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Liberal EugenicsReview - Liberal Eugenics
In Defence Of Human Enhancement
by Nicholas Agar
Blackwell, 2004
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
May 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 21)

In the movie, GATTACA, Uma Thurman's character presents a single hair from the body of a potential mate for DNA sequencing. All of the hair's genetic information is represented in a few pages of printout, which then gets reduced to a single number. "9.3," someone says, "quite a catch" (see 20). If only dating, human behavior, and genetics were so easy. They aren't, however, in large part because genetic determinism -- the position that our identity and behavior are reducible entirely to our genes such that an exact genetic copy of a person is equal to the person herself -- is false. Unfortunately, however, not only Hollywood thinks differently; so too does a large percentage of the population as well as some people, perhaps many, engaged in genetic research. Genetic determinism, then, constitutes one of the central difficulties in any discussion about genetic enhancement and cloning. There are further difficulties with the topic Agar has tackled. The term "eugenics" is rife with vile connotations emanating primarily from the Nazi eugenics program, which attempted to get rid of races and ethnicities the Nazi's thought inferior. There is also a third problem that mirrors the one just mentioned. Despite the gusto, zeal, and hubris that many researchers (aided by the press) have displayed with respect to the incredible benefits to be had by genomics and gene therapy research, the technology has thus far produced incredibly few therapeutic or enhancement results. It has come to the point that when I hear some genetic biotechnologist speak of its incredible benefits, I think of President Bush standing aboard the bow of the USS Abraham Lincoln proudly pronouncing, "mission accomplished."

To his credit, Agar deals with all three of these problems. He is perhaps most successful in his repudiation of genetic determinism by showing throughout his book that our genes, like our environment, merely increases probabilities of certain states of affairs or behaviors without determining anything specific.

Agar also does good work in separating the eugenics he supports from the eugenics favored by the Nazis. The latter is a type of "authoritarian eugenics" where, in its most extreme form, the state both defines what counts as a good human life and institutes restrictive reproductive policies to ensure that the population gets radically reformed to conform to their ideas. Agar instead supports liberal eugenics, which promotes reproductive freedom by allowing parents the freedom to make choices regarding the genetic makeup of their (potential) children. This raises an issue. Given that genes do influence one's life, we must deal with the fact that when left on their own, (some) people will make bad choices that could have nasty effects on their (potential) children. Imagine, as Agar does, a parent from a strict fundamentalist sect who wishes to alter the genes of their potential child by reducing his intelligence so that he will be more likely to accept the narrow views of his parents. Liberalism has typically dealt with this problem via the harm principle, which allows individuals freedom over actions that harm no third parties, but restricts actions harmful to others. The problem applying this principle here is twofold: (i) we are referring to potential people, and (ii) it's unclear what counts as a harm in this context.

Agar suggests that these two problems are endemic to discussions of genetic enhancement. To deal with the issue of uncertainty regarding the viability and safety of genetic therapies, Agar employs what he calls "pragmatic optimism about enhancement technologies" as a heuristic device. Here, we simply assume the effectiveness of a new enhancement technology -- e.g., we assume that cloning humans presents no more risks than sexual reproduction. This isn't to say that we ought to accept unjustifiable optimism regarding genetic enhancement technologies. The point of the assumption rather is to see what follows morally from assuming a technological best case scenario. It allows us, in effect, to separate moral questions from technological ones. I'm not as comfortable with this assumption as Agar is since I think that at the very least we face a great deal of moral problems in proceeding from our current scientific and technological state to the future state Agar assumes. For example, progressing from our current state where cloning humans is unacceptably dangerous to a state where it is not will require experiments on human embryos. Can such experiments be done in a morally acceptable way? Agar's pragmatic optimism bypasses this altogether, although, it needs to be noted, he does address this problem in the last chapter of his book where he examines genetic enhancement technological without assuming "pragmatic optimism." Unfortunately, however, his discussion there is deeply problematic. In brief, he claims that it is simply a matter of fact that some unsavory scientists will engage in unethical genetic enhancement research and that research will eventually produce relatively safe ways to engage in genetic enhancement technology. So although we couldn't morally justify that research, we are now entitled to use the knowledge created by it. This raises the moral morass of "nasty knowledge." Are we, for example, now allowed to use knowledge about hypothermia and its treatment that was acquired immorally by the Nazis? Agar attempts to sidestep this, however, by claiming a relevant difference between the Nazi researchers, who did not care about the welfare of their research subjects, and the genetic enhancement researchers who will genuinely care. I'm not as optimistic as Agar regarding the benevolent motives of all scientists, nor do I think that benevolent motives would settle the issue anyway. The fact that I genuinely think I am acting benevolently toward my children by beating them whenever they question my beliefs (because I think that holding those beliefs is the best way to secure a happy and fulfilling life) doesn't necessarily justify my actions.

The second problem regarding moral assessment of eugenics stems, according to Agar, from the fact that though our moral theories work reasonably well when applied to actual people in more or less known circumstances, they are often unsuitable when dealing with potential people in situations of considerable uncertainty. In order to deal with this problem, Agar suggests a 'new' methodology, the "method of moral images," which operates as a practical tool to help us think in a consistent fashion about unfamiliar moral situations by comparing those situations to familiar ones. For example, suppose I'm wondering whether it is morally permissible to add an extra copy of the gene NR2B or gene IGF-1 to make my child more brainy or brawny, respectively. Agar suggests we can find help here by comparing it to the more familiar cases where we alter the environment in which we place our children -- their education, diet, friends, after school activities -- to make them more intelligent or physically stronger. Our intuitions about the latter case can then be applied back to the former case.

I'm not certain what differentiates this type of argument from the more familiar one of analogical reasoning -- except that sometimes Agar seems to think of the method of moral images as a mental picture rather than an argument form -- and unfortunately Agar doesn't tell us. This is important in part because while analogical arguments are tremendously helpful in getting us to think of novel situations, they are notoriously suspect as argument forms that can produce a justifiable conclusion since it is always possible to question whether the two cases being compared are genuinely similar in important and relevant ways. That Agar doesn't explain and defend his methodology more fully is particularly problematic because Agar uses this method as the basis for the three core chapters of his book where he compares genetic enhancement technology to "therapy," "nature," and "nurture." Space constraints allow me only to provide the conclusions Agar draws in these chapters. (1) Genetic enhancement typically does not count as a therapy since therapy aims to make people well, and not 'better than well.' Moreover, if genetic enhancement were genuinely therapeutic, then it would obligate caregivers and health care workers to use it and this is incompatible with the choices Agar wants to allow in his endorsement of liberal eugenics. (2) Regarding nature, Agar proposes the "nature principle:" If we are permitted to leave unchanged a given genetic arrangement in the genomes of our future children, we are also permitted to introduce it" (99). (3) Finally, Agar also proposes a principle regarding nurture: "if we are permitted to produce certain traits by modifying our children's environments, then we are also permitted to produce them by modifying their genomes" (113).

Overall, Agar presents some interesting ideas couched in nuanced arguments on very difficult issues. One could argue that he doesn't produce any startling results, but then he didn't intend to. His aim, rather, was to offer a defense of liberal genetics against the conservative positions of people such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukayama -- who oppose almost all forms of genetic enhancement -- without endorsing the unbridled and unrestrained optimism of posthumanists such as Lee Silver and Mark Walker. In carving out this middle ground Agar has done a commendable job.


2006 Scott Stewart


Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Cape Breton University, Sydney, NS, Canada


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