Cloning and the Non-Identity Problem

I’ve received lots of useful feedback on my earlier cloning post, and on at least one point, the risks involved in cloning, it’s clear I need to revise and expand my remarks. But first another little defence of cloning that popped into my mind.

Many people worry about the possible psychological consequences of cloning. Of course we can’t know what these will be until we try, but it’s certainly worth trying to figure out what these will be before going ahead with cloning. In one respect in one (fairly significant) situation, I think the psychological effects will be quite positive.

Consider a couple who cannot have children because the man is infertile. Their only way of having a child is to use a sperm bank. I think this is morally acceptable, but in most cases it has one cost: the child will not know who her genetic father is. So she does not know her full lineage. Now while that’s not the worst harm ever, I think it is something that could be bad, and for some people it might cause a notable amount of psychological pain.

(This is definitely not meant to be a universal truth. Many adopted children have no interest in finding out who their biological parents are. But we know that many do, so many people value knowing their genetic lineage.)

If the child is cloned from her mother, she will be in a position to know her full lineage (at least for the first generation or two). I think a cloned child may prefer that state of affairs to being the (biological) child of a stranger. Some children may be indifferent between the two, but I’m not sure that many children would prefer being the biological child of a stranger to being the clone of their mother.

(As an aside, here’s another possible benefit of cloning – one that I don’t think is really beneficial but which may appeal to some. In the case I described, it would be possible for the child to be a clone of the father. In that case there will be a sense (and only a sense) in which the child is the product of both parents, since it will grow to human size in the mother’s womb, as well as being the father’s clone. If the fact that reproduction involves both parents is meant to be important, this is a way of sorta kinda allowing for that. I don’t particularly approve of the division of reproductive labour here, so I wouldn’t think this approach is particularly worthwhile, but I can see how some might. If you think Aristotle should have been right, and the form should be contributed by the father and the matter by the mother, you should love this approach. I don’t, so my defence of cloning rests on separate grounds.)

Back to the main point. Here’s an argument I considered about the risks involved in cloning.

1. In all probability, the cloned child will be better off existing than not existing, even if it suffers various physical ailments as a result of being a clone.
2. If it is better off existing than not existing, then the harms it suffers are no reason to not produce it.
C. The harms that likely go along with being a clone do not provide a reason against producing a clone.

This would be a fairly powerful argument if it worked, because it would mean that even if we were fairly confident that a cloned human would be defective in various ways, as long as it was not so badly off that it was better off not existing, it would be acceptable to produce it.

One worry about the argument is that one of the concepts involved, being better off existing than not existing, might be nonsensical. It certainly pushes our understanding of ‘better off’ about as far as it can reasonably be pushed. I don’t have any argument here, and I recognise that on some theories of value this might not make a lot of sense, but I think we can understand this concept. (I’m possibly going to be convinced that this appearance of understanding is chimerical. Perhaps that’s for cloning post 3.)

The bigger problem with the argument is that premise 2 is pretty clearly false. Here’s two cases showing that it is false.

The Bridesmaid Dress (due to Dan Brock)
A woman knows that if she conceives this month, the child she conceives will suffer some severe ailments, but not so severe that it would be better off not existing. But if she puts off conceiving, she will not fit into her bridesmaid dress at a wedding scheduled for nine and a half months time. So she goes ahead and conceives.

The Barometer (due to Gerald Dworkin)
A couple knows that if they conceive while the barometric pressure is below a certain threshold, the child they conceive will likely suffer a similar severe ailment to in the previous case. But they don’t bother to check the pressure before conceiving, and the pressure is too low and the child does suffer the ailment.

In each case the child so conceived is better off existing than not existing, but the harms it suffers are sufficient reason to not bring it into existence. (Some might think the child cannot be harmed by something that makes it, all things considered, better off – namely being conceived. I’ve been convinced by Liz Harman’s arguments that this is the wrong way to think about harm. Unfortunately Liz’s arguments on this point are not available online. When they are I’ll try to link to them because I think they’re helpful in understanding cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s, which I think are very relevant to the cloning debate.)

So do these cases show that cloning should be banned? No, because there are a lot of distinctions to draw, and the overall effect of the distinctions is to weaken the argument against cloning. But the matters here are very delicate.

The first distinction is between the immoral and the illegal. I agree with the usual judgements that in Brock’s and Dworkin’s cases the agents act immorally. I’m not so sure they act illegally. Would it be proper to have criminal sanctions against the agents in these cases? My tentative opinion is no. Whatever the morality of reproduction, I’m tentatively an absolutist about a legal right to reproduction.

The second distinction is between conceiving and helping others to conceive. This is relevant to the cloning debate, because part of what we care about is the role of the medical practitioners in these cases. If a doctor helped the woman in Brock’s case to conceive, when she could have refrained from helping until the danger of the child suffering the ailment had passed, she acts immorally. (Doesn’t she? I could be wrong here, but it seems she does.) And it might be appropriate to have legal, or at least professional, sanctions in such a case. So while the moral/legal distinction weakens the case for a ban, it does not have as much bite when applied not to parents but to their ‘assistants’, especially if those assistants have professional obligations not to harm others.

The third distinction, and the crucial one, is between cases like Brock’s and Dworkin’s and cases where any child those agents have has a risk of such an ailment. I think this makes quite a difference to the case. In this case, where any child a woman or a couple ever have has a serious risk of major suffering, consider the following four questions.

  • Is it immoral to conceive in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to conceive in such a situation?
  • Is it immoral to assist in conception in such a situation?
  • Should it be illegal to assist in conception in such a situation?

My answers are: Tentatively no, Definitely no, Tentatively no, Slightly stronger no. (I know a blogger should have firmer opinions, but I think these are hard questions.)

Now I think when we are thinking about legalising cloning, on the proviso that its use is restricted to those couples who otherwise could not have children, the last question is the salient one. And I since I think there should be no law against such assistance, I think there should be no law against cloning. (At least for this reason.) But note I’ve effectively conceded that there should at least be restrictions on cloning, until we lose our grounds for believing that it is a very risky process for the child involved.

At this point a concern several people raised becomes pressing. What counts as “otherwise could not have children”? There are (at least) four possibilities.

  1. Could not conceive by traditional means.
  2. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means without using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  3. Could not conceive by traditional or modern (e.g. IVF) means even with using sperm or eggs from third parties.
  4. Could not conceive by any means or adopt a child.

They haven’t put it this way, but several people have in effect suggested that adoption is an alternative to cloning. That becomes important here, because I think it’s important to the evaluation of the Brock/Dworkin style examples that there be no alternative to having a child in the risky way. And it isn’t just a matter of of a technical disagreement, because if we agree that cloning be restricted to those who could not otherwise have children, and that means 4, then we are in effect ruling out cloning, because for the forseeable future there will be a steady supply of adoptable children.

At risk of sounding like a wimp, I’m going to stop here for now rather than argue about which of these 4 is the contextually appropriate way to understand ‘could not otherwise have children’. I think the right answer is 2 or 3 (probably 2) but if there’s a good argument for 4, that would be a better argument against cloning than I’d previously considered. Maybe I’ll say more about this in later posts.

5 Replies to “Cloning and the Non-Identity Problem”

  1. You’re absolutely right that what is important for deciding the morality/legality of cloning is the relevant comparison class. The way choosing a particular comparison class can determine the answer reminds me of the example of iffy operators who rationalise what they are doing by saying, ‘If we didn’t do it, someone else would’ and, thereby, claiming they haven’t actually had a negative effect. But how exactly do you go about deciding what is the right comparison class to evaluate a course of action?

    In the case of cloning I suppose we can start with what are, hopefully, clear-cut cases and then move to the more general. Imagine that someone is considering having themselves cloned when they are informed that their sister and brother-in-law have died leaving behind an infant child. The child will either be adopted by them or will become an orphan. If their choice is between adopting this child or having themselves cloned it seems to me clear that they will, in general, be acting immorally if they clone. This is, of course, a somewhat different situation from that of someone who has the choice of adopting a child to which they have no family ties. But the question has to be whether this difference is relevant enough here to change the conclusion. The question seems to largely turn on how much responsibility they have for the well-being of other members of their community.

    Brian has suggested to me that if this argument works then it also works for cases of normal conception. I think I would bite the bullet on this and say that in the current context there is a moral duty to at least attempt adoption before planning conception. Seeing as how I am relatively recently married and thinking about having children this isn’t a merely theoretical claim for me.

    The adoption question makes me wonder how adoption was dealt with in pre-modern societies, particularly in small communities.

  2. As a newbie I’m wary about jumping into this, but here’s a thought on the above:

    You might argue that conception and IVF have an additional benefit for the couple involved since the child is the product of the two of them; certainly many couples want to have a child that is “theirs”, and one might claim that there is an additional value to the relationship when the child is the product of the two people in the relationship (perhaps it makes the relationship stronger).

    Cloning is different in this respect, since it only involves one person, and therefore wouldn’t bring any benefits from the child being a product of the two people in a relationship.

    So maybe the above argument wouldn’t tell against normal conception and IVF, when those procedures involve two people in a relationship wanting to produce a child. But the considerations about adoption would kick in outside that subset of cases.

    (In fact I think this is slightly dubious, because it is hard to think of any particular benefits that accrue solely as a result of the child being the product of the two people in a relationship, and that, for example, wouldn’t be in place solely with there being a child in the relationship, even if that child is adopted. But it would be nice if there were a way to respect the intuition that one should adopt rather than clone, but not necessarily rather than conceive “normally”. And I don’t think this is anything more than theoretical for me… unless someone’s got a surprise in store for me.)

  3. I think adoption is much better than cloning for people who cannot conceive naturally (i.e. adoption is better than IVF and cloning, and only second to conception). The advantages with conception are that you know the health of the parents and can control what the child is exposed to before birth (i.e. drugs, smoking, etc.) so you can create the healthiest child possible. There is also the pre-birth bonding to the child when there is conception, so conception is best.

    Once you can’t conceive naturally, you’re talking about taking on more medical risk than necessary to produce a child. IFV and cloning involve surgical, medical or lab procedures that adoption doesn’t. They also cost a lot of money, yet aren’t guaranteed to work (I know a couple who spent $10,000 EACH to try IVF twice and ended up with no baby. If they opted for adoption, they could have spent the same amount of money (or even less), but they would have had a child because they wouldn’t have to wonder if the child would be conceived – he/she’s already been born). In essence, adoption carries less physical risk than IVF or cloning for both parents and child because anything that could have gone wrong either has or hasn’t at that point.

  4. how are you so certain about human clonining? how many people agree with it and think it is a good idea? what if something goes wrong how will it effect us?

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