Why fraternity cannot be cloned

January 30, 1998

Hilary Putnam believes that the notion of using pre-designed children to gratify parents' needs is wrong - a stance seemingly echoed by yesterday's inquiry upholding a ban on almost all human cloning.

The announcement last year that a sheep had been successfully cloned aroused a powerful spontaneous reaction, a fear that something awful was threatening to happen. I say "threatening to happen", because the worry was not about Dolly the sheep, but about the likelihood that someone would clone a human being. And I say "spontaneous reaction" because it does not seem that much reflection was involved. Some uses of cloning would violate the Kantian maxim against treating a person only as a means - cloning a human solely so that the clone could be a kidney donor; but these are not the cases that sprang to people's minds.

The scenario that people fear most is one in which we learn how to clone people; and the technology then becomes widely employed by ordinary fertile people who simply wish to have a child "just like" so-and-so. Why should we view this scenario with horror?

There are purely utilitarian grounds for worrying about misuses of cloning. Reduction in the genetic diversity of populations is accompanied by the danger of disaster when disease strikes. If cloning should be used and the practice catch on in a big way, the resulting loss of genetic diversity might be very serious.

I believe that discussion of specific legislation concerning cloning needs to be informed by what I call "a moral image of the world". By a "moral image" I do not mean a list of principles. I mean a picture of how our virtues and ideals hang together and what they have to do with the position we are in. For example, we can get a richer appreciation of Kantian ethics if we see the detailed principles that Kant argued for as flowing from such a moral image: an image of human equality. In Kant's picture, the respect in which human beings are equal, is that we all have to think for ourselves about the question of how we should live. This notion of equality is incompatible with totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

Without a moral image, any moral philosophy is incomplete. I want to describe some moral images of the family, ones that influence how we think not just about the family but about communal life in general.

I became keenly aware of the importance of moral images in structuring our way of seeing our moral responsibilities to one another many years ago as the result of a conversation with my late mother-in-law, Marie Hall. In her youth, Marie lived a committed and dangerous life. She was active in the anti-Hitler underground in Nazi Germany for two years before escaping to the United States. She continued to be committed to a host of good causes until she died at the age of 86. I loved not just her commitment but the vitality that accompanied everything she did, and I constantly "pumped her" about her attitudes and past activities. Once I asked her why she was inspired to work so hard and run such risks for a better world despite all the setbacks, and I was amazed when she answered by saying simply "all men are brothers". What amazed me was that she meant it. For her, "all men are brothers" was not a cliche; it was an image that inspired her whole life. At that moment, I understood the role that such images can play.

The particular image that inspired Marie Hall has played a historic role; the great slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" put, perhaps for the first time, fraternity on a par with equality and liberty. To this day, union members and members of oppressed groups refer to one another as brothers and sisters. We know that siblings frequently do not get along; but we have images of what ideal fraternity should be, and these images can move large numbers of people to do wonderful (and sometimes also terrible) things.

We need to ask: what should our image of an ideal family be (and what bearing does that have on how we view cloning)? Just as one has the right to choose one's furniture to suit one's personal predilections, or to keep up with the Joneses, let us imagine that it becomes acceptable to "choose" one's children (by choosing from whom one will "clone" them, from among available relatives, friends or, if one has lots of money, persons willing to be cloned for cash). In this brave new world, one can have designer children as well as designer clothes. Narcissism is allowed free rein. What horrifies us about this scenario is that one's children are viewed as if they were commodities like a carpet. The maxim against treating another person merely as a means is blatantly violated.

If our image is to be a moral image, the members of our ideal family must regard one another as human beings whose projects and whose happiness are important in themselves, and not simply as conducive to the parents' goals.Moreover, it should be inspired by the moral image I ascribed to Kant that assigns inestimable value to our capacity to think for ourselves in moral matters, as well as by the insight that the task of good parents is to prepare children for autonomy. The good parent, in this image, looks forward to having children who will live independently of the parents, not just in an economic sense but in the sense of thinking for themselves, knowing that they will disagree with the parents sometimes, even on matters that the parents regard as important. But there is another value that must be added, the willingness to accept diversity.

As things stand now (I speak as a parent and grandparent), the most amazing thing about children is that they come into one's life as very different people from the moment of birth. In any other relationship, one can choose to some extent the traits of one's associates, but with children (and parents) one can only accept what God gives one to accept. Paradoxically, that is one of the most valuable things about the love between parent and child: that, at its best, it involves the capacity to love what is very different from one's self.

But why should we value diversity? One reason is that our moral image of a good family strongly conditions our moral image of a good society. Think of the Nazi posters showing good Nazi families. Every family member is blond; no one is too fat or too thin, all the males are muscular, etc. The refusal to tolerate ethnic diversity in a society is reflected in the image of the family as utterly homogeneous.

Our moral image of the family should reflect our tolerant and pluralistic values. That means that we should welcome rather than deplore the fact that our children are not us and not designed by us but radically "other".

Am I saying that moral images that depict the members of the ideal family as all alike, either physically or spiritually, may lead to abominations such as the eugenics movement and even to national socialism? The answer is, very easily. But my reasons for recommending an image of the family that rejects the idea of trying to "pre-design" offspring, by cloning or other means, are not, in the main, consequentialist ones. What I argue is that the unpredictability and diversity of our progeny is an intrinsic value, and that a moral image of the family that reflects it coheres with the moral images of society that underlie our democratic aspirations. Marie Hall was willing to risk her life in Hitler's Germany for the principle that "all men are brothers". She did not mean "all men are identical twins".

Hilary Putnam is professor of philosophy at Harvard University. This article is based on his Amnesty lecture, "Genetics and Human Rights", delivered at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford earlier this week.

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