Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Mary Warnock’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture



            Baroness Mary Warnock is known to philosophers mainly for the books Ethics Since 1900, Existentialism, Imagination, The Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (1998), An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (2004), and Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics. She has taught in the Oxford and Cambridge women's colleges Lady Margaret Hall, St. Hugh's College, and Girton College. She is known to the wider world for public service having to do with reasoned committee reports bearing her name on human embryos, euthanasia, education, and animal experimentation. It has been said, by me, truly, that she gives the great and the good a good name.


            What is natural and what isn't? What is unnatural or against nature? And what follows from the answer about what is to be done?


            There have been religiously inclined conceptions of nature, in the case of Prince Charles connected with organic farming. It has been opined that we need always to go with the grain of nature. There have also been politically or indeed morally inclined conceptions in the case of reactions on behalf of Indian peasants and other reactios to genetically modified non-replicating and otherwise objectionable seeds. The philosophically respected German metaphysician Heidegger, who did not ever reject his Nazi past or at any rate connections, objected to the technology that commodifies what should instead be our dwelling in nature. Bernard Williams also concerned himself with an intrinsic good of nature. There have also been our widely shared and indeed common ideas and feelings about nature of a Romantic kind -- vernal woods and our experience and poetry of them.


            It is Warnock's inclination to ask for more in objections having to do with the unnatural in connection with developments in science and technology. She remarks that we need to depend not on principles of sensibility, for example, but on principles of sense. We need these principles with respect to dark anticipations at the present time that are like earlier anticipations that had to do with Hiroshima and the discovery of DNA. We need to think more about human reproductive cloning in particular. We need to think more in our new situation that began with the cloning of Dolly the sheep.


            Put aside what is quite different, therapeutic cloning, in short a use of cells in treatment. Perhaps instructively, not much objection to this having to do with the unnatural is made -- unnatural in some sense though it obviously is. What are we to think about human reproductive cloning? It wouldn't be natural in any sense that comes to mind quickly, would it, for a child to come into the world by non-sexual means? A child, that is, who as a result of biotechnology, inherits its makeup from only one person rather than two, a child having a genetic inheritance from only that one person.


            Suppose that you do agree -- do give the natural answer in some sense -- that the fact of the child's having only one parent in the given sense wouldn't be natural in some sense. Is that a moral argument against it? That is the principal particular question considered in the lecture. It is an impressively reflective instance of the genre of applied ethics, which began to have that name in about 1982.


            If this question of morality or more clearly of right and wrong can be introduced by way of considerations of legality, it is as certainly different from legality, as needs to be asserted regularly. One thing is easy enough about this reproductive cloning. In the foreseeable future of science, this will be wrong. It will be wrong on the simple and great ground of risks to the cloned child -- clear enough just on the small facts of the life of Dolly the sheep, who had things wrong with her.


            But suppose the day comes when there are not those risks. Can we now say that human cloning will still be wrong on the ground of being unnatural? There are weak considerations here, one being that the cloned child would be being denied a human right to personal identity. There is the stronger consideration of possible consequences with respect to the general good or bad of the society, anticipated in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.


            It is argued by Mary Warnock, with respect to whether any cloned child would suffer, that here too an answer must be speculative. It is remarked by her that we would in a way be being natural in taking benefit from the cloning researchers, who like all of us are part of human nature. You will need to consider for yourself her philosophically judicious words.


            Is it the gravamen of the lecture that considerations of the natural are in serious thinking unlikely to outweigh or even be challenges to a reflective and contentful principle of right and wrong? You could look into the question by way of what was mentioned earlier, that intelligent person's guide to ethics.