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7.8.05

Birth Control And Cloning

Elizabeth Anderson has been writing a series of posts arguing that freedom as non-domination (being free of the arbitrary will of others -- in Fiskean terms, the lack of Authority Ranking relationships) is as, if not more, important than the more common conception of freedom as access to a large set of options. In her latest post, she illustrates the contrast with an analogy to a bridge:

It's worse, from the perspective of freedom, to be deprived of a critical opportunity by the arbitrary exercise of another's will, than to lack it due to natural causes or lack of technological development. It's worse to be unable to cross an unnavigable river because others arbitrarily forbid one from using the bridge, than because the technology for building a bridge at that point is lacking. In the first case, one lives in a state of subjection to others; in the second, one is merely technologically poor.


She then goes on to derive from this concept the princple of common carriers, which says that people offering a public service (e.g. bus companies) may not discriminate between customers. She then applies this principle to the question of religious pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control. By refusing to dispense birth control, a pharmacist is exercising arbitrary domination over a woman -- and access to a more helpful pharmacist at another store isn't a solution, as the possibility of domination, not merely its actual use, is sufficient to infringe on freedom.

While the common carrier principle seems to capture something important, there are a variety of criticisms that could be made of it as it stands -- for example, why does it not apply on the buyer's side as well, thus prohibiting boycotts? Isn't the possibility of going out of business altogether dominating as well? Nevertheless, I'm going to focus here on the validity of her distinction between restrictions based on another's will, and restrictions based on natural or technological limits. I think the boundary between those two types of restrictions is far fuzzier than it appears at first glance.

To maintain the distinction, one must adopt a relatively naive view of how technological progress is made, in order to make technological restrictions politically and morally innocent. One could assume that science is advancing as rapidly as possible, and focusing on the most important questions. Or one could assume that advances are wholely dependent on unpredictable flashes of genius.

In reality, though, scientific advance is in a large part due to social choices. Governments, research institutions, and individual scientists make countless decisions, based on various social criteria, about what research to fund and carry out. It seems that these decisions can be just as much a source of domination as direct denials of existing technology. Imagine sitting by Anderson's river, with a bunch of engineers who -- because of some irrational prejudice against you -- refuse to do the necessary calculations to come up with a bridge design that would allow you to cross.

In the birth control example, while I don't know the history, I would be very surprised if there weren't a number of people who could have researched birth control, but declined to because they thought contraception is immoral. The fact that one research team eventually did come up with a formula is no more consolation, in Anderson's schema, than the fact that a woman turned down at CVS could get her prescription filled at Walgreen's.

As it happens, today we face a similar dilemma: cloning. There are numerous people who would like to take advantage of cloning technology. However, there are numerous bans and proposed bans that would stifle the research necessary to make human cloning possible. These bans are justified on the same sort of basis that allowing pharmacists to refuse to give out birth control is -- a moral objection to how the technology could, or would, be used. By the common carrier principle, it's impermissible for research labs to refrain from researching cloning.

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