The Ethics of Individual Eugenics

Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring.  After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20’s and 30’s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not.  Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:

Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.

From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not.  I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.

Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding.  We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself.  In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good.  It stands to reason.  That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.

Morality exists because it evolved.  Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause.  Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved.  Specifically,  morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.

Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions.  Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one.  How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat?  His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method.  By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition.  Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins.  If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins.  If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win.  Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.

And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter.  Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim.  My whim is to survive.  It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival.  As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role.  Many of the intellectuals of the 20’s and 30’s believed in the perfectibility of the state.  They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism.  We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.

One thought on “The Ethics of Individual Eugenics”

  1. The driving engine of natural selection is variation between individuals. This was Darwin’s critical insight. Natural selection selects between variations. No variation means no evolution. This central principle of evolutionary theory means that if human brains were as functionally identical on the genetic level as posited by the blank-slate model, then our brains could have never evolved in the first place!

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