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Liberal Eugenics: An Argument For Human Enhancement

Professor Julie Shapiro at Related Topics has another interesting blog post, this time about how modern technology is allowing us to practice a form of eugenics. In this entry, Professor Shapiro cites to a Robert Sparrow article taking to task John Harris and Julian Savulescu for advancing an argument that promotes human enhancement based upon moral imperatives. I have just begun reading this fascinating article and I recommend it to anyone interested in the concept of new eugenics. The article by Mr. Sparrow can be found a this link.

I will have some thoughts on this article soon. However, in the meantime, I thought I would whet your appetite with two passages from Mr. Sparrow’s paper which appears in a Hastings Center Report (41, no. 1 (2011): 32-42):

However, in so far as these are decisions about worlds with different sorts of people—and different amounts of happiness—in them, consequentialism can deal with them with ease. Thus, for instance, a consequentialist approach quickly generates what is—for most people—intuitively the right answer when we are considering decisions about whether or not to use PGD so as to prevent the birth of children with severe disabilities.5 It is difficult indeed not to think that parents who are at risk of conceiving a child with a serious genetic disorder and who are offered a choice to use PGD to identify and select against embryos suffering from this disorder do something wrong if they fail to make use of the technology. A compelling analogy can be made between this case and a case where parties have the option of remedying an environmental hazard to which their child is exposed that would result in the same outcome. In both cases, the outcome of parental inaction is a child born with a serious disability. Yet, the latter case is “person affecting” where is the former is not. Because decisions about whether or not to use PGD (and about which embryo to select if we do choose to use it) do not harm or benefit any individual, non-consequentialist approaches struggle to explain why we have any reason to select the healthy embryo using PGD.

Consequentialism, on the other hand, implies that we should select a healthy child for the same reason as we would act to prevent harm to an existing child—in order to minimise the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world. To the extent that we do think that parents have strong reasons to act so as to avoid the birth of children with severe disabilities, this suggests that consequentialism has a crucial role to play in determining the ethics of decisions about what sort of people there should be. However, as both Harris (2007, 8-9) and Savulescu (2006a; 2001, 419) have pointed out, a concern with the amount of happiness in the world suggests that we should not be content with reducing suffering and unhappiness. Instead, consequentialism suggests that we should act so as to increase the amount of happiness—or perhaps welfare—in the world. Thus, once we adopt a consequentialist perspective, the argument for enhancement follows straightforwardly. As Harris puts it, if something is an enhancement, that means that it is of benefit to individuals. We should act so as to promote the well-being of individuals. Therefore, we should pursue enhancements (Harris, 2007, 9, 185). There is, perhaps, some room to argue about the possibility that certain enhancements, despite being good for those who enjoy them, will generate “negative externalities” and will impose a cost on the rest of society, especially where enhancements are only available to those with the capacity to pay for them themselves. Indeed, I will suggest below that this is both much more likely and much more significant than either Harris or Savulescu acknowledge. However, such concerns will at most establish a case against particular enhancements; they are unlikely to rule out enhancements per se. Thus, while there may be reasons to be cautious about some sorts of enhancements, the distinction between therapy and enhancement itself is morally irrelevant and we should, for the same reason as we pursue therapies, pursue enhancements…..

The champions of the “new” eugenics are understandably anxious to dissociate themselves from the eugenic movements of the 20s and 30s. A close reading of Harris and Savulescu’s work, however, suggests that these two authors, at least, are less successful at distancing themselves from the old eugenics than they suppose. If parents did act on the obligation that Harris and Savulescu champion then the result would be a world eerily similar to that dreamed of by previous generations of eugenicists. According to their accounts, in any given society parents should all aim to have the same sort of child, where the nature of this “best baby” is properly sensitive to the prevailing bigotry of the times. Harris and Savulescu’s philosophy also implies that right thinking people should engage in social campaigns to influence the reproductive decision-making of other citizens and encourage them to live up to their procreative obligations. Moreover, despite Harris and Savulescu’s gestures towards respect for individual freedom, their arguments place this freedom at the mercy of a calculation about consequences, which is a poor guarantor indeed that the state will not be justified in coercing parents to have particular sorts of children for the sake of maximising welfare. In short, while the avowed motivations of the new eugenics may be new, the world its advocates would bring about turns out to be not all that different to that championed by the old eugenics.


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