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.