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Why not hybrid embryos?
By Thom Brooks

Recently, British MP’s voted to allow the creation of hybrid embryos for medical research. These embryos would be 99.9% “human” but 0.1% “cow” or “rabbit” — the animal element is simply the use of animal eggs, from which animal DNA is extracted, human DNA implanted, the “hybrid” embryo is then given an electric shock, and then stem cells harvested for use in research. All matter must be destroyed within 14 days. (Q&A on hybrid embryos can be found here.)

This move has been highly controversial for several reasons. Some of these reasons include the following:

1. It is morally wrong to mix human and animal DNA in this way.

This first reason is perhaps the primary reason behind opposition to this legislation. There are several problems with this argument.

First, what do we mean by “morally wrong”? It is easy to claim a position is “morally wrong”; it is difficult to prove a position is morally wrong in a compelling way. That is, deontologists and consequentialists can agree on many ethical issues, but they will not agree on all ethical issues. Who then decides? We would have to see the best arguments on both sides in order to see which view should prevail. It is no use to say that x is “morally wrong” without a full account of morality, not least as there are many different camps and what is wrong (and right) is not self evident.

Secondly, that a view is morally wrong may be insufficient to demonstrate that the view should not be adopted politically. Politics is not reducible to morality, even if we may be tempted to believe that politics should aspire to embodying certain moral norms. Thus, again, some argue that politics and morality should be strongly interconnected and that one view of a religious tradition should be the source of this morality. This religious view will take a stand on what is morally wrong and, yet, many may reasonably object as they may hold different religious views (or no religious views) with reasonable views on moral wrongness nevertheless. That a view contrasts sharply with common understandings of justice may be an important reason to disapprove politically of a practice, but it is one reason amongst many others.

2. This move justifies a controversial position that has little proven benefit.

Opponents claim that proponents are reaching to the stars too hastily and that the latter talk often and loudly about the many dramatic scientific advances that will become possible without demonstrating that these advances are likely. In response, we might say simply that there does not seem compelling reasons to think that greater research on stem cells would not lead to benefits. Perhaps the benefits will come in small steps over a longer than anticipated time. But why think no benefits will come at all?


In the end, I am broadly supportive of this legislation. I do not see any problems morally and believe it may well be an excellent decision politically, not least as it offers a genuine endorsement of the work by medical scientists at the country’s universities to carry on pioneering work at Newcastle’s medical school and others. It will now be interesting to see what advances do come about . . .

Needless to say, I would be very interested to learn what readers think.


  1. 1. Posted by David Killoren | May 22, 2008 5:17 pm

    I also support this sort of thing (although I don’t know much about this particular legislation) but I’m confused by several parts of this post.

    a. You say (in (1)) that “There are several problems with this argument.” What argument? No argument is provided for our consideration; it looks to me as though what you’ve got is a bare conclusion unsupported by any argument. (Are we supposed to have found the argument in one of the links?)

    b. “It is no use to say that x is “morally wrong” without a full account of morality…” This is not at all obvious to me! Does anyone anywhere have a full account of morality? I think not — but we all seem to go around making moral judgments anyway.

    c. “… not least as there are many different camps and what is wrong (and right) is not self evident.” Again, this isn’t obviously true (to me).

    d. You say “that a view is morally wrong may be insufficient to demonstrate that the view should not be adopted politically.” What does it mean for a view to be “morally wrong”? But I think I get the point here: I think you mean that the fact that an action is morally wrong does not, by itself, tell us anything about what the law should be. If that’s your point, it seems true.

  2. 2. Posted by Thom Brooks | May 22, 2008 7:38 pm

    Many thanks for your helpful rejoinders, David. I do not think we disagree. On your points:

    (a) The argument is found in the link, as you suspect. It is also recorded in the MP’s debates in the House of Commons.

    (b) By “full account of morality,” I do not want to suggest we must have a fully worked view of morality. Instead, my language is too loose. Rather, my claim is that to claim “x is morally wrong” is question-begging. That some action, etc. is morally wrong is rarely, if ever, obvious. I am claiming that some of those against the legislation thought it was obvious that hybrid embryos were immoral.

    (c) I am only claiming that those who state that hybrid embryos are morally wrong are mistaken to think it is obvious: the position requires more argument from them, not us, as it is they who are trying to convince us these embryos are immoral. I am asking the question of how we might know this.

    (d) You understand me correctly: an old fashioned positivist view of law (e.g., law and morality are not inextricably bound).

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