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Ethical chic

Today's moralists want to construct rules to make them righteous without all that guilt

Ethical chic

Some medical ethics experts are complaining that the government is ignoring ethical issues in its plans to deal with a potential bird-flu epidemic. The spokesman for the group? Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, champion of animal rights, euthanasia, and infanticide.

So what might the government's bird-flu policy be like if Mr. Singer, based on his professional expertise and his leadership in the field of medical ethics, became the U.S. Ethics Czar? Based on his writings, we could assume that he would stop scarce bird-flu vaccine from going to infants, since they are not fully human yet. He would also prevent it being wasted on the elderly, since they will die anyway.

And why would Mr. Singer give flu medicine to human beings at all? According to his beliefs, there are no intrinsic differences between human beings and animals. Which species is most at risk? If there is a bird-flu epidemic, Mr. Singer would probably give all the medicine to the birds.

Morality is back in vogue. Even postmodernists on college campuses-who got their start by dismantling objective moral claims-are now in a high state of moral indignation, demonizing President Bush, denouncing the war in Iraq, and preaching against the evils of conservatism. Leftist politicians have seemingly abandoned policy recommendations altogether, so that their discourse consists almost solely of angry moral rhetoric.

It's a sign of progress that these activists are appealing to objective moral principles. But if you ask them what those principles are and what their basis is, you are unlikely to get a coherent answer. The left pushes moral restrictions on lifestyle when it comes to the economy, the environment, and social attitudes, but it accepts no moral governance on sexual behavior. The left is against war and capital punishment, except when carried out against the sick and unborn children.

People today want to feel moral. But they do not want objective, transcendent absolutes-such as the Ten Commandments-whose authority comes from God. They do have a conscience, from the moral law that God has written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-16). They want to feel righteous, but they prefer to construct an ethical system that does not make them feel guilty. They want morality without the worldview that comes with it.

The South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk is one of the most important pioneers of human cloning. He recently was caught in an ethics scandal. Not for engendering babies and letting them die. Not for experimentation on human beings that leaves them genetically damaged until they die a horrible death. What Mr. Hwang did that was considered so heinous is to use eggs donated by some of his employees. The practice runs afoul of the rules set up by the "ethics boards" that have become our moral arbiters. They strain at gnats while swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24).

In the topsy-turvy world of genetic engineering, "ethical guidelines" without moral principles become simply bureaucratic regulations. Cloning is moral as long as it results in the death of the child but not if it transgresses employees' rights.

But minor transgressions are often signs of a bigger moral violation. Investigators into the egg donations at Mr. Hwang's laboratory uncovered more and more questionable practices. Finally, his whole scientific contribution unraveled.

Mr. Hwang claimed to have cloned human embryos from patients' cells and harvested their stem cells. These patient-specific stem cells were genetically identical to all of the patient's other cells and so would not be rejected by the patient's body. The paper that described this research became foundational in the field and was the basis for much of the hype that stem cells from cloned embryos would be a medical cure-all.

But the investigators found that the research was a hoax. Mr. Hwang faked his data. The publication was a lie. Scientists still want to clone embryos for their stem cells, but at least they must recognize falsifying research is wrong.

Morality is a kind of truth, which people can deny, but they cannot escape for long.