Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 9 April, 2008

I’m getting back to the idea of quoting very influential and commonly used quotes for these things, so I’ve gone to Leon Kass and his oft-quoted work “The Wisdom of Repugnance” for this Wednesday’s Words of Worry:

“We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” – Kass, L. R. (1997). “THE WISDOM OF REPUGNANCE. (Cover story).” New Republic 216(22): 17-26.

Note especially that Kass uses the phrase “things that we rightfully hold dear”. It is of course obvious that we should protect that which we rightfully hold dear. It must be right to value such a thing, so that thing must truly be valuable. However, Kass provides no evidence at all for us to use repugnance in order to determine which things are right to hold dear and which things are not. Disgust could, after all, just be a result of pure prejudice (such as being disgusted at homosexuality or mixed-race couples). Therefore, repugnance is not helpful at all, because it still requires us to turn to some other means to find out what is right and what is wrong.



  1. I think Kass’s sort of language does tend to obscure any relevant issues.

    I do suggest that from purely practical reasons we need to be extremely careful in how things move forward.

  2. The problem with both transhumanists and people like Leon Kass is their failure to differentiate between things that are done to others (i.e. reprogenetics, designer babies) and things that one does to oneself (somatic cell gene therapy). I think that the so-called bioconservatives have valid arguments with regards to the reproductive issues and I agree with some of the things that they have to say on this issue. I think the reproductive stuff is a matter of public debate.

    However, anything that an individual would do to his or her own self, providing that it is safe and does not create a public burden, is purely a personal choice issue. Self-alteration, a.k.a. morphological freedom, is an unfettered personal liberty and is NOT a legitimate subject of public debate. Making this a matter of public debate is a gross violation of ones privacy and personal life. Such is simply inexcusable.

    I would like to see a clear separation between the reproductive issues (what one does to another) and personal alteration (what one does to oneself).

  3. Kurt, I’m not sure such a separation is immediately clear. Though it is obvious when considering an adult altering another adult, the role of a parent choosing what child to have doesn’t fit easily in this.

    Parents are entitled, firstly, to bringing a child into existence. They can do this with whoever they want (usually legally too, with possible exceptions for incest and homosexuality). Because people are entitled to choose the person they want to have children with, they are already choosing in effect the type of children they will have. So already, parents have been able to choose when to have a child and, to an extent, what sort of child to have.

    Further, reprogenetics is not necessarily altering another person. Modifications can be made to the sperm or ovum before fertilisation, meaning that even those with the view that personhood begins at conception must accept that no person was altered by such a modification. Those with the view that personhood begins much after conception would be forced to accept that even altering the embryo would fail to qualify as altering another person.

    I hope that was explained clearly. I don’t see that reproductive freedom infringes on anyone’s morphological freedom.

  4. Joshua,

    All your points are good and I cannot argue with them.

    For what its worth, I think reprogenetics is inevitable irregardless of the complaints of the bio-conservatives.

    People (especially educated, successful people) regard offspring as an investment. People who make investments expect some sort of “return” on such investments. Also, the desire to have “capable” off spring is a very strong socio-biological drive that cannot be mollified by mere laws or social constructs.

    Thus, I regard reprogenetics as inevitable.

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