The Personalist Project

I recently came across an essay by Hans Jonas (see footnote) in which he argues that cloning human persons is wrong, among other reasons, because it violates the cloned person’s “right to ignorance.” The essay was published many years ago, in 1974, and so I realize the argument is not new. It is new to me, however, and very intriguing. Not because it is especially strong or effective—I’m not sure that it is—but because it dwells so deeply and fruitfully on the nature of personal selfhood and what is required to truly achieve it.

At the heart of Jonas’ argument lies the thought that persons can’t thrive unless they believe that their future is truly open and in large measure up to them. They must know themselves to be, as my wife Katie likes to put it, the protagonists of their own lives. This is what gives reality to freedom and self-determination.

But what does the future of a cloned person look like? Is it truly open? In one way it certainly is. Jonas is not a determinist. He does not think that a cloned person (if ever there will be one) is less free, ontologically speaking, than any other. Human beings are not determined by their genetic code, no matter how that code was obtained. But when we look at the question from an existential and psychological point of view, the answer is very different.

To help us see this, Jonas highlights a crucial difference between identical twins and clones. Whereas the two twins live their lives at the same time, the clone lives his life many years after the original (i.e. the donor or archetype) has lived his. He is, to borrow a phrase from Leon Kass, “saddled with a genotype that has already lived” and is already known. Furthermore, while the twin just happens to have the same genetic code as his sibling, the clone has the same code as his original by design. His “parents” want and expect him to be like the original.

(One sees that Jonas is thinking of one kind of cloning only. His argument does not apply to other types.)

The clone, therefore, will inevitably suffer from the “great expectations” his parents and everyone else who is “in the know” have for him. Kass illustrates the point: Suppose a young couple chooses to clone Rubinstein. Obviously they do so on the basis of what they already know about Rubinstein’s life and accomplishments, and with definite hopes and expectations for their child. “Is there any doubt that early in life young Arthur would be deposited at the piano and ‘encouraged’ to play?” I think not.

We begin to see, then, in what sense the clone’s “right to ignorance” has been violated. He knows too much about the future he is supposed to live, and this knowledge is crushing. (Needless to say, it would not help the situation if the clone were simply not let in on the secret! That would be very degrading for one thing, and practically impossible for another. Sooner or later the cat will out of the bag.) Let me quote Jonas at some length:

The simple and unprecedented fact is that the clone knows (or believes to know) altogether too much about himself and is known (or is believed to be known) altogether too well to others. Both facts are paralyzing for the spontaneity of becoming himself, the second also for the genuineness of others’ consorting with him. It is the known donor archetype that will dictate all expectations, predictions, hopes, fears, goal settings, comparisons, standards of success and failure, of fulfillment and disappointment, for all “in the know”—clone and witnesses alike; and this putative knowledge must stifle in the pre-charted subject all immediacy of the groping quest and eventual finding “himself” with which a toiling life surprises itself for good and for ill. It is all a matter much more of supposed than real knowledge, of opinion than truth. Note that it does not matter one jot whether the genotype is really, by its own force, a person’s fate: it is made his fate by the very assumptions in cloning him, which by their imposition on all concerned become a force themselves. It does not matter whether replication of genotype really entails repetition of life’s performance: the donor has been chosen with some such idea, and that idea is tyrannical in effect. …

The trial of life has been cheated of its enticing (also frightening) openness; the past has been made to preempt the future as the spurious knowledge of it in the most intimate sphere, that of the question “who am I?”, which must be a secret to the seeker after an answer and can find its answer only with the secret there as the condition of the search—indeed as a condition of becoming what may then be the answer. The spurious manifestness at the beginning destroys that condition of all authentic growth. No matter whether the “knowledge” is true or false (there are reasons for saying that in essence it is false per se), it is pernicious to the task of selfhood: existentially significant is what the cloned individual thinks—is compelled to think—of himself, not what he “is” in the substance-sense of being. In brief, he is antecedently robbed of the freedom which only under the protection of ignorance can thrive; and to rob a human-to-be of that freedom deliberately is an inexpiable crime that must not be committed even once.

I think that all of this is extremely well said, and that it is relevant far beyond the confines of bioethics. That, for instance, the answer to the question “Who am I?” is a secret that every person must find out for himself, and that the content of the answer is (in part) determined by the search for it. That, the expectations of others, as well as his own, can interfere with the process of discovering and becoming himself. But most of all, I am struck by the central idea that a certain ignorance or hiddenness is required for freedom and authentic personal growth. “Life needs the protection of nonawareness” Romano Guardini wrote in a different context (and in a slightly different sense). But the saying applies here as well. And it applies in two ways: 1) it is very uncomfortable if not intolerable for persons to be exposed to others, but 2) it seems equally unbearable to be fully exposed to oneself (too soon).

Footnote: The essay I’ve been referring to is entitled “Biological Engineering—A Preview” and published in Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed To Technological Man.

Comments (2)

Matt Chominski

#1, Dec 6, 2009 5:58am


When you had mentioned this argument when we saw each other at Villanova I left without a clue as to why cloning offended the clone’s ignorance. 

I find the argument very compelling though. 

Does not cloning offend the ignorance of all others as well? Isn’t a great joy (or source of anxiety and sorrow) for parents the experience of seeing their children take possession of their lives and begin discovering themselves?

Wouldn’t the clone’s parents find themselves expecting the clone to be like the one he was cloned from and thereby damage their own experience of their child?

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Dec 8, 2009 9:24am

Yes, I think you are right Matt.  The “parents” experience of their own child is also adversely affected.  However, since they are themselves responsible for this, one couldn’t really say that their right to ignorance has been violated.  (One’s rights can only be violated by others.)

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