Knowing Thine Enemy?: a book to look out for

cover image for Enhancing Human Capacities by Julian Savulescu

cover image for Enhancing Human Capacities by Julian Savulescu et. al

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.


6 thoughts on “Knowing Thine Enemy?: a book to look out for

  1. “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.”

    Excuse me, but as I read this it seems out of character for Julian. And indeed, Savulescu actually says this on his blog:

    “The deaf child is only harmed by being selected to exist if its life is so bad it is not worth living. Deafness is not that bad. For this reason, I believe that couples who select disabled rather than abled embryos or fetuses should be allowed to make those choices, even though I believe they are having a child with worse life prospects.”

    Which is exactly what I would have said. While Savulescu’s idea of ‘procreative beneficence’ goes against the creation of deaf children, he does not (contrary to the impression you give) let this stand in the way of the right to have such children (if he did, this would lead to him stating that non-enhanced children should not be created).

  2. hi Joanne,
    Thanks for posting this. Even Savulesco’s book title is disappointing. Human capacities are not enhance through sameness but through diverse individuals in relationship with each other. I think potential and capacity are enhanced or released in this ‘knowing.”
    That’s when it becomes possible, at least, to find out who we really are – beyond our socialized beliefs, false sense of self-importance, academic degrees, class, etc. That’s difficult or even impossible in sameness and isolation.

  3. Joanne,
    Julian, is an interesting character in many ways and at least more consistent than many out there who draw arbitrarily lines based on political (or which direction does the wind blow) sentiment. He at least is as much for allowing sex selection as he is for allowing ‘impairment’ deselection which is a much more logical position than the ableist sentiment that sex selection is evil but deslection of the ‘subject’ that does not have certain abilities. one expects in the ‘subject’ Of course I would say one should not select based on anything but at least his position is honest. I use many of his writings (from the deaf argument to organ transplant for Down Syndrome people to Sports and doping) in my classes because they show much clearer a possible future, a future which again i think is the logical extend of how the majority behaves today. ‘Impairment’ deselection as in Tay Sachs and Down Syndrome was never mend to be the end point. Testing for sex and predisposition for ‘genetic’ ‘diseases’ and in the end for everything one wants was. …
    Again I better stop here. But I believe one can learn a lot from Julia as it shows were we will go if we do not changed social dynamic severely.

  4. Josh wrote:” Excuse me, but as I read this it seems out of character for Julian. And indeed, Savulescu actually says this on his blog:

    ‘The deaf child is only harmed by being selected to exist if its life is so bad it is not worth living. Deafness is not that bad. For this reason, I believe that couples who select disabled rather than abled embryos or fetuses should be allowed to make those choices, even though I believe they are having a child with worse life prospects.’…”

    This is a very clear statement of how neoliberal governmentality operates. Here is governmental power guiding, influencing, and limiting people’s actions in ways that accord with the exercise of their freedom. Power functions best when it enables subjects to act in order to constrain them. Confer “rights” upon people which they have an overriding moral obligation not to avail themselves of. Elevate personal prejudice to the level of moral imperative. Naturalize social discrimination and oppression.

  5. Wow! I opened my email this morning, and found this open can of worms. I’ll concede to Joshua that perhaps Savulescu is more consistent than I represented — the comment in his blog that inflamed me was his insistence (largely extraneous to his point, but irritatingly distracting nonetheless) that the deaf community is disabled — when compared to the hearing community as a homogenous whole — rather than cultural … and I feel more sympathy for parents who want to make sure that their deaf embryos succeed than people who want to choose their embryo with optimal athletic potential, etc. Presently deaf parents cannot do so, and this CBC program represents well the frustration that some feel about this:

    I essentially agree with Gregor, however, that market ideology is inappropriate when applied to choices regarding what kinds of children one has. And this is because, as Candee points out, this kind of decision has impacts upon the range of people there can be in the world. What I find repugnant about the discussion in which Savulescu is involved is the notion of ‘enhancement’ itself, and the disconnect between personal enhancement and social diversity. In order to accept the idea of ‘enhancement’ or perfection at all, one must subscribe to a measure of worth that is external to the person, and indeed, to society … and while this might be appropriate in some situations (eg. when marking a maths test), it is profoundly inappropriate when evaluating a human life or the life of a community.

    Finally, to address stremain’s point, I agree that what is precisely misapprehended by Savulesu is the relation between individual choice and society. The social norm is enacted through the personal rights and freedoms that we all claim to ourselves. Plastic surgery is an excellent case in point: with the proliferation of personal decisions to ‘enhance’ one’s appearance, what we get is and standardisation of appearance. People look more and more alike. This is detrimental not only from the perspective of diversity, but also to individual self-esteem and feelings of self worth. (as jackieostrem’s ‘Imaginary Beauty’ post, above, demonstrates)

    Crucially, individual choices are made in the context of relations with others, according to the “I’ll have what she’s having” mandate. This being so, Savulescu invokes a false dichotomy when he supports individual reproductive rights over social norms, because overwhelmingly individual choice reinforces (rather than challenging) the social norm. And this misapprehension is well represented by the very evocation of the value ‘enhancement’ — which is already thoroughly normative.

  6. I believe that currently in the UK, where this debate originated, that deafness was removed from the list of ‘serious inherited conditions’ that could not be chosen in an embryo. At least that is how the HFE Bill stands now – it won’t be passed (and it will pass) until later this year.

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