September 14, 2004

Sex is immoral if it's directed at procreation

Just trying to up my hit count, there. Harry Brighouse has a thought-provoking post, inspired by the Brian Weatherson-Sarah McGrath paper on human cloning, about whether parents have an "interest in rearing children who are their biological descendents [as opposed to other children]." Harry says

I am having a hard time figuring out why parents have an interest in rearing children who are biologically related to them sufficiently strong that it would support, for example, a policy that would enable people to do that even at the cost that some significant number of children (potential adoptees) will be reared in orphanages rather than in family homes.

Now let's abstract from the question of what people want to do. As Brian points out in Harry's comments, a lot of people want to have and rear biologically related children. But we might still think that these desires are regrettable, given the situation Harry describes--that it is morally less than ideal to have such a desire, even if it is best (given that desire) to have and rear a biologically related child.

My worry--as you'll have guessed from the title--is that Harry's argument seems like it's non-specific to cloning. If rescuing a child from an orphanage is better than having a cloned child, then why isn't rescuing a child from an orphanage better than having a child conceived of by sex? (Let us assume that the alternative is having as much and as good sex, but using contraception.)

Now, there's an obvious answer here--cloning is a lot more work than having sex (even if conceiving via sex can be somewhat difficult). Harry speaks of a policy that enables people to have biological children rather than adopt--you don't need a policy to enable many people to have children through sex.

On the other hand, Harry's argument seems to cut just as hard against in vitro fertilization as they do against cloning (aside from the question of the destruction of embryos because of IVF). IVF really does require an elaborate process--perhaps not as elaborate as cloning right now, but that's a merely technological issue. So you can ask--why should we enable people to have biological children through IVF when there are many children waiting to be adopted? I really can't see a reason why cloning would be wrong here but IVF not--but that won't be considered a reductio by everyone. (I trust everyone will think that the view expressed in the title of this post is a reductio.)

(Fametracker has a dissenting view on the issue.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 14, 2004 02:56 PM

There is a missing 'f' in the title I believe :)

I agree that the same points apply to IVF as to cloning. That was one of the points Sarah and I returned to frequently. There are very few arguments against cloning that are not also arguments against IVF. If we regard the moral acceptability of IVF as settled (and admittedly many do not, but many more I believe do) this is a strong argument for the permissibility of cloning.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at September 14, 2004 02:08 PM

I agree that the argument (or rather, expression of bemusement, which is what I really made) cuts as strongly against all artificial assistance for reproduction as against cloning, as Brian and Sarah say. In fact, I'd never have doubted the legtimacy of allowing such assistance if I hadn't seen their argument. I doubt that it cuts as strongly against allowing people to have sex, because i) I think there are other, very powerful, interests people have in being able to have sex (some people, anyway) and ii) disallowing reproductive sex would quickly elminate the supply of potential adoptees.

By the way, I don't think there is something wrong with wanting a biologically related child, or even with cloning. But the non-wrongness of something is not a decisive case against prohibition.

Posted by: harry at September 14, 2004 02:29 PM

I agree with all your points--though the question I had in mind didn't concern whether people should be allowed to have sex at all, but whether reproductive sex was morally permissible. The arguments against government interference in what kind of sex consenting adults can have are pretty overwhelming to me, in the absence of public health concerns, but that doesn't settle the moral issue. For the argument about the supply of babies drying up, maybe I could reframe the moral issue as "Is it OK to deliberately conceive a baby when there are babies waiting to be adopted?"--All that said, I think the distinction between relatively effortless processes and processes that require massive amounts of technology is enough to shield reproductive sex from the argument.

I also think one thing that gets people about cloning is the prospect of hundreds of genotypically identical people running around--which might be considered a harm to society rather than the people, but which also ain't gonna happen, so seems irrelevant.

Anyway, Brian and Sarah have pretty much convinced me that reproductive cloning and IVF have the same status--I favor the middle standard approach to potential harm to the child, but that shouldn't be harder to transcend in principle with cloning than it was with IVF.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at September 15, 2004 10:19 AM

By way of response to Henry's initial quote in the main text of the blog, it seems as though there are some good, moral reasons that we ought to allow, and perhaps even encourage prospective parents to have biologically related children, and not adopt.

1. Consider Israel, for example. Israel, for good reasons, has strong pro-natalist policies. One of these policies regards post-mortem sperm extraction. On this policy, even without explicit consent from the newly deceased man, a woman is allowed to have her partner's sperm harvested so that she may conceive a child who is biologically related to her father. Here, I think there is good reason for Israel to affirm a commitment to genetic parenthood through their public policies, like this one.

2. Another reason that parents want to have children who are biologically related to them is so that they may inherit their genetic characteristics, characteristics they deem as valuable and in some sense, identity-conferring. (Here, I am not using the strict, philosophical sense of "identity".) Consider couples who have achondroplasia or who are Deaf (where "Deaf" should be understood to refer to both the impairment itself and the culture). Many times these couples want to have children who share these characteristics with them for several reasons: 1) they feel that the only way they can be adequate parents is to raise a child who shares their characteristic (and actually, this has been used as an argument in the literature on IVF regarding embryo screening for that particular trait, but this issue opens up a whole other can of worms like what we owe our future children, whether birth can ever be a harm to a child, etc.); 2) commitment to disability rights implies welcoming the opportunity of parenting a child with disabilities, so much so that perhaps this ought to come before raising an able-bodied child (a child who needs to be adopted, perhaps).

On this second view, I don't want to people to think that I am advocating that deaf couples or couples with achondroplasia should abort fetuses without these traits, it is just that there are good reasons for them valuing genetic parenthood.

Posted by: Linda Fiorentino at September 17, 2004 10:43 AM