Is Eugenics Inevitable?

This post from Daniel MacArthur at Genetic Future raises some interesting questions:

The argument is straightforward: allowing a child to be born with a disease that will result in a lifetime of suffering and premature death, when a simple screening test could prevent it, is completely morally equivalent to allowing a child to die of infection when effective antibiotics are freely available.

As genetic technologies and moral perceptions thereof mature, it seems very likely that most of the population will see failing to screen and remove any serious illness as child abuse. Looking further forward, I can easily imagine that refusing to enhance one’s children will be viewed with similar disdain: relying on the natural genetic lottery will be seen as reckless when it is easy to guarantee high intelligence and a cheerful disposition.

Radical new medical technologies always provoke a backlash before being accepted – anaesthesia is an interesting example. Some hold-outs will always cling to the old ways of doing things, and these people will often be treated as villains when it comes to the welfare of their children. Christian Scientists are the obvious example today: strong norms and state intervention make it very hard for them to live their preferred life. Under democracy, activities generally become crimes as the median voter comes to see them as seriously immoral.    

This is a bit of a problem for those transhumanists who insist that human enhancement will be entirely voluntary, with bioluddites free to live out their limited existence without interference. At the very least there will be severe social pressure to enhance one’s children, and it is very likely that the state will mandate some minimal level of genetic care. As capabilities change so do the standards of care we feel we owe our children.  If you refuse to enhance your child’s cognition in the future, you may be the object of as much revulsion as those who refuse to educate their children today. Assuming government continues to behave much as it does today, some sort of regulation here seems inevitable.  

As a libertarian, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about all this. One the one hand, I am very suspicious of strong norms, and even more so of government intervention, which exclude certain visions of the good life from decent society: people are often bigoted and extend their own value judgements onto others too easily, especially in the political sphere.  On the other hand, encouraging or forcing parents to enhance their children will improve the capabilities of future generations, giving them a better life. I think it is morally wrong to seriously limit your child’s abilities below those you can feasibly give them. I don’t like it when the state gets involved in such things, because I trust parents to look after their children much better than the state. This raises the problem of thick versus thin libertarianism, and the tension between tolerance and autonomy in liberalism more generally.

Will state involvement in parents’ genetic choices lead us back to classical eugenics? The original justification might be different – the welfare of the child rather than the strength of the nation – but the outcome may be very similar. If a liberal state with the power to mandate genetic efforts to enhance the autonomy of a child becomes illiberal, its potential for tyranny will be greatly enhanced by new genetic technologies. If, as I have suggested, the state is likely to get involved in human enhancement, libertarian transhumanists need to think very carefully about whether new technologies are on balance a good thing. 

One Response

  1. […] to read the whole thing, but here’s one part which makes the point I’ve been trying to get at recently: This ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment’s insistence that […]

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