On One Hand

November 8, 2009

A moral thought experiment…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 7:26 pm

The Scenario:

For this thought experiment, step into Christian or Roman Catholic theology saying that a fertilized egg is an act of creation that generates a human soul.

You are an employee of an egg/sperm bank and the power goes out, meaning that all the eggs and sperm in the cooler are going to thaw out and be destroyed. You are the only person present in the building when the power goes out.

Say that you realize that there are 100,000 viable eggs, and about a billion viable sperm in a frozen state.

It suddenly occurs to you that you can mix the eggs and the sperm, which represents, in Christian theology, 100,000 acts of creation as each individual egg becomes fertilized embryo and has a human soul.

You realize that the eggs will die shortly after being fertilized since there is nowhere to put them and they will thaw, but because you are Christian, you know that you could say a few words to dedicate them to God (a baptism) and they would all die in a few hours being committed to Heaven. Upon doing so, you would send 100,000 new souls to heaven to spend eternity in bliss.

On the other hand, by NOT fertilizing the eggs, they will die without ever having existed as souls, and the beings who now exist in thought and potential (in your mind) will never exist.

Since the government does not recognize fertilized eggs as humans, there are no legal ramifications, and anyway nobody would find out about it. You could just say you had to throw away the contents of the cooler, which is protocol in this situation, and nobody would fault you.

The Choices:

So what do you do? Say that in either situation, you are unhappy with your choice; you would prefer to allow the eggs to be implanted and become citizens. But you have the choice nonetheless. Is it…

…1) Worse to not fertilize the eggs, meaning that 100,000 potential beings will theoretically “die” in the universal sense because they do not exist.

…2) Worse to fertilize the eggs, meaning that 100,000 human beings will die in the literal sense but be immediately transferred to heaven, and spend eternity there? You are, in sense, “saving” 100,000 souls which is in some way a huge victory for God.

Remember to consider:

1) Assuming that a fertilized egg represents the creation of a human soul, does the person have moral value WHEN

a) the thought and potential for their to be a human being is there (which you definitely have in the cooler)

b) when the human being actually exists and is created

c) when the human being is born and able to choose between good and evil?

2) God’s Biblical commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply” to add to God’s creation on the Earth. You believe that being married and not having children is a selfish decision because it precludes the creation of life and offends God, and you understand that the general tone of the Bible is positive towards the creation of new life, especially the creation of life that is “saved” and will go to Heaven.

A second question:

With a (theoretical) time machine you could go back in time and stop a human being from being conceived. Is it worse to kill a person by altering time and causing him/her to not be born, or worse to kill a person after birth? Say that you don’t have to kill him/her but could, rather, withold medical treatment that would almost certainly end in death?


  1. One problem with your scenario: frozen eggs, frozen sperm. Putting them together does not equal fertilization…they’d have to thaw first, and I have no idea whether they thaw at the same rate. I’d think not. This could mean that even putting them together wouldn’t mean any fertilization.

    This is a theologically troubling line of argument, because you seem to be saying in your experiment that the act of combining egg and sperm “causes” God to create a soul to go with it. I think most theologians would argue that nothing we do “causes” God to do anything. If God knew that the fertilized eggs were not going to grow, would God create a soul to go with them? Impossible to say, of course. To say that we could cause God to create 100,000 souls…

    Comment by horizon_so_vast — November 9, 2009 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

    • I’m just limiting the scenario to the scenario, so hypothetically here you can combine the eggs and sperm and they would fertilize. I’m more interested in the moral questions than the pragmatic ones.

      You bring up a good case about God, though, again, in modern Roman Catholic / conservative Christian theology a fertilized egg has a soul. God exists outside time knows when a woman is going to have an abortion, and even knows when a woman is going to use Plan B and prevent a fertilized egg from implanting to start a pregnancy. But people who believe in God this way still tend to oppose Plan B and abortion.

      I think that, under your reasoning, Christians would have a lot of room to re-consider their views on emergency contraceptives and abortion.

      Comment by ononehand — November 9, 2009 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  2. I’ll speak from a purely Roman Catholic prospective since that’s the schooling I had. This does not necessarily hold true for other Christian faiths. Also, note that some theology doesn’t work very well in the context of modern reproductive health. A thousands-of-years-old theology hasn’t had time to catch up to decades-old technology. So, when procreation is taken out of the context of sex, it becomes very awkward.

    That said….

    To your first question, a human being has moral value at conception, meaning the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg. If you somehow miraculously got 100,000 fertilized eggs in this scenario, God, would have created 100,000 humans by instilling souls in them. I don’t think the Church would have considered either the eggs or sperm alone to have any moral value whatsoever. It’s my understanding that the typical “every sperm is sacred” line that people love to quote has more to do with intent. By masturbating, using condoms, etc., someone interferes with the natural act of reproduction, and therein lies the sin, not in destroying the sperm per se. Since all of the eggs and sperm are in the facility for the explicit purpose of reproduction, there is no moral conflict there. However, they still have no moral value by themselves.

    Given this, I would argue that the natural order of things is to let the eggs and sperm thaw out and be destroyed. Natural events rather than human intervention are preventing the procreation.

    Now you could make this a more complex problem by saying someone intentionally cut the power, thus making a human prevent the natural order of procreation (or point out that an egg/sperm bank isn’t the natural order of things). Luckily, you didn’t. If you did, the logic may get so complex that the answer reverts to “Do what you think is best and rely on God’s mercy and forgiveness to save you and the children.”

    To your second question, all the scenarios are the same. You are preventing the natural order of things from leading to the creation of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s time travel, withholding treatment, preventing two people from meeting, whatever.

    Comment by positron — November 11, 2009 @ 2:21 am | Reply

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