainty, he comforts them with the simplistic platitude that the only relevant moral imperative is our “work to ease human suffering.” Obama’s rhetorical gestures towards the opposition are transparently perfunctory: he is so insistent on avoiding any political compromise whatsoever that he actually neglects even to mention that the research progress encouraged by his predecessor may have made it possible to sidestep the moral controversy. While much of President Bush’s 2007 order was devoted to the exciting discoveries being made for “less morally problematic alternatives” to embryos as a source of stem cells, Obama fails to mention these alternatives, or to mention that his new executive order also revokes Bush’s encouragement for exploring them, opting instead to support “promising research of all kinds,” problematic and otherwise.

In contrast to his predecessor’s circumspect effort to strike the right balance between scientific progress and political restraint, President Obama attempts to render them mutually exclusive: he wants scientists to operate free of the “manipulation and coercion” that are constitutive of any “political agenda.” To ensure that “scientific data is never distorted” and that “scientific decisions are based on facts, not ideology,” Obama effectively denies that there are any political judgments that cannot be settled by scientific investigation. For Obama, “responsibly conducted science” means science unobstructed by political intrusion, free even from the democratic will of the people. Science trumps politics entirely, or, to be more precise, simply absorbs it; any reference to values or interests that cannot be legitimated by scientific analysis is branded as ideology, whether or not supported by popular consent. Obama goes as far as to suggest that the political aggrandizement of America as a nation is inseparable from its stewardship of technological innovation. He not only wants to “advance the cause of science in America” but also hopes for “America to lead the world in the discoveries it may one day yield.” To update John Winthrop’s famous line, we shall be as a laboratory upon a hill."

-from Ivan Kenneally's excellent article "Technocracy and Populism" in New Atlantis Spring 2009

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