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.
1Background here, here, & here.
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.
Categories: Culture, Philosophy, Statistics
Another crazy ethicist for my collection! Thanks!
(I give you a Garvey in return. Old one.
Is this about the Doomsday Comet? Y2K? The Mayan calendar? The Neo-Convulsionnaires of Saint-MÃ©dard? Which apocalyptic Millenarialist dire doom report is this one?
Shall we shave our heads? Chop off our gonads? Run screaming through the streets?
Or is this one where the only solution/salvation is for Fearless Fascist Leaders to unite us into the Collective Drone Hive? With appropriate thinning of the human herd, of course. Gas the Defectives!
Appalling Savulescues have pestered humanity for ages, and will continue to headless chicken us until we isolate the Appalling Savulescu gene and abort the carriers. Science to the rescue!
I knew a couple who each carried the gene for, but did not suffer from, cystic fibrosis. My understanding (not being particularly well schooled in the biological sciences) is that this meant that there was a rather high likelihood that their children would have active CF.
Was it ethical for them to have children (they did)?
After their first child was born with active CF, was it ethical for them to have more (they did)?
Two or three of their four children died of CF before reaching 25 years of age. Those children suffered frequent hospitalizations, infections, collapsed lungs and other miseries. Is there any right-thinking person who would want such a brief and miserable life for their children?
Note also that “not giving birth” is not necessarily synonymous with “abortion”.
The right thing to do would be to change the genes that would kill the child with cystic fibrosis, and leave the genes for psychopathy and altruism alone. There’s nothing wrong with being a psychopath, or an altruist. As long as you do not harm, or even kill people in a psychopathic or altruistic way.
This guy is a monster and an idiot. He and Peter Singer will lead Dawkins’ baby-killing hit squad in our not-too-distant dystopian future.
In all honesty, Savulescu should probably be jailed.
@rank As should global warming deniers, cholesterol skeptics and anti-vaccine people?
Behavioural genetics is in an even more primitive state than climate science, economics, or even sociology. Excluding genes based on broad correlations with behaviours will have unknown consequences for general health, physiology and behaviour. Let’s talk about this issue again in 200 years when we might actually have some idea of what we are doing. You can mount an argument based on medicine to a limited degree right now. You cannot do the same for psychology or “social engineering”.
Â«Who but a leftist academic could get away with making arguments like this publicly?Â»
I take some offense that you would link the like of this Â«scientistÂ» to a leftist. His idea of gene enhancement is not compatible with the left. We like diversity and we would surely not want to encourage anything that would reduce it.
Human engeneering is a right wing idea. Who on the right wouldn’t approve to act on a gay gene if such a gene was to exist. While on the left we don’t care if people are gay or not.
You raise a natural question. Consider the answer this way.
Any parents having a child stand the chance of that child developing a dread disease—perhaps cystic fibrosis, maybe Down’s syndrome, etc.—or birthing a child which, if it meets the proper environmental circumstances, will develop a dread disease, even a disease as loosely defined as drunkenness. On the other hand, the child may be born disease free, but die before they are twenty via accident. No parent knows whether the child will turn out to be a form of good or evil in the world. A child may be born and develop a disease but accomplish great or awful deeds before expiring. Every child they have will eventually die, some sooner, many later, usually not beautifully or in good health (natch’).
Coming up with a probability for most of these scenarios is horrendously difficult to impossible: except the part about eventual death. Best not to believe yourself too sure.
No, sir: wrong on both counts. Salvescu is a leftist by any measure. And again by any measure, human engineering is and has been promulgated largely by the left. See Jonah Golderg’s Liberal Fascism for a history of eugenics and progressives.
>> See Jonah Goldergâ€™s Liberal Fascism for a history of eugenics and progressives.
Good grief! If it’s in a right-wing book, it must be right.
Sorry, but I cannot see any of my Â«leftistÂ» teacher supporting the position of this pseudo-scientist.
The theory of social darwinism started a few years after Darwin published is theory on evolution. This pseudo-science got really popular amongst the right wing who viewed the white at the top of the social pyramid. In the south USA, eugenics used their theory to justify the segregation of the black while liberals/progressives opposed it and favored the melting pot.
As a Â«leftistÂ» I don’t see any race/gender/sexual orientation has superior to the other. Human intellect is not preprogrammed, no genes can determine if you will be gay or straight. Though, certain illness can be cause by genes. For exemple, if we could prevent someone to suffer from fibrose kystic, diabetes, etc, it could be great.
It’s true that some on the right adored eugenics, but it was, and is again, mainly a disease of progressives.
Plus, the rest of what you say, sir, is absurd, and I bet even you don’t believe the words coming out of your fingers. “I don’t see any…sexual orientation…superior to the other.” Rot. For if you believed this, you would say those who had a sexual “orientation” towards infants and deceased goats are in no way inferior to any other “orientation.”
Coincidentally, this brief article appeared today.
If idiocy could be bred out, he might have a case.
H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Sanger, and other early advocates of the Superman were hardly right-wingers. They called themselves “progressives.”
+ + +
Some earlier thoughts on the search for the Superman:
and, treated in fictional form, the story “Hopeful Monsters,” found here:
Of course, I meant by sexual orientation to be limited to heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bi or transgender. All of these categories are individual in nature and apply between 2 consenting adult or teenagers.
Pedophilia on the other hand implies 1 adult and early teen or younger child who is not old enough to give consent. Pedophile may wish to have the same right as gays but their situation is really not the same.
In response to the post’s final paragraph, I find the argument that genetic engineering is murder and in some way associated with the Planned Parenthood organization weak. IMHO, more discussion about the statistical shortcomings of genetic influences on psychological traits would have been better.
As should global warming deniers, cholesterol skeptics and anti-vaccine people?
The level of evil involved in killing babies is what we’re arguing about. I see that you have not bothered to support your bald assertion that these other things are comparable–so, good job begging the question. Try again.
I also could easily rail against such holy proclamations as this gent has uttered.
But instead I’ll quote the young Timothy.
3:2For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud…(it goes on for a while). 3:5Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
A man named Paul once pondered such self indulgent righteous piety also.
1:22Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…
And I think that if I dug a little in Proverbs, I’m confident I could find some polite counter points. something like: 6:12A naughty person, a wicked man, walketh with a froward mouth.
After I had the time to search the net it is true that many people link eugenics to the left and that some left-wings were in favor of it. But the classification is much harder to do since many prominent right-winger like Churchill were also in favor of it.
I even found someone who claim the Nazi to be progressive??? Yes, they had some progressive idea on the economic side, limited to the the perfect Germans. But they had the most regressive vision in regards to women, gays, handicaped, religion and race. Women had no place in the public sphere, they were told to stay home and raise the kids. They had to serve their man.
I am a progessive and I do not support such a view as this scientist. I actually find his views retrograd than progressive.
Also,I wouldn’t not consider pedophelia and bestiality has a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is toward a man or a woman, not toward an age group.
Sylvain Allard on 25 August 2012 at 2:17 am said:
“I even found someone who claim the Nazi to be progressive??? Yes, they had some progressive idea on the economic side, limited to the the perfect Germans.”
Yes, their economy didn’t work right from the start of the Third Reich (due to price fixing, leading to shortages). A black market developed immediately. Hitler hated price hikes by merchants and prohibited them, thus removing the price signal.
Hitler had his economic ideas from Mussolini. Mussolini started his political career as a socialist.
Hitler’s rise to power got supported by leftist Henry Ford, for which Henry got a medal by the Third Reich as a thank you.
Henry Ford also earlier helped Stalin by designing his first 5 year plan and building him 600 factories via Albert Kahn.
You can find all of this in the leftist wikipedia.
“Is there any right-thinking person who would want such a brief and miserable life for their children?”
If the benefit of having lived at all outweighs suffering, then the right-thinking person ought to prefer that life, despite its hardships, over nonexistence. The simple fact of the matter is that it is impossible to know with certainty what might happen with any child (disease or not).
We all end up suffering and dying eventually with different intensities and circumstances. I would not want to be in the position of judge to determine the point when the intensity of suffering (or even, as is the case here, the potential to suffer more intensely than average) outweighs life altogether. I would be afraid of any human being put in that position.
“f the benefit of having lived at all outweighs suffering, then the right-thinking person ought to prefer that life, despite its hardships, over nonexistence.”
I am sorry but this makes no sense at all. You are comparing incomparables: existence to non-existence. Existence is a Good, non-existence is, well, *nothing*. There is no meaningful comparison at all that can be drawn between being, even a paltry miserable horrible state of being, and non-being. Period.
To preempt some possible confusions, I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion (and would even strengthen it for the reasons I mentioned), just not with the reasoning leading to it.
What is missing here is an idea of what makes a human being a human being. Ethical conduct and desirable behavior are deemed identical.
Sylvain Allard: “Sexual orientation is toward a man or a woman, not toward an age group.”
And how did you decide that?
@Person of Choler
Pedophile have sexual pulsion toward children. They are not in love with them. Once the pulsion is gone so are they. The attraction is only sexual.
Sexual orientation is more than that. When you love a man or a woman it is not just for sex. In fact, sex is more the expression of the feeling.
SYlvain — nice to hijack the thread with your infantile sociology. And now your definitions include ascertaining the right amount of love in wih sex. Stop before you injure yourself.
I guess you din’t have much of an argument.
Julian Savulescu is evidence that The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis was not a straw-man argument.
Right and left label have always been messy. At the end, there are quack ideas, and it’s unfair to pin them on one side or the other. This gene selection to create a super race is a quack idea. I don’t care whether a leftist or a rightist supported a similar idea at some point in the past. I compare this to monetarist vs Austrian economic theories. The labels are useless, there is only good or bad economic theories. Since the definition of Left and Right is so ambiguous, it should be avoided. Let’s stick to the ideas.
“Here in the United States there is are certain genes positively associated with crime, particularly violent crime.”
Blacks. Hispanics. Muslims. Generally, people who vote Democrat.
Savulescu wants to kill them all, pre-birth.
So whats the problem?
Ethics is too important and too complicated to be left to the Gleicks of the world..
@David: “Right and left label have always been messy.”
Righto. Hence the term “Leftist” (or hippie).
The grouping is both real, and easy, to make.
There is a thing that occurs naturally in the human population: the Moral Disease. (I call them Sociopaths, others call them Psychopaths.) There are certain thought-patterns that are bound to such people as the earth is to the sun: Humanism and Atheism are but two.
There are then three types of Leftist: those who directly possess the Moral Disease; and those who agree with its Results.
1) Obama, Stalin, Mao, et al are Leftists of the First Degree. (About 1 in 20 of ALL people.)
2) People who understand Leftism (but not natural to it, as per 1), yet still follows its tenets, are Leftists of the Second Degree. Think Evolutionists, AGW’s, Environmentalists, Socialists, Communists, Humanists, Atheists, etc etc.
3) Thirdly. The corrupt gutter trash that, despite being stupid, are well aware that others are being robbed (and often raped, murdered, etc) for their benefit. Think Madam “Obama’s Obama-stash”: you know, the average American Black, Hispanic and the ever foul Muslims.
Leftists have this one defect: they are incapable of reasoning in terms of the real, physical, world. This make them immune to effects of reason. (If only I was joking.)
There. I have waved my wand can clarified the universe, if only a bit. No need to thank me. My awesomeness is shared free of charge.
His argument seems to hinge about the assumption that we know what makes the best opportunity for a great life …..if the great life equates to being a elite athlete or a Nobel prize winning scientist maybe he’s right – we have some idea of what is required …..if a great life is to be happy, content and have fulfilling relationships then clearly genetics aren’t the determining factor …and based on the evidence available all over the world we don’t have much idea about this at all and should not be making assumptions about it in any way …
“Two or three of their four children died of CF before reaching 25 years of age. Those children suffered frequent hospitalizations, infections, collapsed lungs and other miseries. Is there any right-thinking person who would want such a brief and miserable life for their children?
Note also that â€œnot giving birthâ€ is not necessarily synonymous with â€œabortionâ€.
Change the age from 25 and the last can be said of three of my grandparents — they each suffered horribly months or years prior to death. What cruel persons gave them life?
And, you may not want to learn this, the same is likely true for you and me.
Should you and I have not been conceived? What cruel persons gave us life.
Are you so certain of yourself that you can look at others and weigh it all in the balance — is your balance really that true?
Do you think your grandparents would have wanted to swap places with the kids that died of cystic fibrosis at he age of 25?
Human engineering is a left wing idea. The nazis were socialists, remember the National Socialists. They even added racial purity to their ideas.
The Komunists started as socialists as well. They also wanted to engineer the superior socialist men.
You sound like a true son of the left trying to to glue degraded socialist ideas to conservatives.
As for left wingers professed interested in diversity, this is only true while they don’t have complete political power. And even then only in theory.
Sander van der Wal
That’s not the point. Are you so certain that you can weigh lives in the balance?
cb, spoken like a true rightist. The world is so simple! All evil is from the left. Next time I see a stupid idea, I will remember your brilliant analysis and curse the evil left.
Georges, you seem very sure of yourself. I went on wikipedia and looked up Nazism. It is said to be far-right politics, which “involves support of strong or complete social hierarchy in society, and supports supremacy of certain individuals or groups deemed to be innately superior who are to be more valued than those deemed to be innately inferior” (before you criticize the wikipedia source, the reference for this is from Oliver Woshinsky in Explaining Politics: Culture, Institutions and Political Behavior).
Certain enough to weigh my own live in terms of the things happening to other people. I would rather die peacefully in bed, but given the choice between dying horribly at 25 or dying horribly at 75 I’ll take the 75.
Point is, if you do not have a disease like cystic fibrosis, then you are not living with a death sentence. You are living like everybody who’s healthy.
We are ALL living death sentence. The question (still unanswered) is, “Are you certain that you can weigh lives in the balance?” Not you life, but the lives of others.
1) Few to any psychological traits are associated with specific genes. We have estimates of heritability for many such traits, often from twin studies conducted not by geneticists, but psychologists. But heritability measures do not associate specific genes with specific traits.
2) Heritability is a measure of how much variance in a SPECIFIC population is accounted for by genetic variance. Heritability measures change according to the population and the stability of other contributing factors to that population. So for a trait like height, heritability is lower in nations with more environmental variance like China than in those like the US. For psychological traits particularly, heritability increases with the age of the population.
Julian Savulescu’s arguments shows typical misconceptions about the actual genetics of psychological traits.
Also, a lot of geneticists don’t even correctly understand “heritability” and what I have seen in the work of social scientists, they understand it even less.
RE: David Stove’s assertion, (from On Enlightenment) regarding morals:
“It does not follow, from somethingâ€™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) â€œoughtâ€ implies â€œcan.â€ For in that case there are at least some evils, namely the necessary evils, which no one can have any obligation to remove.”
HOW DOES one determine what evils are necessary evils that no one has an obligation to remove versus those evils that society “should” endeavor to remove? Stove, in that quote anyway, doesn’t address that…which is but another example that for all the philosophizing the real core of an issue is left unaddressed. Savulescu’s values on this & the topic presented clearly differ from that of Briggs & most (I’d wager) of us…but if he, or we, are “right” ultimately comes down to our respective values–and that can be debated endlessly with no clear result and with nobody changing their position (in practice, most actually take their in-going position & hold it even more dearly).
A much more unassailable & definitive rebuttal is found in addressing the facts: “We do not know that â€œmost psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genesâ€ and it is irresponsible, unprofessional, or through vast ignorance to say that we do know.”
One unstated empirical fact is that we also know that humans subjected from early childhood to emotional abuse will turn out to be narcissists & psychopaths–people with little or no conscience and who commonly feel pleasure from observing the suffering of others. The pattern is very clear, that regardless of the genetic makeup (e.g. via adoptive twin studies) genetics plays no role in such cases.
Thus, what we do seem to observe is that genetics gives a child an orientation to “turn out” a general way–and the mechanism for that is more in how one is predisposed to cope with stress that could lead to neuroses/psychoses (or, lead to a child naturally inclined to be introverted to become very extroverted, etc.). I.E., genetics IS influential–but does not seem to override environmental factors when those are strong.
Twin studies suggest genetic influences will dominate about 40-60 percent of the time (i.e. about half the time), varying on various factors, which hardly makes them definitive or determinitive.
Taking away the objective basis underpinning the rest of the argument effectively destroys it–no need to philosophize at all.
ASIDE: The whole theory & science of gene expression seems to be showing that genes work in clusters–what triggers one to express or stay recessive (to generalize in loose terms) affects other genes — and many of those triggers are from the physical environment, and, many of those triggers are “triggerable” only at certain phases of development. NOBODY understands the full implications of this and nobody will until someone does a structured & very controlled series of experiments on human subjects…which likely will never happen (for what should be obvious reasons).