Over the last decade, the advent of cloning and advancements in human genetic research have presented society with a complicated moral quandary. Debate rages as to what constitutes legitimate paths of inquiry and where to draw the line as to research that strikes many people as morally wrong.
The basic question is: “how does society determine what’s right? ” While, of course, questions regarding human genetic research are new, this basic question is as hold as civilization and has been addressed over and over again by history’s great philosophers. One of the most notable philosophers of the modern era is Immanuel Kant, who was born in Prussia in 1724. Kant paid a great deal of attention to formulating a complex system of morality.
The following examines Kantian morals and how they might be applied to questions of human genetic research. Kant’s moral theory is predicated on the idea of the “categorical imperative,” which Kant described in the following manner, “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law”(Honderich, 1995, p. 436). By the term “maxim,” Kant meant general rules or principles upon which rational individuals act, and that these principles reflect the end that an individual has in mind in choosing actions of a certain type in given circumstances (Honderich, 1995). Therefore, maxims are principles in the following form:
“When in an S-type situation, act in an A-type manner in order to attain end- E” (Honderich, 1995, p. 436). For example, a person might resolve to pay a bill as soon as it is received in order to not incur any debt. Kant tested a maxim by performing a thought experiment in which the individual asks oneself whether or not one would will a certain maxim to become universal law. As this suggests, moral law, in the philosophy of Kant, is inherent in reason itself. It is a priori, before experience (Frost, 1962).
In every circumstance, Kant believed that “categorical imperative” provides a sure criterion for how to evaluate right and wrong (Frost, 1962). Kant maintained that an action that the individual can easily will that everyone should follow and perform would necessarily have to be a good act (Frost, 1962). Morality for Kant not only involved law (categorical imperative) but also the ultimate end to which action is directed. As the formulation of the concept of categorical imperative suggests, the basic problem for Kant was to discern the meaning of “right and wrong, good and bad” (Frost, 1962, p. 94).
Fundamental to Kant’s thinking was the principle formulated by Rousseau that the only fundamentally good thing in the universe is the “human will governed by respect for the moral law or the consciousness of duty” (Frost, 1962, p. 94). He considered a moral act to be one that is performed out of respect for moral law, rather than for selfish gain or sympathy for others (Frost, 1962).
Therefore, unlike other moral systems, Kant did not see consequences as the criteria for determining the moral value of a specific action. Rather, Kant looked toward the intentions of the individual. If an individual acts from good intentions, out of respect for moral law, his actions, are by definition, “good. ” Kant argued that individuals instinctively avoid behavior, which, if performed by everyone, would create anarchy. “We know, not by reasoning, but by vivid and immediate feelings, that we must avoid behavior which, if adopted by all men, would render social life impossible” (Durant, 1961, p. 209).
As this brief summary of Kantian ethics suggests, if Kant were presented with the problem of the morality of genetic research, he would, first of all, be concerned about the motivations of the researchers, their intentions in conducting such research (Frost, 1962). In the furor that was quickly generated over the successfully cloning of a sheep, “Dolly,” the usefulness of cloning technology to current medical practice was pushed aside. Nevertheless, the applications are considerable. A great deal of technical information has been left out in the sensationalism that abounded in the media. For one thing, the media did not make it clear that “Dolly” was not an identical clone (Wilson,1997).
Part of everyone’s genetic material comes from the mitochondria in the cytoplasm of the egg. In the case of Dolly, only the nuclear DNA was transferred (Wilson, 1997). This may have significant information to import to scientists concerning the aging process since aging is related to acquired mutations in mitochondrial DNA (Wilson, 1997, p. 913). Furthermore, as Dolly ages, it has been noted that she is aging prematurely, which provides another source of information for scientists, but also signals that this technology is far from perfected.
Research conducted on nuclear transfer into human eggs has the possibility of providing an immense amount of information that may have clinical value, by providing a model for learning more about somatic cell differentiation (Wilson, 1997, p. 913). Eventually, in due course, scientists may learn how to influence cell differentiation and this could give rise to targeted cell types (Wilson, 1997). The ability to generate tissues from different cell types could have enormous implications for transplantation. Wilson (1997) anticipates this technology utilizing skin and blood cells, and possibly even neuronal tissue that could then be used in the treatment of “injury, transplants for leukemia, and for degenerative disease such as
Parkinson’s disease” (p. 913). In another area of research, the successful cloning of human growth hormone (HGH) is important for several reasons. First of all, a child that has pituitary dwarfism requires twice-weekly injections until reaching age of 20. In the past, HGH was could only be obtained by removal of human pituitary tissue at autopsy. To treat one child with pituitary dwarfism using previous methods required obtaining over a thousand pituitaries (Emery and Malcolm, 1995, p. 165).
Not only has it been difficult in the past to produce enough HGH to successfully provide treatment to all the children who needed it, but small amounts of contaminating virus caused some of the children treated to develop Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (Emery and Malcolm, 1995, p. 165). Cloning technology, which permits HGH to be produced artificially, has provided a readily available supply of HGH, which-in turn-has allowed the application of HGH in other treatments. For example, it has been discovered that HGH can be used to speed up the healing process for bone fractures (Emery and Malcolm, 1995). This is been particularly beneficial in treating the elderly (Emery and Malcolm, 1995).
As this brief summary of scientific research being conducted into cloning and genetic research indicates, there are enormous benefits to be reaped from this new and controversial technology. Kant would undoubtedly approve of research that so obvious benefits humanity and society. What people seem to fear, and what would undoubtedly be wrong by any moral system, are nightmare scenarios propagated by the media and Hollywood. Images of clones being used simply as “spare parts” to extend the life of the rich, for example, has been dramatized in film.
This sort of misuse of technology would constitute a threat to the social system and, therefore, would not pass Kant’s categorical imperative test. In other words, if everyone were cloned, it would significantly lower the way that human life is valued in our society. Also, the idea of human embryos being created and destroyed simply to further genetic research objectives is simply abhorrent on an instinctive level. Therefore, while it! can be seen that this technology needs to be carefully controlled and supervised in regards to moral issues, it should not be totally banned either, as it also has the power to benefit society to a great degree.
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