Needed: A Eugenics Program for Public Policies

You’ve likely come across the notion that a society that rejects a governing morality will require laws to fill the void. Well, have you noticed that those whose societal aspirations run against the grain of traditional morality are often quick to treat all objections — even mere expressions of concern — as if they are arguments for government restrictions? Two nights ago, for example, I posted a response to John Derbyshire’s thoughts on eugenics in which I did not presume to suggest how the tricky circumstances of the future ought to be handled, and somehow I’ve apparently taken a leadership role in a movement to ban “genetic-intervention procedures.”
As much as I’m kindly inclined toward some of those who make such arguments, it seems to me that there’s a petulantly played rhetorical trick involved. Paraphrasing: “You have moral objections to eugenics? You’re going to be isolated on this one. Good luck making it illegal! And if you do, good luck hunting down those who seek treatments in other countries! I’ll choose freedom, you autocratic moralist!”
There’s some irony in the fact that my leading concern was that government involvement in eugenics is inevitable to the extent that the technology is successful. It’s mighty big of Mr. Derbyshire to accept “a permanent underclass [as] the price of liberty” — as if he’ll be the one paying it — but there are surely not enough voters of similar mind to make Derbyshire’s acceptance more than just symbolic. The post of his to which I initially responded treated “***STATE-SPONSORED*** eugenics programs” as a legitimate concern, and my point has been that such programs will have too much moral and practical gravity for state sponsorship to remain in distant orbit.
I’d also note that I don’t use “underclass” as a marker of moral stain on a society (as do liberals), but as an actual and threatening category within that society. I would, in fact, concede that we would have a moral responsibility to help those whose families are under threat of perpetual deficiency, but there would also be a strong public interest case to be made for doing so. Arguably, those unable to afford, or comprehend the benefit of, eugenic technology are precisely those whose children require it most — and with respect to whose children society would benefit from it most. More extremely, would Derbyshire be willing to pay the price of liberty if it were the underclass’s violent rejection of a system that is rapidly and inexorably locking them out? And once the public interest is ceded in such a matter, we’ve opened the door to creeping micromanagement.
That is not to say that I believe invidious government involvement to be the only peril of eugenics; as a society, we ought to fully vet various other aspects before advancing, or choosing not to do so (a process that is not well served by quick resort to heated anti-theocrat rhetoric). Consider an argument of which Derbyshire and others seem fond: that “the ordinary kind of mate selection we humans have been engaging in for the past 100,000 years” is not substantially different from eugenics. One needn’t delve into the various ways of differentiating between the two to unearth a difficulty: Characterizing mating (for most intents and purposes, marriage) in these terms, it’s possible to see divorce as the remedy for errors in judgment. What would be the remedy when parents feel they’ve erred in concocting their children’s qualities? If we’re in the realm of consumer freedoms, how do we translate the well-understood concepts of returns, exchanges, and customer service? Would government involvement be justifiable — even necessary — in that area?
As is observable in the comments to my previous post, proponents of science’s march into the realm of science fiction aren’t shy about acknowledging the possibility of unintended consequences… and passing them right by. Morality serves a purpose, however, and through discussion of its implications, we can address unpleasant complexities before we rush headlong into the brier patch.
In his own follow-up to John Derbyshire, Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

It is nice to see Derbyshire setting aside his admonitions against attempting to apply logic to human affairs, even if he is only setting them aside selectively. (That’s why he’s in a stand-off with Justin Katz. Derbyshire suggests that it’s pointless for Katz to raise objections to eugenics, since people are going to practice it whatever he says. When Katz points out that people are going to practice it collectively, too, Derbyshire falls back on . . . the force of the arguments he will make when that day comes.)

Here’s the relevant paragraph from Derbyshire:

Speaking as a small-government conservative, I’d like to think that we—we, the people—are able, through our democratic process, to deny the invention of bogus “rights” and new kinds of government transfer payments. I would certainly agree we have not been very successful at such denying in recent years. That, however, is a negative phenomenon that I deplore. To premiss public policy on the worst expectations of our political processes is to abandon all hope. If some technological advance leads to demands for new “rights,” let’s resist those demands, as conservatives should. That’s what we’re here for. That’s one of the fights we fight.

Perhaps I’m stabbing at subtleties, but I’m not so sure that Derbyshire believes that his future arguments will have much practical force. If memory serves, he sees these battles more as categorical necessities for conservatives than as strategies for optimal outcomes. In short, unless I’m misreading him, all he’s really pledged is his intention to voice futile opposition.

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Marc Comtois
17 years ago

FYI, National Review Online has seen fit to move the Eugenics debate to its own webspace, “Out of the Corner.”

Gerald Hibbs
17 years ago

Howdy Justin, I get your concern re: genetic engineering. After all, that is what we are talking about. Eugenics is just, to appropriate Jonah Goldberg’s argument, the word you use to tar something you don’t like with negative connotations. It seems to me that there are two objections to genetic engineering: 1. Unintended consequences. 2. “Invidious government involvement” especially should the government begin to fund genetic engineering for poor people. As to point one — Genetically engineering your offspring is not going to begin as a widespread industry used my many people. Like all new technologies it is going to be used primarily by rich people. It will only be used by these rich people, most likely fairly intelligent otherwise they wouldn’t be so wealthy, once science demonstrates its capabilities to such an extent that they can be reasonably certain of the outcome. Do you really think the privileged are going to put their children at inordinate risk merely for the chance at superficial gains? For this next point I will admit that my understanding is limited so I may be talking out my behind, but I do understand the basics of science and this science in particular. The science as it stands is based on comparing people’s genes and determining what genes influence what. When we get to actually modifying the genes of babies it is not going to be random guesses. Genetic modifications are going to be based on the fact that their already exists human beings with these same genes (the prototype if you will) with a certain observable outcome. Only after a large number of people have genetically engineered with positive outcomes will the technology gain common acceptance. Large numbers of people will not initially attempt it until science has demonstrated repeatable success in animals. And… Read more »

Justin Katz
17 years ago

Regarding “eugenics” as a term to tar the practice, I’ve merely been following the language with which Derbyshire began the discussion.
As for your examination of unintended consequences, I would argue that we needn’t create “monsters” for the concern to be valid. For one thing, parents won’t be cloning those ideal children; they’ll be copying what might be termed “quality segments,” while attempting to keep as much of their original natures as possible. I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that there could be balances — struck by God and/via evolution — that we would miss. And this is all “before new creations will be attempted,” at which point, the same danger increases exponentially.
But it seems to me that you’ve narrowed the meaning of unintended consequences so much as to leave out a substantial range of concerns: the effects on society — even human nature itself. As science makes its way down the economic scale — for one single example of an unintended consequence — the gulf between rich and poor will expand. Enter the government (perhaps justifiably) to prevent such a large segment of society from falling shy of escape velocity, perhaps dictating the qualities that children must have. And this only addresses the generally well-intentioned United States. Once we’ve perfected the techniques (or, likely, before), they will begin to become available for other nations and entities.
Let your imagination go wild; evil doesn’t RSVP under its own name.

Marc Comtois
17 years ago

…it will be many years before new creations will be attempted. In early years the focus will be on switching the same switches in the same configuration that existing human beings already have.
I wouldn’t be too sure about “new creations.” Some scientists are raising a red flags:

Could there be forbidden sequences in the genome – ones so harmful that they are not compatible with life? One group of researchers thinks so. Unlike most genome sequencing projects which set out to search for genes that are conserved within and between species, their goal is to identify “primes”: DNA sequences and chains of amino acids so dangerous to life that they do not exist.
“It’s like looking for a needle that’s not actually in the haystack,” says Greg Hampikian, professor of genetics at Boise State University in Idaho, who is leading the project. “There must be some DNA or protein sequences that are not compatible with life, perhaps because they bind some essential cellular component, for example, and have therefore been selected out of circulation. There may also be some that are lethal in some species, but not others. We’re looking for those sequences.”

Now, yes, you can argue that such research would obviously make it possible to avoid programming those malicious codes into our progeny…but, again, when do we know if we’ve found ’em all?

Gerald Hibbs
17 years ago

“But it seems to me that you’ve narrowed the meaning of unintended consequences so much as to leave out a substantial range of concerns: the effects on society — even human nature itself.” – emphasis mine Pardon me for attempting to mind read, but it seems to be that this is your true concern. Over at the Speculist back when he had the “God and the Singularity” survey I addressed this concern and agree that it is indeed a worry. “The big question is will the Singularity allow human beings to overcome human nature. As a Christian theist my definition of human nature is based around a fundamental principle: humans are inherently flawed and are fallen creatures (yes, including/especially me.) As such we must take this into account and look for the unintended consequences of what otherwise seems to be good news. The simplest and most frightening example is the concern that an Army of Davids will have a twisted David whose unparalleled power and freedom culminates in the desire to exterminate humanity with a bio-warfare sling. It further follows that humans will NOT be able to reverse this situation and achieve perfection, even post Singularity. In thirty years I fully expect to walk down the street and see people who have morphed their physical beings into truly amazing and seemingly non-human configurations. But try as they might, they will still have their human soul with all the good and bad that comes with it. I’m not going to start quoting Scripture, but a central theme of the Bible is the hubris of mankind (the Tower of Babel springs to mind.) Thus, my final questions: I firmly believe that physical frailties will be reduced. I believe we have evidence that medicine can treat/ameliorate mental frailty and no doubt even more… Read more »

Justin Katz
17 years ago

I intend to respond more thoroughly later, but I can’t resist responding to one of my favorite points of evidence in brave-new-worldists:

Humans have always muddled through and the payoff for all of these wonderful technologies has always been worth the price. They’ve all lead to this moment where we have the richest, healthiest, most literate world population in history and the future looks even brighter. . .assuming we can keep dodging all the doomsday bullets we already have going.

Putting aside the fact that you leave no room for discussion of the post-death disposition of the souls of the inhabitants of the “richest, healthiest, most literate world,” you also assume quite a bit on whether we dodge doomsday bullets. Arguably, the doomsday bullets are becoming more insidious. While nuclear technology meant that the world might be obliterated, genetic engineering could change our very natures such that we cease to be human and (if you’re a theist), cease to be capable of ultimately finding our way to God.
But here’s my response to my favorite points of evidence of technological progressivists: Imagine the worst possible outcome of any given policy/technology — whether, for you, it be total annihilation or an all-but-impossible chance of entering Heaven. If all of the muddling has led to that ultimate end, then it was fundamentally not “worth the price.”

17 years ago

Cool site. Thank you!

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