Is Philosophy Useless? The Case of Human Cloning

Is Philosophy Useless? The Case of Human Cloning

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Suppose you are a potato grower and you have a big contract to supply McDonald’s with prepared french fries.  It would be really great if they could come packaged with their own fat for frying, and that all one had to do was pop them into the microwave.  So, you go to the Pork Producers of Ontario and buy a couple of their best and fattest porkers; then over to the University of Guelph where helpful people in the Ontario Agricultural College take a gene from the pigs and put it into the potatoes.  (Yukon Gold, of course, a variety developed at Guelph.)  And lo and behold, from now on you have your high cholesterol spud, and never again will you need to get out the chip pan and heat it up.  A major culinary breakthrough has occurred.

But is it Kosher?  I mean, what happens if you are a practicing Jew and try to observe the dietary laws?  Obviously you cannot wolf down McLobster (or McHommard as they call it out in Prince Edward Island). But what about those terrific McFries?  Are you allowed to eat something with a pig gene inserted?  Is it still a potato that you are eating, albeit with a new bit of DNA inserted?  Does it matter that the DNA came from a pig, or rather that the DNA in the potato was copied (many times by now) from DNA that was originally in a pig?

It turns out that the answer is rather interesting.  If you are a Jew, a potato is just a potato, no matter how you have messed around with it.  The origin of the new DNA is irrelevant.  Enjoy your french fries.  However, if you are a Muslim, then the potato has been rendered unfit for human consumption.  It does matter where the DNA originated, and if it came from an unclean animal that is enough to condemn it for ever more.  For the Jew, what counts is the functioning of the organism as it is now.  For the Muslim, what counts is the history of the organism, whatever its state now.

We have here a fascinating parallel with a problem which has long engaged philosophers of biology.  One group (which includes me, incidentally) wants to claim that what counts when considering an individual or a group (like a species) is the way in which they function at the moment.  Another group (which includes my good friend David Hull) wants to claim that what counts when considering an individual or group are the histories of the individual or the group.  Thus, suppose a fat little bloke, with the distinctive hat, long coat, and hand tucked in, got off the boat at Star Island and started recruiting Shoalers for a march on Moscow.  I would say that this was Napoleon, even if it turned out that some mad scientist in Boston had made him out of chemicals the winter previously.  Likewise, if Phil Hefner were carried skywards by a monster with big teeth and small arms, I would say that he had been carried off by Tyrannosaurus rex., even it were a reconstruction by Steven Spielberg which had been just a bit too successful.  David, on the other hand, would say that it was just an ersatz Napoleon no matter how much it was like the original, even if it had thoughts and memories (or “memories”) just like the original.  And the dinosaurs are extinct and that is an end to it.  They are gone and can never come back.

 Twenty five years of happy debate – in print and at conferences in nice parts of the world – have convinced me that there is simply no way of solving the philosophical problem.  It is all a question of rival intuitions and that is an end to it.  I think that Napoleon is alive and well and living on Star Island.  David thinks that it is an imposter.  The same is true of Tyrannosaurus rex.  I think it is a real dinosaur.  David thinks it is a movie prop.  Which all goes to make me think that when real decisions have to be made about moral action – or any action – philosophy is useless.  Religion can give you answers, because – well because, religion is in the business of giving answers and is not too bothered about a little reason along the way.  A potato with a pig gene is something quite beyond the world view of Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Mohammed.  So make a decision and then enforce it!  A decision — any decision — is better than no decision.  (I am not saying that all religions in all ways are unreasonable – read Saint Augustine sometime if you think that – but rather that religions are in the job of giving people advice on how to live.  They recognize that sometimes you have to make a decision one way or the other, and get on with things even though there is no good reason behind the decision to go one way rather than the other.)

For all that I am a professional philosopher, I have been thinking these kinds of thoughts quite a bit recently.  I have been putting together a book of readings on cloning for a small press in upstate New York (Prometheus Books in Buffalo).  I am doing it at the request of the editor, a long-time friend, and I cannot honestly say that it was a topic to which I had given much thought until last summer.  Then, having done a survey of the literature and having collected a suitable bunch of papers and discussions – more accurately, having paid a graduate student to survey the literature and to collect a suitable bunch of papers and discussions – I found myself having to sit down and to write the introduction, and to think about the underlying principles which led people to take different positions on the morality of cloning, particularly the morality of cloning humans.

If I looked at the religious writers on the subject, then things were pretty simple.  The conservatives – Catholics, evangelicals, orthodox Jews – were against human cloning.  They wanted no part of it whatsoever.  The liberals – unitarians, Quakers, Anglicans, some Lutherans, and so forth – were much more sympathetic to cloning.  No one should set out to make monsters, obviously, nor do we want a Brave New World situation, where we have the production of squads of epsilons to do the joe jobs for us (why should we bother when we already have all of those immigrants to do the dirty work for us?), but cloning in itself is an okay sort of thing to do.  Indeed, there might well be times when one is positively morally obligated to do it.

Philosophers and philosophy however was much less helpful.  Take the two big secular moral philosophical systems: utilitarianism and Kantianism.  These would seem to take you in completely different ways.  The utilitarian insists, thanks to the greatest happiness principle, that you ought to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness.  Cloning would therefore seem to be morally acceptable on many occasions.  Suppose you want to clone yourself.  Why not, so long as you are reasonably healthy and happy?  If one Billy Grassie is a good thing, surely two Billy Grassies are an even better thing.  Just think, with the right training we might have new Mozart operas being produced even today.  The Kantian insists on treating people as ends rather than as means.  He or she is against cloning, on every or virtually every occasion.  Could it possibly be right to reproduce another Billy Grassie, simply as an expression of the original Billy’s pride or desire to achieve vicarious immortality?  Could we think that we are really going to produce a new Mozart however much training we give the clone (and in any case, would we really want to put a kid through the training that the real Mozart had, just so we can listen to Don Giovanni Mark Two)?  Does anyone really deny that the Grassies and the Mozarts are the thin end of a really big wedge which is going to end up with squads of epsilons?

But you can swing the arguments just as easily the other way.  Am I going to be truly happy going through life knowing that I am just a clone of Michael Ruse – that I have no identity in my own right?  Will I not tire of yet another Mozart opera?  Better by far that we produce our own music rather than forever looking back?  Will I or anyone be truly happy in a world serviced by artificially produced morons?  Conversely, what about natural clones?  Does the Kantian truly believe that identical twins cannot be treated as ends rather than means?  (If anyone thinks that such people cannot have true identities, they should meet the Kupp twins, my son Oliver’s best pals – yet after nearly ten years, I cannot tell them apart physically.)  What about someone whose child is dying tragically of cancer?  Does one truly think it immoral to want to perpetuate that child through cloning?  (Add some conditions if you like.  The mother has had a hysterectomy – through no choice of her own – and so the loving parents can have no more children, etc etc.)

The point is that philosophy seems absolutely useless to solve the question of the morality or desirability of cloning.  More than this, I have to say that the suggestions of some of my fellow philosophers on the subject seem to me to be absolutely nutty.  One distinguished (male, heterosexual) philosopher suggested that the really great thing about cloning (I mean, THE really great thing – the paradigm of why it is a good rather than an evil) is that now lesbian lovers will be able to have children.  One of them can be cloned and the other can act as a surrogate mother.  This strikes me as political correctness gone absolutely stark raving bonkers.

Which is an interesting reaction by me, and I am sure that some of my readers will already be turning to the keyboard to write of my iniquities.  (Heavens, if you get upset when I call Konrad Lorenz a Nazi – which he was – how are you going to react when I say that I think it is daft to suggest that the one great boon of cloning is that it opens up new reproductive possibilities for same sex partners.)  So let me rush to say at once that I really have no absolute objection if this is a use to which cloning is put – more than that, let me say that I can well imagine that this can be a happy and meaningful practice and/or experience which would not otherwise be open to people who (for whatever reason – choice, genes, environment, God) find themselves in such relationships.  But what strikes me as absurd – and wrong – is the thought that the only or the best end for new technology is doing something which is at the lifestyle end of the spectrum rather than the necessity end.

I suppose that what I am trying to say – although I am pussyfooting around because good liberals like me are not supposed to be moved by such things – is that I worry when new technology gets used in ways that are unnatural.  At least, when what is natural is something which is taken to be just one option among a number, or even taken to be something of no significance whatsoever.  Suppose a couple do have a dying child and they want to clone him or her.  I am not sure that it is a wise thing to do – think of the pressures on the new child – but I do understand and sympathize.  Their concern is natural.  But if a lesbian couple insist on reproducing in this way, then do not expect me to feel entirely happy or doubt-free.  Do not expect me to think that nothing can go wrong (simply because of this particular situation).  If evolutionary psychology has taught us anything, it is that the biological relationships between parents and children are not to be denied or downgraded.  Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s studies of family violence show this and so do Sarah Hrdy’s studies of mother-child bonds and when they work and when they fail.  You are going to have one person knowing that another person is carrying her child, and the second person aware that she is the hedge sparrow with the cuckoo in the nest.  (Sorry if that is offensive — say rather, you are going to have the second person knowing that the child she bears is not biologically hers but that of someone else, who is going to be around all of the time.)  Everything might work out just fine, but it is silly and irresponsible to pretend that it will never ever set new challenges.  If evolutionary psychology be correct, these could be major.  It is not a natural situation and for that reason alone you should beware.

As it happens, the naturalness question does get raised quite a bit in the cloning debate.  Catholics, for instance, are committed to the notion of natural law, and try to judge morality against it.  But naturalness seems to be an underlying theme with a lot of people who have never even heard of Saint Thomas Aquinas.  There is a feeling, even by the most secular of people, that organisms – humans in particular – are not just thrown together randomly, but rather that we function, we work, and in very particular ways.  Moreover, while we can certainly interfere with the functioning, we should do so with care.  Interference in the first place should be to get us back to proper functioning if we have deviated – taking pills for high blood pressure, for instance.  And in the second place, we should change functioning only in careful and circumscribed ways – a good stiff gin and tonic to unwind after a department meeting.  (Actually, given my colleagues, one could say that a large drink is needed to get back to proper functioning.)  Generally, there is a norm which is natural for humans, and to break from it is dangerous and perhaps even wrong if it goes too far.

If you are a Christian, then you justify naturalness by reference to God.  He (She) intended things this way because they are good.  If you are an evolutionary ethicist like Ed Wilson, then you justify it by reference to our evolutionary heritage.  The wisdom of the genes and so forth.  And if you are neither, then you justify naturalness by prudence based on experience.  The more you start altering things around, the more you run the risk of having unfortunate side effects.  And this applies to cloning.  The entirely secular person may say that there is nothing wrong in principle in using cloning how you will, but humans are animals with emotions and social needs as much as with a physiology.  The more you start to push things around, the more you start to run the risk of providing a solution which is worse than the problem.

This talk about naturalness goes back to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, and it is still a subject of great philosophical interest today.  (There was, a few years back, an intense discussion of the nature of sexual perversion and how and when and why it might be considered natural or unnatural.)  Which rather suggests to me that there may still be a place for philosophy, even now.  I am certainly not going to say outright that utilitarianism and Kantianism are useless, but perhaps as guides to action they are not as helpful as many think.  But there are other issues which are important, and other philosophers have looked at them, and it is perhaps in those areas we should be directing our interests.  Conceptual problems about what is the true nature of a human being and so forth.  And as a bonus to all of those good Christians who are upset because I have been rude about their disdain for reason, might I point out that Aristotle was the philosopher with perhaps the most influence on your religion, so perhaps you might join with the philosophers in their inquiries, showing that you are not so unreasonable after all!