The Illiberality of Liberal Eugenics
University of San Diego: School of Law
August 3, 2012
20 RATIO 1 (2007)
This essay evaluates the moral logic of liberal eugenics: the ideal of genetic control which leaves decisions about what sort of people to produce, for the most part, in the hands of individual parents. I argue that liberal eugenics cannot be justified on the basis of the theory which inspires it. An archetypal expression of this theory can be found in the Supreme Court's decisions in Wisconsin v. Yoder. The Yoder majority held that the religious freedom of Amish parents to remove their children from school overrode the state’s interest in compulsory education. But three Justices writing in concurrence emphasized that their removal was permitted for the final two years of primary schooling only because the children had already been "permitted to acquire the basic tools . . . to survive in modern society by attending grades one through eight." The liberal theory from which liberal eugenics derives its namesake demands that children develop the capacity to make genuine choices among a meaningful range of life plans.
I argue that if the liberal commitment to autonomy is important enough for the state to mandate childrearing practices such as health care and basic education, that very same interest is important enough for the state to mandate safe, effective, and functionally integrated genetic practices that act on analogous all-purpose traits such as resistance to disease and general cognitive functioning. To explain these traits, I introduce an alternative to Rawls's social primary goods that I call natural primary goods: hereditable mental and physical capacities and dispositions that are valued across a range of projects and pursuits. I argue that reproductive biotechnologies -- embryo selection, cellular surgery, or genetic engineering -- that aim to enhance 'general purpose' offspring traits are less like childrearing practices a liberal government leaves to the discretion of parents than like practices the state makes compulsory. I conclude that the liberal case for compulsory eugenics is a reductio against liberal theory.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 26
Keywords: liberal eugenics, progressive eugenics, primary goods, reproductive liberty, autonomy
JEL Classification: I18, H52, I31
Date posted: November 23, 2009 ; Last revised: August 4, 2012