Human Reproductive Cloning from the Perspective of the Future

Nick Bostrom
Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University
Chair, World Transhumanist Association

27 December 2002 [Slightly revised 5 April 2004 and 8 March 2005]

Imagine that you are one of the human clones that will be born (there is little doubt that this will happen sooner or later). And imagine yourself listening in to the current arguments for making cloning illegal. You hear people opining that cloning threatens human dignity, that it would be playing God, that it represents a slippery slope to a dehumanized future, that everybody has a right to a unique genome (except identical twins?) or to an unknown genome, and so forth. How would it make you feel? To hear all these dignified people talking about you as if your very existence were a crime against humanity?

Such an imaginary point-of-view can help us put things in perspective. There is one argument that, as a future clone, you might understand and agree with: concerns about the safety of the procedure. The argument that we ought to postpone human cloning until we have perfected the method in animals makes some degree of sense. (Even so, suppose you were a slightly deformed human clone - would you agree that it was a terrible moral offense to have caused you to come into existence?)

Historically, we find that many a great medical breakthrough, now rightly seen as a blessing, was in its own time condemned by bioconservative moralists. Such was the case with anesthesia during surgery and childbirth. People argued that it was unnatural and that it would weaken our moral fiber. Such was also the case with heart transplantations. How yucky to take a living heart out of one person and put it in the chest of another! And such was the case with in vitro fertilization. These "test tube babies" would be dehumanized and would be suffer grave psychological harm. Today, of course, anesthesia is taken for granted; heart transplantation is seen as one of medicine's glories; and the public approval rate of IVF is up from 15% in the early seventies to over 70% today.

I think we can learn something from these historical episodes. One lesson is that our immediate emotional reactions to medical developments are an unreliable indicator of their morality. We are prone to prejudice and to narrow-minded underestimatation of the long-term benefits of technological development. The "yuck factor" needs to be treated with a great deal of skepticism, and, pace Leon Kass, we should be wary of viewing it as embodying a great "Wisdom of Repugnance", especially for the purposes of making public policy.

We all have a moral responsibility to recognize the clone for what she is - a unique human person, with just as much human dignity as those of us who were conceived in more traditional ways.

By the time the first human clone becomes an adult, the moral debates over cloning will probably be long forgotten. The present opponents of cloning may have retired or moved on to being outraged about other things. The clone will hopefully be descibed in more welcoming language than that used by many current commentators.

In the big scheme of things, cloning will not significantly change the world. Some people will owe their lives to this technology, and some infertile couples will be grateful for having had the chance to raise a child of their own. Some people may misguidedly use cloning to try to bring back a lost child or a loved one, not realizing that personal identity is not reducible to genetic identity. Some people may choose to have a child that is a clone of a stranger they admire, perhaps a great scientist, athlete or religious leader; yet if the current level of demand for elite sperm or elite eggs is any guide, the people who choose this option will be in a tiny minority.

Meanwhile, other areas of technology will be advancing fast and furiously, leading to developments that will overshadow cloning. Some of these developments will be truly frightening - genetically engineered biowarfare agents, for example, and new weapons based on molecular nanotechnology. Those prospects deserve our serious attention and concern. Other developments will open up unprecedented opportunities for human growth and flourishing. One day we will find ways of halting and reversing human senecence. We will have the option of extending our intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities beyond the levels that are possible today. This will be the end of humanity's childhood, and the beginning of what one might call a "transhuman" era. Our descendants, or even you and I if we manage to stay alive until then, will look back on today and today's primitive condition in much the way we now look back on our humanoid ancestors before they developed language, learned to use fire, and took up agriculture. Few of us would want to go back to that stage, and in the future few would wish to return to the present day.

We have a choice. We can work against the transhumanizing developments and join the reactionary forces that decry each new technological breakthrough that changes human nature. Or we can stand by the sidelines and passively watch the future unfold. Or - and this is I think is the best alternative - we can actively participate in creating a future that will eventually enable us all to reach nearly unimaginable levels of human flourishing and well-being through the use of advanced technology to defeat disease and aging and to increase our human emotional, cognitive, and physical capacities. This doesn't mean that we should subordinate ourselves to some grand technological imperative. Ethical sensibility and a broad conception of human flourishing is as important than ever - in fact, more so. It does mean, however, that we should not automatically reject opportunities for growth merely because they would change our current human nature in some way. We should strive to be humane rather than just human.

Nick Bostrom, PhD

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