Stem cell research is a controversial issue in bioethical debates because, although stem cells have great therapeutic potential, such research involves the creation, use, and destruction of human embryos. Some debates center on the question of whether embryonic stem cells have a moral status. This paper contends that in the West, the discussion on whether research on embryonic stem cells is ethically acceptable is usually approached from the perspective of reason or rationality, as one sees in legal provisions pertaining to the issue. Very often, (instrumental) rationality is taken as the primary source for moral and legal justification. The paper analyzes the Kantian notion of “moral status,” pointing out the limits of this way of thinking.
Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism, does not merely employ rationality as a means for making moral judgments. The Confucian idea of “li” (appropriateness), which aims at achieving propriety in one’s roles and relations, can be used to deal with specific ethical difficulties. Because stem cell research deals with humans and human relationships, it goes beyond legal permission or issues such as informed consent. This paper attempts to show that a rational approach may not always work for people whose moral lives and ideals are embedded in Chinese culture. It does not argue that Confucian ethical views can resolve all moral controversies, particularly those raised by modern medical technologies. It does, however, argue that Confucian moral theory and ethical practice should be reconstructed to tackle the current moral dilemmas concerning bioethical issues.