11 July 2012

Is eugenics really such a bad thing?

Kenan Malik is a critic of a purely science-based morality, the sort promoted by thinkers like Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape (2010). Malik doesn’t believe that ethical issues are amenable to scientific reductionism. In his review of The Moral Landscape, he makes this criticism of Harris’s ideal morality:

Moral norms seem not to emerge through a process of social engagement and collective conversation, nor in the course of self-improvement, but rather are laws to be revealed from on high [by science] and imposed upon those below.

Malik recently wrote a blog post expanding on his analogy of scientific morality as revealed laws (the religious connotation is made obvious in the title of his post). Again, he challenges the assumptions of those like Harris who view morality as simply being a question of facts, which science can discover and present, indisputable. Malik mentions the bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who has argued in favour of a benign form of eugenics that will remove the “genes and proteins associated with poor impulse control as well as those for psychopathy and anti-social personality disorder” while promoting “genes for compassion and moral thinking.”

So far, so controversial.

I am inclined to adopt the scientific view of morality as espoused by Harris and Savulescu, though it is to Malik’s credit that his counter-arguments have made me reexamine my position, if not entirely abandon it. I think that when one accepts a materialist conception of human personality (or the mind), one has to also accept that neurobiological manipulation can alter people's character traits. So why not do so to make them more moral?

Malik rebuts Savulescu’s idea of positive eugenics with examples of how nominally bad traits like aggression can be good in the right context, and vice-versa for nominally good traits like trust and co-operation. He writes:

But is it a good that trust be enhanced in all circumstances? After all, would not authoritarian regimes and even democratic politicians welcome a more trustful, and therefore a less questioning, population? Is aggression always bad? Is the aggression that the Arab masses have shown, and continue to show, in taking to the streets in defiance of brutal authoritarian regimes equivalent to the aggression of those authorities in brutalising and murdering the protestors? And if not does it make any sense to suggest, as Savulescu does, that ‘our futures may depend upon making ourselves wiser and less aggressive’, including through the ‘compulsory’ use of serotonin [a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being]?

Good points. But as I responded in a comment to Malik’s post, what about undeniably pernicious traits like a propensity for sexual predation or rape? For violent psychopathy or homicidal urges? I wrote:

If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?

Malik replied that my question was an important one that “gets to the heart of the debate about what we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’”, and that he will write a proper post on this topic soon, hopefully within the next few days. I look forward to his (very likely persuasive) answer to the rather utilitarian dilemma my question poses. Stay tuned!


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