Poll: 84% Don’t Have a Clue What “Ethical” Means

Was Norman Bates unethical or sentimental? Well..wait, WHAT?

OK, that was a somewhat misleading headline. According to a poll run by ABC News, 84% of the public thinks that cloning dead pets is unethical. But since there is absolutely nothing unethical about cloning dead pets, I think the headline above is accurate. Well, maybe 84% accurate.

The story is over at Sodahead, which is dedicated to dumb polls. The analysis of the poll, if one can call it analysis, is almost totally bereft of anything remotely connected with ethics or ethical theory. In a previous poll on the subject, Sodahead asked those polled to choose whether the practice was “unethical” or “sentimental”, which is a choice akin to, “Do you like baseball, or can you swim?” Of course cloning a pet is sentimental—why else would someone do it? Who came up with the boneheaded idea that sentimental and unethical were mutually exclusive? Norman Bates dressing up as his beloved mother and killing people was sentimental, but I’d also say it was less than ethical.

In the first poll, the “unethical” choice read, “Unethical: it affects the animals’ welfare.” What the heck does THAT mean? “Affecting” welfare is unethical? What “animals'”welfare? The animal being cloned? That animal is dead…you can’t affect its welfare. The new clone? Well, that animal is now alive, which from the animal’s point of view is a lot better than not existing at all….I’d call that affecting the animal’s welfare positively. Other animals? How does what someone does to one dead animal “affect” the welfare of any other animal? What the heck are these people talking about?

In its semi-articulate commentary on the second poll, Sodahead says that cloning pets is “a little creepy.” I’ll buy that—it reminds me of “Pet Semetery,” or “Frankenweenie” (look it up!), but that’s just the Ick Factor, which regular readers of Ethics Alarms know well. Technologies and practices that are new and strange often are labelled unethical because they seem “icky”, when there is nothing unethical there at all. Much of the opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in the Ick Factor. The only “ethical” arguments cited in the article, if you can call them arguments, are

  • “There are so many animals in shelters who need homes.”
  •  “The price people are paying is an exorbitant amount of money to spend on pseudo-nostalgia. It could be put to better use.”

The first of these is a non sequitur: the pet owners want their old pet back, not a new one. If they want a new one, nothing is stopping them from going to a shelter and cloning the dead pet too. Are people who use the first argument claiming that every citizen who doesn’t adopt a pet from a shelter is unethical? Why not say they have to adopt  two pets? Why not ten? Nobody is ethically obligated to adopt a shelter dog or cat, whether their hobby is cloning dead parakeets or not.

The second argument has even less to do with ethics, though it is not surprising that liberals were fond of it. The translation of this particular arrogance is, “It’s ethical to use money on things I think are important, and unethical to use it on things you think are important, when the money could be used the way I would use it.”  Who decides what use is “better”? If a cloned pet keeps my Grandma from sliding into depression and death, how dare these people  tell me that I should give the money to Occupy Wall Street, the United Way, or NORML?

Does cloning pets violate the Golden Rule? Gee, let me think…would I like my dog to clone me if I died? Frankly, I don’t care, though I suspect he’d make a mess of it and the clone would have hair or a tail or something. I’d still be dead; the clone doesn’t do me any good at all. Are there absolute ethical principles that cloning pets violate? Unless Kant wisely inveighed against cloning Pomeranians in some boring tome I skipped in Philosophy 101, I don’t know of any. Is cloning a dead pet a utilitarian offense? Well, I guess it might be if your pet was  evil, like Muttley, the snickering pooch in “Wacky Racers,”  Cujo, the Hound of the Baskervilles,  that damn lab down the street that keeps pooping on my lawn, or those two nasty Siamese cats in “Lady and the Tramp,” but in most cases there’s no utilitarian trade-offs involved at all. Who or what is harmed? Even the foolishly spent money presumably helps someone—it pays the salaries of cloning technicians and allows weird-techology companies to stay in business, making  sure that Ted Williams’ head doesn’t thaw prematurely.

The poll, in short, misrepresents what ethics is, and then pulls a lot of confused people into accepting the misconception. By no rational calculation is doing something that harms nobody at all unethical, nor does that fact that someone could accomplish something more productive with the same resources make conduct ethically deficient.

Spending a lot of money to clone a dead pet is, in the end, just stupid.

But then, so are most polls.

5 thoughts on “Poll: 84% Don’t Have a Clue What “Ethical” Means

  1. Not that I agree with what I’m about to say, but since you brought up Kant:

    Cloning a pet could easily be seen as violating the most famous formulation of the categorical imperative. You said it was nostalgia, which is a form of trying to live in the past. And you can’t will that to be a universal maxim. And I would be apt to interpret cloning a pet as a refusal to accept reality (your pet is dead), which you also can’t will to be a universal maxim. Therefore, it is unethical to clone a pet.

    • Good try, but this crashes on the definitions of “your pet” and “dead.” Who says that a grieving pet owner wants the dead pet back (there’s that “Pet Semetary” again! DON’T DO IT!!!!)—he or she just wants the closest thing to it. It’s all along a spectrum:

      1. Dead pet rotting and on a leash
      2. Dead pet stuffed with a tape recorded bark
      3. Resurrected dead pet from Indian burial ground (comes back evil)
      4. Cloned dead pet
      5. Litter mate of dead pet
      6. Same breed of dead pet, with same name and collar.

      Except for #3, the pet is still dead.

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