A friend of mine, who is now working for the World Youth Day team in Sydney, once formulated what she called the “Ugh” factor in ethics. I think it is a bit rubbery (so much of our “ugh” reactions really are based on cultural factors–hence racism etc.), nevertheless there does appear to be something to her theory.
I subscribed to a trial period of Crikey.com.au, and there read an interesting entry called “The Secular Argument Against Stem Cell Research”. The author, Guy Rundle, attempts to form an argument against Stem Cell Research which is not based on “the religious idea that a distinct stem cell is somehow wronged by its creation and destruction”, an idea which he regards as “silly”. Nevertheless, he does worry about “the effect on the culture overall, of making life an industrial product”, something which he believes is “quite capable of undermining the ground on which meaning is built.” He says:
Culture–the framework within which life has meaning–only survives if we accord to the human a special status, including phenomena, like embryonic stem cells, that are not beings or persons, but are “of-the-human” nevertheless. … People sense this when they think about something like the genetic modification of future children, the sale of kidneys for live organ transplant, or the creation of a new child as a marrow donor for a very ill older sibling. …It’s worth listening to the deep disquiet one feels about these things and then imagine a future where that is general. A world divided between the genetically designed perfect specimens and living organ banks, made in the pursuit of “transcending” our human limits, may lead us to build a hell in heaven’s despite.
Use of words like “sense” and “feel” and “disquiet” seem to me to point to my friends “Ugh” factor. Somethings are just “Ugh”, not on the basis of cultural conditioning, but on the basis of our cross-cultural shared humanity. It is a sense of “ugh” which even crosses the line between the religious and the secular.