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Thinking about Eugenics


Several Cornerites, writing from what might be called an anti-anti-eugenicist perspective, have made the point that the word “eugenics” can be used to describe a variety of things that deserve separate moral evaluations. That’s true, but it’s something of a strawman, since nobody here has proposed to prohibit—as these anti-antis go on to suggest—all types of genetic enhancement. I don’t think anyone here has even suggested that all such interventions would be wrong, let alone that they should be illegal.


All I’ve said so far is that objections to eugenics can’t be dismissed on the ground that its current practice is, and its future practice is likely to be, a private-sector affair. John Derbyshire’s historical claim that eugenics was discredited because of its association with government struck me as questionable, and probably false. A survey of the objections to eugenics lodged in Derbyshire’s inbox does not seem to go very far to establish the historical claim.


I mentioned the argument that some types of eugenic intervention can be wrong because they reduce human life to the status of a product of manufacture. (Others might be wrong for other or additional reasons: We would have several grounds for criticizing the killing of three-year-olds judged “defective” in one scenario Derbyshire mentions.) Derbyshire raises the familiar counter-argument, that if they do then so do lower-tech, less efficient methods of influencing the characteristics of one’s offspring, such as mate selection. Writes Derbyshire, “The logical endpoint of your argument seems to be that mate selection should be banned—that we should all be assigned mates at random by the authorities, lest we attempt to influence the outcome of our mating, thereby ‘reducing human life to. . .’ etc.”


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.)


Anyway, he has misplaced his logical endpoint. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I am right to believe 1) that it would be wrong for someone to marry someone else purely in order to have red-headed children, 2) that one of the reasons it would be wrong is that it would instrumentalize human life, and 3) that it would thus be wrong for the same reason that some types of eugenic interventions would be wrong. It simply doesn’t follow from those premises that the law should treat all of these possible wrongs the same way.


Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons that might justify a legal distinction. The first is that none of those premises calls into question the truth that the ability to choose a mate is a good in itself and can serve many other goods. It is, on the other hand, conceivable that some eugenic technologies could be used only for purposes that are (on the above premises) wrongful. The second is that we might judge that banning free choice in marriage would have negative consequences—e.g., it would require the construction of a totalitarian state—that might not attend the banning of certain eugenic techniques. The third is that banning free choice in marriage is probably impossible, and banning (or in some cases regulating) those techniques may not be.


Obviously there is more that could be said, but there’s a first stab at thinking through some of the issues.


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