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Peter Singer has finally left for Princeton; but before he went, the Melbourne Age published his final say on what he considers to be increasing alarmism over human cloning and various genetic manipulations for medical purposes. (Age, 30 June 1999) Singer has put up a case for limited human cloning elsewhere, but this is his first mainstream mention of it, and it seems to have passed without comment in the Age or any other forum. His mode of argument is deft. We would hardly know that in nodding along with his pronouncements on the medical benefits of prenatal screening, or the criticisms he mounts against his favourite opponents, that human cloning is included on his ethical agenda. And naming your opponents alarmist is always a clever move, intended as it is to put them on the defensive and to leave your readers all puffed up with apparent arguments against them.

Unfortunately, Singer's success is not merely at the level of rhetorical strategy. The underlying logic of his position -- hardly ever critically examined in mainstream publications -- also appears to strike a chord in our utilitarian society. At least I will call it utilitarian for the moment. That is, along with Singer, many people believe that the way we lead our lives is by assessing the benefits that might accrue to us and to society according to the choices we make. Importantly, from a utilitarian perspective, we make such choices, and believe others should too, on the basis of an assessment of harm. At base, Singer's humanistic appeal turns on his emotionally satisfying idea that people, and sentient animals too, should not suffer, and that we should optimise our pleasure.

Thus, from Singer's point of view, if infertile individuals suffer in the way that many do over their incapacity to have children, it is essentially human, rationally defensible and ethically necessary that we seek the means to overcome such suffering. Similarly, if human cloning and genetic screening do not cause anyone to suffer, then there are no arguments against them.

This is also the basis of Singer's assessment of the arguments of the Catholic Church and of Robyn Rowland's feminist argument in the IVF debate, which he runs through in his brief article. He says that IVF children have not been discriminated against, as the Catholic newspaper the Advocate suggested they would be. Nor have there been the consequences for women that Rowland suggested -- women have not `become obselete or los[t] their right to bear children'. We are to take these to be two cases of the kind of alarmism he now warns us about in relation to genetic manipulation, including human cloning:

`the big bio-ethical issue of the next century'.

But Singer is being highly selective in his use of the Catholic and radical feminist positions he mentions. Actually, Singer has always been more scathing of the Catholic Church than the above mention of discrimination indicates. He has many times reduced the Catholic conception of the human person to mere superstition. And in the case of feminism's critique of medical-technological power, he refuses to take seriously that, similarly, what is at stake in the bio-technological revolution may be the very meaning of womanhood, and by implication humanity in general.

One does not have to agree with the official Catholic view, nor with Rowland's particular dystopia, to have a legitimate, broad-ranging objection to Singer. His philosophy, as much as any other, makes general claims about the nature of the human person, and has implicit commitments built into it about the kind of society that will produce that person. It is here that we can look for reasons to disagree with him. By the end of Singer's comment, he has reduced `the big bio-ethical issue of the next century' to one of access -- of different social groups to the fruits of the genetic revolution; and specifically puts the challenge in terms of controlling markets -- in human tissue, embryos and other body products. His answer is a kind of social democracy for the circulation of a new kind of social product. Singer completely accepts the underlying trajectory of bio-tech society.

Bio-tech society? Doesn't this just mean a new setting for the same old person? Won't we be just making the same sorts of choices we always have in avoiding suffering and improving our lot? Doesn't it merely offer new means to the same old ends? And isn't Singer's `society' just a reworked version of our liberal-democratic one where competent adults make sensible decisions, with harm caused to others being part of their calculus of happiness and suffering?

Peter Singer suggests that fifteen years, since the `ethics debate' took off, is long enough for us to properly gauge the social success of IVF. `Alarm' expressed over the years, it seems, has come to nought. But the concerns of many IVF critics have never just been about the immediate consequences for the first generation of IVF children or their mothers. Nor have they foundered on the Catholic Church's insistence that all life is equal in the eyes of God, even if all life should be treated with respect. We now look to a future in which the body is an open horizon for techno-science, joined as it is to the power of the commodity. The two proceed hand in glove. Singer wants to control markets so as to ensure equality of access for the rich and the poor to the products of biotech. But it is at a deeper level that the market really holds sway.

Bio-technological medicine and the commodity are utterly entwined institutionally, and together they are coming to constitute the horizon of our collective imagination. The techno-body pervades popular culture, as does the notion that we may make decisions about it in the same way as any other tool or commodity. The prospect of the mass production of human embryos for experimental purposes, or human cloning for any purpose, is horrifying because they deny the rich sources of meaning and pleasure that both the human embryo and the unique human person hold for us. The life of the body and its symbolism anchor a realm of social relations infinitely richer than any market relations can sustain.

We are not just good utilitarians making individual rational decisions, as Singer would have us believe. There is always a transcendent moment in our common life together, and today we are increasingly joined in the worship of the new technological dream. We are the children of an emerging techno-scientific culture; we know ourselves and others through it, even if it works largely invisibly to bind us to its project. Certainly we are being asked to be more calculating in our relationships both in the social world and towards nature. But we only move in this direction as we are emotionally drawn to its immense transcendent power.

Singer isn't just asking us to make particular decisions about our well-being. Despite his highly rationalistic protestations to the contrary, he is asking us to take on trust a bio-tech future, the beginnings of which we have been ushered into with the help of consoling and conforming philosophies like his.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:0JINT
Date:Aug 1, 1999

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