Conservative Bioethics and the Search for Wisdom

Hastings Center Report (Jan - Feb 2006) Vol. 36 No. 1 | Published on

By Eric Cohen

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Outside the conference room at the American Enterprise Institute, the nation’s preeminent conservative think tank, two books were recently on display. The first, written by David L.Kaserman and A.H. Barnett, made the economic case for permitting free markets in human organs.1 The book treats dead bodies as natural resources and organs as commodities, and it argues that organ markets would boost supply, save lives, and free individuals to decide for themselves when selling their own organs makes personal sense. The second book,written by former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics Leon Kass, describes organ transplantation as a “noble form of cannibalism,” and argues that the morality of organ procurement depends in part on whether it involves giving instead of selling.2 Both books ask about the “price” of progress, but in radically different ways: the first by detailing the price system that would maximize organ supply; the second by asking about the cultural price we are willing to pay to promote medical progress, and whether some values — like respect for the dignity of the body — require setting limits on private commerce in the name of public morality.

The two books nicely capture some of the deepest divides that exist within American conservatism — between libertarians and traditionalists, free-market conservatives and social conservatives, partisans of virtue and partisans of choice. Of course, it is easy to treat these two conservative types as a single caricature — seeing all conservatives as heartless capitalists who care only about embryos. Perhaps such hybrids exist, although I suspect they are a rare breed. In reality, those conservatives who care most about civic morality are often piercing critics of the deficiencies of modern capitalism.3 Those who care deeply about defending developing human life usually care just as deeply about the plight of the poor, the disabled, and the uninsured.4 And those who care most about personal freedom and economic growth are often the most passionate advocates of embryo research, organ markets, and the burgeoning business of reproductive medicine.

So what, if anything, holds modern conservatism together, in bioethics and beyond? This is a large question with no single answer. To some degree, modern conservatism is a creature of historical circumstance, with libertarians, foreign policy hawks, and religious conservatives united during the Cold War in opposition to communism. Yet despite steady predictions of a “conservative crack-up,” this fracture has not really happened, and there is little indication that it will happen anytime soon. For now, modern conservatism lives mostly with a philosophical division of labor: When it comes to abortion, bioethics, and the culture in general, social conservatism is the guiding philosophical force. When it comes to economic policy, health care policy, and biotechnologies unconnected to human origins, libertarian conservatism is the guiding philosophical force — the many billions in Republican pork-barrel spending notwithstanding.5

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