Re: Is Eugenics Really A Bad Thing?

From: Sarah Lawrence (
Date: Sat Jul 01 2000 - 12:23:19 MDT

At 12:17 am -0700 on 1/7/00, Zero Powers wrote:

>OK, I know the Nazis were into it big time, and they weren't cool dudes.
>But is wanting to improve the stock a bad thing? I have a feeling that I'm
>"preaching to the choir" when I say on this list that it seems like a good
>thing to want to make humans as perfect as possible. But it seems like
>virtually everywhere else, the E word is as bad as the N word. Why is that?

It depends entirely what you mean by eugenics. In a way, one could argues
that in choosing partners with whom to have children, we are engaging in
eugenics. There is nothing wrong with that, obviously.

I'd say that there is nothing whatever wrong with doing everyone one
possibly can to ensure that one's offspring is healthy and will live longer
and so on and so forth (and yes, sure, when it becomes possible in
practice, why not include beautiful and potentially intelligent too?).

The thing that is very very wrong is not those things, not the eugenic
choices made by individuals striving to give their offspring the best
possible start, as it were. Nor is it the work done by researchers and
companies creating the knowledge which those individuals may want, in order
to do this.

The problem is with state eugenics programs, using state coercion to impose
the state's eugenic theories on everyone else. The reason that is a
problem, apart from the immorality of treating human beings as means to the
state's ends instead of ends in themselves, is that imposing one theory on
everyone is highly likely to lead to error. Imposing a theory on others is
inimical to the growth of knowledge. While it may be that the state has
good intentions and is aiming to improve the human race, *imposing* its
theory is not the answer. It should allow the different theories to compete.

When we are all acting upon our own best eugenic theories -- whether that
means just choosing a father for one's children based on the man's height,
physical attractiveness, and success in the workplace, say, or OTOH making
use of whatever research is available to produce (what you hope will be) a
genetically improved child -- there is much less likely to be a systematic
error introduced. When different individuals' theories are allowed to
compete, as it were, our knowledge of how to improve things is much more
likely to improve. If you let individuals decide whether to make use of the
available information or not, any actual improvements there are will speak
for themselves and presumably, if that is indeed a good thing, people will
choose it for themselves without having to be forced into it.

But when the government decides to impose its eugenic theories on us, how,
apart from disobeying the law, can other theories be tested? So the current
moves to ban genetic research seem to me gravely mistaken. The Nazis and
others were not using the same *method* of imposing their theory, to be
sure, but it is the same kind of thing -- in both the Nazi case and the
current or potential ban on genetic research, what is happening is that the
state is imposing its own eugenic theories on the people.

The problem is almost the opposite of what people calling for a ban on
genetic research think it is.

Sarah Lawrence <sl at TCS dot ac>
Editor, Taking Children Seriously journal
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