Site menu:


May 2015 Policy Study, Number 15-4


Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Morally Wrong


Section III



Werner’s view for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has a series of problems. One can attack Werner’s argument in several ways.[17] First, his metaphysical presupposition about personhood is wrong. Second, his view about what gives a human value is wrong. Third, the consequences of Werner’s view are absurd. These arguments establish a foundation for the claim that it is wrong to do ESCR because it takes the life of an embryo.


The first problem is Werner’s account of personhood is wrong. His view of personhood assumes that a person is not identical to her body. On Werner’s account, if a property is exhibited that shows the person is present, then the body becomes valuable because a person is using it. Yet, on the contrary, if a person is identical to her body, then the body is valuable regardless of whether the body exhibits rationality or not. That is to say, the body is essential to a person and not merely an accidental part. It seems true that a human person is identical to her body. For example, when someone goes into a coma, she is not functioning rationally. However, if anything is done to her while in a coma, and she awakens, she rightly says that the things done while in the coma were done to her and not just her body. From this one may make the case that when the human body begins to exist the human person also exists.


The second problem with Werner’s view is that his presupposition about what makes a human valuable is wrong.  Werner says that a person is valuable (i.e., deserving protection) if they are functioning rationally.[18] Yet, this property is an arbitrary standard that can be used to exploit other human beings. Humans that need our protection and help the most he claims are not persons. These include infants, babies, and those with mental problems. Obviously infants, babies, and those with mental problems are not functioning rationally. But from the fact that they are not functioning rationally, it does not follow that they are not intrinsically valuable and do not have a right to life. Further, just because someone is not functioning rationally at the moment, it does not mean they are not a rational being.


Additionally, functioning rationally cannot be the standard that gives a human a right to life. If functioning rationally is the standard, then a human that is sleeping or in a coma would not have a right to life.  Consider the following reductio by way of illustration. Suppose someone sees Werner unconscious, sleeping in his electric car between classes, and finds a way to pump sleeping gas into his electric car to keep him unconscious. Werner (who is not a person because not functioning rationally) would have to accept that it is morally permissible to harvest his organs, perform experiments on him, and take his life given his view of personhood. Although these actions are obviously morally repugnant, they are permitted on Werner’s view and he has no grounds to object given his own criteria. It is from this belief that the morally repugnant consequences follow for Werner’s position. In order to avoid these consequences, Werner should recognize that humans are valuable because of their substance. However, this would also mean he would have to give up his support of ESCR.[19]


Additionally, Werner ignores the principle that existence precedes operation.  Aristotle explains the accidents of a human, which include how a human acts, are different from the substance of a human, which is what the human is. Werner’s view of a person as a property-thing says the action of a human, namely her rationality, is what makes her morally significant. However, a human must be a rational being before acting rationally. The action only follows because the human already has such a nature. A thing must exist before it can act. Thus, a rational nature must exist before a person can exhibit rationality. However, Werner makes a being’s function the standard for what makes it valuable. The function of a being only follows upon the being already possessing such a property.  Because Werner ignores this principle, he is mistaken due to failing to make the distinction that it is not the rational function that is valuable, but the rational being that is valuable.  Humans are not valuable because of how they act, but because of what they are.


Moreover, Werner’s dualistic account of persons is wrong. A human person is an individual organism that performs its functions. Even if someone denies he is an organism, he says that he is the one denying it, not just his properties. Philosopher Patrick Lee points out, “Thus, what each of us refers to as ‘I’ is identically the physical organism which is the subject both of bodily actions such as perceiving and walking, and of non-physical actions, such as understanding and choosing.”[20] All of us have some awareness that we are living bodies. For this reason we refer to the day we were born, the day we broke the record, the day we tore down the basketball hoop, and the day we read the paper (we do not say our soul or consciousness did these things). We are not different from our body. Our body is essential to what we are. Thus, when humans perform bodily actions (sweating, running, kicking) it shows they are their physical body.[21] 


Thus, due to dualism’s inadequate account of personhood, the argument from substantial identity can be given. The argument runs as follows:


1. You and I are intrinsically valuable (in the sense that makes us subjects of rights).

2. We are intrinsically valuable because of what we are (what we are essentially).

3. What we are, is each a human, physical organism.

4. Human, physical organisms come to be at conception. (A biological proposition: a new and distinct human organism is generated by the fusion of a spermatozoon and an oocyte.)

5. Therefore, what is intrinsically valuable (as a subject of rights) comes to be at conception.[22]


Thus, contrary to the view that we are aggregates of properties accidentally joined to the body, this argument, which is consonant with science, says that we were conceived at one time and were persons at the time of conception. This argument is supported by the fact that each human is the same organism that it was on the day it was conceived.


Another objection to Werner’s view is that he treats human beings merely as a means to an end, and not as an end in themselves. The argument runs like this:


1. All research that treats humans merely as a means and not as ends in themselves should not be done.

2. ESCR treats human beings as merely means.

3. Therefore, ESCR should not be done.


The first premise is supported by the fact that we view research that treats humans as merely means as morally repugnant. This initial intuition supports the first premise that it is wrong to treat humans merely as means. Yet, one may question our intuition about the first premise.


Consider other instances where researchers treat humans simply as means. These experiments often lead to horrific acts. An example of this is seen in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as well as some experiments done on the Jews in WWII. The scientists did not consider the intrinsic value of the human beings who were in the experiments. In the same way, ESCR does not consider the value of the human being in the earliest stage of its development. But, Werner may correctly point out that one should not judge a system based on its abuse. However, the problem is not only that this system may be abused, but also that this system makes it morally acceptable to treat another human being only as a means and not as an end.


Does ESCR treat a human being merely as a means to an end? It seems clear that it does. ESCR destroys an embryo, which is a human being in the earliest stage of development, by removing its stem cells for research. The research on embryonic stem cells may lead to curing particular diseases, but it kills an embryo as a means to find a cure. Just as it is wrong to remove the organs of one healthy human being only as a means to save the lives of many, so too is it wrong to kill the embryo to use its stem cells for research that may save the lives of many.


It is clear that ESCR is research on an embryo. Werner admits that an embryo is a human being. However, Werner may object and say that an embryo is not a live human being. The second premise only applies to live humans. However, what criteria of life should we use? Werner’s criterion is that a thing must have a brain to be alive.  Plants are alive and they do not have brains. But, Werner responds, brains are the necessary condition for a mental life and for personhood. The mental life is the most important for deciding when a being receives a right to life. But the fact may be that the mental life is already in the embryo from the moment of conception, but has yet to be exercised. Werner admits an embryo is alive, but it does not have a mental life. An embryo is only similar to a brain-dead human because it does not have a mental life. However, there is no good reason to accept Werner’s view that a mental life should be the standard that gives someone value and a right to life. If mental life is the standard to guarantee the right to life, then a person who is unconscious would not have this right. Thus, Werner’s criticisms do not affect the second premise, and the conclusion follows.


Further, an argument can be given that Werner confuses a sign of personhood with the cause of personhood. A properly functioning rationality is only a sign of personhood and not the cause of personhood. For example, my wedding ring is a sign that I am married.[23] However, my wedding ring is not the cause of my marriage. If I take off my wedding ring and put it on another person who is single, the single person does not become married simply because they are wearing my wedding ring. Nor is it the case that I am no longer married just because I do not wear my wedding ring. In the same way, the cause of the personhood of a human being is their rational nature, whereas a sign of someone’s personhood is the way they act.[24]


This has a direct bearing on Werner’s initial argument.  He argues that because it is acceptable to harvest a brain-dead human’s organs, so too ought it be acceptable to perform ESCR. However, positing a rational nature as the basis for the intrinsic value of a human being leads to consequences for our definition of death. A human that is still biologically alive still has their rational nature. Even if the organ through which a brain-dead person expresses this nature is not working, the nature is still present. Thus, applying Werner’s initial argument we find this: because it is wrong to use a brain-dead person’s organs for research, so too it is wrong to use an embryo’s stem cells for research.  Just as removing the organs from a brain dead person kills them, so too removing the stem cells from an embryo kills it. Both acts are wrong even if there may be some utilitarian benefits that arise from the action.




Click here for pdf copy of this Policy Study


All of our publications are available for sponsorship.  Sponsoring a publication is an excellent way for you to show your support of our efforts to defend liberty and define the proper role of government.  For more information, please contact Public Interest Institute at 319-385-3462 or e-mail us at