January 26, 2018

The happy clone. Or why the doubts on the scientific progresses of cloning are not convincing from a moral point of view

A group of Chinese scientists has managed to successfully clone the first non-human primate. The production of two genetically identical macaques has revived the debate on cloning: between apocalyptic scenarios and ethical dilemmas, Gianfranco Pellegrino tries to clarify the issue and to erase unfounded concerns

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Why is the Chinese monkey cloning experiment so troubling? Indeed, it seems to be even more morally troublesome than the Dolly case, as monkeys are closer to humans, and reproductive human cloning may be in the offing – a worrisome and totally objectionable prospect. But why is a biological procedure, not cultural at all, so puzzling? Of course, biology is not completely detached from our culture and life, and from moral assessment. When biology is human biology, a nature/culture divide is artificial and impossible. The fact that we are living beings often gives us reasons to judge as morally good certain things – things promoting our survival, for instance, or preventing pain. The fact that non-human animals, but also plants and ecosystem, are living beings may suggest, and suggested, that they are worthy of moral concern.

However, it is not clear why human cloning elicits so many worries. Some reservations can derive from a religious worldview. If you believe in a divine Creator, any trafficking with the fundamentals of life violates a supernatural, intrinsically good order. Some reservations can derive from a conservative worldview. If you believe in the value of the existing – a value grounded on the wise and unpredictable operation of history or nature, cloning is a further evidence of an unrestrained desire to domineering. Faustian attitudes and technocratic drifts are obvious mentions, here. Notice also that the experiment took place under an undemocratic regime (and the fact that the two monkeys have been named translating the expression “Chinese people” is a sinister echo of Nazi rhetoric).

However, those qualms are less than universally spread, as they rely on abstract and universal factors – the divine creator’s project, or the value of nature and history workings. It might be argued that, if cloning is beneficially – for cloned, cloners and the rest of humanity –, then there is no moral objections to it.

Nevertheless, also secular progressives may be suspicious. Which arguments can be used to buttress these qualms? There are several arguments, sharing a reference to the supposed rights of the cloned individuals.

First of all, it might be claimed that cloning violates the right to genetical diversity, understood as an identity feature. Clones are almost equal – except for some mitocondrial features of them. But each human being is entitled to an irreducible genetic diversity, as an identity-shaping factor.

Alternatively, it might be argued that cloning encroaches the right to character and cultural diversity – as a matter of tastes, frames of mind, characters, all of them being identity-shaping factors. Cloning subtracts to the cloned their identity – a core element of a good life.

This argument has many shortcomings, though. First of all, it is far from clear that there is something like a genuine genetic diversity. The genetic differences between primates and humans are less – much less – than similarities. The genetic differences between human beings are really tiny. And some humans are twins – genetically identical. Should we say that twins have their rights to genetic diversity violated?

Moreover, it is far from clear that genetic identity constitutes identity in a broad sense – identity of character, of mind, of tastes and inclinations. As said, human beings are genetically similar, but morphologically and culturally plural. Claiming that genetics determines thought or culture amounts to an incredibly naive determinism.

One can argue that being cloned is a violation of a right to autonomy, to the control of one’s life and origins. But nobody can control one’s origin – everybody is the outcome of other people’s projects and choices. And this project or choice do not depend on the modes of our birth. Someone gives us life, even when we are born in a laboratory. To be true, someone gives us life when she care for us. Nobody is autonomous since her birth, and no autonomy is possible on one’s birth. Autonomy is a progressive achievement of life.

Another worry is that the cloned can be exploited – as slaves, or reservoirs of organs, or inferior human beings. This is a genuine worry – it is wrong to treat other human beings as slaves or inferior beings. However, these wrong treatments are not specifically tied to cloning. There are many ways to mistreat people, even when they are born from a mother. It happens when their mother is not European or Westerner, for instance.

Finally, it may seem that cloning is a deprivation of physical integrity. Cloning often comes from a cellular transfer, which is an intrusion in the integrity of a cell. But, on one hand, there are many violations of physical integrity which are welcomed and good – such as prothesis and surgical interventions. On the other, our body are continuously regenerating, at a cellular level. Physical integrity is a metaphor, at most.

By contrast, a general argument against any condemnation of cloning is possible. Claiming that cloning is a threat for human beings rests on an assumption concerning what is a human being. Basically, the idea is that cloned human beings are less than human. This is real discrimination. Claiming that there is something wrong in a human being who is cloned, but is perfectly able to speak, feel, thing and live with us is very similar to saying that there is something wrong in a human being whose skin color is different. Often, pro-cloning people are accused of being inclined to Nazi eugenics. But Nazi assumptions may be ubiquitous.

The author

Gianfranco Pellegrino

Gianfranco Pellegrino is a researcher at LUISS’s Political Science Department

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