Politics & Policy

Two Cheers For The “Ick Factor”

A problem with the cloning debate.

I was listening to Car Talk the other day on the radio. I’m not a huge car buff, but I like those guys because they’re so jolly. Anyway, a caller asked about his 30-year-old car. It has 8 zillion miles on it, and has more problems than Boy George playing the Saudi Arabian palace. The caller’s mechanic had told him that he didn’t want to clean the engine, because the decades-old gunk inside was the only thing holding everything together. The Car Talk guys immediately agreed. For several minutes they went on about how the older a car gets, the more dangerous it is to clean up the build-up of muck and schmutz, because that stuff serves as the glue which keeps the whole thing together.

And because I have an overactive metaphor gland, I immediately started thinking about libertarians and biotechnology.

Let me back up a bit.

Last week, Francis Fukuyama wrote a basically disappointing broadside against our libertarian friends in the Wall Street Journal arguing, in the words of the subhead, that “Sept. 11 killed libertarianism.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like anti-libertarian rants from conservatives — not liberals — as much as the next guy. In fact, if the next guy is a normal human being with his priorities in order, I think it’s safe to say I like such ravings a lot more than the next guy. But Fukuyama’s analysis was odd. It tried to link pro-biotechnology libertarians with isolationist foreign-policy libertarians. These are simply different subspecies of libertarian. (In fact, I’m not sure these breeds can even successfully mate anymore. And if they can, it’s one of those panda-bear-type deals where there’s always the worry that one of them will kill the other in the process, or eat their young when all is said and done.)

But that’s not important right now. Fukuyama basically wanted to write about how our ability to manipulate genes poses a threat to democratic society. That’s the topic of his latest book, Our Posthuman Future, which calls for a complete ban on reproductive cloning and the strict (though ill-defined) regulation of other procedures. This position generates, for the most part, some respectful nodding from conservatives. From the pro-biotech libertarians, it elicits everything from devastating and intellectually coherent rebuttals to reflexive, splenetic outrage.


“Libertarians argue that the freedom to design one’s own children genetically — not just to clone them, but to give them more intelligence or better looks — should be seen as no more than a technological extension of the personal autonomy we already enjoy,” Fukuyama wrote in his Journal op-ed. “By this view, the problem with the eugenics practiced by Nazi Germany was not its effort to select genetic qualities per se, but rather the fact that it was done by the state and enforced coercively. There is no cause for worry if eugenics is practiced by individuals. The latter could be counted on to make sound judgments about what is in their own and their children’s best interests.”

Such “ad Hitlerum” argument is cheap stuff. Sure, selecting “genetic qualities per se” has its problems, but the Nazis certainly compounded them by murdering a lot of people. That Nazis killed and brutalized humans in their eugenics schemes in an attempt to create a master race is not a trivial thing.

Look at it this way: The Nazis used slave labor in mines and factories. But that doesn’t mean using non-coercive methods — i.e., hiring miners or factory workers at a fair wage — is very similar to Nazi slave labor, even though both do involve factories and mines. Yes, Nazis had a wholesale eugenics program and parents looking to have an exceptional or healthy kid have a retail eugenics program. But these are distinctions with quite a bit of difference. We usually expect spurious comparisons to Nazis from the Left (see “Springtime for Slanderers“), not from conservative intellectuals.


The basic argument of the anti-cloning conservatives boils down to what both sides call the “ick factor,” that indefinable revulsion that some people feel when we start mucking around with nature. The libertarians generally reject the ick factor as so much bourgeoisie prejudice or old-fogeyism. The anti-cloners believe that the ick factor actually provides a fundamental insight into ethics and morality. There’s a reason it’s gross, even if we can’t explain why, they argue. Moreover, we should take this insight and translate the “is” to an “ought,” and ban or regulate things we find icky. Meanwhile, the libertarians note, correctly, that we’ve found plenty of things icky in the past — heart transplants, in vitro fertilization, etc. — and now we consider these things run-of-the-mill advances in human health. Let a thousand experiments bloom, they conclude.

Invariably, the libertarians, with a few significant caveats, take the position that the state cannot and/or should not ban anything science can create. Individual liberty trumps the state. Private-sector ingenuity and human autonomy are better decision-makers than the state. Old argument, new nouns.

Now, I actually agree with the libertarian position on much of this. I’m perfectly willing to concede that the state is often ham-handed in setting standards for science (or for parents). For example, I’m still agnostic about reproductive cloning in the long run. But, in the short run it should be banned, for two reasons. First, scientists don’t know how to make human clones safely yet, and if they try now they will likely create many horribly deformed children in the process of trying to get it right. Whether you are pro- or anti-cloning, nobody has the right to mutilate children.

Second, we should ban reproductive cloning in the short run because the culture needs time to catch up with the idea. And that’s actually the point of this whole column: culture.

Why is the biotech debate solely about the individual versus the state? It’s as if both sides are unaware — especially the libertarians — that there is this vast expanse of territory between the state and the individual. I like to call it “the culture.”

Imagine if it were possible to graft a genetically engineered prehensile tail onto humans. It would be great for carrying around groceries and for scratching those hard-to-reach places. Should the government forbid people to get the tail? The libertarians would argue no, of course not. Individual autonomy dictates that my body is my property. The Leon Kass types (Kass chairs Bush’s bioethics panel and is a leading champion of the ick factor) would — at least for the sake of this hypothetical argument — say “ick,” prehensile tails are gross and should be banned. Their rationale would be that such an endeavor is inherently demeaning to humanity and contravenes various Judeo-Christian precepts. Or something like that.

My question is, what’s wrong with shaming the people who get the tail? What’s wrong with saying, “That’s disgusting”? Or telling parents who let their kids get a tail for Christmas that they’re bad mothers or fathers? In other words, why the hell is it up to the state to regulate everything? The culture — as any honest Hayekian will concede — is a powerful and useful regulator itself.

Indeed, it’s more powerful than the state — because the culture can keep us from doing all sorts of things the state is powerless to affect. Every day the culture regulates — though perhaps not enough — such minor things as facial (and other) piercings, tattoos, dumb haircuts, offensive language, poor table manners, talking at the movies, eating with your mouth open, peeing in the kitchen sink, scratching indiscreetly, and competitive vomiting. Why in the world should the culture simply ignore — i.e., “tolerate” — people who want cyclopic eyes or children with six arms?

In fact, if the techno-voluptuaries are right that humanity-transforming technology will be both widely available and impossible to ban then that’s all the more reason for the culture to regulate the realm of the icky.

Take the recent example of the deaf lesbians who used in vitro to increase the likelihood that their child would be deaf. (Sadly, there is a deaf subculture which thinks having working ears is some sort of tragedy.) Fukuyama suggests, but doesn’t state, that this sort of thing should be banned or regulated. I probably agree with the sentiment. On the other hand, Virginia Postrel has written quite intelligently about how difficult it would be to make this sentiment public policy. I confess that I haven’t thought through all of the legal, political, and ethical ramifications that would come with a law banning parents from selecting for, say, blindness or deafness. But, I am sure that I don’t need such mastery to say, “Are you freakin’ out of your gourd!? That’s horrible!”

And perhaps more important, I know I’m free to scold, boycott, expose, and shame any doctor willing to perform such procedures. An important part of the culture — again, as Hayekians should concede — are the extra-governmental professional associations and watchdog groups who serve to regulate the activities of doctors, lawyers, government regulators, and scientists. (One such group are called “journalists,” by the way.)

Maybe I don’t want the government to ban the practice of grafting human tails, but maybe I wouldn’t mind it if the AMA did. What’s wrong with that? Or maybe the AMA shouldn’t permit its members to perform the procedure without a note from a psychiatrist or parent. My point is that cultural libertarians ignore these things because, in reality, their argument isn’t just about public policy — it’s about what Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, antiseptically calls their “right to exit from systems that serve them poorly.”

My differences with cultural libertarians make for a long story with some decidedly snarky chapters (see “The Libertarian Lie,” for example). But I can sum it all up by saying that too many of them are dishonest in their arguments. For these libertarians, the debate is between the leviathan State and the lone individual at sea (leviathan means big fish or whale, FYI, so this metaphor works). But the reality is that they’re not alone in their autonomous boats: We’re in the same boat — or one nearby. And yet they go on their merry way, extolling the wondrous, “system-exiting” glories of boat rocking.

They write about maximizing individual liberty and personal eugenics schemes in the most celebratory terms. And — because all debates must be about the individual and the state — they are prone to painting (often demagogically) their critics as despots, tyrants or — most of all — theocrats.

Some, like Ronald Bailey or Postrel, concede that individuals will make mistakes; they just think mistakes by parents and individuals are less damaging than mistakes by government. Fair enough. But still, they remain relatively silent on the role the culture plays — thus abetting the eugenics cheerleaders and, perhaps, creating a climate where more, not fewer, mistakes will be made. If you shout from the rooftops that there’s nothing wrong with running with scissors, more people are going to stab themselves.

In short, for the cultural libertarian, it’s all fun and games even when someone loses an eye. They leave no room for people who believe that there’s much ickiness to things like eugenics, but who are relatively reluctant to rely on the state to eliminate that ickiness.

Oh, speaking of ickiness — I didn’t forget that gunk-in-the-engine thing from the beginning of this column.

Friedrich Hayek was a brilliant advocate of the insight that law is only one of many cultural institutions which create either a thriving and healthy civilization or a declining and dysfunctional civilization. Language, religion, economics, literature, and (perhaps most of all) the diffuse and largely invisible habits and instincts of a given society — which we cumulatively call “tradition” — are more important and powerful than mere legislation. Hayek noted that “more ‘intelligence’ is incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts and surroundings.” He meant that we may not even know why we do some things — but that doesn’t mean we don’t do them for a good reason.

Tradition builds up around healthy institutions. Sometimes it calcifies and makes them like hardened arteries, unable to keep up with the fast pace of modern life. But, just as often, tradition keeps institutions going. It keeps rules necessary for civilization alive long past the lifespan of the individual rule-makers who crafted them. “Tradition,” wrote Chesterton, paraphrasing Burke, “is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

The cultural libertarians believe that tradition means nothing and should simply be sucked out like so much accumulated gunk, oblivious to the possibility that the whole apparatus might fall apart. The Kass conservatives want to translate culture into law — a self-defeating move, and a sure sign that the culture isn’t strong enough on its own. Me, I like the gunk precisely where it is. I just want to make sure it keeps doing what it needs to do.

Hey, I never said it was a good metaphor.


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