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Human embryonic stem cell research debates: a Confucian argument
  1. D F-C Tsai
  1. Correspondence to:
 D F-C Tsai
 Department of Social Medicine and Department of Family Medicine, National Taiwan University College of Medicine, Department of Medical Research, National Taiwan University Hospital, No 1, Section 1, Jen-Ai Road, Taipei, 100, Taiwan;


Human embryonic stem cell research can bring about major biomedical breakthroughs and thus contribute enormously to human welfare, yet it raises serious moral problems because it involves using human embryos for experiment. The “moral status of the human embryo” remains the core of such debates. Three different positions regarding the moral status of the human embryo can be categorised: the “all” position, the “none” position, and the “gradualist” position.

The author proposes that the “gradualist” position is more plausible than the other two positions. Confucius’s moral principle of jen, which proposes a unique theory of “love of gradation”, and the principle of yi, which advocates “due treatment for persons”, are then explored. The author then argues that our moral obligations to do good to other living organisms, persons, and our families are different.

Putting together the “gradualist” position on the human embryo, and Confucius’s theories of “love of gradation” and “due treatment for persons”, the author concludes that the early embryo has less ethical significance than the later fetus and adult human. The moral obligation we have toward persons is clearer and stronger than that which we have toward human embryos. Embryo research is justifiable if it brings enormous welfare to human persons that cannot be otherwise achieved. The “love of gradation” requires us, however, to extend love and respect towards other entities according to their different status. We should therefore be very cautious in using human embryos for research, acknowledging the gradualist nature of their moral status.

  • stem cell
  • embryo research
  • Confucian ethics
  • moral status

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  • i A very small number of religious groups do hold services for such events but mostly these are for the consolation and comforting of the bereaved parents.

  • ii, iii, iv Translation modified by the author.