The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu

Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

Given the grave wrongs that were committed in the name of eugenics during the twentieth century, it may be surprising to see the concept of “fitness” frame an important work in contemporary medical ethics. It may be even more surprising to learn that eugenics is itself, in some sense, back, albeit in an updated “liberal” form.

Coined in 1883 by the polymath Francis Galton, the term “eugenics” was used to justify a series of crude technological interventions intended to “build better people” by preventing reproduction among “feeble-minded” or otherwise “defective” members of the species. In the American context, this ideology was most directly visible in the forced sterilization laws on the books of numerous states (well into the 1970s, it should be noted). These legislative efforts were infamously given a stamp of approval at the highest level of the judiciary in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s chilling pronouncement in his opinion in Buck v. Bell (1927): “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In our own day, however, such dark chapters have largely faded into the annals of historical memory.

This does not mean that eugenics as such has disappeared. As representatives of what is often called the new eugenics, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, both fellows of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, show how the project has been redirected. Though no longer calling for the state to sterilize or eliminate deficient human life, champions of a new and “positive” eugenics have been emboldened by the search for the genetic bases of various diseases as a step toward curing or preventing them. They see the application of such research to reproductive medicine as positive because its purpose is to assist couples (as well as single reproducers) in bringing the “best possible child” into the world. They also see their project as liberal. While the old eugenics regime ran roughshod over individual rights and protections, the new eugenics enshrines “reproductive autonomy” as the ur-concept in reproductive decision making.

Unfit for the Future is not merely an apologetic for the new eugenics; it also extends its scope by addressing the need for moral enhancement in particular. Persson and Savulescu contend that our scientific and political efforts in support of human enhancement should more selectively focus on identifying the genetic basis of our moral dispositions and determining ways in which those dispositions can be enhanced. It is only through moral enhancement, as they call it, that we may fashion “a possible way out.” That they characterize the human condition as something from which to escape is, in itself, deeply revealing.

The authors claim that “human beings are not by nature equipped with a moral psychology that empowers them to cope with the moral problems that the new conditions of life create.” Persson and Savulescu believe that rapid technological developments have made it increasingly likely that we will experience what they call “ultimate harm,” rendering human life on earth impossible. This will happen either through environmental self-destruction or widespread and repeated use of weapons of mass destruction. The likelihood of ultimate harm, moreover, can be indexed directly to failures of our moral psychology—or, as they put it, our outdated “moral dispositions.” These failures are attributed to genetic abnormalities that, if they could be identified, could either be suppressed or enhanced. Given that traditional modes of moral education seem inadequate to the task of preventing ultimate harm, genetic interventions of various kinds (unashamedly referred to as “engineering”) are, in the authors’ view, required.

One implication of this perspective is that, as our powers increase, we do not simply influence, alter, or subdue the world. Time and again, we make it, fashioning it into what we think it should be. The ethic enjoined by such techno-logic is that whatever we can control, or at least influence, we are morally obligated to control. And the corollary is that to the degree we fail to control what we could control, we act immorally. This is precisely what Persson and Savulescu mean when they say that the “act-omission” doctrine of commonsense morality no longer holds. According to this line of thought, the only relevant moral question is, What standards do we use in deciding how we alter, influence, and change human life, including nascent human life?

While each step in Persson and Savulescu’s argument deserves sustained critical attention, all point to a more fundamental question: What shifts have taken place in our shared understandings that make the eugenic impulse not only nearly irresistible but also so comprehensive—extending to the basis upon which moral judgments can and should be made? Have we been schooled so well and for so long in reductionist and physicalist understandings of our moral sense that we are unbothered by the notion that our moral dispositions themselves are but touchscreens, infinitely subject to programming and reprogramming?

Two preliminary answers suggest themselves. First, we could agree with Troy Duster’s argument in Backdoor to Eugenics (1990) that the history of eugenics is best understood as a process of warming and cooling. Following Duster, the reason we should not be surprised to see the eugenic impulse come to full flower is that it never really disappeared. This view is supported and deepened by the recently published history of genetic science in America by Nathaniel Comfort, of the Johns Hopkins University Department of the History of Medicine. As Comfort observes in The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, “Medicine has been going genetic—and genetics going medical—for more than a century.”

The second potential response is to interrogate the widespread turn to genetics as such. In what Comfort calls a “history of promises,” the period from the late nineteenth century to the present has been one of ever-increasing biological inwardness, of a certain confidence that the so-called building blocks of life can be detected and, once detected, understood, and, if understood, altered. Positioning genetics squarely at the center of medical practice, as Comfort does, give it two main fronts: the relief of suffering and the improvement of the human condition. But at what point does the task of improving the human condition overstep its bounds and become a thinly veiled effort to circumvent or destroy it?

In this short book, we are treated to a curious blend of alarmism and utopianism: a cold, calculating prognosis that the current trajectory of human history will likely bring about our own demise, combined with a set of policy prescriptions promising to be up to the task of saving us from such a fate.

Philip Lorish is a dissertation fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a doctoral candidate in the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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