Stephen L. Carter, Bioethics Panel Dropout

Must we clone him?

“One longs for the political candidate who is willing to say, more than three decades after John Kennedy’s assassination: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.’ “

—Stephen L. Carter, Integrity

Stephen L. Carter is a whirlwind. William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale; author of seven books for the general reader on race, religion, the judiciary, and civil society; member of the President’s Council on Bioethics; public intellectual (Richard Posner counted 254 media mentions between 1995 and 2000); and now the author of the critically acclaimed, best-selling novel. How does he get it all done? Apparently, by blowing off the bioethics panel. When the council released its report last week (click here to read it, and here to read Slate’s William Saletan on the politics behind its proposed moratorium on cloning), the chairman, Leon Kass, was asked why Carter had abstained from voting on the panel’s recommendations. Here is how Kass answered:

Professor Carter has not been able to make any meetings since, I believe—I think he was there part of the February meeting. He was not present with us in April. He was not present with us in June, and he has been unable to comment and, therefore, has chosen not to participate in this report. It’s not correct to say that he’s abstained. It is, I think, more correct to say that he has just not participated in this report. We regret that very much.

Chatterbox detects in Kass’ words some genuine and justifiable pique. Reviewing transcripts of the four meetings prior to the report’s release, Chatterbox observes that Carter attended the first two-day meeting in January and half of the second two-day meeting in February, then skipped the two subsequent two-day meetings in April and June. Kass is correct in remembering that Carter left the Feb. 13 meeting early. (About three-quarters of the way through the transcript, Carter says, “I have to leave and I want to apologize to the fellow counselors for that.”) Carter was also AWOL at last week’s two-day meeting, which followed the report’s release.

Ordinarily, it is not Chatterbox’s habit to take attendance at meetings of government-appointed blue-ribbon commissions. He does so in this instance for two reasons:

1) This is no ordinary blue-ribbon commission. The President’s Council on Bioethics was created to guide policymaking on important but difficult ethical questions about which there is simultaneously great uncertainty and an urgent need for resolution. The physical health of people in need of certain experimental therapies hangs in the balance, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that some of them will live or die based on what this panel has decided and will decide in the future. Consequently, skipping a few meetings of the President’s Council on Bioethics is a much more serious offense than, say, skipping a few meetings of the Amtrak Reform Council.

2) Stephen Carter is no ordinary panel-sitter. He is a tireless social critic who writes and speaks ad nauseam about the need to bring more civic virtue into American life. (“He has no discernible vices,” David Owen marveled in the June 3 New Yorker.) Chatterbox is not aware that Carter has ever addressed explicitly the morality of playing hooky from prestigious government panels. But in his 1996 book Integrity, Carter has this to say about responsibility:

When we make commitments, the world assumes that we have thought them through, that we are not just running our mouths. For a commitment is not merely a statement, an exercise of the faculty of speech; it is quintessentially an act, and one on which others rely. If we did not believe that words that form a commitment are as much an act as they are speech, the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech would make it impossible to enforce, for example, the law of contracts. … Our respect for contracts, as for other forms of commitment, surely rests on the belief that a person of integrity will do what she has promised, because it is her responsibility to weigh the risks before making the promise.

It’s possible, of course, that Carter warned Kass up front that he might have to miss a few meetings. But if Chatterbox reads Integrity right, Carter believes that honesty about one’s intention not to fulfill a particular duty is basically worthless:

We do not admire those who shirk their duties too readily. But if honesty is substituted for integrity, we might say that if I tell you that I am not planning to fulfill a duty, I need not fulfill it. But it would be a peculiar morality indeed that granted us the right to avoid our moral responsibilities simply by stating our intention to ignore them, and integrity does not permit such an easy escape.

Unlike James Q. Wilson, who missed the June meeting, Carter did not vote on the bioethics report’s recommendations, and he did not publish an individual statement in the appendix detailing his views. (Presumably, Wilson caught up on the discussion by reading the Web transcripts.) Carter just took a powder.

What was the impact of Carter’s absence? It’s hard to know precisely how Carter would have voted. (That’s the trouble with these thoughtful moderates!) But in the two sessions Carter did attend, he spent a lot of time urging fellow members to accept a distinction between morality and the law—raising the possibility that Carter was preparing to conclude that therapeutic cloning was immoral but nonetheless ought to remain legal. Carter also offered a powerful rebuttal to Leon Kass’ “wisdom of repugnance” theory, which posits (somewhat simplistically) that anything that people find abhorrent at the gut level is morally wrong:

[I]f you take the case, for example, of, say, the bans on miscegenation, it may be the case that those bans which were instinctively felt, and very powerfully defended for a very long time, that those bans were probably undone as much with rational argument as with an appeal to passion.

Score one for the moral relativists! Given all this, Chatterbox leans toward the view that Carter would have resisted the blanket moratorium that ultimately prevailed and instead would have urged that scientists be permitted to proceed with caution on therapeutic cloning. If Carter had done that, and if all other things had remained equal, the moratorium would still have prevailed (by a vote of 10-8 rather than 10-7). Conceivably, though, Carter might have swayed other panel members with his arguments had he actually shown up. They were gathered, after all, to hash out these questions together. It is possible, then, that Carter’s absence actually helped determine the outcome.

Why didn’t Carter show? At least partly because of the conflicting obligation to publicize The Emperor of Ocean Park, for which Knopf advanced him $4.2 million. Chatterbox knows this because on June 20, a day the President’s Council on Bioethics met, Carter was in New York inaugurating a new Oprah-like book club on NBC’s Today show. (The Emperor of Ocean Park is its first book.) The bioethics meeting convened at 9 a.m., leaving no time for Carter to travel from Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan to the Ritz-Carlton in Washington’s Dupont Circle, where the bioethics session was held. For the past two days, Chatterbox has tried and failed to elicit any response to an e-mail he sent Carter or to messages that Knopf’s publicity office and Carter’s assistant at Yale Law School promised to forward. The difficulty, they explained, is that Carter is very busy right now selling his book on the West coast.