Archive for February, 2012

In this week’s meeting, we explored the range of eugenic thought and policies. As a preparation for the discussion, we read the “Geneticists’ manifesto”, a document written in 1939 (shortly before the war) during the 7th Genetics Congress in Edinburgh. The manifesto essentially proposes broad steps deemed necessary the group for the effective genetic improvement of the world’s population. Interestingly, the manifesto was voluntarily signed by many eminent persons at the time, such as J.B.S. Haldane, R.A. Emerson, and J.S. Huxley, to name a few. The manifesto proposes the need for social and economic equality as well as the abandonment of prejudice before any effective form of improvement could be accomplished. Measures such as birth control, dissemination of knowledge on the biological principles involved in selection and agreement of the direction of improvement are discussed as more pro-active eugenic methods.

We began the meeting by proposing our personal definitions of two key terms that will be central throughout the semester: eugenics and dysgenics. Although we have opted to formally “undefine” these terms for the remainder of the semester because of their emotionally loaded nature which would impede rather than assist discussion, this exercise served to help us think about our own biases and what elements we intuitively think should define these terms. Many ideas emerged and most of them can be fit into the following broad categories:

Intent: the idea that a conscious decision is necessary for eugenics. This essentially gets at the question of whether policies that have eugenic effects but whose goal was other than eugenic should be considered as eugenics.

Improvement: simply the idea that eugenics seeks improvement through genetics.

Necessity of institution: This relates to whether institutions (government, private institutions, etc.) are a necessary part of eugenics/dysgenics.

Positive/negative: There are two main ways in which eugenics can contribute to improvement: either through some sort of positive effect (e.g. stipends for parents with desired genes) or by mitigating negative effects (e.g. stipends for sterilization of people with undesired genes).

An interesting alternative definition, suggested by AJ, proposes defining eugenics as the attempt by those with slow life history strategies (r-selection) to lower the fitness of others with fast life history strategies (K-selection).

Although everyone agreed that improvement is a necessary component to eugenics, the direction of improvement had yet to be discussed. In the end, we used the broad definition exposed in the “geneticists’ manifesto” as an operational definition:

The most important genetic objectives, from a social point of view, are the improvement of those genetic characteristics which make (a) for health, (b) for the complex called intelligence and (c) for those temperamental qualities which favour fellow-feeling and social behaviour rather than those (today most esteemed by many) which make for personal “success,” as success is usually understood at present.
In order to help frame arguments used for and against eugenics, we briefly discussed ethics. Ethical systems basically break down into three categories: Deontology, Consequentialism and Virtue ethics.

Essentially, within this system of ethics, there are set rules that one should follow and following them (your behavior) is more important than the outcome. Expressions such as “duty for duty’s sake” are characteristic of deontological ethics. In this case, contrary to the popular expression, “the means justify the end

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This system of ethics resides at the other end of the spectrum from deontology, where the outcome is more important that the behavior that led to them. In this case, the “end justifies the means”.

Virtue ethics:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines deontology as follows: “Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.”

As a general rule, arguments against eugenics tend to be deontological while arguments for eugenics tend to be consequentialist.

The “Geneticists’ manifesto”, which advocates for social, racial, ethnic and economic equality, as well as proposes social programs such as assistance for parents , has a clearly Marxist penchant. Although this is not surprising, Marxism and collectivism had its greatest impact on the early half of the 20th century, it is important to underline that for the second half of the 20th century (~60’s and 70’s), there has been a general shift from collectivism to individualism where questions of morality and liberty are assessed primarily in terms of individuals.

Having laid the appropriate groundwork, we went on to discuss various eugenic policies, those with express eugenic aims as well as those with incidental eugenic effects, institutions, and programs. In order to facilitate the discussion, we tried to plot these on a graph whose axes were (x-axis) a range of individual to collective behaviors and (y-axis) a range of negative to positive eugenics (Negative eugenics involves discouraging those with undesirable traits, while positive eugenics encourages those with desirable traits to have more children.)


Although in the end plotting these on a graph proved more difficult than anticipated (is a sperm bank collective or individual?), it proved to be a worthwhile exercise encouraging debate. It forces you to think about how most of these can fit at multiple locations on the graph and how our own predispositions might bias us to assume that only one position is possible.

Lastly, we discussed the Supreme Court Decision of of Buck v. Bell which legitimized eugenic sterilization in the US. Specifically, the case is about Carrie Buck, a mentally deficient woman who was committed to the Virginia State Colony of Epileptics and Feeble Minded. She was the daughter of a mentally deficient mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate mentally deficient child. The case debates whether the State has the right to sterilize the “mentally defective”, for the “health of the patient and the welfare of society” and finds in favor sterilization.

The problem is that the US Bill of rights aims to limit the power given to the government and does not ensure specific rights to individuals. Specifically, there is no special protection to the right to reproduce. Therefore the State can decide who can and who can’t reproduce. This begs the question of whether reproduction should be a right or a privilege. From a individualist point of view, which is currently en vogue, it is definitely a right. The legislature however does not yet reflect this as this right is not currently protected. From a collectivist point of view, it should be a privilege.

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