Cloning (2)

by Brian on November 19, 2003

I’ve received lots of useful feedback on my earlier cloning post, and on at least one point, the risks involved in cloning, it’s clear I need to revise and expand my remarks. But first another little defence of cloning that popped into my mind.

Many people worry about the possible psychological consequences of cloning. Of course we can’t know what these will be until we try, but it’s certainly worth trying to figure out what these will be before going ahead with cloning. In one respect in one (fairly significant) situation, I think the psychological effects will be quite positive.

Consider a couple who cannot have children because the man is infertile. Their only way of having a child is to use a sperm bank. I think this is morally acceptable, but in most cases it has one cost: the child will not know who her genetic father is. So she does not know her full lineage. Now while that’s not the worst harm ever, I think it is something that could be bad, and for some people it might cause a notable amount of psychological pain.

(This is definitely not meant to be a universal truth. Many adopted children have no interest in finding out who their biological parents are. But we know that many do, so many people value knowing their genetic lineage.)

If the child is cloned from her mother, she will be in a position to know her full lineage (at least for the first generation or two). I think a cloned child may prefer that state of affairs to being the (biological) child of a stranger. Some children may be indifferent between the two, but I’m not sure that many children would prefer being the biological child of a stranger to being the clone of their mother.

(As an aside, here’s another possible benefit of cloning – one that I don’t think is really beneficial but which may appeal to some. In the case I described, it would be possible for the child to be a clone of the father. In that case there will be a sense (and only a sense) in which the child is the product of both parents, since it will grow to human size in the mother’s womb, as well as being the father’s clone. If the fact that reproduction involves both parents is meant to be important, this is a way of sorta kinda allowing for that. I don’t particularly approve of the division of reproductive labour here, so I wouldn’t think this approach is particularly worthwhile, but I can see how some might. If you think Aristotle should have been right, and the form should be contributed by the father and the matter by the mother, you should love this approach. I don’t, so my defence of cloning rests on separate grounds.)

Back to the main point. Here’s an argument I considered about the risks involved in cloning.

1. In all probability, the cloned child will be better off existing than not existing, even if it suffers various physical ailments as a result of being a clone.
2. If it is better off existing than not existing, then the harms it suffers are no reason to not produce it.
C. The harms that likely go along with being a clone do not provide a reason against producing a clone.

This would be a fairly powerful argument if it worked, because it would mean that even if we were fairly confident that a cloned human would be defective in various ways, as long as it was not so badly off that it was better off not existing, it would be acceptable to produce it.

One worry about the argument is that one of the concepts involved, being better off existing than not existing, might be nonsensical. It certainly pushes our understanding of ‘better off’ about as far as it can reasonably be pushed. I don’t have any argument here, and I recognise that on some theories of value this might not make a lot of sense, but I think we can understand this concept. (I’m possibly going to be convinced that this appearance of understanding is chimerical. Perhaps that’s for cloning post 3.)

The bigger problem with the argument is that premise 2 is pretty clearly false. Here’s two cases showing that it is false.

The Bridesmaid Dress (due to Dan Brock)
A woman knows that if she conceives this month, the child she conceives will suffer some severe ailments, but not so severe that it would be better off not existing. But if she puts off conceiving, she will not fit into her bridesmaid dress at a wedding scheduled for nine and a half months time. So she goes ahead and conceives.

The Barometer (due to Gerald Dworkin)
A couple knows that if they conceive while the barometric pressure is below a certain threshold, the child they conceive will likely suffer a similar severe ailment to in the previous case. But they don’t bother to check the pressure before conceiving, and the pressure is too low and the child does suffer the ailment.

In each case the child so conceived is better off existing than not existing, but the harms it suffers are sufficient reason to not bring it into existence. (Some might think the child cannot be harmed by something that makes it, all things considered, better off – namely being conceived. I’ve been convinced by Liz Harman’s arguments that this is the wrong way to think about harm. Unfortunately Liz’s arguments on this point are not available online. When they are I’ll try to link to them because I think they’re helpful in understanding cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s, which I think are very relevant to the cloning debate.)

So do these cases show that cloning should be banned? No, because there are a lot of distinctions to draw, and the overall effect of the distinctions is to weaken the argument against cloning. But the matters here are very delicate.

The first distinction is between the immoral and the illegal. I agree with the usual judgements that in Brock’s and Dworkin’s cases the agents act immorally. I’m not so sure they act illegally. Would it be proper to have criminal sanctions against the agents in these cases? My tentative opinion is no. Whatever the morality of reproduction, I’m tentatively an absolutist about a legal right to reproduction.

The second distinction is between conceiving and helping others to conceive. This is relevant to the cloning debate, because part of what we care about is the role of the medical practitioners in these cases. If a doctor helped the woman in Brock’s case to conceive, when she could have refrained from helping until the danger of the child suffering the ailment had passed, she acts immorally. (Doesn’t she? I could be wrong here, but it seems she does.) And it might be appropriate to have legal, or at least professional, sanctions in such a case. So while the moral/legal distinction weakens the case for a ban, it does not have as much bite when applied not to parents but to their ‘assistants’, especially if those assistants have professional obligations not to harm others.

The third distinction, and the crucial one, is between cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s and cases where any child those agents have has a risk of such an ailment. I think this makes quite a difference to the case. In this case, where any child a woman or a couple ever have has a serious risk of major suffering, consider the following four questions.

  • Is it immoral to conceive in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to conceive in such a situation?
  • Is it immoral to assist in conception in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to assist in conception in such a situation?

My answers are: Tentatively no, Definitely no, Tentatively no, Slightly stronger no. (I know a blogger should have firmer opinions, but I think these are hard questions.)

Now I think when we are thinking about legalising cloning, on the proviso that its use is restricted to those couples who otherwise could not have children, the last question is the salient one. And I since I think there should be no law against such assistance, I think there should be no law against cloning. (At least for this reason.) But note I’ve effectively conceded that there should at least be restrictions on cloning, until we lose our grounds for believing that it is a very risky process for the child involved.

At this point a concern several people raised becomes pressing. What counts as “otherwise could not have children”? There are (at least) four possibilities.

  1. Could not conceive by traditional means.
  2. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means without using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  3. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means even with using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  4. Could not conceive by any means or adopt a child.

They haven’t put it this way, but several people have in effect suggested that adoption is an alternative to cloning. That becomes important here, because I think it’s important to the evaluation of the Brock/Dworkin style examples that there be no alternative to having a child in the risky way. And it isn’t just a matter of of a technical disagreement, because if we agree that cloning be restricted to those who could not otherwise have children, and that means 4, then we are in effect ruling out cloning, because for the forseeable future there will be a steady supply of adoptable children.

At risk of sounding like a wimp, I’m going to stop here for now rather than argue about which of these 4 is the contextually appropriate way to understand ‘could not otherwise have children’. I think the right answer is 2 or 3 (probably 2) but if there’s a good argument for 4, that would be a better argument against cloning than I’d previously considered. Maybe I’ll say more about this in later posts.



Cryptic Ned 11.20.03 at 12:21 am

In that case there will be a sense (and only a sense) in which the child is the product of both parents, since it will grow to human size in the mother’s womb, as well as being the father’s clone.

Not just a sense. Some genes in the human genome are only expressed by a pregnant mother, and the gene product is used in the development of the embryo – so part of the embryo’s phenotype, from its earliest beginning, comes not from its own genes but from the mother’s. This phenomenon is called “maternal effect”.

In addition, of course, the mother’s nutrition plays a role in the embryo’s development.


Jack 11.20.03 at 1:38 am

Does it matter that while cloning needs a human womb, it gives women total control of the reproductive process in that they would no longer need men at all. They would only be involved through the sentimentality or economic needs of women, not through necessity.

If that resulted in a manless society would that count as a bad thing?

It would be surprisingly practical. For example to maintain population would only require just over one child per woman rather than just over two. Even sexual reproduction would likely be possible (but only of women).

Even without going to that extreme the possibilities could be somewhat disruptive.

I can’t help thinking that I have missed the step that restricts the discussion of cloning to treating conventional fertility problems. It seems commonsensical but I didn’t follow the philosophical or liberal grounds for it.


harry 11.20.03 at 1:39 am

If you are going to take into account the fact that it is better for the cloned person to exist than not to, then you need to consider the dynamic effects of the policy; which may include i) radically diminishing the quality of life of the children who would otherwise have been adopted (which include, remember, children in developing countries who are frequently adopted into developed countries) (this is if you adopt any of 1-3 as your criteria for ‘could not otherwise have a child’); ii) causing other people who would have been born under ‘no-cloning’ law not to be born (and hence suffering the same harm under ‘yes-cloning’ as the clones suffer under ‘no-cloning’) (again, this could happen as long as you adopt any of 1-3; because, knowing that a child is less likely to be adopted may lead some women who would otherwise have given birth to unwanted children to select abortion instead); iii) the effects of revisions of the law as pro-cloners who do not have your scruples successfully erode the carefully designed regulations on cloning, thus leading to more of i) and ii); iv) other dynamic effects we can’t imagine at the moment (but perhaps others below will come up with). Of course, you must also take into count the positive dynamic effects of the legalization. The problem is that you are going to come up with a highly conjectural case for whatever position you take on the law. What I say here is consistent with Chris’s stipulation in Cloning 1 that we should be free to do what we want unless there are powerful reasons for stopping us — the conjectures about dynamic effects are conjectures about the power of those reasons.


Richard Chappell 11.20.03 at 2:17 am

“At this point a concern several people raised becomes pressing. What counts as “otherwise could not have children”? There are (at least) four possibilities.”

This is a very interesting (and difficult!) question… but my first impression is that the real choice is between 2 and 4 (and I personally favour the former), rather than 2 and 3.

The issue at stake seems to be whether adults have a right to parent “a” child, or “their” (biological) child.

If you dismiss the right to have a biological child, then what grounds are there to stop at 3 instead of 4? Clearly the right of “parenthood” (in this sense) is granted through the adoption of a stranger, so there is no need to risk physical harm to a clone.

However, if you grant the right to biological parenthood, then it seems you must stop at 2, rather than 3 – because otherwise you are introducing alien (from a stranger, rather than from its raising “parents”) DNA into the child.

Then again, I suppose one parent gets to contribute genetically via 3, even if it is “corrupted” (from their point of view) by a stranger’s contribution. So I guess an argument could be made here too…

So perhaps one must also differentiate between a (potential) right to full biological parentage, or merely some genetic contribution.

(P.S. How do you insert italics on this board?)


Jeremy Osner 11.20.03 at 3:39 am

Hmm… I’m getting fairly creeped out by the stuff about harm suffered by people who did not get born under circumstances X, who would have been born under ~X — why don’t we all agree that you don’t lose any utility by not being — you don’t have any utility to lose if you don’t exist!

Look, when you say “Person A will not be born if cloning is legal, but person A’ will be born in his stead”, you have made a huge unstated assumption about the nature of human consciousness. “Person A” is shorthand for something “the consciousness which resides within the matter comprising person A” if you are dualist, or “the consciousness which is a characteristic of the matter comprising person A” (maybe) if you are materialist — anyway you are talking about a consciousness, you have to be in this context as only conscious entities can experience utility. And it seems to me that saying “person A’ would exist instead of person A” could only make any sense if “person A” has the first meaning I mentioned, the one I called “dualist” — it is meaningless unless consciousnesses are pre-existing entities which enter into bodies at birth or conception or viability.


Jeremy Osner 11.20.03 at 3:41 am

Richard, code for italics is <i>italics</i>


Jeremy Osner 11.20.03 at 3:44 am

And what I said about being meaningless outside a dualist context goes double for the statement, “the child will be better off existing than not existing”.


Brian Weatherson 11.20.03 at 4:09 am

I’ve got no idea why making interworld comparisons of how well off a person is (which I don’t equate with utility, or with any conscious experience) requires that I be some kind of dualist. Does it immediately lead to dualism to say (as Kripke and a disturbing number of contemporary philosophers do) that I would not have existed unless the sperm and the egg that actually formed me formed a person? If so there’s a much quicker argument for dualism than even dualists have been prepared to say. All of the cross-world comparisons make perfect sense given Lewisian materialist counterpart theory (which is always my default position) so I’d need to see a good argument as to why they don’t.

Harry’s points are all interesting and thought-provoking. A quick question in lieu of a response. If considerations from the welfare of (un)adopted children form the basis of a sound argument against cloning, do they also form the basis of a sound argument against all other forms of fertility enhancement? If yes (which I think is the right answer) do we now go ahead and ban all of those, or do we say those considerations do not support banning cloning? (That’s sounds like a rhetorical question now that I wrote it, but it’s really meant to be serious. I think the adoption considerations are a much stronger grounds for anti-cloning arguments than most of the arguments currently in the literature.)


Jonathan Ichikawa 11.20.03 at 7:18 am

Brian, the answer to your first question in the comment is pretty obviously “yes”, and I think that “the latter” is a reasonable answer to the second.

I’m not sure I’m on board with you about the *absolute* right to reproduce, though. I agree with you about the dress and barometer cases — specifically, that they’re both actions that are immoral but should be legal. But if we pushed things further, I don’t think we could justify keeping the actions legal.

Suppose I have the following odd genetic disorder: my genes are such that if I have a child with a blonde woman, that child will live normally for about six months, then die slowly and painfully due to dissolution of the skin. Suppose also that my wife is blonde. If all these conditions are true and known, and widespread enough to be an real issue (maybe 5% of the population has this disorder), then I think that pretty clearly justifies a law prohibiting me from having children with my wife.

The point of this is that we can’t get away from considerations of the cloned child’s welfare by a blanket statement about an absolute right to reproduce, or the claim that a painful life is better than no life at all. The child’s pain counts, and the empirical question of what a clone’s quality of life is likely to be is a critically important one, both for the morality of cloning and the morality of permitting cloning.


Chris 11.20.03 at 8:28 am

You don’t seem to feel it necessary to argue your premise that to exist with a serious and painful disability is better than not to exist. Unless or until you address this, it’s hard to follow the rest of your reasoning.

Why is it better to exist with a serious and painful disability than not to exist? Why is it better to exist than not under any other circumstances? This is not axiomatic, you know


VJ 11.20.03 at 10:15 am

I’ve found this advocacy site and it’s links useful: It’s a US version of the debate though, more hard edged and ‘definitive’


Jack 11.20.03 at 10:27 am

Would the presumption that new existence is positive, does that we should all be making more babies in general? I think that this claim has radical implications.


Jeremy Osner` 11.20.03 at 1:01 pm

Brian — let me try to rephrase my objection — “interworld comparisons of how well off a person is” are not meaningful if in the first world the person exists and in the second world the person does not exist. “How well off” a non-existent person is just doesn’t mean anything — the only way to make it mean something is to say that in the second world, the person under discussion has some kind of potential existence — and this, I think, depends on an unstated notion of a spirit world where consciousness exists prior to its expression in the world where we live.


Jonathan Ichikawa 11.20.03 at 1:12 pm

Would the presumption that new existence is positive, does that we should all be making more babies in general? I think that this claim has radical implications.

Yes, that’s part of the point I was trying to make above. Or at least, it’s part of what I had in mind. This is very close to Derrik Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion” objection to utilitarianism.


harry 11.20.03 at 2:30 pm

I haven’t thought as carefully about all this before as I’m trying to do now Brian, so am offering comments very tentatively. The suspicion I’ve formed from thinking abiout it sicne your first post is that yes, the fundamental issues about cloning are just the same as those of other reproductive technologies. But they may play out a bit differently — as indeed there will be differences in how the others play out vis-a-vis each other. And how they play out may depend on matters about which we’re not well-informed. For example, some of my friends think that there is a limited demand for adoption because the vast majority of people want biologically related children, and maybe the vast majority want that or nothing. I find that hard to believe myself but only because anecdotally my acquaintance with adoptive parents is that as a class they are not bascially different in other respects form other people I know (not fundamentally, as a class, more altruistic, more left wing, more right wing, more religious, etc…) There must be studies on this. Even if my friends were right, that might be a socially constructed fact about us, because we live ina culture that has historically valorised the biological connection.

I’ve tried not to argue for a ban of cloning or other technologies, just to advance some considerations that count in favour of it (since that’s what you asked for). So these are at least the following: i) the putative effects on non-adoptees; ii) the putative effects on the children who would have been conceived, earlier and naturally, had women not had the insurance of believing technological assistance would be available later in their lives (and of whom it is plausible to conjecture that there would have been more, if that matters, since some women who wait will not have success with assistance but would have had success earlier, naturally); iii)the effects on both the parent who delays parenting of not having grandchildren when she is young enough to enjoy them, and the effects on her child of not having a granparent for her own child young enough to help out.

Wierdly, I am now much more sympathetic to restrictions on the use of reproductive technologies than I was a couple of days ago when you raised all this. But I do think there is nothing morally distinctive about cloning (which is continuous with what I thought before).

A question for you: is the literature on this as weak as you make it sound? I’m tempted now to teach about it with a view to writing about it. Would you let me have whatever you come up with to use as the basis of discussion in my contemporary moral issues course?


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 2:51 pm

“Why is it better to exist with a serious and painful disability than not to exist? Why is it better to exist than not under any other circumstances? This is not axiomatic, you know.”

No, it’s not. But that’s not the only problem with this formulation. As Jeremy tries to point out, “exist/will not exist” is not equivalent to “exist/no longer exist”. A case can be made for the latter that existence is preferable to the alternative. But “will not exist” is boundless, it is something not directly comparable to existence. It is, I think, a fundamental rational fallacy to make such a comparison.

I suffer from a congenital condition. I don’t in the least regret my birth or existence, nor do I blame my parents for it. (Although they weren’t aware of the problem. But if they were, I still wouldn’t blame them.) Now that I’m here, I’m glad to be here. But my parents probably shouldn’t have had a child had they known, not to mention the fact that my mom was still in high school. I think she should have aborted the fetus that became me. I don’t find that a threat to my existence, because it didn’t happen.

Frankly, I’m not sure whether I will have a child that’s biologically my own. There’s a 50% of passing on this disease. From a utilitarian point of view, I think I very likely shouldn’t have a child. But the one thing I don’t worry about too much is that the child would blame me or regret his/her existence. They might; but, for example, neither I or my sister (who also suffers this disease) feel that way.


paul 11.20.03 at 3:35 pm

“Some children may be indifferent between the two, but I’m not sure that many children would prefer being the biological child of a stranger to being the clone of their mother.”

Ha. and again, Ha. Consider the “normal” tensions between parents and children in growing up, and the conflict between parental expectations and a child’s independent aspirations. Now add the burden of knowing that you have been conceived (in both senses), not as a person in your own right, but as a xerox copy of one of your parents. (That description is arguable, of course, but it’s foolish to imagine that at least one of the parties won’t give it serious credence at some point.)

Now consider that assisted reproduction tends (anecdotally, at least) to attract a disproportionate fraction of prospective parents who are well off, feel a sense of entitlement and a strong desire to exert control, and who privilege genetic inheritance over nurture to some degree.

Although an “objective” observer might consider that knowing one’s lineage as precisely as a clone would is positive or neutral compared to knowing half or none of it with precision, it’s not at all clear to me that a cloned offspring would feel anything like the same.


Antoni Jaume 11.20.03 at 4:12 pm

BTW, nowadays it is possible to generate spermatozoides for people who can’t. As I understand it we can make a woman spermatozoid if we want. She’ll only get daughters though. If one has some genetic problem, it may be factible to eliminate those spermatozoids that contain this gen, and then get an IVF with the rest of the sperm.



Stentor 11.20.03 at 4:35 pm

I’m not sure that many children would prefer being the biological child of a stranger to being the clone of their mother.
Being the biological child of a stranger is something our society understands. It’s not all that different from a child whose father ran off (or was kicked out by the mother) after natural conception. Being the child of only one parent, on the other hand, is new and unusual. I would guess that in most cases the psychological and social difficulty of having only one parent would be greater than the difficulty of having a second parent out there somewhere.

I know a blogger should have firmer opinions
Not at all. Unwarranted self-confidence is a blight on the blogosphere. It has a tendency to close people’s minds and give them an investment in defending a particular position regardless of the facts, as well as provoking an adversarial response from others. At least, I tentatively think so.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 4:41 pm

I would guess that in most cases the psychological and social difficulty of having only one parent would be greater than the difficulty of having a second parent out there somewhere.”

And the same argument has been and continues to be made against mixed-race marriages and consequent children (at least in large parts of the US). That doesn’t mean that miscegenation should be illegal, or socially shunned.

I think this is a very weak basis on which to build an anti-cloning argument.


Brian Weatherson 11.20.03 at 7:23 pm


The considerations about adoption were exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I would never have thought of that kind of third-party harm, and I think it’s an interesting topic. So whether or not it’s ultimately right, I’m very grateful it was raised. (Now I have to decide what I think about it…)

It’s certainly fine to use this stuff in a class. Hopefully I’ll be (co-)writing something more serious shortly. (Or at least more serious than the first post – the second post is about as serious as I get.) That might be better for some purposes, though maybe the students would prefer to see evolving thought.

As to how bad the literature is, I have anecdotal evidence only. The journal articles I saw didn’t look great, but I think the best work is in books. (This compares starkly to the literature on genetic modification, where there is both an excellent book _From Chance to Choice_ and already some good secondary literature in journals on it.) I’m going to try doing a proper study of the literature this weekend (assuming Amazon delivers all the books I asked for in time) and I’ll report back on what it looks like.


msg 11.20.03 at 8:25 pm

The ‘fundamental issues’ about cloning, at least as presented here, seem to be a muddle of consumer choices and preferences masquerading as moral arguments.
The straw dogs of hippie superstition and knee-jerk luddism get set up and shot down, and ‘progress’ rolls on full steam ahead.
The ‘how many clones can dance on the head of a pin’ question gets worked and reworked.
But this entire argument takes place against a background, a context that’s loosely defined, if at all.
It’s a simple moral question, cloning — right or wrong?
Moral codes are goal-directed. The problem is we take in those codes so early they seem to be an integral part of the world as it is. As a result, most people’s moral goals are vague, essentially part of the way things are. They disappear in the bright dust of the future, ‘the good of society’ ‘the betterment of all’ ‘the elevation of mankind’ etc etc. There isn’t a moral code in existence that can withstand the solvent of unbiased logic. Bias is everything. Context is an extension of bias.
The arguments that make up most of this discussion are consumer pros and cons. People ‘want’ to have children and can’t. People will ‘need’ organs, or bodies, as their own wear out. There is no ‘should or should not’ because there’s no higher moral goal than consumer satisfaction. This is the logic and morality that have given us the silcone breast.
It’s as though the context is neutral, a growth medium with no moral valence.
My contention is that’s an illusion. My contention is that cloning itself is just one more step in a steady progression toward the achievement of physical immortality by something that, should it accomplish that aim, will no longer be what we call human.
There was a point on the timeline of primate evolution where the seeds, if you will, of the various branches were still one thing. There was another point where they were irrevocably separate. In between was what? What’s the name for that? The individuals involved couldn’t have recognized the changes for what they were. Nor can we.
Cloning by itself has no more moral weight than the electric drill. It’s the context in which it’s applied, by whom, and to what end.


Jonathan Ichikawa 11.20.03 at 8:45 pm

msg, I think you’re missing at least part of the point. It’s a simple moral question, cloning — right or wrong? Like Brian and others have pointed out, it’s not nearly that simple; we’re considering legality, not morality. I think everyone involved in the debate agrees that sometimes immoral activities should not be illegal.

That said, I’m not sure I follow the comments on morality in general. What does it mean for moral codes to be goal-based? I think for this question to make sense at all, we have to be realists about moral principles… I’m actually not sure whether msg is one or not. But I think that on any reasonable theory of morality, be it objective or not, considerations of how an action, or in this case a technology, would be likely to affect people are very moral relevant. Why shouldn’t our wants, needs, and desires matter?

Cloning by itself has no more moral weight than the electric drill. It’s the context in which it’s applied, by whom, and to what end.

The same can be said of guns, nuclear missiles, and Brittney Spears recordings — but that’s not the end of the story. That’s why there’s still room for debate about whether/how legal each of those things should be.


Keith M Ellis 11.20.03 at 8:47 pm

…should it accomplish that aim, will no longer be what we call human.

I’m not one of those nutty fetishizing transhumanists, but…so? Why is what we are necessarily better than anything else we’ve ever been, and anything else we ever might be? Merely because you and I are examples of this particular kind of human? This is just chauvinism.


john c. halasz 11.20.03 at 11:09 pm

No, I think msg’s point was about the recognition of human finitude and natural constraints, not the idealization of a given human nature. And his/her point about the context-boundedness of moral norms is a valid one: unless one is Kant, application is not a secondary issue.

But I think this whole discussion about reproductive cloning is largely beside the point. It’s not that such cloning is against “nature”, but that it is against nature, i.e. not a real biological possibility. Cloning from an adult cell results in something of the “timing” of sequences in the control hierarchy of genes to be out of kilter, leading to unpredictable defects. Whereas it may be a tricky scientific question to determine whether one has produced an imbecile sheep, in the case of human beings, this would be more readily apparent and much more momentous. Think, as a contrast case, of a pharmeceutical company that produced a product of very marginal benefit, but which produced potentially large, various and unpredictable defects: would one not expect government regulators to prohibit the marketing of such a drug? And as for social consequences, cloning would amount to the ultimate in inbreeding. (It is perhaps an echo of the taboo on incest that evokes the attitude of repugnance in many people with respect to cloning). Inbreeding leads to the accumulation of genetic defects, which is why sexual reproduction evolved in the first place, so having any significant number of clones in a population would not be conducive to public health.

Perhaps the obscure resort to something like the “ontological proof” here- (and we all remember that existence is not a predicate, right?)-is a tell-tale sign. As far as I can diagnose the resort to an unconstruable premise to the argument, I think it results from the transfer of an insight from one context- namely the value and obligation attaching to the life of persons born with a defect, whether physical, mental, or terminal, both for themselves and for others- into a context in which it can not be claimed or into a non-context in which no claim can arise. For the deliberate inducing of such defects is a much different matter than the acceptance of their contingency.


msg 11.21.03 at 10:36 am

His. His “point about the context-boundedness of moral norms.”
“Why is what we are necessarily better than anything else we’ve ever been, and anything else we ever might be? ”
It’s hard to get that clearly stated in a few lines. Certainly I don’t mean to say that what we are now is better than anything we might be.
What we might be is why I’m writing.
What we are isn’t really the issue anymore. What we were maybe. The concept of universal human qualities, the shared ‘being human’-ness we supposedly all partake in has led to a lot of current befuddlement.
I’d suggest what it is to be human is simply what it is right now, that what it is to be human pixelates as individual lives wink on and off in their singular binary.
So that over time the essence of what human is changes just as the the morphology changes, gradually enough it’s unnoticable, untraceable except in the fossil record, if there is one.
What we were didn’t lead inevitably to this, anymore than any of our lives led inevitably to what they are now. Our path as a species is as open and mutable as any individual life.
It’s that path that cloning alters fundamentally, not alone, but as one of a constellation of invasive and manipulative technologies. My contention is that that alteration is a tailoring not an enlightened perfecting.
What we were the aboriginal Australians still retain something of, the Inuit, the Kalahari bushmen, the Tarahumara, some few scattered others as well.
These are tropish cliches, yes, but with reason. They are pre-existing long-term healthy adaptations to a fluctuating natural environment.
Most of us older than 30 were raised on a myth of indigenous savagery by victors whose conquest was due entirely to their superior and far more savage power.
That’s the beginning of the suspicions cloning only intensifies.
For me the argument is almost tangential. There’s a line of progress here that’s long enough we can’t get it into perspective. But it is a line. It goes from one point through another, toward still another.
Why context seems important to me, and the naming of it, the clear delineation of the biased context, is that without it there’s only this universal void, the abyss, the big empty grab bag of absolute relativity.
It’s what sends weak minds scurrying for received instruction, moral codes handed down from above, because there’s nothing else there but what you choose and choice is so arbitrary and personal it’s meaningless.
In the vacuum of that dilemma, opportunists and scam artists proliferate.
“Sometimes immoral activities should not be illegal.” I think that’s a semantic issue there.
The law should refelct morality, and not, as is so common in America especially today, with the dark absurdity of “if it’s not against the law it’s ok”. There’s certainly no need for a law that says you can’t destroy the world. Or the human race. Or the universe.
It’s an act of presumptuous arrogance for anyone to dictate the moral codes of the society in which they live; arrogant, presumptuous, and vitally necessary that someone do it, whether a committee of elder scientists, a mass democratic vote, a circle of women meeting in a handmade tent, or a bunch of grad students in a blog commons. People need that guidance to free up energy, so they can get on with the business of daily life.
John C. raises most interesting points. Imagine as a contrast case a pharmaceutical discovery that gave profound across-the-board competitive advantages to a minority, and slow death to everyone else, and the only way to find out was to take it. See the critical mass developing? How long til the ultimate losers are themselves the minority?
There’s a rural practice called ‘line-breeding’ which is the 4-H version of (induced, in animals) incest. It’s a crap shoot, but when it pays, it pays big. Desired attributes locked into the genotype. Control.
Incest among humans, with viable offspring, is much more common than the culture is ready to admit.
Arguing against cloning from a ‘technologically infeasible’ position just postpones the inevitable, doesn’t it?
What I’m after is a human morality that is loyal to tradition, that embraces the entire past, and takes more than just contemporary humanity as its own, more than just humanity for that matter.
Too much of contemporary science and scientific philosophy is orphaned and bitter, an abandoned child with a thousand toys, and no direction home.


john c. halasz 11.22.03 at 12:39 pm


“his/her”- didn’t know, but irrelevant.

I take it that the basic project of modern science it to provide explanatory (i.e. causal) understanding of the structures of real processes. Part of the productive expansion of modern science is to give us understanding of the natural constraints we are under, rather than to explode those constraints, as with, e.g., the slowly/rapidly unfolding environmental/ecological crisis. This is not directly a moral enterprise. But it does serve to inform moral and prudential considerations, if only to inform us of the range of uncertainty. Hence, the counter-argument to human reproductive cloning that it is, in fact, naturally impossible- (that, in effect, mortality is woven into the very fabric of biological nature))- is not irrelevant vis-a-vis its putative “inevitability”.

Science is not simply the handmaiden of technology. In the case of current biological science, it does seem to be the case that technical developments have outrun actual scientific understanding. But these same technical developments also promise real gains in understanding, as well as, human benefit. It is their reasonably and ethically constained development and not their abolition that is at stake: the harm that scientifically and ethico-politically unrestrained technology can do should not be underplayed. That they can give rise to delusive desires is not specifically the fault of science, though technoligized science can give rise to magical/superstitious “beliefs”, just as surely as archaic traditions can. But the “belief” that science and technology can offer an unlimited expansion of human freedom is best countered “prescientifically” in the recognition that human freedom is both generated and constrained by the ethical recognition of otherness, as, for that matter, can the damages of restrictive tradition. However, I don’t believe that delusive desires can, nor should be legally proscribed; it is their consequences that can and should be legally regulated to reduce the harm they can do.

The recognition of human finitude, natural constraints and the differentiation of contexts for the application of norms seem to me to be decent enough rudiments for beginning to address the issues at hand: while holding in check the all-too-human tendency toward self-aggrandizement- or, for that matter, the imaginary terrifying abyss of infinite possibility-, how to evaluate the possibilities that modern culture, society and technology afford for the remedying of injustices and gains to human well-being. A Romantic enlargement of the sense of tradition does not strike me as germane. For one thing, tradition took place under different, much more constrained conditions, though precisely also in terms of the above mentioned rudiments. For another, I have a hunch that “tradition” spans 4 generations, from grandparents to great-grandchildren, the span of living, embodied memory and instructive tellings.

Finally, as to your pharmacological counter-example, I don’t see it as applying to the imaginary possibility of human reproductive cloning; it strikes me as rather a parable about the actual functionning of free-market capitalism.


msg 11.23.03 at 7:51 am

John C. Halasz—
“… to give us understanding of the natural constraints we are under, rather than to explode those constraints, …the slowly/rapidly unfolding environmental/ecological crisis. This is not directly a moral enterprise.”
Overall I agree with your description, as I take its meaning, an idealized science is no more nor less than perceptive apparatus, and ideally delivers understanding.
But your first paragraph also reveals a stance that, while currently almost universal, is I think recent enough to be called modern. The idea of individual death being an unfortunate by-product of the seemingly random and certainly plan-less chaos of biological evolution.
Submission to the mortality of human living, reluctant submission, fiercely reluctant submission, is a traditional virtue. The ability to inhabit that paradox, to live within it as a complete individual is I think one of the greatest human accomplishments, and I find that view echoed in virtually all great religious traditional teachings, as distinct from their current practices and practitioners.
That stance is critical, because it bears the entire argument on its back.
That all innocent death is wrong, all sickness, all ‘handicap’, all infirmity, is itself a perfect example of what you term the ‘romanticized traditional’. I think as a part of the philosophy of medicine it’s true, yes, but we aren’t all doctors of medicine.That view of things comes from a time when we lived at the mercy of the world, and had to struggle for each day. A hundred and fifty years ago the birth to adult-child ratio was very different than it is now.
The problem here is an overly successful strategy, and it is paralleled in many contemporary dilemmas. We fought the law and we won. And we cling to the old way of seeing even as we transform the entire planet, however accidentally. All death is not wrong.
An interesting analogy, in english at least, is the word ‘day’ and its two meanings. Ask the man on the street how long a ‘day’ is and he’ll tell you ‘24 hours’. Ask another what the opposite of ‘day’ is, and he’ll tell you ‘night’. It’s the same with life. In a very real sense we’re the victims of semantic confusion. Night and day make one thing. Death and life do also.
In addition it’s a chillingly consistent mantra of technophilic journalism that some new Frankenstein procedure will have the not-ever-to-be-questioned benefit of producing new medicines or food supplies.
To take the other side of that argument is to be confronted with the satanic uniforms of eugenic bureacracy, and all that that entails. That seems clearly to me to be a false duality, artificially applied to circumstances that are themselves the result of complex manipulation. That we have thrown off the seemingly heartless cull and winnow of natural process, without replacing it with anything but random death by car crash (still the single most prevalent cause of under-30 mortality, which is surely at least equally heartless in its randomness) is to the point here.
Wolves are generally viewed, by people whose lives and livelihoods aren’t directly threatened by them, as beautiful examples of mammalian grace. There is a natural eugenic at work there.
Yet we can’t just throw up our hands and go back to running after herbivores with sharp sticks. Nor can we leave it to any human agency to decide who the ‘fit’ and the ‘unfit’ are. Nor can we continue to allow the fire of technological advancement to proliferate on its own, with no moral governor, no limit but the pedal-to-the-metal acceleration of greed and reputational testosterone.
The confusion of pure science with the application of its results may have given me an excuse to rant overlong here. The original discussion was about the morality of reproductive cloning. Pure science will never exist in a moral vacuum, not until the society it inhabits is equally pure. Any discussion of reproductive cloning in a moral context must perforce be about its application, and to be morally accurate must take in the societal effects of its application in total, not just in the immediate moment and circumstance.
Midwives were once central to the birth process, a process as yet still central to us all. These were the women held up when I was young as ‘old wives’ with their tales and superstitions. The best of them worked within lines of tradition that wove the sacred with the necessary, in a reverent pragmatism. But in the Age of Science they were judged, scorned, and ridiculed by their worst.
It will seem archaic now, these women with their secret knowledge of teratology and joy, though our presence alone must be at least partial testimony of their success; archaic mostly because that way of living has been beaten into non-existence, not because its adherents failed. Unless the inability to withstand the assaults of a culture so inhumanly vicious that it countenances the obscenity of ‘primate research’ and knows no moral constraint on any of its own impulses can be called failure.
Science is not the handmaiden, but the midwife of technology. Though it seems, with the rest of us, a helpless witness to the outcome of its labor.

Comments on this entry are closed.