Pushing the Bioethics Envelope to Serve Neo-Eugenic Purposes

Posted by Pete Shanks February 24, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Professor Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, was just in the news again, thanks to an article in the Melbourne Herald Sun titled "Only breed smart babies: Ethicist." The responses, from various corners of the web, were mostly unfavorable. (The snarkiest was a thread titled "Only breed superior 'designer babies': Psychotic Eugenicist.")

The piece itself regrettably spells his name wrong, but Savulescu evidently accepts its substance, judging by the reply he gave to a response posted by an Oxford colleague, Neil Levy. Certainly the positions it describes are in line with views Savulescu has frequently expressed, for instance in his 2009 lecture "Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction" [videos here]. He backs away from that position a little in the Q&A, but the title is a reasonably fair summary of views he has advocated for a decade. In 2001, he published an article in Bioethics [pdf] titled "Procreative Beneficence: Why we should select the best children."

It is tempting now to write off Savulescu's opinions as predictable, but Levy's comment is surprisingly disturbing. He disagrees on the use of genetic modification, but only on empirical grounds:

The argument turns on the social benefits of enhancement. Economic modeling has mounted a powerful case that widespread enhancement of IQ would produce a broad range of benefits.…The question ought not to be "what are the costs and benefits of enhancing versus not enhancing", but "what are the costs and benefits of enhancing versus other ways of using the resources needed for enhancement"?

Another colleague of Savulescu's, Janet Radcliffe Richards, is also sympathetic to these economic arguments. In a BBC debate last year, reported by BioEdge,

Radcliffe Richards refused to categorically reject the concept of forced sterilization as a solution to social problems, saying that there "is a really serious argument" about the "cost to the rest of society of allowing people to have children when you can pretty strongly predict that those children are going to be a nuisance."

At first blush, it's easy to accept Levy's view that "we will get much better returns for our money by spending it on environmental interventions, here and (especially) abroad, in developing nations." But there is something disquieting, to say the least, about viewing these human interventions simply through the prism of economics. The subjects here are human individuals.

Essentially these philosophers are all proposing that society should improve the IQ of the unfortunate in order to benefit society as a whole, rather than for the sake of the people directly affected. This is exactly what George Annas was referring to as eugenics in the recent discussion about forced sterilization. As he insisted,

This decision needs to be made based on the person's best interests, not the best interests of society or her caregivers.

These are difficult questions, as evidenced by libertarians like Savulescu  advocating intervention for the "good of society" (while communitarians uphold individual rights). Savulescu is not a simplistic thinker, and to his credit engages with current issues. His critique of the HFEA, for example, is not without merit, especially when he says they should have insisted on long-term follow-up studies. But he has been pushing a modern kind of eugenics for a long time now, and the indications are that, in his field and especially in the institution he heads, he has shifted the terms of debate.

Finally, what is this "economic modeling" on which the argument depends? The Herald Sun article cites "a research paper by Oxford University ethicists Andres Sandberg and Nick Bostrom [both members of Savulescu's Oxford Uehiro Centre of Practical Ethics], showing that if overall IQs were raised by 3 per cent, poverty rates and the number of males in jail would both drop by 25 per cent and welfare dependence by 18 per cent." A search for the data turned it up in a 2006 paper [pdf], but it wasn't original to them. It was referenced to Herrnstein and Murray, 1994.

That's The Bell Curve, arguably the most controversial best-seller of its era because it claimed to identify racial differences in intelligence and draw policy conclusions from them. Stephen J. Gould, among others, put considerable effort into refuting it. Bob Herbert in the New York Times called it "a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship." The book still has its supporters, obviously, but it's interesting to see it cited at second-hand; perhaps it's now too toxic to be considered convincing. The Uehiro philosophers presumably do not endorse its racism, but they do seem to share its eugenic approach.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: