Sed Contra: Of (Cloned) Mice and Men

Deal W. Hudson
September 1, 1998

Dr. Bernard Nathanson recently addressed a riveted audience of the Philadelphia Legatus Chapter on a subject we all need to think more about—genetic research. It was clear, by the time he was through, that Catholic moral theology is already facing its greatest challenge since the advent of the pill. The difference is that arguments against contraception were readily available to theologians of the postwar period, even if those arguments were widely scorned. The boom in genetic research and biotechnology, exemplified by the recent successes in cloning sheep and mice, has caught the Catholic community unprepared.

At the heart of the dilemma for Catholics, and all people of faith in our understanding of human life and, particularly, the moral dimension of that life. What Dr. Nathanson explained, and what left many of us in that room perplexed, is that geneticists are already attempting to locate the genes that are directly responsible for our moral traits. The virtues, in other words, are being traced back to material causes embedded in our DNA. If these “moral genes” can be found it might be possible to control the moral character of future generations simply by providing them with the appropriate genetic material.

It is well known that Catholic moral theology does not understand virtues in this way: Virtues are not innate; they are acquired dispositions that take root as a result of a repeated action. Thus virtues are the product primarily of freedom, not a necessity; of man’s spirituality, not his materiality.

The possibility of a human clone, which Dr. Nathanson believes to be a likely scenario, poses less of a moral problem than the eugenics industry that is already being spawned by this combination of scientific research and questionable anthropology. If a clone is created, in my opinion, he or she will be a human being and must be treated as such. But the attempt to create a human clone, and to create that clone according to a preferred standard—whether moral, cosmetic or otherwise—using a processed genetic material, should make our moral alarms bells start ringing.

First, we ought to question the presupposition that moral traits are produced by genes. As Dr. Nathanson explained, the scientific research linking character traits to genes is far from definitive. I doubt whether the cause of my eye color or my incipient baldness, is as easily discovered as my constant struggle with moderation. Eye color is a given, temperance is not.

If science were to reveal that virtues like temperance and courage were passed along with genetic material, we would have to ask precisely in what way and to what degree these genes determine our character. In other words, can I blame my genes for a disposition or a determination? The former is consonant with what the faith has long taught about the virtues, the latter would starkly contradict it.

But assume for a moment that our genes really are the explanation for success and failure in life: Do we really want to be able to guarantee the beauty, intelligence, health, and talent of our children? In other words, is this knowledge that we really want to use? I don’t think so. The simple reason I can give is that the more we use technology to remove freedom from human existence the less human it becomes.

I came to this conclusion some years ago while I wrote a book about happiness when I encountered the notion of a “happiness machine.” Question: Would you employ a happiness machine to ensure that for the rest of your life you would live in a constant climate of pleasure and well-feeling, devoid of all that nagging states of negative emotions and thoughts that are classified under the label of unhappiness? My answer is no: Happiness secured in this manner is false, since it is not an achievement of a person’s free choice. One may feel good inside a happiness machine, but only at the cost of humanity and the cost of human happiness.

Likewise, the genetically engineered human being, freed from the struggle with disease, ignorance, and vice, will, in fact, live a “better” life, viewed abstractly. But it will be a diminished life. Imagine the following: Years from now, two young men discuss their attempts to field, throw, and hit a baseball. One knows from his parents that he was given the appropriate dose of genes to make him a great baseball player; the other was not. Who will have the satisfaction of knowing that his identity as a baseball player is based on his personal achievement?

Over a century ago, a teenager named Mary Shelley wrote a novella in which a “perfect” creature was assembled by a scientist who could not resist the temptation of his knowledge. The creature takes his own life, and the life of his scientist-creator, because of his misery. Frankenstein reminds us that human beings will inevitably reflect upon the manner of their begetting, and in that reflection, we inevitably confront the measure of our freedom.

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