Eu_Neek: Or, Is There a Right to Be Unique?

Or how to argue and how not to argue for new human rights (See dark blue font below.)

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised: November 21, 2011

Dramatis Personae

Eunice Neek, a student opposed to cloning of human beings. Her (fictional) personal email address is

Olivia, a fellow student. She is an ethical objectivist, who believes that there are really are objective moral standards, but we have to inquire to find out what they are.

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Olivia. Hi, Eunice, I hear you spoke up in Ethics class against cloning of human beings.

Eunice. I did, Olivia, I think cloning would violate human rights.

O. What right in particular, Eunice?

E. The right to be unique.

O. Did I hear you correctly--the right to be unique?

E. You did. That's a basic human right.

O. Why does this right not appear in any of the many documents on human rights that I've looked at in my search for objective moral truth?

E. I suppose it's importance has only become clear recently. This issue of human cloning forces us to take another look at ourselves and try to say carefully what is really important in human life.

O. So you admit that this is a rather novel "right"?

E. I don't know of other debates in which it has played a major role.

O. How does human cloning violate this supposed right to be unique?

E. It makes genetic copies of people. If one human is a clone of another, then she is identical to the other, and so not unique.

O. And this is a bad thing?

E. Yes, it violates the right to be unique.

O. I don't find that persuasive. And here's why: You--and some others opposed to human cloning-- seem to have invented this right precisely to oppose human cloning. That's not the way the ethical tradition treats rights. We don't say, "I'm opposed to this radically new proposal; therefore I am going to recognize--or should I say invent?--a right that has never been recognized before in order to cite it as a reason against the new proposal."

E. Can't we introduce new rights, ever?

O. If we do, we need to make them plausible by showing how they are very similar to rights that are already recognized, how they protect values that are similar to values that other, familiar, generally accepted rights protect.

E. Can you give me an example of this kind of argument.

O. Yes. I can. Many people are arguing that there is a general human right to safe, drinkable water. This has been in general discussion only in the two decades. It was not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by most nations in 1948.

E. Yes, I don't remember reading about it there.

O. Even so, this right is similar to the right to a subsistence level of food or a modest level of health care, already recognized by many people (though not all). Arguably, it merely makes explicit what is already implicit in a basic right to subsistence. (Take a look at Article 25 of the Universal Declaration.)

E. I remember reading that article.

O. Good. Well, I fail to see how the right to be unique is similar to any right that has had widespread recognition in the past.

E. Don't we have a right to pursue happiness, and doesn't that mean that we can pursue it however we choose?

O. So long as we don't violate other persons' rights, perhaps.

E. And we can choose to "do it my way," that is, uniquely.

O. Yes, we are permitted to "do it our ways." But if this way is unique, not like anybody else's way, it is a way chosen by the individual, not something we are entitled to receive at conception. You seem to understand the right to be unique to mean unique at conception. Your right to be unique has nothing to do with freedom of choice in the political or religious sense.

E. I see your point.

O. And there's something else. The so-called right to pursue happiness, which includes freedom to worship as one pleases, or to engage in philosophical inquiry as one pleases, also includes the right not to be unique.

E. What do you mean?

O. It includes the right to join or remain in a group where everybody wears the same style of clothing, reads exactly the same holy books, takes exactly the same classes, and subscribes to exactly the same doctrines (so far as each person can understand what those doctrines are supposed to be).

E. I don't know why anybody would want to join such a group, but I guess there are a few people like that.

O. Do you think other opponents of human cloning accept that there is a right to be unique?

E. I'm pretty sure that many of them do.

O. Then you seem to belong to a group of people who think alike. You are hardly unique in such a group.

E. Well, at least my DNA is unique to me.

O. OK, getting back to genetic or biological uniqueness. How about identical twins? Aren't they genetically identical, as clones would be?

E. I guess so.

O. Have their rights been violated? Should one of them have been aborted just to prevent identical twins?

E. No, of course not.

O. But are you saying there's something really valuable about being genetically unique?

E. I am at least saying that.

O. So identical twins are deprived of something really valuable?

E. Er, I suppose so.

O. What if I told you that identical twins often value being identical twins-having an identical twin is a relatively rare occurrence, but it enables a really close friendship to be formed between the siblings, and many such twins value it, and wouldn't trade it if they could.

E. I guess that makes sense.

O. And have you ever thought about whether a person is summed up in her genes? I mean, don't we also get part of our identity from our experiences? Even if we are identical twins or clones, our experiences are going to be somewhat different. A twin doesn't always go everywhere that her twin goes. They will have different names, which will place them at different points in class rolls and similar lists. One might be a cheerleader and the other active in Drama Club. They don't have to attend the same churches when they are adults. They can go to different colleges. They can learn different foreign languages.

E. I guess you're right about that.

O. So being a twin doesn't make you identical in every respect to your twin. For the same reason being a human clone would not make you identical in every respect to the original from which you are cloned.

E. I guess this makes sense.

O. Then being a clone does not deprive you of distinguishing characteristics, nor does it deprive you of uniqueness if that's what you want.

E. I see your point.

O. So cloning does not violate the right to be unique, if there is such a right. Frankly, I don't think there is any cogent justification for believing in such a right.

E. I still think that human cloning is wrong.

O. It may be wrong, but to prove it is wrong opponents of human cloning will likely need other arguments than one based on a supposed human right to be unique. Perhaps we should be concerned about the fact that cloning can produce a large number of genetically identical individuals--humans, plants, or animals, because it might reduce the biodiversity so necessary for healthy ecological systems. But notice that this argument, as stated, does not apply only to human cloning, and it does not apply to cases in which just a small number of clones are produced.

E. I'll have to give this some more thought. Thanks, Olivia, it's been enlightening talking with you.