July 12, 2002
When, if ever, should new technologies be illegal?
By Jason Pontin
“I just think it’s wrong, that’s all.” So George W. Bush, explaining why he supports a bill that would permanently ban all reproductive and therapeutic cloning in the United States. Justifying his position last April, President Bush was admirably clear: He opposes the cloning of cells for therapeutic purposes because it would set us on the slippery slope to reproductive cloning—and that, Bush says, is repugnant to “most Americans” because it might hurt the cloned child, and because it would alter our essential human nature. Any cloning at all, Bush says, “would be… a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications.”
Bush’s thinking in this matter has been influenced by the physician and ethicist Leon Kass, who chairs the President’s council on bioethics. Dr Kass, in common with other conservative intellectuals like Brill Kristol and Francis Fukiyama, has argued for a “repugnance test:” When most people are repelled by a new technology it must be bad, Kass says, because “repugnance is often the emotional bearer of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it.” (Testimony before the National Bioethics Committee, March 1997).
Yet at least one group of Americans is not repulsed by cloning: The physicians and researchers who see in therapeutic cloning the possibility of reversing degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, who liken reproductive cloning to techniques like in vitro fertilization, and who argue that clones will soon seem little more freakish than twins.
As a class, technologists contemplate cloning with more equanimity than our President and “most Americans.” In part, this is because they are skeptical about the feasibility of banning any technology. In the melancholy words of Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel, “Whatever can be done, will be done.” If there were a market for clones, someone, in some black lab, will clone a human being even if there is an international ban. But quite apart from this fatalism, technologists cultivate a blithe optimism about technology: with a few notable exceptions like Sun’s Bill Joy, they think that technology’s effects are mostly benign.
The debate about cloning represents a division between two cultures—social conservatives and technologists—about a broader question: When, if ever, should a technology be illegal? The shrillness of the argument derives from the present state of biotechnology: the stakes seem high because cloning and genetic engineering promise to tamper with human nature.
Setting aside the question of whether any technology could ever be outlawed, what justification might there be for banning its development? A technology might be banned if it were unethical, or if it were profoundly disruptive of society because it radically altered our humanity.
To my mind, a technology should be considered unethical if its use tended to promote suffering. We would fail in our duties if we allowed the development of such a technology. Utility is not a moral consideration, since all technologies have some use. One way to think about whether a technology was malignant would be a version of Kant’s famous “categorical imperative”—which commands that we should act only in those ways that maxims derived from our actions might become universal laws. For instance, not even a liar and a murderer could bear to live on a planet where lies and murder were normal. In thinking about a new technology, we should ask: Do I want to live in a world where a technology is available not only to myself, but every one? In practice, this might be determined by ensuring there was a wide market for the technology, and that the public, sufficiently educated and after sufficient time to digest the novelty of the thing, would vote for its use. The potential for general utility is the best guarantee of a technology’s benignity; a technology that is of use to only a small class, or only to a nation state, is almost bound to be bad.
By these standards, neither therapeutic and reproductive cloning are in themselves unethical. Repugnance is no test: all new technologies seem either magical or repellant in their first applications, and what our parents with a shudder called a test tube baby, we gratefully call Jessica or Dan.
As to whether a technology should be illegal because it altered human nature, I have no objection to a new nature. The late Robert Nozick in his essay The Holocaust asked whether the human nature which administered Auschwitz is worth preserving: “It now would not be a special tragedy if humankind ended,” he writes. “Perhaps what we need do is help produce another, better species.” Francis Fukiyama in the recently published Our Posthuman Future is disturbed by a version of this idea—“species-ization,” as he calls it, or the forking of the race of into two families, one genetically enhanced to be swift, clever, memorious, altruistic, and long-lived, the other… less so. Bring it on. We would not even require Rozick’s radical punishment: Humankind might be preserved in theme parks, as a kind of genetic base-line, and to instruct and entertain our tall children. But give me a new species altogether. It might possibly make up for all our crimes.