Last week, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno gave an ethical warning about COVID-19 vaccines. In a video message, he said that if a vaccine were “developed with material from stem cells that were derived from a baby that was aborted, or material that was cast off from artificial insemination of a human embryo, that’s morally unacceptable.”
The bishop warned that the Pfizer vaccine may be morally suspect. In response to Bishop Brennan’s warning — and a similar warning from Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarified that the Pfizer vaccine is not connected with embryonic stem cell research.
This controversy is an example of how moral conflict unfolds. It is important to get the facts right. But we disagree about fundamental values. We also disagree about the nature of moral responsibility.
The bishop begins with an assumption that most people would accept. He said that we should “always and only pursue vaccines that are ethical.” But we disagree about what counts as ethical.
Pro-life Catholics see embryonic stem cell research as unethical. Other people deny that human embryos are persons and do not see a problem with stem cell research. Others may argue that if a vaccine can save thousands of lives, it is a good thing, even if it is derived from a questionable source.
And what about individual responsibility? The bishop has a demanding sense of responsibility. If a vaccine has immoral sources, he says, we ought not use it — no matter how far away in the causal chain those immoral sources are, and no matter how beneficial the vaccine.
The bishop suggested a fascinating analogy with recent anti-racist arguments. Some anti-racists argue that since the U.S. was founded on the sin of slavery, Americans remain responsible for this today. The bishop suggested that biomedical research that is founded on the sin of abortion has a similar moral taint.
The idea seems to be that moral identity is structured by choices made within a history that is beyond our control. This is related to the activist’s slogan that silence is complicity. It is not enough to avoid actively doing evil, you must also free yourself of the moral taint of history and institutions.
This heroic moral standard has been applied in a variety of other cases by uncompromising activists.
Animal welfare activists argue that our fast food economy is based on industrialized cruelty to animals. They demand that we become vegetarian.
Anti-poverty activists argue that global capitalism is based upon systematic exploitation of the poor. They argue we should give surplus wealth to the poor.
Anti-war activists argue that the American way of life is based upon militarism and conquest. They refuse to pay taxes that support the war system.
Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion contaminates sex education and women’s liberation. They refuse to support women’s health care that includes abortion.
And so on.
Heroic responsibility asks us to take action to stand up for our values. There is something noble about this. We admire uncompromising souls who live a life based on principle.
But moral heroism is often in the eye of the beholder. The heroes we admire are those we agree with. Those who cling to other values, we call zealots and fanatics. Of course, the moral hero wears those accusations as a badge of honor.
All of this shows us the difficulty of living a good life. We disagree about basic principles. We disagree about the facts. We disagree about who has a responsibility to act and about how much each of us should sacrifice.
Realizing the depth of moral conflict can make us humbler. The moral life includes complexities, uncertainties and disagreements. We should be cautious as we proceed. But humility does not let us off the moral hook. It is difficult to be good. But that does not mean we should give up trying.
There is no ethics vaccine. There is only the preventative soul care of moral education. To live a good life requires the hard work of thinking. Get the facts. Question your values. Understand the systems, histories and institutions that you inhabit. And try to be a hero without becoming a fanatic.