>At the policy level we will need global bans on altering the genes we pass
>on to our children, and on reproductive human cloning. We'll also need
>effective, accountable systems for regulating human genetic technologies
>that may have some beneficent uses but could be dangerously abused.
I confess that I have no idea what the Extropian line is on this,
but I find it profoundly frightening. What is being suggested here
is none other than a new eugenics programme, not unlike the eugenics
programmes of earlier decades, in which control of human
reproduction is taken by the state. The only difference is that
whereas we can see that what was done in the past was wrong (well,
some of us can...) the current trend towards state eugenics
programmes appears to have as much support now as the old programmes
did in *their* day. What will be next? Strict regulations about who
may reproduce with whom, based on their "rationally-determined" idea
of what would be best? Presumably not, but even so, this sort of
regulation is the same sort of thing as that. Let individuals act
upon their own best theories and take responsibility for their own
actions, let knowledge evolve, don't impede the growth of knowledge
by introducing yet more regulations, let alone global bans!
Here is an excerpt of a transcript of a keynote I gave last year,
which touches on this:
You may think that infringing your children's autonomy is a
necessary evil. But -- *don't* think it doesn't hurt them: that way
lies madness. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that
anyone *intends* to harm their children. We all love our children
and want what's best for them. We so much want to help them that we
sometimes feel compelled to take the decision out of their hands,
because we can't bear to think of them suffering as a result of
their mistake. But when we do that, we're infringing their autonomy
and doing them wrong.
We have to remember that we're fallible human beings.
When you and your child disagree, you may feel quite certain that
you are right. But -- think about it -- that's exactly how you'd
feel if, in fact, you were wrong. So your feeling *doesn't* give
you authority, any more than it would give your bank manager
authority over your money [this is a reference to something I had
You may have more knowledge and experience; but so does your bank
If it's so obvious that you are right in those cases -- then why on
earth can't you persuade your own child of that? As the philosopher
William Godwin wrote, 'If a thing be really good, it can be shown to
be such. If you cannot demonstrate its excellence, it may well be
suspected that you are no proper judge of it.'
Let's look at some of the reasons parents give for overriding their
children's wishes. But I want to look at this obliquely. These
justifications are so familiar in the context of parenting and
education that it's very hard question them. So I'll consider the
*same* arguments, but in a slightly *different* context, to show why
they don't make sense. Let's start with *good intentions*. We all
have them, don't we! -- even those who force their children to go to
military school -- but do good intentions make our actions right?
Between 1934 and 1976, the Swedish government forcibly sterilised
62,000 people as part of a eugenics programme. The victims were
deemed to be flawed. Some had scored low on IQ tests. Some had poor
eyesight. Some were 'of gypsy appearance'! Some were young boys
found to be <GASP> 'sexually precocious'! Some were sterilised
because they were considered inferior parents (lucky I wasn't a
parent at the time -- no doubt they would have had me under the
knife before you could say *Untermensch*!) One priest had a young
girl sterilised because she hadn't learnt her confirmation lessons
BUT WERE THEIR INTENTIONS GOOD?
Yes! Bear in mind that at the time, eugenics was a mainstream view.
Among educated people, virtually everyone subscribed to it in one
form or another. In the 1930s, people thought that denying people
the ability to have children was 'scientific', just like people
*now* justify denying their children access to television on the
basis of so-called 'science'. The Swedish authorities expected the
outcome of the scheme to be *a better world*. And they were using
the very best 'scientific' knowledge available at the time about
*how* to make it a better world. They thought they were helping
those they sterilised *too*, because an inferior person, who has
inferior children would have an inferior life.
Of course, many of the victims didn't *agree*. They didn't think
that they should be sterilised. But their opinions didn't count. The
authorities thought they were doing it for the best, but with
hindsight we can see that they were wrong. Are you wondering why I'm
going on about all this? Are you thinking that nowadays we *know*
that gypsies are not inferior, and so on -- so none of this could
happen now? If so, you are missing the point.
A woman who was sterilised in Canada under a similar programme, in
the 1950s, was recently awarded $750,000 compensation. A newspaper
recently reported that 'An IQ test later showed that she was *of
normal intelligence*.' Would it have been fine to sterilise her if
her IQ had been less than normal?! You see why that's missing the
A decent attitude to human beings requires that *whether a person
gets sterilised or not* does* not* depend on *your* opinion of
whether he'd be better off sterilised -- but only on his!
You can have an opinion; you can inform him of it; sometimes you
even have a duty to. But that's where your duty, and your right,
ends. *If he disagrees* there is nowhere you can get the right to
By now, I hope, you can see what this Swedish history lesson has to
do with parents and children. You don't reach the truth by forcing
your will on other people.
What applies to sterilisation applies to everything else in life
too. So what *should* we judge a proposed course of action by, if
not by our good intentions or the intended outcome? What about
judging it by its *actual* outcome?
'It never did me any harm', some English people say, to justify
subjecting their children to the unbearable boredom, bullying, and
buggery of the traditional boarding school. Well one has to wonder
about such people. They seem to be in a pretty bad way to me! [But
seriously], you can't know in advance what the actual outcome will
be, can you? (Or are you claiming to be omniscient like God? )
More importantly, *by whose standards* are you judging the actual
outcome? By the standards of the person involved, at the time?
If that's really so, then, as William Godwin pointed out, you must
be able to persuade the person that you're right. Or are you judging
the outcome by the person's standards *after* the event?
For example, an English parent might ignore little Winston's cries
and send him off to boarding school. And by the time he is released
from that 'vile servitude', Winston Churchill might be grateful to
his parents for having forced him to go. Does that justify their
If a parent *beats* a child, and the child grows up and endorses the
beating and does the same to her children, do you think *that*
justifies the action? If so, then you would also justify lobotomy,
or *any* cynical manipulation of the mind or brain that would leave
the victim docile at the end of it!
Who should decide what will count as 'good' or 'bad' in a person's
Suppose you rob Captain Scott of his ship to prevent him exploring
Antarctica; or you rob Marie Curie of her pitchblende so she can't
discover radium. You may save their *lives* and so achieve a 'good'
end by *your* standards. But you do it by destroying what *they*
think their lives are *for*, and thereby commit an unforgivable
crime against them (and as it happens, in those cases, against
humanity too). Destroying other people's aspirations and life's
dreams just to make *you* feel good is the epitome of immorality. As
the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said, it's *immoral* to treat a
person as a means to an end rather than as an end in *himself*.
So how *should* we behave towards other people?
Well, part of the answer is, an action won't be morally wrong if
everyone involved genuinely *agrees* to it. Because if they all
think it the best course of action, *then*, if it *is* a mistake,
it's *their* mistake as well.
It's *perfectly legal and moral* to sterilise people by the tens of
thousands. As long as they want you to. But it's perfectly *ill*egal
and *imm*oral to sterilise even one person if she doesn't want you
to. Incidentally, notice how the very same act can be a wonderful
thing when it's *voluntary*, but an *absolute obscenity* when it's
involuntary. Another example is sexual intercourse. It's rape when
involuntary. This distinction holds for *everything*. Medical
treatment saves lives every day, yet it's illegal to perform *any*
medical procedure on an unwilling patient for their own good. Unless
they're a child of course. *Then* it's perfectly *legal* -- but is
Is it right for us to override children's wishes?
What if, for all our *good intentions* and our *reasonable
expectations*, we are *wrong* --just like the Swedish government
was wrong, for all *its* good intentions and reasonable
So the Swedes made a mistake. So what? We all make mistakes and they
were doing their best!
If you're a heart surgeon, you might, in an attempt to save a
patient's life, do a risky operation with their genuine, informed,
agreement. They might die as a result. That does not mean you did
anything wrong. (Unless the death was caused by a scalpel you left
inside the patient or some other negligent action on your part.) The
patient *wanted* you to take that risk. There's a world of
difference between doing your best and failing *with the person's
full consent*, and doing your best and failing on someone *who
objects to what you are doing*.
Parental coercion is *immoral* and *destructive* because it regards
the child as an object, a means to someone else's ends, instead of
as an end in himself.
In our culture, treating a human being as a means to an end -- as an
object instead of a person -- is rightly regarded as the ultimate
The Swedes would have *agreed* with that, even as they forcibly
sterilised people. How can that be? The Swedish government was not a
tyranny. They just didn't recognise gypsies as human in the relevant
sense. They *did* regard them as human in *many* senses: killing
them would be considered murder, for example. But as *autonomous
beings* gypsies weren't deemed fully human. Because of that, they
weren't deemed entitled to control the decision about whether to
Are children entitled to make decisions that affect *them*?
Most people think not. But are they right about that?
Or are children the 'Swedish gypsies' of today?
The excuses people give for doing things to children against their
will -- *all* such excuses -- are on a par with the excuses the
Swedes gave for sterilising gypsies.
The arguments that show why it isn't right to do things to *gypsies*
against their will apply just as much to every other group of
people, including children. They all have opinions which can be
overridden. And when you override their opinions, risking a mistake
that *they* will suffer for, you are doing something *immoral*. The
fact that you're doing it for the best as you see it, doesn't make
it moral. And the fact that you're *sure* you're right *doesn't*
mean you *are*. The Swedes weren't...
I believe myself to be fallible -- I am a human being who *makes
mistakes.* So in my dealings with other human beings, *including
children*, I seek full, free, *genuine agreement*. When I disagree
with others, I try to *persuade* them. I strive to use reason, never
force. Even psychological force. (Unless it's self defence: if I'm
accosted by a mugger, then he'll wish he'd picked on someone else.
But my friends and family aren't muggers.)
So, in my dealings with others, I seek unanimous consent. For only
then can my actions possibly be moral. Only then am I treating the
other person as an end in himself rather than a means to my own
-- Sarah Lawrence <sl at TCS dot ac> Editor, Taking Children Seriously journal To subscribe to the Taking Children Seriously List, send email to email@example.com saying: SUBSCRIBE TCS [your-first-name your-last-name] TCS WWW: http://www.TCS.ac
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