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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, January 29, 2007

Kids, clones, and rights.

I'm currently reading Beyond Bioethics, the extensive report on proposed regulation of reproductive technologies, prepared by Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger and published late last year. I lost patience on about page 64, when I reached its exposition of the moral principles on which it relies.

The first of their principles might at first seem uncontroversial - it's the widely accepted principle of regard for the health and welfare of children. Who could object to this? No one wants to see children abused or neglected, or even held back from developing their theoretical potential. At the same time, society does not insist that every possible effort be made by parents to develop or enhance their kids' natural talents. If Adrian and Belinda encourage young Cassie to aim at a relatively undemanding and low-paid career, when she may have the innate talent to be a nuclear physicist, society as a whole does not criticise this in any serious way.

Perhaps we actually should hold parents to a more exacting standard. It saddens me when children are held back in developing their talents or their knowledge of the world. It is especially galling to see kids being taught that the world is only 6000 years old, or that it is under the control of a powerful being who detests homosexuals, or any of the other kinds of implausible and destructive claims with which kids are frequently indoctrinated. It's difficult to make teaching these things a crime - what with the issues of freedom of religion - but educated people can recognise it as harmful and reprehensible, and be a lot more forthright in condemning it.

At the other extreme, we don't want developing the talents of children to become a tyrannical, all-consuming regime - either for the parents or for the children themselves. In practice, we tend to adopt a rather lenient standard: children should be nurtured, treated kindly, and brought up to be good, well-adjusted citizens who can play a productive, non-violent role in society. And that's about it. Parents are given extensive discretion within those broad boundaries. We want them to provide for their kids' health, to meet basic standards for cooperating, and assisting, with their kids' education - standards that have gradually been raised over time, no doubt - and to teach the social skills that are essential for their kids to become ... well, socialised and civilised.

If parents manage to do just this much, we are more or less content. If they do more than this, they are praised; but we seem to regard it as an example of supererogatory virtue rather than as a matter of meeting essential obligations. In other words, we don't demand that every child be given the optimal environment for the development of her talent, well-being, and possible success in life. It's just that the more parents actually provide this - especially against the financial odds - the more we tend to praise them. Thus, in the near future, some kinds of genetic enhancement of children might justifiably be looked on as praiseworthy, but the failure to use them might not disadvantage kids so gravely as to amount to the breach of an obligation in the strict sense. If, at a date farther in the future, the use of genetic enhancements became more easy and widespread, it might then make sense for it to be regarded as obligatory; that would depend on the circumstances.

Fukuyama and Furger reason in a very different manner. They point to the undoubted value we place on children's psychological welfare - and immediately draw the wild conclusion that every child has a "right" to a biological mother and father. Putting it another way, if Belinda (say) gives birth to a child who does not have a biological father, then the child's "right" has been violated. This could be a text-book example of how talk about moral rights quickly becomes absurd - as Jeremy Bentham realised long ago. Once we start using rights talk, we tend to lose the plot.

There are two kinds of moral rights that actually make sense, though I'm not sure that talking about them as "rights" is very productive. First, there are things that societies have good reason not to prevent their citizens doing (even if preventing them might have good overall consequences), because those things are so important and personal to individuals. These could be classed as negative rights. There are also some social resources that are required by any individual, in order to lead a decent life in her society (as judged by standards that make sense within the society concerned). We typically expect our societies - particularly wealthy Western ones - to ensure that at least a basic level of resources is available to each citizen. Hence, we can talk about positive rights.

But keep in mind the whole purpose of ascribing rights of these kinds. It is impossible for a child to have either a negative right or a positive right to two biological parents. If a child is born without having both a biological mother and a biological father, it simply makes no sense to say that her "right" has been violated, since the course of conduct that would have allowed the right not to be violated would inevitably have involved that particular child not being born at all! Putting it another way, you can't protect Cassie the Clone's exercise of personal freedoms, or her interest in leading a minimally decent life, by ensuring that she never comes into existence in the first place. It makes no sense.

What I take it that sensible people really want is for their society to pursue a reasonable, and rather modest, policy objective. We want to ensure that all children are born in circumstances where they have good prospects of being nurtured and socialised, at least to a certain acceptable level. For example, we want to ensure that children are not born facing inevitable poverty and hardship - though the humane way of accomplishing this is by making economic redistributions to impoverished parents, not by making it a crime for poor people to satisfy the urge to have children.

Imagine that there's a prospect that a child who will not have two biological parents of the usual kind might be brought into the world (e.g. little Cassie, who was born by an advanced method of reproductive cloning). The question for society to consider is not whether some supposed right of the child has been violated in bringing about her very existence. It is simply whether or not whoever rears the child is in a position to nurture her according to society's relatively forgiving standards: e.g., is there a good prospect that Cassie will be treated kindly and grow up to be a well-adjusted, productive, non-violent adult? If "Yes," that is the end of the matter; society as a whole has no good reason to interfere. In practice, the adults concerned will usually be best able to make the required judgment.

Fukuyama and Furger are correct to identify the importance we assign to the welfare of children, but they are wrong to analyse the issue using the rhetorically charged, yet intellectually misleading, language of moral rights. The idea that you have a right to be biologically related to certain kinds of people in certain ways - even if your very existence would thereby be in violation of the "right" - is intellectually incoherent. It is inconsistent with the original point of talking about rights, which is to protect people's freedoms and to ensure they have a safety net of basic resources. Nonsense, I say. Nonsense on stilts.

1 comment:

Blake Stacey said...

Imagine that there's a prospect that a child who will not have two biological parents of the usual kind might be brought into the world (e.g. little Cassie, who was born by an advanced method of reproductive cloning).

Or little Hal, whose body is a spaceship and whose mind lives in a mainframe. . . .