Why Questions about Genetic Morality Matter or: Why Vanderbilt Makes Me Sad

American soliders nap while awaiting orders

My freshman year at Vanderbilt, I remember these posters appearing on the walls around campus. They were plain—just black type on white paper. All they had on them was the current casualty count in the Iraq War. Just a number and a heading. Simple yet powerful.

They had been up for a few weeks when I began to notice someone had gone around and written on each one in big block handwriting the same message over and over:

And they did it for you.

However on one poster, someone had added their own note underneath:

No, they didn’t. They did it for four years of free tuition and for a job. Or maybe to escape jail time.

That, I would decide later, was the finest example I would ever see of the dark side of the Vanderbilt undergraduate mindset—one that mixes cynicism with a healthy dose of why-should-I-care attitude and a splash of hypocrisy.

Did that offend you? Then take this litmus test, be you an Vanderbilt undergraduate or not. Consider the following scenario:

Your young daughter’s lungs are giving out. She is terribly asthmatic to the point where she is hooked up to a respirator for eight hours a day and not even that extreme measure is helping  much anymore. Odds are slim she will live to see her sixth birthday.

What would you do to save her? Surely, you’d be tempted to obtain an available set of new, healthy lungs if they were offered to you. I’m sure if it was necessary you’d mortgage the house to pay for this cure—work two jobs, take out a few loans—why, you might do just about anything to save her life.

But what if those new lungs were from a human clone, reared like cattle in some futuristic stockyard for this exact purpose? What would the moral thing to do be? Would you take the organ donation then?

Take a moment to make your choice. While you do, I’ll let you know that I personally would gladly take the lungs.

Made your decision? Good. Let’s move on.

To all those who would argue that they could not stand to know they were taking organs from another sentient human being, I point you to numerous atrocities happening around the world—Earthquake in Haiti, Genocide in Darfur—and ask you if knowing thousands of people are dying keeps you from falling asleep at night or from tailgating on a sunny Saturday morning with all your buddies.

If such events do leave you stricken with guilt, then you probably wouldn’t take the lungs from the clone and I apologize for my impropriety in inferring that you would. But if you are not a saint-on-Earth masquerading as a human being but rather just a flawed Joe Schmo like myself, who may have given money or time to these causes but then continued on with his or her life, then is it that unreasonable to consider the possibility that with time and a growing familiarity, we could come to view clone organ donors as just another necessary evil we put up with to live longer? Isn’t that how most view animal testing for new vaccines? Isn’t that how most citizens view deaths incurred during military service? View them as necessary for our National Security? Necessary for keeping all of us safe here at home so we can go do the things that we want to do?

If I had to guess, I would say over 98% of Vanderbilt undergraduates would take a new set of lungs from the clone. But that’s not why Vanderbilt makes me sad. After all, I admitted I would be a part of that vast majority. What makes me sad is that I would guess that less than 50% (and that’s me being generous) would admit they would. I guess that means—depending on your answer to the above scenario—that I might be calling you a liar.


Before you dismiss this clone example as being something irrelevant to your life, or me as some jerk with a strange grudge against the entire student body, think back to those simple posters—the ones I found powerful but some other student found worthy of his rapier-sharp wit. Over my last three years here, it has become appalling clear that most of our campus has no idea what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. For some reason, it seems that it doesn’t matter to a lot of students here, which I argue is the same reaction clone organ farms would eventually receive from us as well. It seems to me the feelings of a clone like Lincoln Six Echo from the movie, The Island, would not be so different from a 21-year-old soldier in Iraq.

Imagine what it would be like to put your life on the line and know that your peers back home–the ones you are doing all this fighting for—do not care about your situation mostly because they are not the ones in it.

Now imagine what it would be like to put your life on the line and know that those taking your organs—the ones you were bred to serve—do not care about your situation mostly because they are not the ones in it.

Maybe you think my reasoning is pretty thin. Then fine, prove your compassion for the soldiers in Iraq by guessing how many American soldiers have died there since 2003.

The answer is here. Were you even close? I wasn’t. If you were, what about deaths in Afghanistan? Or the total number of wounded soldiers? Be honest.

On a daily basis, the soldiers stationed abroad are out of most of our minds. Sure, we may occasionally stand for the National Anthem—just like how in the future, we would occasionally hear about someone who had taken a heart from an clone donor—but as soon as we hit “And the land of the free…” our thoughts have moved onto the game we are about to watch, not to some kid our age who, by bad luck at the game of ovarian roulette, enlisted so he could afford college and ended up getting killed by an IED.

Similarly, while at first we would be appalled at the lack of morals involved in mining a human being for genetic material—just like how casualties in our country’s current military actions used to be big news but no longer seem to make even a ripple in the public consciousness—slowly but surely, when we needed a new liver or a new knee, well, maybe it turns out that obtaining these organs wasn’t so immoral after all (notice the verb change).

Maybe we could look past all that stuff so we could continue with our lives.

I’ll close by asking a simple question that has no simple answer: where do you want to draw the line? For those who argue that it’s unnatural to clone a human being,  is a flu shot natural? Is basic sanitation? An MRI machine? X-Rays? All those high-tech tools used for open-heart surgery?

I fear that the answer, whether you like it or not, is that we draw the line where it is convenient for us. At Vanderbilt, that often results in black-and-white terms that deny us a chance at true critical thinking. We hear it every day. This sorority’s members are like this. This fraternity’s members are like that.  Stealing is wrong (unless you have a family that will die of starvation if you don’t bring them back food.) Cloning is satanic and an affront to God (unless someone you love is dying before their time.)

This post is something I have been ruminating on throughout discussions in this class among others. It is frustrating to hear talk in the classroom that is in direct conflict with undergraduate behavior on campus. It is easy to stay in a hypothetical world when discussing literature but I think it is much more valuable to take whatever you read, be it Shakespeare or the Twilight series, and try to find a way to make it apply to your life. I know when I first began reading Never Let Me Go, I believed I would not take organs from a clone. But the more I thought about it in accordance with how I mentally deal with atrocities in the news, I couldn’t see how I wouldn’t do so in a dire enough situation.

To put it simply, if you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. Or in other words, if you want to tell me you wouldn’t take organs from a clone, I guess you’re going to have to prove it.

I sure know I couldn’t.

-Matt Popkin


~ by mattpopkin on February 14, 2010.

6 Responses to “Why Questions about Genetic Morality Matter or: Why Vanderbilt Makes Me Sad”

  1. Matt,

    I know I’m not the best at responding to this argument – I’ll admit, I’m just as apathetic as you accuse me of being. I’m vaguely aware of what’s going on in the world, and I couldn’t really fathom the casualty numbers you linked to (unfortunately,past a certain number of zeros, numbers all seem the same to me. Which is maybe why I don’t attempt math anymore). In short, yes, I’m awful. A moral isolationist.

    But I still took offense at your post. I read it. I understood it. And I still don’t think I’d take an organ from a clone. You can call me a hypocrite – but is that really what a hypocrite is? In caring about one thing, I never claimed to care about all of the other things. Rejecting a clone organ isn’t my way of making a grand statement, proclaiming to the world “Look at what a good person I am! I’m saving the world!” It’s my way of doing what I think is right (or rather, refusing to participate in something I find disgusting) when something morally questionable does enter my private sphere. I would rather be the hypocrite and at least do the right thing when something affects me directly.


    • First off, thank you for your candid response. It takes a lot of guts to admit being apathetic and moral isolationist (no matter how tongue-in-cheek those proclamations may have been.) However, it seems that your comment in some ways proves my point. Being apathetic is not something you just turn on and off like a light switch. When you talk about how you can’t fathom the casualty numbers because “past a certain number of zeros, numbers all seem the same to me” and then talk about your “private sphere,” you are simply disrespecting the value of human life that’s not your own.

      There is no other way for me to describe those sentences. Do American soldiers not enter your private sphere? Kids you went to high school with? Kids from your neighborhood? These are your peers. They are real people. If the number of causalities is too unfathomable, then I direct you to here: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/us/20061228_3000FACES_TAB1.html

      These are real people–just as real as someone in Haiti or Darfur. Or a clone for that matter. I’m sorry but I cannot believe someone could have the disregard for human life that you just described and then not take an organ from a clone if their life depended on it. You argument is similar to those that claim that they would never commit genocide because they are morally superior to those who do such a thing. If it was happening in your community, would you really stand up against it?

      Do you believe all the Germans in World War II were intrinsically evil? Were all the Serbs in Kosovo? I don’t think so. For the most part, they were just going along with society, turning a blind eye to the genocide around them because doing so kept them alive. Just like we all would if clone organs became available. Humanity fails more often than we would like to think. That’s the sad truth.

  2. Matt,
    While I think your argument is compelling and certainly eye catching, I have to agree with Michelle. Do I think it’s sad that the majority of American’s are uninformed about the current situation? Yes. Do I think it’s because they simply do not care? Not necessarily. I don’t think you should be speaking on behalf of the supposed “majority” of Vanderbilt students. I do not know the current death toll but that does not mean I do not care. I know it’s a lot of people. I know they are real people. Also, I bet a lot of people are affected by this war that you do not know of. I’m sure a lot of people in our class and in our university have a family member or friend or even acquaintance fighting in the war.

    However, on the topic of this class and blog post, I think genetic engineering is a different situation. As an American citizen I personally did not have a say in deciding whether or not the US should go to war. The war in Iraq was not my decision or the collective decision of our society. However, taking an organ from someone (or something) else for myself, is a different story. I would not take organs from clone because I do not think it is right. That is my decision. I do not support mass genocide, the war in Iraq and countless other travesties but that doesn’t mean I can personally raise my hand and stop them from happening. Your post eliminates the option for personal choice.

    You say: “If I had to guess, I would say over 98% of Vanderbilt undergraduates would take a new set of lungs from the clone. But that’s not why Vanderbilt makes me sad. After all, I admitted I would be a part of that vast majority. What makes me sad is that I would guess that less than 50% (and that’s me being generous) would admit they would.”

    Again, I think your post is very though provoking. I think it was pretty brave. However, I think you should give your study body a bit more credit. We are not all selfish and dishonest individuals.

    • Thanks for reading my post and raising some valid questions about it.

      I am sure many members of our community are affected by this war. That is why I put “most of” in front of all comments about Vanderbilt’s apathy towards the soldiers. If I didn’t in some place, please point it out to me so I can fix it as it was not my intention to overlook those with family or friends in the military. Obviously, there is nothing scientific about my claims. I am going off of my observations and conversations during my three years here.

      I’ll ask a question of you. If it isn’t because they don’t care, then why are people uninformed about the Iraq War? It’s not like it takes a massive amount of effort to go read the free copies of the New York Times in the dining hall or access countless news websites. That lack of effort is directly linked to a lack of caring. How many hours on Facebook a week do students here spend? How many hours do they spend reading/watching the news?

      I would argue The Iraq War is a “collective decision of our society” as it was made by publicly elected officials but that is an argument for another time.

      My main argument is not that the student body is selfish. I’m saying that we seem to pick and chose when to use our morals and conscience–meaning we are human. However, what makes Vanderbilt different, at least for me, is that when I hear students discuss hypothetical situations, they always pick what would be considered “the right thing” to do. Of course I would like to think if I was in a situation to prevent genocide, I would stand up and do the right thing. However, if it meant my death or the death of my family, it seems I am clearly not as confident in my ability to do so as many on campus. I’d like to think that is because I am more honest with myself and also because I have always studied history with the belief that it is somewhat arrogant to assume that people from others times and countries are–or were–morally inferior to myself but perhaps it is because I am a coward. Who knows?

      Maybe you would let the six year old daughter in my scenario die. But just as you could not raise your hand to stop genocide or the Iraq War, you could not raise your hand to stop clone organ donation. No doubt any such program would be government sanctioned–just like the Iraq War. Your daughter would die and then the organ would just be harvested to go to someone else. Perhaps doing the “right” thing would be solace enough for you but I know it would not be for me.

  3. You seem to have caused quite a stir. I think its a manner of out of sight, out of mind. We are aware (maybe only vaguely) of the situations going on around the world, but that doesn’t mean that we have any less compassion for individuals who are less fortunate or in situations like war. We can’t literally put ourselves in their shoes. Its easy to forget about those individuals that are half a world away, but its much different to stare in the eyes of someone (to know them and see them live) and want them dead for our own gain.

  4. Sorry, very late reply on this one, but I just signed up, and I’m studying philosphy :)

    Personally, I would take the donor organ, but only because the wrong doing has already been done and not using it would be a pointless waste. I am personally not against cloning, but to clone a human being just to harvest would be morally repugnant. If cloning ever becomes a norm, then the resultant humans would have to have the same rights as any other human.
    So yes, I would take the organ, and then do everything in my power to stop further clones being harvested.

    The brave soldiers serving across the globe today have chosen to serve. They for the most part realise that they will at times be put into dangerous situations. The rights and wrongs of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are another moral question entirely.

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