Article Title

Cell Wars


On September 11, our second day of infamy, I was in Davos, Switzerland, delivering a lecture to an international conference. The topic was the ethics of stem cell research. As CNN displayed the horrors of that day, we learned that another kind of cell, the clutch of international terrorists, was our enemy. One war against stem cell research had been waged in the United States; another war against terrorist cells was about to be mounted. The fact that this short word "cell" spanned two issues of moral moment, and the fact that I have spent my career as a professor of ethics, spurred me to reflection on the very nature of morality. Perhaps I have spent years teaching something I really did not understand.

Apart from the word "cell," meaning in its original Latin "storeroom," and then a small chamber for a monk or a prisoner, and then the membrane-enclosed cytoplasm out of which all organisms are built, and then, in recent years, a group of revolutionaries and subversives, what might the organic cells about which I was lecturing and the cadre of terrorists who blasted our security have in common as morally meaningful? The organic cell is so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye; the terrorist cell is also invisible. The organic cell has great power: its complex metabolism can build and sustain an elephant and a human person. The terrorist cell is also powerful: its conspiracy can blast out of existence massive structures and out of balance the equilibrium of a nation. Yet organic cells and terrorist cells are radically different. What joins them in our moral concerns? Why should I be able to speak about the moral issues raised by the stem cell and the moral issues raised by terrorism?