The Questionable Authority

Over at Pharyngula, PZ highlights a recent comment by Rick Santorum, the best-dressed man in the Senate, regarding Santorum’s opinion on scientists and morality:

Most scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this [embryonic stem cell research], and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It’s a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.

After following the links back and watching the video clip of Santorum’s comment, I discovered something that was almost shocking: he actually said other things in response to the same comment that were even dumber.

The following transcript of Santorum’s comment is my own, and any errors are mine. Feel free to review the clip for yourself and check my work. (I take no responsibility for any adverse health effects that might result from watching or listening to Santorum.) For clarity, I’ve skipped over some of the ummms and ahhhs, and other minor verbal slips.

Host: “Senator Santorum?”

Santorum: “Well, I think she speaks for a very broad swath of the American Public who sees this as morally repugnant, who sees this as, ahh you know, science unchecked, just going out there and doing things because we can do them. I mean, I found it remarkable that one of the, of the, uh the doctor that was on before us said that, you know, we, we limit certain studies to animal studies. Well, the principle reason we limit certain studies to animal studies is not because we have a moral objection to it, it’s because we’re afraid that we could, uh, that, that the research being done could actually harm humans, and so we want to test them on animals first, not because science feels any moral compulsion…”

Let’s look at that one more time:

“Well, the principle reason we limit certain studies to animal studies is not because we have a moral objection to it, it’s because we’re afraid that we could, uh, that, that the research being done could actually harm humans, and so we want to test them on animals first, not because science feels any moral compulsion…”

I swear, that’s really what the idiot said. We don’t do animal tests prior to human tests because of any moral reason. We just do them on animals first because we’re afraid of hurting people. Clearly, Senator Santorum has some definition of “morality” in mind that I have never heard before. Either that, or he thinks that doing something that risks hurting someone is morally OK. Or both. Given Santorum, probably both.

Santorum continues:

“…not because science feels any moral compulsion, in fact, scientists, most scientists unfortunately, those that certainly are advocating for this, and many others feel very little moral compulsion. It’s a utilitarian, materialistic view of doing whatever they can do to pursue their desired goals.”

Right. I have absolutely no moral compulsion when it comes to advocating for research that has enormous potential to cure disease. I just want to make sure that there are more healthy people around so that I will have a virtually limitless supply of slaves when I take over the world.

The train wreck doesn’t stop there:

“And I, I think someone has to step in and check that. And, uh, because someone has to speak for the people of America who pay their taxes and don’t want to see those tax dollars used for morally objectionable things. And again, no one is stopping them from doing this type of activity. All we are suggesting is that those, like this woman here, should not be forced to pay for it through the federal dollar, with federal dollars.”

OK. Here we have to get serious, since “people shouldn’t have to pay for it” is a common refrain that is heard in all kinds of debates. In fact, it’s at least peripherally tied in to one of the first Ask A ScienceBlogger questions.

There is a fundamental problem with the “people shouldn’t have to see their taxes fund things that they don’t like” argument – unless, of course, you are a “no government” libertarian/conservative. If that were used as a governing principle, nothing would ever get done. And I do mean nothing.

Forget about stem cell research. Forget about Medicaid funding for reproductive health issues. Forget about sex education, science education, and public education as a whole. Forget about defense – remember, there are a fair number of pacifists and conscientious objectors in this country, and I bet that lots of them have moral objections to having money spent on the military. We’d definitely have to stop executing people. Hell, we’d probably have to forget about even collecting taxes – after all, we know there are people who object to the IRS on “religious” grounds.

Using “some people have moral objections” as an excuse for government inaction, if applied evenhandedly, is a prescription for anarchy. Of course, we don’t actually have to worry about that in this case, since the “moral objections” excuse really only applies to things that Minister for Faith and Morals Santorum disagrees with.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike the Mad Biologist
    July 25, 2006

    There is a fundamental problem with the “people shouldn’t have to see their taxes fund things that they don’t like” argument – unless, of course, you are a “no government” libertarian/conservative. If that were used as a governing principle, nothing would ever get done. And I do mean nothing.

    Amen to that.

  2. #2 Beth
    July 25, 2006

    Excellent post. Santorum is engaging in indefensible branding of scientists as immoral materialists. Making enemies of “others”. It’s a bit scary, really, like when third-world countries drive out the intellectuals and professional classes after a military coup.

  3. #3 Pharma Bawd
    July 25, 2006

    I’m trying to hammer out a compromise deal with
    Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute.

  4. #4 bob koepp
    July 26, 2006

    The traditional liberal principle of freedom of conscience includes an “exception clause,” namely, that individual conscience can be overriden on a showing that this is necessary to the maintenance of a well-ordered society. Again looking to tradition, this has been interpreted to include things like the provision of infrastructure for public safety, transportation, communication, education, public health, etc., without which society cannot function.

    So where does ESCR fit in this picture? Personally, despite what I take to be it’s great promise (and not just for medical purposes), I haven’t seen the arguments that society will suffer irreparable harm if the pursuit of ESCR is left to those who favor it. In a sense, for the exception clause to become operative, what needs to be shown is that ESCR cannot be practicably pursued except through public mechanisms. That’s a pretty high standard, but I expect nothing less from liberals.

  5. #5 outeast
    July 27, 2006

    what needs to be shown is that ESCR cannot be practicably pursued except through public mechanisms

    Even if we grant that point, (a) how do we define practicably pursued, and (b) do we apply the same criteria to other government funded endeavours?

    (a) is important because on the one hand we could say ‘some research will happen without government funding, ergo this criterion for support is not met’ but one could also say ‘solely privately funded research is unlikely to extend the same benefits as publicly funded research ergo this criterion is met.’

    (b) ultimately tests this: practically anything funded by the state could be ‘practicably pursued’ without public funding; the question is whether that is desirable and whether that would offer the optimal solution. Tax collecting could certainly be privatized; a military funded by private dollars could wage war perfectly effectively, especially since it would no longer be accountable to the government; etc etc. Such examples are silly, of course, but that’s because the standard ‘cannot be practicably pursued except through public mechanisms’ is effectively meaningless as thus defined.

    Of course, maybe your standard is supposed to apply to ESCR alone – but in that case it’s just an excuse behind which to hide a rejection of ESCR per se. Unless you can justify that being singled out?

  6. #6 juliana texley
    July 30, 2006

    Santorum seems unaware of the enormous amount of federal (grant) money spent to insure the health and welfare of laboratory animals. But far, far beyond that…

    The real question is: “Who will receive the inevitable benefits of private stem cell research? The rich? Or the citizens who refused to pay for it out of their tax dollars?”

    It’s time we looked beyond the superficial arguments of those who oppose stem cell research. (After all, no one, not even Santorum, dares to suggest we stop making excess fertilized embryos for tomorrow’s trash heaps.) Is there a profit there, that would be eliminated if there were federal regulation? Is there an application of stem cell research that ethical scientists won’t even consider, that some private firms are currently pursuing? The bill that the President vetoed set strict limits on for-profit use of the research which would have eliminated the current practice of charging for “snow flake” insemnations. What else is out there beyond the research for incurable diseases that certain groups do not want to see regulated?

  7. #7 Dave in Columbus
    July 30, 2006

    It sounds like Santorum attended the Dan Qualye Institute of Republican Science. Remember Qualye–who daddy Bush put in charge of the Space program–said:

    Mars is essentially in the same orbit… Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.
    Dan Quayle, 8/11/89
    US Republican politician (1947 – )

    Which explains why the Republican don’t care about global warming. When they destroy this planet, they all plan to hop into their private jets and fly to Mars.

  8. #8 Ima Pseudonym
    July 30, 2006

    The last thing I would ever want to do is defend the homophobic, racist, idiotic… Santorum – but there is a clear way of reading the passage in question.

    Santoru, presumably holds an ethical theory according to which some things are simply flat-out wrong (this is not at all an uncommon kind of view – Kantians and most Catholics would agree). He is claiming (rightly or wrongly) that scientists don’t see morality this way, but rather adopt a consequentialist view according to which what matters is the ultimate balance of good/evil produced. Nothing is wholly off limits (if the ultimate balance of good consequences is great enough), and nothing is avoided simply because its just plain wrong – it is avoided (only) because doing it would produce more harm than good. For many Catholics (and Kantians) for instance, lying is always wrong. When such a person refrains from lying they do it because lying itself is immoral. When a consequentialist refrains from lying on a particular occasion, they do so not because lying itself is wrong but because on that occasion lying would produce more harm than good.

    Santorum’s real mistake, which is in some ways a far worse mistake as it is almost certainly done intentionally, is to try to paint the consequentialist moral view not as a theory of what makes certain things right or wrong, but as some sort of amoral alternative. On his view consequentialism isn’t a theory of morality, but an abandonment of morality entirely. This is wrong, it is deliberate on his part, and is far too insidious to label as simple “dumb.”

  9. #9 PJ from PA
    July 30, 2006

    This is rather funny to read Slick Rick put down stem cell research…yet for us in Southeastern PA, he’s been running TV adds and radio spots claiming he authored and helped push through important stem cell research iniatives.

    I wish I had them…but I’m sure the blogger community can find it.

    Just wanted to add how hypocritical this idiot is. And how embarrassed I am that he’s my senator. ugh..

  10. #10 Johann
    July 30, 2006

    I have a moral objection to paying Rick Santorum’s salary from federal tax revenues. Being from Pennsylvania, being over 21 years of age, I will vote for Bob Casey in November. That will be putting my moral stance in action.

  11. #11 mark
    July 30, 2006

    I saw a Santorum campaign ad on TV today (no, he was not wearing his cool dude attire) and reminded myself I must be in town on election day. He seemed to be taking credit for some good things, things that he has fought against.

  12. #12 Paul Curtin
    July 31, 2006

    Rick Santorum is the new Dan Quayle! I only just noticed that. I’m slow.

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