Bentham's Mummy and Stem Cells

The skeletal body of Jeremy Bentham sits on public display in a glass-fronted case at University College London. Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, left careful instructions for the use of his remains on his death in 1832. His body was to be used for a public medical lecture, then dissected, then clothed and positioned as if in thought. This effigy, topped with Bentham’s carefully mummified head, was to be displayed as an inspiration to my Disciples.

As can happen when utilitarian schemes are put into practice, Bentham’s plan took unexpected turns. The medical lecture took place amid a macabre lightning storm that cast the speaker in ominous shadows. Bentham’s mummified face was so appalling that a less hideous wax likeness had to be substituted. The real head was repeatedly stolen and carried about like the head of Medusa through generations of schoolboy pranks. The body was famously introduced as an object of levity at collegiate meetings and meals. Thus, Bentham’s elaborate plan to edify mankind with his remains has resulted only in ghoulish farce.

Bentham’s mummy comes to mind as an icon for the utilitarian hype surrounding stem cell research today. The proponents of embryo destruction promote their cause as sheer pragmatism, aiming to maximize social utility while minimizing human pain. But their schemes embody the worst of Benthamismnaïveté, disregard of unintended consequences and disdain for ethical issues. There is a pathos in Bentham’s moth-eaten corpse that echoes in the fountain-of-youth illusions of immortality that surround the stem cell campaign.


Utilitarian Disdain for Ethics

Unlike many radical reformers, Jeremy Bentham had little respect for abstract human rights. He mocked the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as embodying nonsense upon stilts. Bentham’s system reduced the meaning of life to sentience and reduced ethics to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. In his view, abstract moral reasoning was irrational sentimentality.

Bentham’s attitude permeates embryonic stem cell campaigns today. A striking example is Michael Kinsley’s essay Bioethicists Fiddle as Patients Keep Dying. Kinsley demanded more federal funding of embryo research in the aftermath of the South Korean claim to have mass-produced embryonic stem cells (a claim that turned out to be an egregious fraud). He denounced appeals to postpone embryo research while we think through the morality and all that. Kinsley mocked opposing arguments as abstract and poetic, concerned with the nature of humanity and stuff (emphasis added).

Such rhetoric echoes Bentham’s impatience with voices of caution in public policy debates. Few thinkers ever were less wary of unintended consequences in altering longstanding social norms. Bentham’s Book of Fallacies mocked all sorts of cautionary argumentsthe Procrastinator’s Argument, the Snail’s Pace Argument, the Fallacy of Distrust, or What’s at the Bottom?, the Hobgoblin Crier and so on. He placed supreme confidence in the power of reason to calculate the pleasure and pain that would flow from different courses of action and to make decisions on that basis.

Benthamite Naïveté

Utilitarian thinking inevitably encourages credulous and impractical undertakings. Chesterton said that truly worldly people do not even understand the world. This was certainly true of Bentham, who poured vast energy into naïve schemes, notably in the field of penology. (Among other matters, Bentham advocated hanging dummies and staging mock tortures of masked criminals in order to intimidate the public while inflicting minimal pain.)

Naïve and wishful thinking runs rampant among embryonic stem cell proponents today. Euphoric notions that miraculous cures are imminent can be found on op-ed pages across the country and in political campaigns. Senator Arlen Specter (Republican of Pennsylvania) has touted embryonic stem cell research as a veritable fountain of youth. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat of California) spoke for many others when she opined that embryonic stem cell research might hold the key to a cure for Alzheimer’s. And former Senator John Edwards claimed that people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.

These all are grandiose flights of fantasy. The fact is that embryonic stem cells defy control. When injected into animals or cultivated in petri dishes, they frequently give rise to teratomas (nightmarish tumors, in which all sorts of tissueskin, hair, teethare mixed together). These cells are designed to grow in the embryo, regulated by complex signals. The very plasticity that fascinates scientists makes them genetically unstable, hypertrophic and tumor-prone. They are far too dangerous for clinical use at any foreseeable time.

The most illusory stem-cell rhetoric has to do with a supposed cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s, because of its complexity, is among the diseases least likely ever to benefit from stem cells. But it is among the prospective cures most frequently touted by stem cell proponents. Rick Weiss, the science writer for The Washington Post, quotes a stem cell researcher on this point: To start with, people need a fairy talethey need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.

Utilitarianism fosters fairy tales because it is narrow in its vision. It ignores plain truths in its naïve calculations of pleasure and pain. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, Bentham went wrong by ignoring the most profound dimensions of human nature. Nothing is more curious than the absence of recognition in any of his writings of the existence of conscience, said Mill. Conscience,’ Principle,’ Moral Rectitude,’ Moral Duty’ [N]either the word self-respect, nor the idea to which that word is appropriated, occurs even once, so far as our recollection serves us, in the whole of his writings.

Modern-day utilitarians likewise reduce human nature to its most shallow physical foundation. Kinsley, for instance, dismisses embryonic human beings as biologically more primitive than a mosquito. Such reductionism paves the way for his scoffing at the morality and all thatthe nature of humanity and stuff. And, because it strips away the whole anthropological and spiritual context surrounding embryo research, such thinking facilitates manipulative hype by Big Biotech.

Campaigns for public funding of embryo research are bankrolled on a massive scale by the biotechnology industry. Embryo research is so unpromising that private venture capital avoids it. So biotech firms promote Benthamite fantasies to garner huge research grants from public funds.

Authentic Pragmatism Requires Sound Ethics

Ironically, the backers of embryo research are in fact wrong on utilitarian grounds. The practical, expeditious prospect of cures lies in non-embryonic stem cells, which present no ethical problems. These cells are far less subject to tumor formation and to immune rejection than embryonic stem cells are. Embryonic stem cells never have been used successfully to treat a single patient. Adult and umbilical cord-blood stem cells, by contrast, already are being used to treat more than 70 disorders.

You can find those disorders tabulated, with medical journal references, at This Web site is run by pro-life physicians (including medical school professors and the chair of the Mayo Clinic’s ethics council). It posts scores of articles on the effective use of adult and cord-blood stem cells, along with other impressive data. (Christopher Reeve may not have known that his best chance of walking again might have lain in stem cells in the membranes of his own nose.)

A morally disciplined approach to stem cell research is far more likely to produce wide-ranging cures. An approach that destroys human life will degrade our science and corrupt our culture, while failing to produce any useful medical results. Bentham’s dusty mummy is a melancholy symbol of the futility of utilitarianism when applied in an ethical vacuum.

Utilitarian calculations are useful only when subordinated to higher moral norms. Among those norms are the absolute value of human life and the prohibition against using humans as means to an end. Utilitarian programs that cross such ethical boundaries will produce bad outcomes. Fruitful medical research can be done only when governed by the kind of moral value that Bentham rejected as too abstractthe irreducible, inalienable value of human life.

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11 years 9 months ago
Ethical choices would be much simpler if problems were unambiguous. The toughest choices are tough because there are persuasive arguments on both sides. John D. Hagen's desire to bash embryonic stem cell research has led him to misstate the facts. The consensus of the scientific community is that such research has real promise to produce cures for disease. Non-embryonic stem cell research may be preferable from an ethical point of view, but asserting that embryonic stem cell research has no scientific merit is simply false.


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