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International Philosophical Quarterly

Volume 56, Issue 1, March 2016

Stephen Napier
Pages 77-98

Thought Experiments, the Reliability of Intuitions, and Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

It is common in bioethical discussion to present thought experiments or cases in order to construct an argument. Some thought experiments are quite illuminating, and ethical theorizing will often appeal at some point to one’s intuitions. But there are cases in which thought experiments are useless or do not contribute to the argument. This article considers cases presented in the context of stem cell research that are destructive of human embryos. I argue that certain popular cases that are meant to motivate the view that such research is permissible either are dialectically useless or do not contribute to the argument. By dialectically useless, I mean that the cases analyzed here yield intuitions in people who are already committed to the permissibility of such research. I end with some reflections that challenge the reliability of our intuitions on applied ethics issues by suggesting that thought experiments in this field are dubious from the start. My argument should not be read to support moral skepticism but to urge that our inquiries on applied issues requires certain intellectual virtues.

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