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Eugenics and Human Genetics
What is Eugenics?
Etymologically the term eugenics means “good genes” or “good birth.” The term comes from the ancient Greek words eu (good) and genos (birth or stock).
This etymological sense of the term does not necessarily have a negative connotation. All expecting parents naturally and understandably desire a good and healthy life for their child. It seems morally appropriate to take certain measures toward a good birth and a healthy baby, such as following a nutritious diet during pregnancy and adjusting one’s lifestyle choices to enable a successful pregnancy.
However, the term has a negative connotation when used to refer to a range of systematic breeding practices that most people would consider morally unacceptable.
Philosophical consideration of the genetics of human reproduction dates back at least to the
time of the Greek philosopher Plato, a student of Socrates, In the Republic. Plato reflected on the
idea of selective mating for the sake of producing children who would flourish both physically and mentally The English social scientist Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, viewing the idea of eugenics as an endeavor to encourage healthy adults to procreate as a
means of producing healthy children, Early 20th- century advocates of eugenics thought of the
concept in terms of “positive genetics” (i_e_, encouraging healthy adults to have more
children) and “negative eugenics” (ig„ discouraging or preventing adults considered
unhealthy from having children).
The History of Eugenics
The history of human efforts to engage in systematic eugenics includes many examples of practices that most would reject as morally wrong. For example, ancient cultures such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Aztecs are thought to have practiced infant sacrifice, believing the practice would ensure the well-being of the community. The ancient Spartans and Romans practiced infant exposure, in which babies with supposedly undesirable traits were left outside to die of exposure from the natural elements. The religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity strongly opposed such practices, as did ancient philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria,
In the 20th century, the Nazi regime in Germany oversaw the forced sterilization of hundreds of
thousands of people viewed as undesirable.
Similar efforts have been practiced in other countries more recently, as well. The One-Child policy in China has resulted in the modern-day infanticide and abandonment of baby girls, because many families feel that they must have a son.
In thinking about the morality and ethics of eugenics, it is helpful to focus on so-called “negative
eugenics Negative eugenics is the practice of preventing or discouraging individuals from
reproducing if they are considered undesirable for health, economic, racial, or sociocultural reasons. Practices may include compulsory sterilization, government-imposed laws forbidding interracial marriage, forced abortion, and contraception targeted at lower class sections of society.Arguments for Negative Eugenics
Over the past century, supporters of negative eugenics have argued from a consequentialist
perspective that the practice is morally justified because it leads to good social consequences,
and practices that lead to good consequences for society are morally right
Consider the normative theory of utilitarianism. It can be summarized in the following four basic
• Consequentialism: Consequences are morally significant Motives and intentions are not
• Maximization: The number of people affected by an action and its consequences is important;
the more people affected, the more important the action and result.
• A theory of value: The utilitarian tradition commonly defines value as something that
tends to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Happiness is defined as the state of
experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain.
• Scope of morality: Each person’s happiness counts as one unit of happiness up to a certain boundary. From this perspective, a supporter of eugenics might attempt to construct the following argument: • If an action will produce the best outcome for the greatest number of people, then we as a society ought to take that action. • To prevent or discourage the poor and the sick from reproducing will tend to produce the best outcome for society as a whole. • Therefore, we ought to prevent or discourage the poor and the sick from reproducing.
Arguments Against Negative Eugenics
However, one might object to this argument in several ways. First, one might underscore the fourth point of utilitarianism, noting that the happiness of a poor or sick person counts just as much as the happiness of any other person.
Second, one might appeal to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (Cl), which says that one should only do that which he or she could rationally choose for everyone, In other words, one should not do what he or she cannot reasonably universalize as a moral principle. Moreover, one should respect the innate value and dignity of every person. Thus, one should never treat any person as a mere means to an end, but instead should treat every person also as an end.
One cannot reasonably universalize the prevention or discouragement of human beings to reproduce. To do so would be to disrespect the humanity of that person by treating him or her as a mere means to the end of what would be considered the common good.
Third, one might argue from the virtue theory tradition that a person with a virtuous character
would not seek to prevent another person from having a child but would have love and
compassion for all persons, including the poor or sick, and would act with wisdom and justice at all times.
Fourth, one might appeal to natural law theory, arguing that to prevent or discourage the poor or
the sick from reproducing would be unnatural (against natural law), and hence would be morally wrong. Contemporary Developments
The concept of eugenics relates to some important contemporary developments in science, technology, and politics.
For example, the technologies enabling genetic engineering, “designer babies,” and disease
prevention have moral implications analogous to the ones we have discussed in this presentation. As we have seen, the concept of eugenics has broad moral implications, concerning both so-called “positive” and “negative” eugenics. An investigation and evaluation of arguments for and against eugenic techniques and practices can help us develop a deeper understanding of the relevance of eugenics to normative ethics in the 21st century.
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