In an ironic encomium to pure materialism, many folks on the right conclude that each human embryo is a moral agent merely because each one contains the genetic and chemical materials necessary for growth into a human being. But because moral agency is created by far more than mere chemical compounds, there’s nothing obviously immoral about stem-cell research.In other words, why do the spiritualists suddenly become materialists when it comes to defining moral agency? A sequence of nucleotides does not a moral agent make. Second, Steven Landsburg, quoted by Don Boudreaux in the same post:
The embryo contains all the information necessary to create a moral agent. True. It's also true that I could, in principle, write down on a piece of paper all the information that's in the embryo, hence enough information to create a moral agent. Does it follow that the piece of paper is a moral agent?Well put. But a defender of embryo-rights might respond, “An embryo is more than just information – it’s information embedded in a biological process. Given the right conditions, an embryo will grow into a moral agent, while a piece of paper will not.” True, though there’s at least a hint of question-begging in this line of argument, since the whole question is whether the embryo has a right to the provision of those “right conditions.”
And hence my own meager contribution (which I don’t claim is original – remember, this post is about points that deserve repetition). Suppose, despite all the Religious Right’s efforts, that scientists found a way to clone a human being using just a skin cell. The skin cell contains all the information needed to create a moral agent, just like Landsburg’s piece of paper. But unlike the piece of paper, the skin cell would indeed grow into a moral agent with the right care and feeding. In this sense, the skin cell would be no different from an embryo, since information + the right conditions = moral agent. Given the existence of this technology, wouldn’t the embryo-rights crowd have to champion skin-cell-rights as well?