Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity: More on Procreation

Ever since I wrote negatively about the justice of procreation, I’ve been hoping that someone would come along and take the positive position. It’s the kind of argument about which one doesn’t quite want to be right. Sadly, there’ve been no takers.

However, there’s recently been a spate of discussions on a more narrow topic that have raised the pro-natal issue again, and I think helpfully. It all started when Bryan Caplan solicited advice on the following paragraph in his book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I’m not pushing others to clone themselves.  I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?

I think this is a great paragraph because the controversy it generates is mostly misplaced. So yes, keep it! Of course our general objections to cloning are rooted in unreflective moral intuitions, and of course they ought to be rooted out. Genetic identity is a stupid thing to object to, rooted in all our worst doppelganger fears. There’s nothing a priori immoral about cloning, and certainly there’s nothing a priori immoral about twins.

But yet there’s something odd here. Caplan seems to want to provoke the purity intuitions (Don’t meddle with nature!) rather than subduing them, and so he says something that squicks us out. Perhaps he wants to provoke objections because provocation and controversy sells books. But an alternative possibility is that he is provoking a misplaced objection so that other objections receive less attention. For instance, there may be something immoral about spending vast resources to have oneself cloned. The concern being covered is the radical pro-natalism of cloning, and that’s the discussion that really needs to be had. Tyler Cowen recently raised this question in demanding to know why Caplan’s selfish claims about having children wouldn’t actually work equally well for adoption:

So here is my challenge to Bryan: write down the ten most important selfish reasons to have kids and then ask how many of them apply to adopted children.  Most of them will.  Which isn’t to say those are the only reasons to adopt (or have) kids, but they are real nonetheless.  So why do the adopting parents seemingly get described as selfless martyrs?

To paraphrase Robin Hanson, “Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity.” “Always room for one more” is obviously a problematic position, especially when that “one more” is immensely expensive. What we ought to do is tamp down our disgust and have a discussion about the best distribution of GDP, but our disgust distracts us.

Of course, that’s the argument at the heart of Caplan’s new book, which seems to be a defense of the endowment effect. That’s why it’s called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. If our unique commitment to actually existing persons allows us to live free from regret, then there’s a pretty good retroactive justification for just about anything.

“All partial evil, universal good…. One truth is clear, whatever was, was right.”

That’s the gist of this argument, that by biting the bullet of the Non-Identity Problem, we can justify historical injustices:

if you offered me a “do-over” on any aspect of my life prior to my children’s conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.

Having children produces interested persons who have retroactive rights to exist, and if that existence depends on an injustice or regrettable action, that injustice is justified. But of course this is a lot to pin on the admittedly problematic bias encapsulated by the parental endowment affect, which is just a version of the status quo bias. Aren’t we supposed to be overcoming our biases rather than writing elaborate defenses of them?

Cowen to the rescue, again:

I put a big stress on how children help you see that a lot of your immediate concerns aren’t nearly as important as you might think, and how spending time with children brings you closer to — apologies, super-corny phrases on the way — The Great Circle of Being and The Elemental Life Force.  In some (not all) ways, adopted children may be teaching you those lessons more effectively than do biological children.  It’s an oversimplification to say that “children make you a better person,” but they do, or should, improve your ability to psychologically and emotionally integrate that a) you want lots of stuff, b) what you end up getting remains, no matter what, ridiculously small and inconsequential, and c) you can’t control your life nearly as much as you think.

None of those are benefits more realizable through genetic identity than through biological paternity or adoption, and even the the claimed justification effect of procreation is lost in genetic identity because you’ve displaced the lottery of spermatozoa selection. Thus the justice considerations remain paramount in evaluating cloning, just as they ought to do when deciding to procreate.

That leaves the mistaken claim that there’s a real benefit to raising someone who is genetically identical to oneself. As Caplan put it originally, “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.” But this assumes that genetic identity will actually produce a similar preference structure, and here Caplan is playing fast and loose with nature and nurture. Caplan’s response demonstrates as much.

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