Human Exceptionalism

Peter Singer Supports Eugenics

We shouldn’t be surprised that Princeton’s bioethics professor Peter Singer supports genetic engineering of progeny–as he does in this article. After all, Singer rejects the idea that human life has intrinsic value and supports infanticide of babies up to one year of age based on whether keeping the baby would serve the interests of the family.

As to the fear of genetic engineering bringing back the discredited eugenics mindset, Singer breezily dismisses the prospect. He sophistically compares genetically enhancing our children as being equivalent to giving them expensive educational toys “to maximize their learning potential.” He then seeks to distinguish the horror that eugenics spawned in the past with the great benefit we can achieve if we but embrace the potential of a new eugenics: “Many will condemn this as a resurgence of ‘eugenics,’ the view, especially popular in the early twentieth century, that hereditary traits should be improved through active intervention. So it is, in a way, and in the hands of authoritarian regimes, genetic selection could resemble the evils of earlier forms of eugenics, with their advocacy of odious, pseudoscientific official policies, particularly concerning ‘racial hygiene.’ In liberal, market driven societies, however, eugenics will not be coercively imposed by the state for the collective good. Instead, it will be the outcome of parental choice and the workings of the free market.” The primary problem, for Singer in such a system would be that the rich would be able to afford to enhance their kids, while the poor could not.

Singer’s analysis conveniently forgets that eugenics-inspired forced sterilization was first imposed on the “unfit” here in the United States as a direct result of democratic processes. These laws were explicitly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous 1927 case of Buck v. Bell in which Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Three generations of idiots is enough.” The Nazis actually imported much of their racial hygiene laws from us. Thus, free societies certainly do not provide an inoculation against the pernicious effects of eugenics.

Secondly, the idea that laissez faire eugenics would victimize no one ignores the almost irresistable power of peer pressure. Even if the law did not require enhancement of children (and the concomitant eradication of the less intelligent or talented, whether through abortion or infanticide), the pressure would be on to do just that–a genetic arms race that Singer acknowledges could arise.

Finally, eugenics consciousness would almost inevitably lead to evil, not because it was voluntary or government-mandated, but rather, because at its core eugenics rejects the intrinsic, equal value of human life. Once that philosophical step is taken, who thrives and who is oppressed becomes merely a matter of who has the political power to decide.

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