Scientific American reports on the

Scientific American reports on the First Human Cloned Embryo. Reason Online prints a series of mini-essays by opponents to the ominous Left-Right coalition petition against certain kinds of genetic research.

Thankfully, Leon Kass has caught a lot of heat from the likes of Virginia Postrel and others for his retrograde views. Kass’s anti-science position flows from his curious conception of human nature and moral judgment. Kass thinks of human nature in strikingly static, essentialist terms, and he is happy to use his notion of a static human essence as a standard for moral evaluation. If something is inconsistent with our nature, then it’s morally out. That sounds OK, but Kass extends it to such vital matters as the right way to eat. Further, Kass thinks that our intuitive judgments of repugnance should be treated as morally authoritative. He recognizes that some folks have always been a little sickened by the shock of the new, and that we can’t let troglodyte sensibilities hold us back. Yet he thinks our visceral aversion to some things is so universal and deep-seated that it stands as a decisive objection against some things, and genetic manipulation is one of them.

My response to Kass is twofold. First, the argument from “it makes me feel funny” is a bit wanting in terms of rational foundations. We need an argument why our moral intuitions should be heeded. Incest makes us all feel pretty funny (the idea of it, I mean), and the Darwinian logic of that kind of aversion is easy to follow. But hey! With the advent of birth control, is there anything really wrong with loving your sister? Sure it’s gross, but once the natural necessity for that sentiment has been overcome by technology, is there any deeper argument against it? Likewise our feelings about cloning and such. Why not think that our repugnance is a vestige of an evolutionary environment that has no relation to our present situation.

Second, there is no essential human nature. We are products of evolution. Evolution works because of variation in populations. So we should expect quite a bit of difference between individual humans, and between human moral sensibilities. I for one have absolutely no bad feelings about cloning. Am I a deviant or is Kass? At best there are historically transient statistical norms; evolution continues apace. Additionally, few appreciate how close Kass comes to begging the question when the issue is genetic manipulation. Manipulation opens the possibility for changing human nature, including our moral sensibilities. If one proposes to change human nature, one can’t use human nature as a standard of judgment without begging the question. Conservatives like Kass may turn out to be a tricky kind of relativist according to which right and wrong are relative to the kind of psychological constitution you happen to have as a matter of evolutionary accident. But in that case, there is no way to rationally rule out proposals to modify our psychological natures, and then it’ll have to come down to force.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center