The Radical Cowardice of Utilitarian Bioethics

It is clear that Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva were doubting some pretty obvious ethical truths in their recent paper. As Ari suggested, this is quite contrary to Kyle Munkittrick’s credulous praise that their paper is

exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

But did these authors really even exhibit the spirit of deep philosophical questioning that Munkittrick claims to defend? In fact, looking at the paper itself, and at the defenses of the paper written by the authors and the journal’s editor, it is clear that they reached this ostensibly outrageous position not by deeply questioning any basic moral assumptions, but by scrupulously following certain widely accepted principles of utilitarian “personhood” ethics to their horrible logical conclusion. As the authors say in defense of their article: “It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.”Yet so very far was this “exercise in logic” from the deep questioning of moral principles that, when they reached the conclusion that killing babies is okay, they accepted that conclusion, rather than questioning the principles that brought them there. That certainly demonstrates the deep commitment these authors had to the principles of utilitarian bioethics, but it sure doesn’t say much about their commitment to challenging moral assumptions or principles.Their indignant surprise at the public reaction to their paper, which they take pains to point out was intended for academic audiences only — a canard that Andy Ferguson rightly ridicules — also shows how little these authors wanted to challenge any widely held assumptions in the culture. And while there was clearly a very strong negative reaction from the public, some of the assumptions made by the authors, such as the idea that “children [with Down syndrome] might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole,” are unfortunately all too common in our society.As Caitrin Nicol notes in “At Home with Down Syndrome,” ninety percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. As Peter Wehner writes in a recent review of A Good and Perfect Gift — a book written by Amy Julia Becker, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, named Penny — not just utilitarian bioethicists, but also “physicians, genetic counselors, prenatal screeners, and even biology teachers” embrace the cultural assumptions that children with disabilities should be viewed “not as gifts but as burdens, not children to love but mistakes who should be eliminated.” Amy came to understand “amidst the pain and through grace,” as Wehner puts it, “that there is purpose in Penny’s life simply as she is and who she is.”The transhumanists, with their belief in the importance of human enhancement, unquestioningly embrace our culture’s ethos of power, productivity and, efficiency as a matter of principle. Picturing themselves as critical, skeptical, free-thinking iconoclasts, they view as backwards and conformist beliefs like Amy’s. But in an age that so prizes the abilities that make us productive, useful, and powerful, it may be that beliefs like hers — that power is perfected in weakness, that the poor in spirit are blessed, and that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth — may still represent the deepest challenge to the ideological commitments of our hardened minds.

The False Boldness of “After-Birth Abortion”

How many people are in this picture?A paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics called “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,” by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, has been stirring up quite a lot of attention. Here’s the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

And here’s just a little sample of the kind of moral acuity you can find in the paper itself:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed)….


a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion….

No kidding. Just to make clear whose interest is the primary criterion:

people with Down’s syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy. Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care….

Can you think of any cases before where groups of individuals have been denied rights or killed on the basis that they are not full persons, are disabled, and/or that they are a burden to society? And it’s not just the disabled:

Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of…. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

I rather hope the atrociousness of a paper like this speaks for itself (though you can see Wesley J. Smith take it on here and here). Senselessness and sophistry masquerading as rational inquiry. But in case you need more:

Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims…. If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

Emphasis in original. The contrast between ideological commitments is striking: a newborn child is only a potential person, who does not necessarily have a right not to be killed — but it seems the newborn does have a right not to be disenfranchised by being referred to with the masculine terms he or him. Somehow beings that are merely potential persons, but do not exist, can be gendered — and must have their gender properly acknowledged, but not their life defended.—Let’s try to be charitable. Although the conclusions are awful, and the logic used to get there riddled with countless obvious errors, if there’s one thing that can be said in favor of this kind of reasoning, it’s that the kinds of distinctions they’re making — between what the authors would call actual persons and potential persons — might be useful, because they are similar to the kind of distinctions one makes in determining whether an individual is of sufficient mental capacity to be held criminally responsible for his actions.Indeed, these criteria and distinctions are not so far away from the kinds that are used in modern societies that still use the death penalty, to determine whether a person has the mental capacity to be held accountable for a capital offense, and to pay for it with his or her life. Such, then, is the curious bent of modern “personhood theory”: the criteria, once used to defend people who are too mentally undeveloped to justly deserve being deprived of their lives, easily become the criteria by which the same kinds of people, even well beyond birth, are too undeveloped for their lives to deserve defending at all, even for a crime so small as being an inconvenience to someone else.Realizing this points to the biggest failing of the paper on its very own terms. Giubilini and Minerva propose to extend abortion to “the first days or few weeks after birth,” before an infant possesses personhood traits like “self-awareness,” “expectations,” and “future aims.” But they offer no reason to think such traits, most of which seemingly require capacities like speech and conscious memory recall, are present as early as a few days or weeks after birth. They are enormously vague in defining and describing these traits, saying only that an infant’s ability to “value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed … depends on the level of her mental development.” But the traits apparently necessary to secure personhood, and so protection from being killed, are not present until at least many months after birth, and often not until age one or two — indeed, under many reasonable interpretations, not until many years after birth.If the authors had really committed to their personhood criteria, they would need to be defending the killing of children a few years beyond birth, at minimum. And a more rigorous commitment to personhood would reasonably extend the boundary much further out, indeed, to something like the age of criminal accountability or voting. But I guess the authors didn’t want to be too radical.—Unsurprising though this is, it should be pointed out that this is the kind of thing that gets transhumanists really excited, and that counts to them as philosophical insight and bravery. Kyle Munkittrick, for one, is breathless:

The purpose of articles that are so obviously controversial and counter-intuitive. is not to endorse or advocate a political position and say “this is right and should be law.” Instead, they are exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

If something is obvious, then that is the very thing a diligent bioethicsist should be questioning and doubting.

Nowhere, of course, in this or a follow-up post (which without explanation is titled “Witch Ethics” — I guess because criticizing pro-infanticide arguments is a witch hunt?), does Mr. Munkittrick actually do any of that “reasoned exploration.” Instead he just lauds “exploration” itself, congratulating the authors for their bravery and condemning their critics for cowardice. The authors themselves are similarly aghast in a pseudo-apology they issued:

When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate…. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y…. We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.

It’s all just about logic and academic freedom and the boldness to ask challenging questions! Why are people getting so bent out of shape!Just to put peoples’ silly reactions to this paper in context, imagine that instead of the paper making the case for infanticide, it advanced an I’m-just-saying or gee-hey-why-not daring defense of some other practice, like, say … rape, murder, slavery, or genocide. Actually, I guess I’m tilting the question by using such condemnatory terminology. “Genocide,” for example, should just be called “heritage-selective aggregate after-after-birth abortion,” lest we acknowledge “the best interests of the ones who die.” Anyway, who would dare fail to celebrate such a harmless intellectual exercise?UPDATE: See also Brendan Foht on the same paper.[Mother and child image via Shutterstock]

Carving Whiteness into Asian Faces: A Step Back for Progressivism

One of the central beliefs of liberalism, as it is popularly formulated today, is that we should strive to tolerate people who are very different from us — even (intermingling with a much older formulation of this belief) that we should learn to appreciate and love people who are very different from us, just for who they are. This is indeed a noble aspiration, if forever elusive — and to that end, liberals stridently oppose various forms of discrimination. Transhumanists generally tend to position themselves as liberals or progressives, and accordingly, spend a lot of time wagging their fingers at racism and discrimination.Take Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger who last month posted an essay from The New Yorker on his blog, condemning racism against Asian Americans. (Blogger Miss Self-Important had a great post on this essay.) In the post, titled, “Asian Like Me: The Race That Isn’t There,” Mr. Munkittrick notes that “Superstars and top-performers [are] being ignored because they aren’t boastful or brash,” and quotes an excerpt from the article, which claims that Asian Americans suffer in our culture for their inability to conform to American modes of behavior.Yet just two weeks earlier, Mr. Munkittrick posted a New York Times article on the boom in plastic surgery among Chinese. The excerpt he posted concludes:

The youthful patients include job applicants hoping to enhance their prospects in the work force, teenagers who received cosmetic surgery as a high school graduation present and even middle school students, most of whom want eye jobs, surgeons say.

Mr. Munkittrick affirmatively responded to the trend that the article describes: “I love China and the Chinese. Their success improves the world.” Strangely enough, Mr. Munkittrick cut off the excerpt just before it describes the unregulated, nearly meatball-surgery status of the industry as it stands in that country.Setting aside for now Mr. Munkittrick’s apparent uninterest in the immediate public health dangers of this situation, there is something more deeply perverse about his celebration. It is hardly an obscure fact that East Asian cultures in general tend to subvert the autonomy of the individual to the needs of the society. That tendency is clearly at work in the case of these surgeries. For example, the Times article notes that in China, “The No. 1 [cosmetic] operation is designed to make eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid.” The reason for this practice is explored in this related post on the blog Analyfe, discussing a chapter from the reader Sex, Self, and Society:

the scars [from the double-eyelid procedure] take over a year to heal, and there are several risks involved….In nearly every case, the women claim to have pursued the surgery to overcome stereotypes based on their features (such as sleepy, nerdy, and no fun). They opt for cosmetic surgery in hopes of becoming more employable, more well-liked, and more successful.Doctors often agree to perform the procedure without question. Disturbingly, the doctors often describe the Asian features as abnormal and perpetuate the link between those characteristics and negative stereotypes when talking to their clients….The standards of Western beauty are strong and influential, often making minorities — in this example Asians — feel inferior and less attractive than the American ideal. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the “success” Mr. Munkittrick is celebrating is that of Chinese kids getting their faces carved up to look Western, so that they can be accepted in a world that values Western faces over Asian.—In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a widespread practice among black men called conking, in which they would undergo a painful, potentially dangerous process to chemically straighten their naturally kinky hair, so as to better fit in in a white world — especially so as to appear more humble, and, well, less black to potential white employers. Malcolm X noted in his Autobiography that when he got his hair conked, it was

my first really big step toward self-degradation…. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it — as I finally did.

It was a small but symbolic achievement of the civil rights era that the practice of conking came to be recognized and rejected as an instance of endemic racism playing out in the free choices of individuals in a minority group.One can only hope that, decades hence, we will look back with just as much sadness and regret on the practice of nonwhite people cutting up their faces and bodies to conform to Western standards. If the subjects of those surgeries do decide they’ve made a mistake, it will not be nearly as easy, cheap, or safe to reverse what they’ve done (if it is possible at all) as it was for Malcolm X to grow out his hair. And if we do reach that wiser age, it will have been in repudiation of the work of transhumanists, who, despite their self-proclaimed progressivism, represent a true step backwards from those admirable aims of modern liberalism.

Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we
has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a
post today
, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor
to The New Atlantis
. For now I won’t comment on the substance of
Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions
that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers
this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with
Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind
halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin
abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and
thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I
kid you not
. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely
information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has
decided to employ.

Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?
No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received
funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush
administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years.
Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was
announced on
August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president
announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its
first meeting until January
, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however,
publish an
extremely useful report in 2004
explaining the state of stem cell research,
as well as a
white paper in 2005
analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent
stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?
No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either
mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications
and meeting
for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s
work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who,
in contributing a
to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible
philosophers and thinkers”?
I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate
familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible
thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among
its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers,
theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited
testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also
with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished
people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated
— disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer,
Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has
little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party”?
The latter part of this statement
is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the
Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its
first report, on cloning policy, in 2002
. It was such a diverse group of
scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp
for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As
Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote
in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis
a year ago, “exploring
and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such
exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations,
but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected
representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for
human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the
Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were
philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues,
but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that
Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political
philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity,
postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern
and American Dignity
, as well as his previous book Stuck
with Virtue
; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both
reward careful reading.

Futurisms and ideas of goodness and human excellence

In a recent post over on his Pop Transhumanism blog, Kyle Munkittrick makes four points against what we do here at Futurisms. A few quick responses:

1) The ideas of goodness of the sort we profess to be interested in change over time. This point is undeniable but trivial, unless one adheres dogmatically to the historicism upon which Mr. Munkittrick’s chosen areas of study (feminism, science studies, and critical theory) are largely founded.

2) Ideas of goodness have tended to focus on goodness in relation to intelligent, rational adults, and transhumanism merely extends the boundary conditions for these traits, already an ongoing historical tendency. As a claim about the history of moral ideas the first part of this assertion is a simplification, but the characterization of transhumanism in relation to that simplification is, as far as I am concerned, hardly controversial. That is to say, transhumanism reifies some simplified moral ideas. Congratulations!

3) We could debate what is good about Audrey Hepburn. Mr. Munkittrick is writing in response to this post of mine showing a picture of Audrey Hepburn, and the lively comment thread it provoked. About Ms. Hepburn, he writes: “She was a fantastic human being and remains iconic, but why? Is it because she is beautiful? Smart? Kind? A humanitarian? Because she was a great actress? Her fashion sense? She was a smoker, is that good? She had miscarriages, would remedying that situation lessen her? Not only would there be a debate over what actually makes her good, any agreement (say, her fashion) would lead to debates over someone who is better at that aspect (Jackie O, Gaga, Coco Chanel).” While my interest in fashion is minimal, I would enjoy having the kind of debate about what makes a good human being that these questions point to — that’s why I’m blogging at Futurisms. But, as I will note below, I’m not convinced Mr. Munkittrick really wants to join me.

4) Futurisms privileges a “late 20th century version of humanism” and in so doing is “willfully ignorant.” This claim is at least refreshing in comparison with Michael Anissimov’s ongoing effort to winkle out the hidden theological agenda behind this blog. But speaking only for myself, while I admire much of late twentieth-century humanism (mostly those aspects of it rooted in the eighteenth century), I think it could learn a great deal from humanists like Thomas More or Montaigne or Plato. As could transhumanists.

Back to point three. I posted the Hepburn picture to see if it would prompt debate, and it did. Mr. Munkittrick found the result “largely uninteresting.” That’s odd, because the responses in the comments thread certainly touched on the question of “what made her good.” So my speculation is that when Mr. Munkittrick presents a list of questions about “what makes her good,” he is suggesting they have no rational answers, and that when he speaks of debate what he really means is something like: “we could debate it, but what would be the point?” I think that he, like a great many transhumanists, has little interest in understanding human excellence for two reasons. First, because increasing human power — celebration of which is at the core of such “humanism” as transhumanism can reasonably claim — means that human excellence is on its way to being passé. Second, all ideas about human excellence are in any case little more than historically conditioned opinions, also to be molded by increasing human power as we take hold of our own evolution.

In short, wishing that Audrey Hepburn had no miscarriages and hadn’t died might make Mr. Munkittrick a nice guy, but it is hardly evidence that transhumanists are in any serious sense humanists.

Snap, Crackle, Pop Transhumanism

While we were busy with a few other projects recently, we failed to note that Kyle Munkittrick of the Pop Transhumanism blog had a follow-up post in our exchange about the morality of cloning. It’s a disappointing response. He ignores some of our major arguments, he misrepresents others, and he repeats some of his own points that were so weak that we didn’t bother rebutting them first time he made them.

Although this back-and-forth could go on indefinitely, I suspect that both blogs’ readers would quickly tire of the exchange, so except for the few further comments below, we’ll let the record stand for now.

Dark and Inscrutable Are the Ways

Mr. Munkittrick points out a pair of studies that suggest that twelve-year-old children born via IVF have good relationships with their parents and are emotionally and socially well adjusted. He intends these studies to rebut our point that the lives of children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies can be profoundly shaped by the facts of their conception.

The studies that he points to, though, paint a more complicated picture than he may realize. (I’ll refrain both from my usual kvetching about the shortcomings of this kind of social-scientific research and from pointing out the many oddities of these particular studies.) One of the studies, for example, notes an apparent “difference in attitude toward parenting” between couples who conceive via a sperm donation and couples who conceive naturally: the families that relied on sperm donors apparently had “more positive parent-child relationships” with their twelve-year-olds.

For the purposes of argument, let’s accept this finding. This means that different modes of conception available today can provoke (measurably) different styles of parenting. It would stand to reason, then, that producing a child via cloning might also result in a noticeably different style of parenting. That is surely hinted at in Bryan Caplan’s lament that launched this discussion: he wants to experience a “sublime bond” with a cloned child, a bond shared only by himself and his clone, a bond he apparently does not feel with the children he and his wife already have.

Once we agree that child-rearing would be transformed if a child were produced by cloning, we can speculate as to how it would be transformed. This kind of speculation — grounded in a rich understanding of the meaning of procreation in human life, of child-rearing, and of the relationship between the generations — is necessary for ethical reflection about cloning. The 2002 President’s Council on Bioethics report on cloning is a model of this kind of balanced, informed, and searching speculation. Mr. Munkittrick, by contrast, refuses to concede that cloning might have any effect whatsoever on the cloned child — despite the fact that the language of cloning advocates like Bryan Caplan suggests that a desire to change the meaning of procreation, child-rearing, and the relationship between the generations, is in fact central to their advocacy of cloning. Why is it that defenders of cloning are loath to discuss the subject directly in those terms?

A Handful of Questions

But enough about cloning. What makes Mr. Munkittrick’s response so disappointing is that his Pop Transhumanism blog is so often a pleasure to read. It is spirited and doesn’t creak with the earnestness, self-importance, and obsessive self-referentialism that make certain other transhumanist sites so very tedious. Also, Mr. Munkittrick doesn’t shy away from picking fights with his friends and allies, and he is admirably skeptical about parts of their vision of and for the future.

Speaking of fights that he picks, Mr. Munkittrick did challenge this blog a few weeks ago and we never got around to responding publicly. Since more than a month has gone by, and since most of his challenge was either insubstantial or deeply misguided, I’d like to focus only on one aspect of Mr. Munkittrick’s post — one where he describes his own views, saying that he believes

in natural rights, but that those natural rights are emergent and explain why a single human cell does not have the same rights as a child, and, furthermore, why a child does not have full citizenship but an adult does. Though our legal system doesn’t say it explicitly, this form of rights codification implies that rights stem from a specific level of cognitive aptitude allowing autonomy, sentience, empathy, and reflexivity allowing one to function in a polis…. I was able to incorporate ideas like uplift and non-human rights into my value structure without compromising other beliefs, such as that many animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity.

For Mr. Munkittrick (and any commenters who share these views), some questions:

First, if you understand natural rights to attach to a “specific level of cognitive aptitude,” what is that level, specifically? Which rights are not possessed by human beings whose cognitive aptitude is beneath that level (a category that would presumably include those who formerly functioned at or above that level, such as a permanently comatose person or an elderly person with advanced dementia; those who have yet to reach that level, such as an infant, a fetus, or an embryo; and those who may never reach it, such as the severely developmentally disabled)? Are there any rights that all human beings, regardless of cognitive aptitude, possess?

Second, do you believe that cognitive enhancement will be an important factor in shaping the future of humanity? If so, and if you believe that rights attach to cognitive aptitude, do you believe that the cognitively enhanced will possess new rights? Like what? If you believe that “animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity,” do you believe that in the future unenhanced human beings would be “justly treated with fewer rights” than enhanced posthumans “because of their lower cognitive capacity”?

Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning … advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).

Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research…. If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all….

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference…. [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.

You Don’t Hate Children… Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.
There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.
Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:

Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method…. IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.

He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:

I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!… Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?

Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:

Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.
A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.
Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:

To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)

The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.
If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?
The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?