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holding-your-nose “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus says in “Hamlet” Act 1, Scene 4.

Some time ago Leon R. Kass wrote an apologetic against human cloning titled, “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” Now some twenty years hence, can a more permissive society recognize such wisdom? Kass manages to speak not only to being troubled about human cloning, but also to other areas of moral repugnance.  Here are some excerpts:

Offensive.” “Grotesque.” “Revolting.” “Repugnant.” “Repulsive.” These are the words most commonly heard regarding the prospect of human cloning. Such reactions come both from the man or woman in the street and from intellectuals, from believers and atheists, from humanists and scientists. Even Dolly’s creator has said he “would find it offensive”” to clone a human being.

People are repelled by many aspects of human cloning. They recoil from the prospect of the mass production of human beings, with large clones of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality; the idea of father-son or mother-daughter twins; the bizarre prospects of a woman giving birth to and rearing a genetic copy of herself, her spouse, or even her deceased father or mother; the grotesqueness of conceiving a child as an exact replacement for another who has died; the utilitarian creation of embryonic genetic duplicates of oneself, to be frozen away or created when necessary, in case of need for homologous tissues or organs for transplantation; the narcissism of those who would clone themselves and the arrogance of others who think they know who deserves to be cloned or which genotype any child-to-be should be thrilled to receive; the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny; man playing God.

Almost no one finds any of the suggested reasons for human cloning compelling; almost everyone anticipates its possible misuses and abuses. Moreover, many people feel oppressed by the sense that there is probably nothing we can do to prevent it from happening. This makes the prospect all the more revolting.

Even when Kass wrote this in 1997, he could see the shifting tide of moral objection:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted – though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.

Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

Our repugnance at human cloning belongs in this category. We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.

Forgetting how to Shudder?

I wonder how you read this now that our contemporary world has been crossing so many barriers toward unchecked libertarianism, capitalism, and despotism? These are not healthy growths, as growths go; these are cancers.

Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

To read the entire article, I suggest this issue in the Law Review

If it is true that there is immutable value to personhood, it is to be found in the One who made us for Himself. This is more enigma….

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