Some of you — and especially philosophers on the ‘what sorts’ team — will know of a controversial Australian ex-pat ethicist who likes to provoke debate about what sorts of people there should be … No,this time it’s not Peter Singer (although Singer was his PhD supervisor), but rather Julian Savulescu of The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Savulescu’s chief interest is the use of biotechnology for what he presumptively calls ‘human enhancement.’
When he worked for the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Savulescu wrote a piece called “In Defense of Selection for Nondisease Genes”.* As this community knows well, others have argued that it is defensible to engage in postconception selection against diseased genes, where the term diseased genes refers to:
a gene that causes a genetic disorder (e.g. cystic fibrosis) or predisposes to the development of a disease (e.g. the genetic contribution to cancer or dementia)
This argument in itself is highly contestable, given that it is reasonable to feel that a ‘diseased’ life of one with, say, cystic fibrosis — let alone one that down the line ends with cancer or dementia — is worth living… and more pertinently, that there are grave social consequences when that decision is made on others’ behalf as a matter of course. Savulescu, however, offers a far more radical thesis than this.
He argues, rather, that it is also okay to select against nondiseased genes, or genes that cause or predispose to conditions such as sex, height, athletic ability or intelligence that are, in Savulescu’s words, “not in the sub-normal range”. Indeed, he defends this position even to the extent that:
couples should be allowed to select nondisease genes even if it results in a child whose life is worse than that of children not born as a result of selection.
And he maintains this view in the face of his own acknowledgement that this might lead to social disparity.
Savulescu situates his cliam, firstly, with reference to the ‘best interests of the child’ principle. He argues that a child who exists by virtue of having been selected from a number of gametes, and who suffers psychological distress with respect to knowledge about this selection, is not harmed since otherwise he or she would not exist. Thus, sex selection, for instance, does not contravene the ‘best interests of the child’ principle.
(One might say that if you’re going to run that argument, then the the same cuts both ways — i.e. for someone who is born with ‘diseased’ genes, or genes that predispose them to be short or heavy… let’s allow that to slide for now though)
Secondly, Savulescu sees the concern that cumulative selection against diseased genes (his example is Downs Syndrome) raises issues of social equity as demanding an undue burden of hardship upon parents who would not choose to have a disabled child. In short, he sees these social concerns as inhibiting of personal liberty.
In so doing, however, I would say that he also confuses different (and even competing) conceptions of what constitutes society and social equality: on the one hand we have a notion of the good of society as consisting in a celebration of and adaptation for diversity (the kind that the what sorts project might endorse); and on the other, society is conceived of as simply a collection of individuals, each with his or her individual preferences. From this latter point of view, society is understood as better when parents are not inconvenienced by their children — or at least, Savulescu might qualify, beyond the extent of inconvenience experienced by every parent. But whom does this exclude? Children with anxiety? Dyslexia? ADHD? I was relentlessly teased as a child for being short —does that count? On this individualist model, the best society would be made up of disembodied, perfectly content automatons.
The most surprising revelation of Savulescu’s argument, however, is his reference to eugenics. Perhaps in order to beat to the post charges of eugenicism, he claims that inhibiting people’s capacity to select for sex, intelligence, etc:
is tainted by the objectionable eugenics of the kind employed earlier last century. The Nazis sought to interfere directly in people’s reproductive decisions (by forcing them to be sterilized) to promote social ideals, particularly around racial superiority. Not offering selection for nondisease genes would indirectly interfere with reproductive decisions (by denying choice) to promote social ideals such as equality or ‘population welfare’. There is no relevant difference between direct and indirect eugenics. The lesson we learned from eugenics is that society should be loath to interfere (directly or indirectly) in reproductive decision making.
To be sure, the What Sorts project itself was galvanized by objections to state sponsored eugenics, such as sterilization of children in institutions. But what Savulescu identifies as the chief objection to eugenics misses the mark. For surely the issue at stake in the Nazi eugenics campaign was not so much parents’ reproductive rights, as the very existence of whole classes of people such as Jews, the Romany, homosexuals, and people with disabilities, in the face of the discomfort such existence might give rise to in parents, the state, or society as a whole. And Savulescu’s defence of parents’ rights to genetically select embryos supports a view that we should be able to choose what sorts of people exist.
But more strikingly, as his blog attests, Savulescu does not support the same right to reproductive choice when this is demanded by deaf parents wishing to select for deaf embryos. In this instance, then, the benefit of society — as perceived by Julian Savulescu — trumps individual reproductive preferences.
To the book that this post is ostensibly about: Savulescu has co-edited a book due to be published in 2009 called Enhancing Human Capacities, which promises to address and clarify the role of biotechnology in society. Here is a spiel about the book on the website:
We currently spend over $1 billion on enhancement drugs such as viagra and modafinil. Our ability to enhance ourselves and our children increases year on year and yet there is little public knowledge and no clear direction from policy makers on how we should use our new power. This book brings together leading bioethicists from the UK, Europe and the US to explain the current state of science, and start us on the path towards deciding how we can use our new skills to take humanity forward ethically and responsibly.
I think that What Sorters should look out for this book, as it may be influential not only in the field of bioethics, but on public policy as well. Savulescu is already a keen contributor to policy debates in Britain (for instance, giving evidence at this parliamentary inquiry into biotechnology)
For those of you who are more auditory in orientation, here is a talk Savulescu gave at a recent forum on human enhancement at the University of Sydney.