Why not hybrid embryos?

Recently, British MP’s voted to allow the creation of hybrid embryos for medical research. These embryos would be 99.9% “human” but 0.1% “cow” or “rabbit” — the animal element is simply the use of animal eggs, from which animal DNA is extracted, human DNA implanted, the “hybrid” embryo is then given an electric shock, and then stem cells harvested for use in research. All matter must be destroyed within 14 days. (Q&A on hybrid embryos can be found here.)

This move has been highly controversial for several reasons. Some of these reasons include the following:

1. It is morally wrong to mix human and animal DNA in this way.

This first reason is perhaps the primary reason behind opposition to this legislation. There are several problems with this argument.

First, what do we mean by “morally wrong”? It is easy to claim a position is “morally wrong”; it is difficult to prove a position is morally wrong in a compelling way. That is, deontologists and consequentialists can agree on many ethical issues, but they will not agree on all ethical issues. Who then decides? We would have to see the best arguments on both sides in order to see which view should prevail. It is no use to say that x is “morally wrong” without a full account of morality, not least as there are many different camps and what is wrong (and right) is not self evident.

Secondly, that a view is morally wrong may be insufficient to demonstrate that the view should not be adopted politically. Politics is not reducible to morality, even if we may be tempted to believe that politics should aspire to embodying certain moral norms. Thus, again, some argue that politics and morality should be strongly interconnected and that one view of a religious tradition should be the source of this morality. This religious view will take a stand on what is morally wrong and, yet, many may reasonably object as they may hold different religious views (or no religious views) with reasonable views on moral wrongness nevertheless. That a view contrasts sharply with common understandings of justice may be an important reason to disapprove politically of a practice, but it is one reason amongst many others.

2. This move justifies a controversial position that has little proven benefit.

Opponents claim that proponents are reaching to the stars too hastily and that the latter talk often and loudly about the many dramatic scientific advances that will become possible without demonstrating that these advances are likely. In response, we might say simply that there does not seem compelling reasons to think that greater research on stem cells would not lead to benefits. Perhaps the benefits will come in small steps over a longer than anticipated time. But why think no benefits will come at all?


In the end, I am broadly supportive of this legislation. I do not see any problems morally and believe it may well be an excellent decision politically, not least as it offers a genuine endorsement of the work by medical scientists at the country’s universities to carry on pioneering work at Newcastle’s medical school and others. It will now be interesting to see what advances do come about . . .

Needless to say, I would be very interested to learn what readers think.

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About Thom Brooks

Thom Brooks is Reader in Law at Durham University.
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4 Responses to Why not hybrid embryos?

  1. I think it’s fine, because I don’t think there are any good grounds for morally disqualifying it.

    But I worry about your sweeping response, e.g. claiming that we could never legitimately raise moral objections “without a full account of morality”. The appropriate defence of hybrid embyonic research had better not carry over to, e.g., also defending Nazi-style experimentation. Our answer to that had better not wait on settling all questions of normative ethical theory!

    Also, I guess the moral value of symbolically “carry[ing] on pioneering work at Newcastle’s medical school” is not entirely clear to me. Even if there’s something to be said for offering a “genuine endorsement” of medical research, it seems like this would be the least important reason to favour the policy, compared to the non-symbolic benefits. (Or am I missing something?)

  2. Andrew Jason Cohen says:

    So far as I can tell, the reactions Thom indicates here are fairly normal. People frequently say things like “its not natural! … its immoral!” as if the latter follows from the former.

  3. Thom Brooks says:


    Many thanks for your helpful comments. On your two points:

    (1) Perhaps I should have said “a more robust picture of morality” rather than “a full account of morality.” You are absolutely correct to say that we need not require a complete moral theory that can address all moral questions. However, we need to know more than “well, it is just immoral” and what the grounds are for this view. What makes the view immoral (e.g., immorality based upon what standard)? This seems sorely lacking.

    (2) There are a handful of medical schools in the UK, including Newcastle’s medical school, that are permitted to perform cloning. This new legislation opens the doors to more schools engaging in related research. I agree this is the least important reason to support the new legislation. This is why I did not discuss it under either of the two main headings, but a brief comment in the conclusion to end the post.


    This is absolutely correct: the fact that hybrid embryos of this sort are being created in a laboratory alone is supposed to lead necessarily to the “fact” that the creation of hybrid embryos are “immoral.” This seems a real jump lacking justification, at least as the argument stands. This is all I sought to highlight, as you capture better than I!

  4. Two points. First, in regard to Andrew’s comment, I would add that it’s not just the case that there are missing steps in the argument from “not natural” to “immoral”, but that we lack a conception of “natural” that can do normative work of this kind. There are a number of conceptions of “natural” that sometimes arise in conversations about morality. Roughly,

    – the “occurrent conception” – x is natural if and only if it exists in the world or universe.

    – the “nonhuman conception” – x is natural if and only if x exists and is not the product of human activity (taking place at some specified level of technological development).

    – the “theological conception” – x is natural if and only if it is what our creator intends or desires or permits.

    – the “teleological conception” – x is natural if and only if it is the statistically normal development or result of something that is natural.

    Here are some problems for these conceptions when we try to make the link between “not natural” and “immoral” or “impermissible”:

    The occurent conception is either too permissive or too restrictive, perhaps depending on whether you are an A-theorist or a B-theorist about time. On the A-theory, nothing new was ever permitted. Obviously, that is too strict. Or on the B-theory, all actions that take place in the history of the universe are permitted. Obviously, that is too permissive.

    The nonhuman conception either rules out too much as immoral, such as shelter, aspirin, and heart surgery, or risks setting the bar for non-natural technology arbitrarily (see Bostrom’ and Ord’s “Reversal Test” piece).

    The theological conception faces interpretive questions (which god or gods? what exactly does this god or gods want?) and more fundamental challenges from atheists, Euthyphro, and panspermists, not to mention (at the political level), political liberals.

    The teleological conception has to ultimately piggyback on one of the other conceptions, which is problematic enough.

    Of course, this is a very quick and incomplete account, still, I don’t think “natural” can do the argumentative work many people expect it can. I’d be interested in hearing from those who disagree.

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