Eugenics, euthanasia, and selection: these are terms that, in Germany, are bound together with awful memories," the German President Johannes Rau observed in a speech in 2001. "They thus provoke--and rightly so--emotional resistance." (1) The story of how "emotional resistance" to the notion of euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants led to the "silencing" of Peter Singer while he was in Germany in 1989 is well known. (2) More recently, human embryonic stem cell research, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and the prospect of prenatal genetic "engineering" or enhancement have provoked similarly strong reactions. (3) In the words of two German commentators, for many Germans both old and young, "the fact that almost the entire population passively tolerated the Nazis' mass crimes is taken as sufficient warning against any relativization whatsoever of the sanctity of human life." (4)
Yet there has lately arisen what one commentator called "a revolt in the intellectual world against the 'political correctness' that prevails in Germany's treatment of the Nazi past." (5) According to the dissenters, "A deeply rooted fear of a loss of societal values--a very German argument--leads to hasty and premature legal prohibitions," among which is adduced the 1990 Law for the Protection of Human Embryos. (6) President Rau speaks for those wary of biotechnological advances: "The experience that we had with National Socialism, in particular with research and science in the Third Reich, must play an important role for ethical judgment--and not only among us [Germans]." (7) The dissenters hold, by contrast, that "[t]he declining Weimar Republic and the National Socialist regime differed in many relevant regards from Germany's current democracy." (8) From this point of view, Germans have much to learn from liberal-minded Anglo-American bioethical discourse, rather than Anglo-Americans and others much to learn from Germany's history.
Such is the background to the distinguished political philosopher Jurgen Habermas's 2001 book, The Future of Human Nature: On the Way to a Liberal Eugenics? (9) This text has now been translated into English, (10) but even in translation it comes across as "very German" in its concerns and method. (11) Habermas's principal focus in this text is the moral and political significance of prenatal genetic engineering or enhancement--as futuristic as it might be--which he argues could damage the affected person's relation to her body and thus jeopardize her autonomy.
On the basis of these considerations, Habermas also argues against both the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research and PGD. According to Habermas, "the procedures of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and research on human embryonic stem cells demand the adoption of wide-working attitudes that tend to promote the transition from a negative to a positive eugenics," that is, from practices concerned with preventing the transmission of severely disabling conditions to practices aimed at optimizing a child's genetic makeup (158/96). (12) Thus, from his perspective, human embryonic stem cell research and PGD "would clear the path to a liberal eugenics," which would be distinguished from an old-style, authoritarian eugenics by a great measure of state neutrality, with parents enjoying a largely free hand in "the choice of the goals of character-modifying interventions" (122, 39/71, 19).
Habermas is known for his contributions to liberal political theory. It has been his life's work to defend and justify liberal thought. So it should come as no surprise that Habermas is no friend of an authoritarian eugenics, but it may surprise some to discover he is also no friend of a liberal eugenics. Because of the risks he sees in prenatal genetic engineering or enhancement, Habermas submits that a society is warranted in erecting "[n]ormative barriers in dealing with embryos" in order to protect its "form of life" (122/71-72).
The rest of this paper is devoted to critically examining Habermas's argument against so-called positive eugenics--against practices that seek to improve a child's genetic makeup. In the end, Habermas agrees with old-guard Germans like Rau who worry about "psychosocial slippery slopes." Habermas works toward this position by engaging, though somewhat covertly, with liberal-minded Anglo-American bioethicists. First and foremost among these is Nicholas Agar, whose paper "Liberal Eugenics" serves as a frame for Habermas's discussion. But Habermas also engages (though generally in the notes) John Harris, John A. Robertson, and Allen Buchanan, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler, the collective authors of the highly praised From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. (13) In other words, against German bioethicists who look to Anglo-American bioethical discourse as a means of escape from "the shadow of eugenics," Habermas seeks to defend the intuitions of a Rau against the vanguard of liberal Anglo-American thought. (14) English readers, too, have reason then to take interest in this German intellectual event.
To anticipate, I submit that Habermas's Anglo-American interlocutors have some work to do to reply to him. I also claim that, when we begin to think about how a eugenically programmed person might be affected by the knowledge of having been so, we do not know our way about. (15) We lack appropriate coming-of-age stories. Thus we need to apply ourselves, as Habermas does and I do further, to imagining what it might be like to grow up eugenically programmed.
For a Liberal Eugenics
Given how important Agar's paper, "Liberal Eugenics," is to Habermas's discussion, reviewing it will help us understand Habermas's argument.
While acknowledging that "[l]iberals ... face a tough job in arguing for constraints on individual choice," Agar seeks to distinguish, on liberal grounds, between permissible and impermissible forms of genetic intervention (171). (16) With other liberal thinkers, Agar rejects, however, "two conventional distinctions in shaping people." The first is "between improving people by modifying their environment and improving them by modifying their genes," the second "between therapeutic goods of genetic engineering [and] eugenic goods" (172, 173). According to him, each of these distinctions is problematic, and thus we must look elsewhere to draw the line between permissible and impermissible forms of genetic intervention.
Agar's reason for rejecting "the distinction between improving people by modifying their environment and improving them by modifying their genes" is that there is "no moral difference between eugenics and improvements to people by various manipulations of the environment," such as education or nutrition (172). Agar cites Harris and Robertson on this point. Writes Robertson:
A case could be made for prenatal enhancement as part of parental discretion in rearing offspring. If special tutors and camps, training programs, even the administration of growth hormone to add a few inches to height are within parental rearing discretion, why should genetic interventions to enhance normal offspring traits be any less legitimate? (17)
Remarkably, Agar calls Robertson "cautious" in presenting this argument, which is an example of what Erik Parens has called "the we've already done it (and everything's been okay) argument," an argument from precedent that is often used to dismiss anxiety about new biotechnological procedures. (18) This argument takes the following form: "if practice X has been morally acceptable in the past, and if practice Y is just like practice X, then practice Y should be morally acceptable now and in the future." (19) Yet whether practice Y is "just like" practice X often needs greater scrutiny. And there is sometimes reason to rethink whether practice X is "okay" after all.
According to Agar, "Arguments for the moral parity of genetic and environmental engineering find support in modern understanding of the parallel developmental roles of gene and environment," over and against a simplistic genetic determinism (173). (20) The upshot is that, "[i]f gene and environment are of parallel importance in accounting for the traits that we currently possess, attempts to modify people by modifying either of them would seem to deserve similar scrutiny" (173). More concretely, since we already allow and even approve of attempts to modify people by modifying their environment, the conclusion is that there should be room for both sorts of "attempts," though within limits. (What Robertson calls "parental discretion in rearing offspring" is not, after all, unlimited.) Buchanan, Brock, Daniels, and Wikler, whose book postdates Agar's article, make this argument even more emphatically. (21) At bottom, the argument is another version of the argument from precedent, but bristling now with biology.
Having rejected the distinction "between improving people by modifying their environment and improving them by modifying their genes," but having allowed that such modifications must have limits, Agar rejects next the claim that "therapeutic goods of genetic engineering" ought to be permitted, but "eugenic goods" ought not to be permitted, where "therapeutic goods" are modifications that combat disease and restore to health, and "eugenic goods" are modifications that aim for a good beyond health. In brief, the line between the permissible and the impermissible cannot be drawn by looking to the line between the therapeutic and the eugenic, Agar claims, for this line is much too blurred (173-174).
Agar draws here on Philip Kitcher's criticisms of "objectivist" accounts of …