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.

  • There was an interesting review of a new biography of John Stuart Mill in a recent New Yorker. One of the key points seems to be, “…he doesn’t want us to ask, Can this odd thing people are doing be deduced from some ethical axiom that lets me call it “good,” and permits them to go on doing it? He wants us to ask something simpler: Is this practice causing me any real harm?”

    That seems to me like the essential tension between liberal and conservative thought. Markets, which almost seem like they should be orthogonal to that question, have started to be seen more clearly as operating best in Mill’s world. Obviously your appreciation of the market is not a conservative one, and how could it be? Adding “but here, but here, but here” to the market is conservative, but not free.

  • I think I finally understand you.

    I just don’t agree that an unfettered free market will someday produce abundance for all people. I respect that you really, really think that. But too often with libertarians, I find, the way to demonstrate their belief in the superiority of unfettered markets is to act as though the things that markets bestow are inherently what we should pursue. So free market advocates laugh at the French for having a 35 hour work week, and point to their lower productivity. But this assumes that productivity is the most desirable outcome of all work, and ignores the notion that perhaps the French merely value additional time over productivity. This is the question begging that I object to.

    I don’t think humans create perfect systems, and while I will listen to arguments that the free market produces more abundance than poverty, I find the idea that no one will be left behind if we just let the market do what it will contrary to reality.

    But that’s an empirical question. The problem is, it can’t be solved, so long as some can say a) “the markets are not free, and that is why there are still suffering”; which insists that in order to know the value of a truly free market, we’ve got to adopt it. And b), “See– suffering.” “Wait, we’re not there yet….” As long as the free market utopian can push the time boundary farther and farther into the distance, theres no way for his vision to be disproven. This is, after all, the failure of all teleology. The referent to reality can stay safely locked away in the future as long as you want it to.

    I’m cool with being a bit of an asshole but I think these questions have relavence.

    • So free market advocates laugh at the French for having a 35 hour work week, and point to their lower productivity. But this assumes that productivity is the most desirable outcome of all work, and ignores the notion that perhaps the French merely value additional time over productivity.

      Not to speak for Will or anything, but I imagine that’s why he’s so interested in happiness research: productivity is NOT a realistic way to measure the success of a society, but happiness is. If lower GDP & productivity and 35 hour work weeks and nationalized health care and all of that lead to more happiness, you’re on to something. But if not, then…

  • Freddie-

    Free market advocates laugh at the 35 hour work week in the same manner they laugh at the 40 hour work week. These are arbitrary designations that literally set the working hours of government and union employees and impact the decisions of most other employers and employees. (Do you allow overtime, should you work overtime, does this mean I need to get a second job, ect.?) For anyone who’s ever been self-employed or worked more than one job at time, the notion of any X-hour work week is far removed from reality. I’m a young attorney and I can say personally that for myself, happiness is working for myself and having the time to spend with my family. For other attorneys, happiness is that big paycheck down the road when they make partner.

    Second, I think you make an incorrect assumption about free market advocates. I don’t know of anyone who says the market will leave no one behind- rather, the free market produces the most prosperity for the greatest number of people. The question of just what to do about those at the bottom should be a separate question from how and why the government interferes in the market. There’s no free market utopia waiting over the rainbow, only the real world where every regulation the government puts in place impacts the market.

  • Will – “Well, what market progressives like me want to see from “free-market traditionalists” like Frost, but never get, is actual evidence that the world in which the brake has been applied tends to be a world in which people are doing better than in the world in which the throttle was left open.

    Are ‘traditionalists’ really committed to any such claim? The strongest form of conservatism, to my mind, is G.A. Cohen’s claim that we shouldn’t assess outcomes simply according to net value. What matters, to the Cohen-conservative, is to preserve the valuable things that already exist. They might thus grant that radical change could bring about a better world; they just don’t consider this desirable. (No more than a parent would desire to have their actual children replaced by superior alternatives.)

  • Will – “Well, what market progressives like me want to see from “free-market traditionalists” like Frost, but never get, is actual evidence that the world in which the brake has been applied tends to be a world in which people are doing better than in the world in which the throttle was left open.

    Are ‘traditionalists’ really committed to any such claim? The strongest form of conservatism, to my mind, is G.A. Cohen’s claim that we shouldn’t assess outcomes simply according to net value. What matters, to the Cohen-conservative, is to preserve the valuable things that already exist. They might thus grant that radical change could bring about a better world; they just don’t consider this desirable. (No more than a parent would desire to have their actual children replaced by superior alternatives.)

  • Richard, Well if that’s the strongest form of conservatism, it’s not very strong, is it? I do think it’s a pretty good explanation of conservative behavior, and a good explanation of why there is so much avoidable suffering that has not been avoided. But I don’t grasp the normative bite of status quo bias.

  • “There’s no free market utopia waiting over the rainbow, only the real world where every regulation the government puts in place impacts the market.”

    That’s what I’m saying. I just think that there is a powerful meme that this is the case, among a certain kind of libertarian teleologist, and I don’t agree. I don’t mean to tar Will with a brush that I shouldn’t.

  • mari dupont

    Freddie, capitalism cannot give meaning to your life; it’s an economic system and nothing else. If you’re looking for salvation, double entry bookeeping will never deliver. Re the article above, I’m not sure which conservatives the author is referring to. I understand that some conservatives dislike the liberating (i.e. distructive) features of capitalism because it breaks up tribes, castes and customs, but there is a good (empirically backed) argument to be made that capitalism thrives and creates more entrepreneural “types” of people in places where family/religion is the strongest. In other words, rather than destroying these institutions capitalism’s existence actually depends on this balance between the market and family, church, private friendships. Otherwise, it could not function effectively.

  • So… the endless time horizons thing… still a problem….