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