On the road, so here is a classic post from not too long ago.
The appalling Julian Savulescu1 is back, this time staining the pages of the British edition of Reader’s Digest2 with the piece The Maverick: “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies”.
Savulescu is a bio-ethicist and is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics. The credential for being a bio-ethicist appears to be the ability to claim that one is a bio-ethicist. I thus am a fully qualified bio-ethicist. So today I offer these peer criticisms.
Here is the opening salvo of my colleague’s argument:
We’re in the middle of a genetic revolution. We now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes, and it’s quickly becoming possible to test for more and more of these genes in embryos…
Fancy a child who’s likely to be altruistic? Then look for a version of the COMT gene. Want them to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships? Avoid a variant of AVPR1A. Steer clear of a certain type of the MA0A gene, too—it’s linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation…
The errors are many, blush-worthy, and horrible. We do not know that “most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes” and it is irresponsible, unprofessional, or through vast ignorance to say that we do know.
What we suspect is that some genes are associated with some behaviors. The association is statistical and subject to various levels of variability. Experiments with very limited numbers of volunteers show for some behaviors that people who exhibit a specific behavior, or that fail to exhibit another, either have in greater proportion or do not have in greater proportion certain genes, than do those others in the experiment who behave oppositely. Having a certain gene or genes does not necessarily mean a person will exhibit, or fail to exhibit, a behavior. And having a certain gene or genes does not mean a person, even if he exhibits a behavior, will do so to the same extent that others with that gene or genes will.
Here in the United States there is are certain genes positively associated with crime, particularly violent crime. That is, a group of people sporting a certain gene combination commit proportionally far more crime than those lacking these genes. This association is strong, much stronger than the correlation between altruism and the COMT gene; the statistical evidence is indisputable. Savulescu’s argument is that those who, in the womb, display these genes should be aborted. Who but a leftist academic could get away with making arguments like this publicly? The strains of Spike Jones’s Der Fuehrer’s Face float by: “Are we not the super men? Aryan fuhrer super men? Ja, we ist the super men. Super-duper super men.”
Finally, if your baby is discovered to have “a version of the COMT gene” it does not mean that he will necessarily be altruistic. He may well grow up to be a cad. And if has a different version of the COMT gene, he may well be just as altruistic as any Medal of Honor recipient. These obvious truths escaped Savulescu’s attention.
If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring—rather than consigning them to the natural lottery—then we should. Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?
Here Savulescu blunders as badly as any freshman: It does not follow that if we have the power to do a thing that we should therefore do it. Here is David Stove from his On Enlightenment, giving an introductory course on morals that Savulescu apparently skipped:
It does not follow, from something’s being morally wrong, that it ought to be removed. It does not follow that it would be morally preferable if that thing did not exist. It does not even follow that we have any moral obligation to try to remove it. X might be wrong, yet every alternative to X be as wrong as X is, or more wrong. It might be that even any attempt to remove X is as wrong as X is, or more so. It might be that every alternative to X, and any attempt to remove X, though not itself wrong, inevitably has effects which are as wrong as X, or worse. The inference fails yet again if (as most philosophers believe) “ought” implies “can.” For in that case there are at least some evils, namely the necessary evils, which no one can have any obligation to remove.
Savulescu’s more blatant error is to say that by killing your child, after having discovered it has or lacks certain genes, is giving it “the best opportunity for a great life.” Killing your child gives it no opportunity for life at all. Instead, to state what should be obvious but is not, at least to Savulescu, killing the child removes all its opportunity. And this is still true if per impossible you believe that an unborn child is not a human being: because, of course, this unborn-child-which-is-not-a-human-being is at least still alive, and killing it removes all its opportunities.
He continues with the same error: “A critical question to ask when considering whether to screen for some gene is: will it benefit the unborn child?” [bold original]. The only benefit to the unborn child would be to discover a malady and then to either correct that malady or to warn the child of it when he reaches an age of comprehension. For example, suppose there really is a cluster of genes that increases the chance a person, if they chose to drink to excess, would become a drunk. If we screened for these genes, we could warn the child against willfully drinking to excess: a positive benefit. But killing the baby in the womb is not a benefit to it: it is killing it.
It may not be entirely clear-cut as to whether it’s better to be lazy or hardworking, say, or monogamous or polygamous. But there are certain capacities that are good to have no matter what one wants to do in life—an excellent memory, for instance, or greater empathy with other people.
A hot temper can land you in prison and destroy a life forever. If it were possible to genetically select good impulse control, we should do so.
Let me hasten to agree with Savulescu where he is right. It is good to be altruistic. It is good to be faithful and monogamous. It is good to “enjoy stable relationships” and to possess an excellent memory. It is bad to engage in wanton violence and to give in to a hot temper. These are universal goods and evils. Behaviors which are moral truths, truths which we can know and agree upon. It is heartening to hear that an academic state these truths.
But it simply does not follow that locating a gene or genes for “hot temper” should cause a parent to kill the unborn child who tests positive for the gene or these genes.
Savulescu then attempts to calm our fears:
Much of the unease about designer babies comes from the work of the 20th-century eugenics movement. It tried to use selective breeding to weed out criminals, the insane and the poor, based on the false belief that such conditions were caused only by genetic disorders. It reached its inglorious climax when the Nazis moved beyond sterilisation to exterminate the “genetically unfit”.
His implication was that scientists of yore guessed incorrectly that the unfit’s unfitness stemmed from poor genes, but that modern-day scientists would not make such foolish mistakes. We have already seen this is false: having a (selfish) gene does not make one a slave to it. And we have already seen the horrific implications of assuming it is a duty to weed out bad genes.
Savelscu does not (now) call for the state to impose mandatory testing and killing of the unfit, when “genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society”: he merely wants to “allow parents the choice.” To fail to exercise this “choice” is to “consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.”
He takes this argument to its fullest reaches:
Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and dispositions to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others. That doesn’t necessarily imply that people should be coerced into making a choice, but we should encourage them.
Moral obligation, says the professor. An obligation which doesn’t necessarily imply that people should be coerced into killing their unborn children, but an obligation which, if English words take their common meaning, might imply that people should be coerced into killing unborn children not meeting the tests of purity devised by the repulsive and frightening Savelscu.
His last embarrassing flub is to suggest genetic engineering is new. It is ancient. Some cultures, discovering upon its birth a child not passing a test of purity would expose that child, i.e. murder it. Interestingly, these cultures were too squeamish to, say, punch holes in the newborn’s skull and drain out its little gray cells. They instead pretended to act like the child went off on its own accord. It wasn’t they that killed the child, it was the elements. With the rise of Christianity, this barbarism ceased. With the waning of the same, and with the assistance of evil men like Savulescu, this barbarism has returned; but instead of cold, weathered cliffs we have moved inside the warm and comfortable offices of Planned Parenthood.
2The same issue in the States is devoted to jokes. Such as: I once saw a dead dear by the side of the road. I ran home, put on a Santa suit, and then lay down beside the deer—just in time for a school bus to drive by. A candidate for moral engineering, there.