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October 10th, 2002 · No Comments

Back from the debate, and I must say, I think it went pretty well. I don’t know if either side changed anyone’s mind, but I do hope that it was, at the least, engaging. Thanks to all of you who gave up a perfectly good evening to listen to us chatter. Below are the notes I typed up for my opening remarks. A few pre-debate glasses of wine make it difficult to assess how closely I actually followed them during the event (that sounds worse than it is, really), but here, at any rate, is what I intended to say:

Thank you. I expect that the real action will be in the back and forth of the question period, so I want to use my time to give a very brief and inadequate sketch of the issues I expect to be “in play” in this debate, and I want to start by stepping back to make a sort of meta-observation. Debates over biotechnology are typically framed in terms of the question “Shall we or shall we not allow these technologies — that is, technology for cloning or genetic modification — to exist?” The problem with that question is that it’s sort of like “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” — it makes some implicit assumptions that may well prove false on examination. Most obviously, it presumes that that choice is ours to make in some pretty robust way.

Well. Consider the massive war on drugs we’ve waged for the better part of a century. It has done remarkably little to hamper either the desire or the ability of people to alter their consciousness with a wide range of nominally “controlled” substances. How much more successful, then, can we expect to be at quashing the more natural and persistent desire of parents to supply for their children the best health and life prospects possible, or to cure debilitating illnesses? If the realistic answer is, “not very,” we have a very different sort of debate. We do not, then, ask the question we would ask in a world of perfect control — “will genetic technologies be used?” — they will. (In fact, a rather strange religious group called the Raelians already claims to have clone-pregnancies underway in Japan and Europe.) What we instead ask is: how can we best ensure that these technologies are used in the most responsible way possible? Or, slightly more melodramatically: do we want the forefront of an inevitable biotech movement to be in Palo Alto or Pyongyang? Now, within that context, there’s still an interesting debate we can have over a range of policy options we might pursue. But if instead we succumb to hubristic fantasies of technocratic control, we run a very real risk of ceding to an anarchic underground whatever real power of oversight we might have exercised.

Now, with that in mind, there are many different objections to genetic technologies, which apply in varying degrees and in different ways to genetic engineering, to therapeutic cloning, and to reproductive cloning. But they do seem to fall into one of two rough groups.

On the one hand, we have what we can call the consequentialist set of arguments, which look to broad social harms that will purportedly accrue over the long term if widespread use of these technologies is permitted. You hear these much more frequently with respect to genetic engineering or reproductive cloning, though sometimes it’s alleged that the broad harm of therapeutic cloning will be to set the stage for these. So you hear people like Francis Fukuyama argue that old men will feel a Carter-like lust in their hearts for the nubile young carbon copies of their aging wives, or that the genetic ├â┬╝bermench will keep unmodified plebes like us in their basements as Morlock pets, or what have you. Will, I think, will have more to say about those, and we can get into specifics in the Q&A, but I’ll note that the *forms* of argument deployed here are usually startlingly similar to ones that we all reject coming from the environmental or economic left. Nowhere do we see the usual conservative and libertarian idea that you begin with a presumption of freedom, and then see what the real, as opposed to merely speculative, harms are before deciding what sort of regulation is needed.

The other sort of argument — call this the deontic set — look to the impermissibility of the act itself, of the harm we supposedly do either to the future child (some very weird metaphysics involved in that; again I think Will plans to talk about that) or, what has been a main problem for Ramesh in his writing, to the embryo itself. Now first, I want to observe that certain kinds of genetic technologies won’t necessarily or inherently involve embryo destruction, and may even reduce the prevalence of abortion. If the development of germline therapy technology is blocked, we will almost certainly see either In Vitro Fertilization, with the unwanted embryos disgarded, or pre-natal genetic screening coupled with selective abortion, used as surrogates. Ninety percent of parents whose fetus tests positive for cystic fibrosis abort.

Well, what about therapeutic cloning, then? Well, depending on the specifics of your position, you might be at least partially opposed to abortion and still OK with the destruction of blastulas, if your reasoning is that after the first trimester there are brainwaves present, and you’re wary about the possiblity of destroying a human consciousness. That’s not my position, but I certainly understand it, and happily, it’s not incompatible with research involving very early stage embryos. What I frankly do not understand is the position Ramesh has staked out: that anything that is genetically a member of the human species has “intrinsic worth.” In all candor, I simply cannot fathom why anyone would take that position.

Species is a useful construct for biological analysis, but the sine qua non of species membership is just ability to interreproduce. It’s not clear why that fact has /any/ normative significance. Indeed, if you consider your reaction to some future race of people bifuricating from the humans, or some yet undiscovered species, or hell, silicon based aliens, I think it’s pretty clear that if they had they capacities typical of adult human beings, species would be precisely irrelevant. We wouldn’t need to take a microscope to their constituent parts in order to decide whether they were deserving of moral respect? So what extra work is the biology supposed to do? Well, we don’t typically get a positive argument for the moral significance of the genetic base — instead we’re warned that we’d better make it the key factor or we’ll have to withdraw moral personhood from these other cases X, Y, and Z where we clearly don’t want to. Ramesh offers the comatose, young children, and even sleeping people. This is just a crashing non-sequitur for two reasons.

First, it’s not clear why this arbitrary way of drawing the line — species — is the appropriate umbrella category to use. The rhetoric of “human rights” makes it seem plausible, but the “if we don’t draw the line here” argument seems to be no less effective if we vary the “here.” Why human DNA? Why not all primates? Or all carbon based life? I guess the “intrinsic worth” lies somewhere in the 2% difference between chimp DNA and human DNA.

Second, and more importantly, this move radically disconnects morality from our actual reasons for caring about people. What do we think is so awful when someone we care about is killed? What makes it worse than a hamster’s death? Not, surely, the microstructure of the particular organism – we don’t lament that a particular kind of physical entity is gone. No, it’s that this person — with a unique perspective, with a way of being in the world, with projects and goals to pursue, who hated the smell of onions and liked Bob Dylan — because THAT has been snuffed out.

It is ironically my opponents who have the more materialistic — too materialistic – outlook on this issue. They are looking for human dignity in the microproperties of our biochemistry, and I fear they’re looking in the wrong place.

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