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In his engagingly titled book, What’s Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton argued that his fellow citizens could not repair the defects of the family because they had no ideal for which to aim. Neither the Tory (Gudge) nor the Socialist (Hudge) viewed the family as sacred or had an image of what the family at its best might be.

The Tory says he wants to preserve family life in Cindertown; the Socialist very reasonably points out to him that in Cindertown at present there isn’t any family life to preserve. But Hudge, the Socialist, in his turn, is highly vague and mysterious about whether he would preserve the family life if there were any; or whether he will try to restore it where it has disappeared. . . . The Tory sometimes talks as if he wanted to tighten the domestic bonds that do not exist; the Socialist as if he wanted to loosen the bonds that do not bind anybody. The question we all want to ask of both of them is the original ideal question, “Do you want to keep the family at all?”

Without moral ideals a society cannot shape much of a common life. And sometimes one moral ideal—isolated and taken by itself—can undermine all others. For us the language of compassion—perhaps the stench of Christian, or at least Protestant, moralism—has done just that.

Feeling it necessary to “affirm” every person in whatever state he or she may be, we find it difficult to state and adhere to any standard of conduct. To articulate such an ideal might seem too much like condemning those who do not meet it. A recent illustration of this truth grows out of our society’s ongoing discussion of human cloning.

In December of 1997 Laurence Tribe weighed in with some “Second Thoughts on Cloning” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. In years past when cloning had been discussed, Tribe says, he had “leaned toward prohibition as the safest course.” But now he has started to change his mind. In part, it seems, this is because he has begun to realize that the arguments against cloning, were he to accept them, might also commit him to other positions he is unwilling to adopt. Indeed, he might have to get off the train of the sexual revolution. For to worry about the way in which cloning separates the making of babies from the sexual relation of a man and woman might lead to other worries: about surrogate motherhood, gay marriage and adoption, about the many “unconventional ways of linking erotic attachment, romantic commitment, genetic replication, gestational mothering, and the joys and responsibilities of child rearing.”

These are all questions worthy of our reflection, but more interesting to me here is Tribe’s principal reason for concern. It is inevitable, he suggests, that sooner or later a human being will be cloned. Restrictions, even prohibitions, will be bypassed, the line we have drawn in thought will be transgressed in practice, and we will be confronted with the clone of a human being. What then? How will we react?

If we have condemned and banned cloning, and the prohibited deed has nonetheless been done, we may, Tribe fears, think of the clone as an “outcast.” We will have produced beings whose existence we will “have chosen to label as a misfortune and, in essence, to condemn.” We will be on our way to a caste system in which some persons are “marginalized as not fully human.” In effect, therefore, by setting ourselves firmly against (the inevitable) cloning, we are creating circumstances that will invite a failure of compassion in the future.

This is a form of argument that has become quite common in our society. Indeed, we can see an instance of it in an example Tribe himself gives to buttress his point. Consider, he suggests, how children of unmarried parents were once “stigmatized” as “illegitimate.” The ideal we held—that children should be born to a man and woman who are married—invited less than compassionate reactions when that ideal was violated. It has, Tribe suggests, been a long struggle to overcome this reaction and learn compassion in such cases. What he does not note, of course, is that this long struggle has helped to undercut the ideal, and in so doing has helped to created a world in which children are worse off than they were when the ideal held sway.

Compassion, taken alone and severed from deeper, richer understandings of our nature and destiny, kills morality. Taken as the sole moral principle it undercuts our ability to articulate an ideal for human life. That is surely true of Tribe’s angle of vision on cloning. In order to assure that we do not risk making any person feel marginalized, we are suddenly forbidden to condemn what seems wrong to us. We are unable any longer to raise and discuss questions about what the nature of a cloned person would in fact be, what it means to be human, whether the bond between the generations created by ordinary human reproduction is integral to our humanity.

Tribe is not wrong to fear that cloning threatens human equality. As one made by us rather than one who comes from us, the clone would be a product rather than a gift. And when we make products, we determine their point and purpose. True compassion should draw us away from such circumstances, away from actions that might create cases metaphysically too baffling for our morality to address. But Tribe, as with the instance of removing the stigma from illegitimacy, purchases equality by means of a compassion that is the only moral law, and that makes for too shriveled and truncated a morality.

We ought, of course, to care as best we can for those who are victimized or marginalized in our society. But when we hesitate to pass judgment it should not be because we fear that moral ideals will, by their very existence, make those who fall short feel condemned. That is a dead end, if there ever was one. Bereft of any larger sense of the human good, unable to articulate (lest we hurt feelings) what is best in human life and what the family at its best might be, we will—if we follow Tribe’s prescription—lurch from one affirmation to the next until even the language of compassion finally loses its point. That is the possibility about which we ought to have second thoughts and which might remind us, in Chesterton’s words, of “the importance of an ideal.”

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.