December 5, 2001

Tyranny on a Smaller Scale

By: Daniel Kennelly

All this talk of human cloning, genetic
enhancements, and the like is threatening the uneasy
partnership between the two major elements of conservatism. The
libertarian strain, generally in support of the “new eugenics”, and the social
strain, generally opposed to it, have engaged in virulent debates that
unfortunately have generated more heat than light, imperiling an alliance over a
subject on which the two sides should be in profound

Of the many attacks libertarians have unleashed on the anti-cloning
movement, most are persuasive superficially but lack substance. For example,
Cathy Young, writing in the libertarian magazine Reason, takes an
oversimplified version of one of the arguments of distinguished bioethicist Leon
Kass, that “it is not at all clear to what extent a clone will be a truly moral
agent”, and dismisses it out of hand. It is certainly true that this is not one
of Kass’s best arguments against human cloning. After all, a clone would be his
own person, would make decisions much different from his genetic parent and
twin, and would therefore be, by any reasonable definition, a moral agent. But
this fact should not excuse Young from dealing with Kass’s stronger arguments,
on which she is completely silent. Kenan Malik, in the British monthly
Prospect, offers another example of the straw-man arguments set up by
proponents of cloning. In “The Moral Clone”, Malik attempts both to define and
dismantle the anti-cloning movement in one fell swoop. Says Malik: “Faced with
the implausibility of most of their arguments, opponents of cloning generally
fall back on the claim that cloning is repugnant because it is unnatural.”
Again, this amounts to an oversimplification of the argument against cloning, as
anyone would recognize who has read Kass’s New Republic article, “The
Wisdom of Repugnance.”

These overheated arguments are unfortunate for more than the fact that
they muddle the public debate over cloning and genetic enhancements. The truly
tragic dimension to this state of affairs is the fact that the best arguments
against these new biotechnologies are ones that should particularly appeal to

The libertarian impulse, broadly speaking, seeks to resist or roll back
the encroachment of government on human action, the idea being that social
organization arises spontaneously and is harmed rather than helped by human
interference. What many libertarians have forgotten with respect to the cloning
debate is that this principle is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The struggle to resist an overpowering, overcentralized government serves the
greater purpose of eliminating avenues for one man to exert control over

Understanding the libertarian impulse in this fashion sheds new light
on the question of the legality and morality of cloning and genetic
enhancements. As for genetic enhancements, I will begin by recounting an episode
from a debate recently held on the subject by the American Enterprise Institute
in Washington, D.C. One of the debate’s participants, Reason magazine
science correspondent Ronald Bailey, argued that parents should not be prevented
from altering the genetic makeup of their prospective children, provided that
the procedures are reasonably safe and that the enhancements are what a
reasonable person would presume to be beneficial. After all, his argument ran,
who among us would have rejected the chance to have a higher I.Q. or a healthier
physique? Of course, fashioning a child with a strong back and a weak mind for
pliant slave labor would clearly be abusive, but such abuses would be easy to
distinguish from “legitimate” enhancements and, in any case, unlikely to be
perpetrated on children by parents.

There are two questions this line of reasoning neglects to address.
First, is there any such thing as a clearly beneficial enhancement? Second, can
the consent of the individual to be “enhanced” ever be presumed? As to the first
question, while qualities such as intelligence, beauty, and fitness seem, in the
abstract, to be unequivocal goods, we know that in a given individual these
traits do not necessarily lead to happiness; indeed, in certain circumstances,
they can even lead to unhappiness. As it turns out, the answer to this first
question leads us to the answer of the second. For if genetic enhancements carry
with them unforseen consequences, the possibility of unhappiness foremost among
them, consent cannot be presumed. The definition of consent is that an
individual understands and freely assumes the risks of an action, and in the
case of genetic enhancements, the consent of that individual clearly cannot be

The same principle applies to the question of cloning, albeit in a
different way. Obviously, no one born through human procreation consented to be
born. If there were any question of the matter, we would need only listen to the
cry of the bitter adolescent to his parents: “I didn’t ask to be born, you
know!” A crucial difference between cloning and procreation is that a child born
through cloning is created by the act of human will, while the other is
begotten, his existence subject to the vagaries and chances of a biological
process. The important point is not so much that “nature” does the creating, but
that humans do not.

It is passing strange that so many libertarians remain untroubled by
the scenario of the enhanced or created child. The mere promise of one person
exercising so much control over another represents perhaps the greatest threat
to individual liberty that will ever or can ever exist. Heedless, however,
writers such as Malik have dismissed the idea that cloning threatens liberty and
“turns human beings into means” for their parents’ self

This may well be true, but it is also true for many
children born in conventional ways. Twenty years ago opponents of the
then-nascent in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technology also argued that
“test-tube” babies were being treated as objects. Anyone who has witnessed the
emotional and financial commitment that couples have to invest in IVF treatment
will recognize, however, that such children are very much wanted and treasured
by their parents.

Malik is surely correct to point out the similarity
between cloning and IVF, but profoundly wrong to use our acceptance of the
latter to bolster his case for the former. Mankind, as we have always known —
and as the twentieth century especially brought to bear — has a chilling
capacity to adjust to, and even participate in, quotidian inhumanities. To point
out the similarities between the two methods suggests, rather, that the debate
over IVF should be re-opened, not that we should accept cloning. In that
previous debate, as now, proponents introduced heart-wrenching stories of
infertile couples and pleas that test-tube babies are not abnormal or
exceptional in any way. The problem with IVF and cloning, however, has never
been about the understandable desires of hopeful parents, nor about whether a
test-tube baby is a “moral agent.” The problem — one to which libertarians,
with their concern for personal freedoms, should be naturally responsive along
with social conservatives — is the unprecedented power these new
biotechnologies grant to human beings over not just the essence of another human
being (as in the case of genetic enhancements), but his very existence as