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Quality not Quantity - Ethics and Cloning

Philip Kitcher is Presidential Professor of philosophy at the University of Califomia, Son Diego, and the author ofthe Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities (Penguin, 1996).
New Scientist 15 Mar 97

UNCONCERNED about all the fuss she is causing, lamb number 6LL3, better known as Dolly, gazes out from the pages of Nature (vol 385, p 810). Dolly's debut sparked much discussion, virtually all concerned with the prospects for cloning humans. Some commentators have urged an international ban on human cloning, even though it would be difficult to enforce. But before we consider how to police would-be cloners, we need to understand if any such regulation is ethically required. The moral imagination always tends to run riot when basic facts are not in proper focus. We can reasonably assume that the techniques of Dolly's begetters, Ian Wilmut and his team from the Roslin Institute and PPL Therapeutics, both based near Edinburgh, could be used with human beings. It is also likely that within a year or so, the success rate will have improved by an order of magnitude. This brings closer the prospect of producing people whose nuclear DNA is identical to that of others. Of course, the clone and the original would not be the same person, for, as philosophers since John Locke have recognised, continuity of memory, beliefs and attitudes is crucial to personal identity. Egomaniacs seeking immortality need, not apply. To a first approximation, clones would be as closely related as monozygotic (identical) twins. But they would probably be less similar than twins for three reasons. First, clones develop from eggs with quite different cytoplasmic constituents. Second, unlike identical twins, they do not share the same uterine environment. Finally, after birth, their environments diverge dramatically, especially in cases where a generation gap leads to a radical change in diet and education. The differences would not matter if we were interested in just one characteristic under genetic control, as may be the case in agricultural applications of cloning. A few human traits do appear to be genetically determined, most prominently terrible genetic diseases like Huntington's and Tay-Sachs. By contrast, the characteristics of people we often value most-temperament and talent-result from complex interactions between their genetic constitution and the environment, interactions we cannot hope to replicate.

For this reason, demented dictators wanting armies of Obermenschen would do better to fund military academies. Similarly, those who think that cloning portends more great artists and scientists would be advised to invest in scientific education and support the arts. Even before the moral lines are drawn, reminders of the biology of cloning ought to squelch the most ambitious fantasies. Yet, even if such cloners could achieve their goals, their fantasies are morally repulsive. In their scheme of things, people are judged by standards of success laid down in advance, irrespective of any aspirations or values that the people may develop for themselves. Our moral compass in this domain should be the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's great admonition to "treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only". Of course, there might be situations in which human cloning would be morally defensible. Advocates cite a mother whose only son is dying as the result of the accident that killed her husband. It is hard not to sympathise. Yet we ought to ask, even here, whether lives are being valued more for the benefit they will bring to others than for their own sakes. Are the protagonists concerned to produce very particular kinds of people-people with a function marked out for them in advance and which the child might come to know and resent? Even here, the fundamental question is not new: it is the same one facing parents who contemplate having a child to replace a dead one. Fixated on sheep, we strain at gnats and swallow camels. More commonplace advances in biomedical technology will soon allow prospective parents to use prenatal tests to identify the probability of their offspring having particular traits, and to terminate pregnancies when they are dissatisfied. The fundamental moral principle that should guide their choices, the application of the Kantian imperative, is that concern for fostering lives that have good chances of health and happiness is legitimate, while a desire to produce people of a very particular type is not; that reproductive decisions ought to promote the quality of human lives, judged by the lights of the people whose lives they are.

At the same time, in Britain and especially in North America, the political will to fund all kinds of social and medical programmes that could vastly improve the lives of existing children is severely lacking. The injunction to treat human lives as intrinsically worthwhile has far broader implications for our attitudes towards life than recommending a ban on cloning. Our failure to observe those implications testifies to our moral myopia. Dolly is right to look unimpressed.