Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

A Not-So-New Eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on Human Enhancement

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

A Not-So-New Eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on Human Enhancement

Article excerpt

John Harris and Julian Savulescu, leading figures in the "new" eugenics, argue that parents are morally obligated to use genetic and other technologies to enhance their children. But the argument they give leads to conclusions even more radical than they acknowledge. Ultimately, the world it would lead to is not all that different from that championed by eugenicists one hundred years ago.

As Nick Agar noted in the pages of this journal in 2007, there now exists a significant body of work in bioethics that argues in favor of enhancing human beings. (1) Writers including Gregory Stock, Lee Silver, Nick Bostrom, Julian Savulescu, John Harris, Ronald Green, Jonathan Glover, and Agar himself have suggested that there is little reason to fear the scientific application of genetic technologies to human beings, as long as the choice of whether--and how--to use them is left up to individuals. (2) They argue that a "new" or "liberal" eugenics, which would be pluralistic, based on good science, concerned with the welfare of individuals, and would respect the rights of individuals, should be distinguished from the "old" eugenics, which was perfectionist, unscientific, concerned with the health of the "race," and coercive. (3) According to the advocates of the new eugenics, the horrors associated with the old eugenics should not prevent us from embracing the opportunities offered by recent advances in the biological sciences.

Two of these writers in particular, John Harris and Julian Savulescu, have independently advanced the argument for human enhancement with especial fervor in their recent works. In Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, Harris takes to conservative critics of enhancement with gusto and argues that a commitment to human enhancement follows naturally from our willingness to accept the improvements in our welfare and capacities that other technologies have made possible. (4) Moreover, he suggests, a proper concern for the welfare of future human beings implies that we are morally obligated to pursue enhancements. (5) Similarly, in a series of influential and oft-cited articles in prestigious medical and bioethical journals and in edited collections published by major academic presses, Julian Savulescu has argued that we are morally obligated to use genetic (and other) technologies to produce the best children possible--a strong claim indeed! (6) Savulescu has also used his role as director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics to promote human enhancement in the popular press. (7)

When learned professors at the University of Manchester and Oxford start to agitate on behalf of enhancing human beings, it behooves us to take notice. For reasons that will become obvious below, I hope that Savulescu and Harris are wrong about the existence of an obligation to enhance future human beings, but it is not my intention to try to establish that here. Rather, my purpose is to point out that if we have such an obligation, then its implications are much more radical than Harris or Savulescu admit. Both Harris and Savulescu approach the ethics of human enhancement from a consequentialist perspective. (8) Given the notoriously demanding nature of consequentialism and its lineage as a philosophy of radical social reform, one might expect that their conclusions would include a strong role for the state in encouraging or even requiring people to meet their obligations to have better babies. Instead, both Harris and Savulescu deny that the state should pursue eugenic goals and insist that the decision about whether to pursue enhancement (and which enhancements to pursue) should be left up to individuals. There is, therefore, a tension between their consequentialism and their (apparent) libertarianism when it comes to the rights of individuals to use--or not use--enhancement technologies as they see fit. (9) Only through a very particular and not especially plausible negotiation of the uneasy relationship between their moral theory and their policy prescriptions can Harris and Savulescu obscure the fact that the gap between the new and the old eugenics is not that large at all, and that their philosophies have implications that most people would find profoundly unattractive. …

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