The Ethics of Cloning

HUMAN CLONING is viewed in theological and philosophical circles as a predominately ethical issue. The arguments against human cloning in these discussions generally focus on three criteria which cloning advocates seemingly fail to take into consideration. These criteria or principles are: a) moderation; b) the setting of limits; and c) the sovereignty of the individual, often referred to as “the entity as a whole”.


When debating how modern civilizations differ from the civilizations of ancient Babylon, Egypt Persia, India, China, Greece, and the Maya and Aztec civilizations, or with those of mediaeval Christendom and Islam, there are many points at which one may give accurate and truthful answers. But certainly, to arrive at the appropriate answers, one must agree beforehand on the criteria by which the comparison between modern and ancient or mediaeval civilizations is to be made.

If we start from the criterion of moderation, which the religions of all these ancient civilizations taught, it is clear that in ancient times the maxim of moderation in all things protected not only nature from the onslaughts of humankind, but humanity as well. The philosophers and men of religion who founded the Axial Age Socrates, Buddha, Confucious and others – incorporated into their teachings certain interdictions beginning with “Do not” and “Thou shalt not”. This “Do not” advises us to be circumspect in regards to our actions. The human races has experienced incomparably greater misfortune as the result of human action; far greater misfortune than has resulted from mankinds inaction. More human tears have been shed as a result of the malignant uses of human knowledge than from the inaction of ignorance.”

There can be no criterion of moderation without interdiction. It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that the cultures and religions of ancient times were based primarily upon commandments forbidding humankind to act in certain ways. The Bible and the Qur’an have their Commandments, most of them interdictions. People knew, of course, that this “Thou shalt not” did not belittle the human being, but rather they affirmed human dignity by positing in Mankind a unique and moral rectitude on this earth, raising him above the mineral, plant and animal worlds, and even above the spirit realms which religion calls angels, demons and jinns.

The heavens forbade the mineral, plant and animal worlds nothing, nor, eo ipso, were they commanded as humankind is commanded. These worlds, or what we call nature, live out the balance that is bestowed on them – indeed, they are balance itself.

The way God maintains that balance in nature often seems harsh or cruel to us. Animals eat one another, plants come to life and burgeon Ln spring but with the relentless onset of autumn, die and decay. Population explosions among locusts bring corresponding increases in the .flocks of birds that feed on them. We see in all this how the world of nature is intrinsically pleasing to God, however obscure or puzzling lhe way He has ordained it may seem to our minds, and however little sense we may be able to make of earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, or destructive tornados. There is no human court that can put God or nature on trial for the ravages wrought by natural disasters. However horrifyingly powerful the technology we now possess may be, our most effective response to an ordinary earthquake is still our humble prayers to God.

And yet, these events in the world of nature which are so, impenetrable to our minds, are but the incessant manifestation of natural equilibrium. It is we, as human beings, alone who are able to inflict deliberate disorder on the mineral, plant and animal worlds.

As a result, humankind must be commanded to observe balance and moderation, for we are not merely beings of necessity and nature, but beings of freedom and culture. In short, the heavens have sought to bridle us with endless constraints. We are not merely natural beings; a mere part of the natural environment; we are spiritual or cosmic beings. And this means that we are beings with immense potential for both good and evil in addition to that which is ethically neutral. It is no doubt because of this human potential, because of these multiple relationships between humankind and the world, that we have been hedged about with so many religious interdictions. They stand before us, preceding our views, our actions and our thoughts, as warnings and cautions.

To put it in the vernacular, all these religious and ethical systems, rights and laws are there, in our human world, to constrain us from behaving the way lhe birds behave with the locusts, the lion with the antelope, the wolf with the sheep.

Today’s condemnation of human cloning by religious communities the world over is based above all on the ancient tradition of moderation. Human cloning is an assault on human dignity. Cloning is seen as a guerilla war being waged by the scientific, amoral and irresponsible technological mind against human nature. Human cloning is going too far, and present-day theological writings see it as a kind of rebellion against the Divine order into which His creatures are born.

Modern theology asserts that the religions of the ancients affirmed men and women as universal beings, but the universe of religious commandments posits the simplistic reductionism of human universality as somethng both contradictory and dangerous. The infinite starry heavens above us call to us, inviting us to embark on the path of the Unknown and Distant, but the moral law within us warns us that we may not take every path, may not use every means to attain the Beyond.

In this context, the aspiration to clone living beings, to clone humans, is a direct betrayal of the criterion of moderation.2


Here we come to the criterion of limits, the bounds that the moral law within us warns us of, whenever we permit it to do so. The great religion all count on that moral threshold within us. The main message of those ancient teachings, before and after what cultural anthropology calls the dawn of civilization, is to arouse in us a cognition of the bounds, of measure, of an unquestionable moral axiom. In the Islamic tradition there is extensive literature on the limits (hudud) that we may not transgress.

If we recite a Biblical or Qur’anic commandment like “Thou shalt honor thy father and mother”, or a prohibition, such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – it awakens in us a sense of limits, of the fact that a parent is an inviolable boundary to the child and the child to the parent.

If a mother were to become her son’s wife, or a father his daughter’s husband, this would be to go beyond the bounds. When a man turns into a woman, or a woman into a man, this too is to exceed the bounds. Sexual intercourse between man and man, or woman and woman, also breaches the limit. This awareness of such bounds has passed from religious teachings into the legislation of many stales. All the features of morality that lie in our civil and secular laws and codices owe their origins to religion.

It is a given then, that in exercising our relative freedom, we may not only transgress those religious prohibitions and go beyond the bounds, but also break the laws of the state. Human cloning, and the cloning of other living beings, is clearly a violation of many bounds. It is nothing new for humankind to exceed the limits – many are the individuals or civilizations who have done so. Going beyond the limits is what religion caUs sin. While the laws of state and society regard murder as a crime, for religion it is a cardinal sin.3 All the prescriptions, interdictions and commandments of religion, all the laws of the state, are designed to restrict and bring order into the spheres of human freedom and human knowledge. Unconstrained human freedom and irresponsible human knowledge lead to the verge of chaos – what could be better evidence of this than the various horrific weapons. These bombs and other weapons of mass destruction are the consequence of human knowledge^ irresponsibly used – not of ignorance.

Human cloning, as many theological and philosophical writings on the subjuct note, is a violation of the limits set by God. Theologians and philosophers who are opposed to cloning ask simple questions such as: Who is the mother of the clone? Who is its father? Is a cloned person deprived of the mystery of natural creation and spontaneity? Do we have the right, by cloning someone, to deprive him or her of the distinctiveness that is the result of creation?

In short, do we have the right to copy someone’s face, that miraculous mirror in which our soul is reflected, and through which that soul regards all the wonders of this world. That face we each have is so unique, so utterly ours. It is the seal of God, the Divine warrant of our authenticity, a guarantee that we are not a copy or a counterfeit; it is the warrant that He has created us as a unique entity, thereby dedicating to us a Divine Universality, the Universality of His Mercy which he bestowed upon us at the moment of our creation.

Will cloning, which is copying, desecrate the symbol and miracle of the unique, unrepeatable nature of every human individual? What kind of a world would it be that seeks to deprive us of the right to have our own unique face, recognizable and visible through which we may express our own distinctive, incomparable joy and laughter, our own wistful glance?

God creates; God does not copy. God is One, but all that He creates, He creates differently. God never repeats Himself. v

Modern theological and philosophical treatises claim that the abolition or violation of a single fundamental limit will lead to the abolition of thousands of other limits. Byway of example, when modern science first made surrogate motherhood possible, a limit was breached, but it did not stop at this one. In its wake, barrier after barrier fell. Surrogate motherhood bears with it an unresolvable ethical and religious question for the child born of such an experiment: the woman who gave birth to it is not its mother, but the mother whose egg conceived it did not give birth to it.

The problem is not, then, that surrogate motherhood has resolved a problem, but rather, that it has given rise to a dozen new ones.

Modern theologians believe this and – with good reason – resolutely reject cloning while warning us of the limits that must not be transgressed. But why do we need to be reminded of these limits?

Probably because we are faced with many broad paths, far broader than any other creature. While religion claimed that these paths may be safely trodden only by those whose provisions for the journey include an inviolable respect for the limits, the technological age has made us chafe against those limits. The technological spirit celebrates Prometheus and his theft of fire from God. At the height of the technological age (as the twentieth century is known), when more than fifty million people were killed in two world wars alone, Karl Jaspers, prompted by a sense of responsibility in his philosophical thought, developed the doctrine of the human being in extremis – situations at the boundary. Birth is a boundary, sex – being born as male or female – is a boundary, being born rather than cloned is a boundary, language is a boundary, disease is a boundary, corporeality is a boundary, spirituality is a boundary, death is a boundary. It is a boundary, an extreme situation, that we have our own, not someone else’s face and person, and that we share this with no one else.

Karl Jaspers, in his doctrine of extreme situations in human existence, is clear: there is and can be no technology that is able in a moral fashion to transcend or abolish these boundaries of humanity.


The acquisition of an awareness of and respect for the limits enables us to recognize the criterion of moderation, which is extremely important. The criteria of moderation and of the limits are closely related to that of separate entity. The human individual, a bird, a blade of grass, an earthworm: all these are separate entities, individual examples of the whole. But every being experiences its separate entity within another, wider whole. The human being is not an autonomous entity. We are still somehow connected with the multiplicity of things known and unknown, joined by countless umbilical cords that can never be severed, linking us to visible and invisible entities. We breathe the air, are able to walk thanks to the solidity of the world, draw our nourishment from animals and plants, and so on. It is as though our separate human entities, like our human destiny, were articulated into the entities and destinies that surround us like a myriad concentric circles. This is how things are when we consider them in their outward aspects.

But an entity, or being, also has its inner aspects. Theologians and philosophers who oppose cloning claim that the Divine act of creation takes place through the creation of an entity, not by copying it or creating a partial entity. A grain of wheat is an entity, an ant is an entity, a bird is an entity, a human being is an entity. Creation is always the creation of an entity. It is impossible to give birth just to a heart, or a pair of lungs, or other organs required for transplant.

True, there are attempts to ascribe humane intentions to cloning, with assertions that by cloning or copying we shaU obtain what we need – a heart, kidneys, a knee-joint or whatever. And to obtain the part, we need to clone the whole, since the only way to get the part is to take it from that whole which makes it possible.

Theologians are unanimous in their view that if cloning succeeds, it will raise a whole range of ethical, legal and moral issues. It is a deprivation of mother, father, kindred; a deprivation of what we call the soul, the self, the individual view of the infinity of the heavens. Whatever the outcome of cloning may be on the entity, the ban on killing it to obtain the organs that some say it will offer, will still stand.

Cloning is yet another attempt to use technology to escape death or, if that is impossible, to defer it Cloning is an attempt by technology to steal from God the mystery of creation, so that we might laugh at eternity without experiencing death.

A short verse from the Qur’anic Sura al-Najm (The Star: 24) states this rather succintly:

Does man imagine that it is his due to have all that he might wish for?

World religions promise us eternity, but at a price. The price of eternity is – in spite of Mankind’s wishes – non-negotiable and not subject to change. The price of eternity is death.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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