The following is from Richard Lewontin’s article “The confusion over cloning” originally published in the NYRB in 1997, reprinted in his book It ain’t necessarily so.
The article is a review of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission’s report on cloning. The commission addresses four potentially relevant ethical issue concerning cloning, the third on the list being: objectification. In short the worry is that human cloning could lead to the production of human fetuses (and even human beings) used exclusively for the purpose of providing tissue or even vital organs for some already existing human being. While this up to this day remains a bit of a sci-fi scenario, the commission dares to raise the concern, and Lewontin responds harshly:
“We would all agree that it is morally repugnant to use human beings as mere instruments of our deliberate ends. Or would we? That’s what I do when I call the plumber. The very words ’employment’ and ’employee’ are descriptions of an objectified relationship in which human beings are ‘thing(s) to be valued according to externally imposed standards.’ None of us escapes the objectification of humans that arises in economic lief.” (p. 294)
You really don’t have to be an ardent defender of capitalism to think that Lewontin got this completely wrong. The relationship Lewontin describes is not ’employment’, but ‘enslavement’, not ’employees’ but ‘slaves’. These very words are ‘descriptions of an objectified relationship’. Being a plumber (or any employee) is a role a human being temporarily assumes with respect to another person, out of which certain obligations and rights arise. Being a plumber may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a job perfectly compatible with one’s dignity, one’s status as a human being. This is not the case with being a slave. A slave is a piece of property, but an employee is a human being, who can end the special relationship you’ve agreed to engage in just as well as you can. Treating somebody as a piece of property is objectification, entering into a contract is not.
But Lewontin is not done yet. Even now, without cloning, he claims, there are many instances of objectification in parent-child relationships. And this isn’t always bad, either:
“I myself was conceived out of my father’s desire for a male heir, and my mother, not much interested in maternity, was greatly relieved when her first and only child filled the bill. Yet, in retrospect, I am glad they were my parents.” (p. 295)
Where to begin? For one thing, aside from a (hopefully mild) sexism on the father’s part, it seems that the scenario is not an unusual one. Most parents (at least in the developed world) have to make an explicit decision in favor of children, thanks to contraception. So, sure, there will often be particular reasons for parents to have children. But as long as these reasons do not interfere with treating these children as human beings, as persons, this alone does not constitute objectification.
That is not to say that objectification never enters into these considerations. While Lewontin’s parents would have presumably raised any first child, boy or girl, this is not true in many other parts of the world (esp.: India). Female fetuses are simply aborted. That looks like an ethical problem. Would Lewontin still be glad that his parents had him, if he not only learned that he had been wanted as a male heir, but also that 3 previously conceived female fetuses had been aborted for being female?
What makes the case of Lewontin’s parents harmless and acceptable is that in having a child they were presumably prepared to raise their first born, no matter what. That characterizes the relationship as a non-objectifying one. They would have treated an older sister as a potential person, just as they treated him as a potential person. But in choosing to let a fetus develop only under certain circumstances (because it has the ‘right’ gender, eye-color, bone marrow…) you show that you are valuing some aspect of that fetus higher than its ability to develop into a person. You value some property other than personhood to the extent that you are unwilling to raise the child (or even give birth to it) in case it lacks that property.
While it is true that these issues arise already in the context of other reproductive technologies, that does not make the ethical issues go away. And it is in fact the case that there is a very serious ethical debate about these issues for these others technologies as well.
Much as Lewontin raves and rants in the rest of the article against what he seems to perceive as an inadequate interference from the outside into an issue that should be resolved by biologists and other ‘experts’, these two pages demonstrate quite clearly the need for such interference.