Thursday, April 15, 2021


 It is, alas, an unfortunate feature of the times in which we live that the old barbarisms keep trying to sneak back in under the name of progress and ethics. I suppose it was inevitable; one thing that is absolutely certain is that at some point or another people are always going to try to convince others that evils are really such-and-such goods; nothing defends like ethics, and so nothing is so abused for defending wrongs as ethics. And, alas again, one of the barbarisms trying to sneak in is old-fashioned eugenics.

And thus we are brought to Veit, Anomaly, Singer, Agar, Minerva, and Fleischman's "Can 'Eugenics' Be Defended?" I will call the committee of authors, VASAMF. VASAMF want to argue that when people say that something is eugenics, it's a matter of semantics rather than ethics and policy. Of course, this is obviously going to be the game. Most people, in using the label 'eugenics', are in fact already making an implicit ethical argument about what is being so labeled; but VASAMF will try to sweep this way as nothing but a bit of verbal rhetoric, and then ask, "Where's the ethical argument?" As they put it:

To call a person a ‘eugenicist’ or deem a practice ‘eugenics’ is often accepted as a substitute for an argument. However, all human societies engage in a variety of practices that are both widely accepted and plainly eugenic. In the West, most pregnant women test for disorders such as Down syndrome, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. Many people choose to terminate pregnancies that are likely to result in a genetic disorder or disability. Incest is forbidden in most cultures and cousin marriage is illegal in many nations for transparently eugenic reasons: the children that result are more likely to suffer from a disorder or disability. Perhaps the most straightforwardly eugenic policy is the provision of genetic counselling among at-risk ethnic groups to prevent the birth of, for example, children with Tay-Sachs, sickle cell disease and thalassemia. 
The important conclusion is this: everyone who considers pre-natal testing justifiable, or who thinks women should be free to weigh genetic information in the selection of a spouse or a sperm donor is a eugenicist.

There's a neat sleight of hand here with the 'plainly'; despite the fact that VASAMF's opponents clearly are not using the term to indicate something "all human societies engage in", VASAMF claim that such practices are 'plainly' eugenic. But it is in fact essential to the argument here to determine whether they are eugenic in the sense being condemned. (In fact, many people would say that the pregnancy terminations are eugenics in the relevant sense, and nobody intends to say that selecting your spouse in part on the basis of whether they are generally health is eugenics in the relevant sense -- it's just not the sort of thing that's meant at all. Of course, you could try to argue that these are close enough. But to do that you would first have to determine what the opponents meant, not try to impose a meaning on them.)  But there is a more subtle sleight of hand before this, namely, in the assertion without argument that the use of the label 'eugenics' is "often accepted as a substitute for argument". A substitute for argument. But this is not at all so. It is a shorthand for a family of arguments. Unfortunately, this is a common error of philosophers in dealing with ethical matters of widespread public concern, namely, not grasping that many of the arguments are often found in highly abbreviated form.

If someone condemns you because, in their words, your advocacy of a certain thing is 'eugenics', this is in fact an argument. It's not an abstract classification; it's suggesting a conclusion on the basis of something. The implicit argument is that your advocacy is to be condemned because it is close enough to count (for at least practical purposes) as the kind of commonly condemned thing we call 'eugenics' to fall under the same condemnation. This may or may not be true, and, to be sure, it is not a rigorous proof. It is a defeasible argument, based on a default presumption that you avoid something very bad (the clear eugenics cases) by avoiding things of a certain kind of close similarity unless you have reason to think the similarity merely apparent, and it's the kind of argument in which we could be divided by different judgment calls over just how close is 'close enough'. But it is an argument.

In any case, VASAMF make an error that is at least broadly similar to one for which I criticized Nobis and Dudley quite harshly; what they need is for the cases to be similar in precisely the way that would be morally relevant, since we are talking about a morally relevant use of the term 'eugenics'. But the kinds of practices that they want to sweep under the same univocal label are very different, and they do nothing to determine if there might be reasonable grounds for separating them off from the kind of things that are condemned. To be sure, eugenics does include things that are very different, but all of the actions that they mention respond to genetic information very differently:

abortion of Down's babies, etc.
making incest and cousin marriage illegal
providing counseling to people whose pregnancies would involve a high risk of genetic problems
treating pre-natal testing as justifiable at all
weighing genetic information in determining a spouse or sperm donor

The first of these is often condemned as eugenics, and is in fact the sort of thing you might do if you were interested in eugenics, and historically has often been done for explicitly eugenic reasons; the second is exceedingly widespread, and contrary to the claim made, is commonly supported even by people who have hardly considered questions of genetics in their lives, on the basis of custom, religion, disgust at incest. Sure, one could advocate it for eugenic reasons, but it's far from the only justification on the table. The third and fourth need not be eugenic in intent at all -- you could do these things just so people can have information that they need to prepare, for instance. Again, you could do this for specifically eugenic further purposes; but informing yourself, or making sure others are informed, are not automatically the kinds of things most people would consider eugenics. The same is the case for the fifth.

All of these things might indeed be done for explicit eugenic reasons, and probably sometimes are; so the point is not that these couldn't be condemned for eugenics in particular cases. And in the first case, the abortion case, there are people who would argue that this is, in fact, eugenics, whether done explicitly for that purpose or not. But VASAMF are doing something very much like Nobis and Dudley's attempting to make a particular kind of action permissible (killing human beings in a given case) on the basis of a vague sense of similarity with cases supposed to be permissible. Nobody condemning something as 'eugenics' is using the word to indicate a similarity to any and every consideration of genetics in reproductive matters; it's similarities to certain specific cases that are widely condemned, on the points for which they are widely condemned. And you will have to look in context in order to determine what the primary reference point is -- what is it that is triggering this classification, and why?

But VASAMF are pretty clearly playing with words, as we can see in their argument, influenced by Philip Kitcher, that both trying to engage in eugenic actions and not trying to engage in eugenic actions are both equally eugenics, because they affect reproductive outcomes. At this rate, everything gets counted as 'eugenics', but we are in fact still where we were to begin with: people were condemning things for a reason -- they weren't randomly bringing up the word -- and all VASAMF have to offer is a bunch of verbal quibbling. The primary cleverness is to engage in all this unargued verbal tap-dancing while implying that their opponents are making purely verbal claims without argument.

The wrongness of eugenics, as a historical movement, was manifold; there was not just one single problem with it. Some things were egregiously evil, and are widely recognized as so, as the case with medical atrocities committed by Nazis or by American eugenicists against blacks or the disabled; others were less egregious, and in some cases not even necessarily wrong in themselves, but enabled much worse things, bringing society closer to atrocity under the guise of something less obviously wrong, or even something permissible but dangerous if you're not careful. When people condemn something as eugenics, they are sometimes not saying, "This falls under a strict definition of 'eugenics'" (or, for that matter, "This falls under VASAMF's super-hyper-extended definition of 'eugenics'"). Sometimes they are saying something more like, "This looks like the kind of thing that brings us closer to a society of eugenic-based atrocities". Sometimes they are saying something like, "What possible reason could there be for accepting this if not the kind of reasons that have ended so badly in the past?" Sometimes they are saying, "This seems to subvert the customs and safeguards we have been trying to keep in place to prevent eugenics-atrocities of the sort we have known in the past." VASAMF make a big deal about the importance of focusing on the ethics rather than the words, but this is precisely what they themselves do not do; they dismiss as mere words what are obviously and undeniably ethical concerns. No doubt there will be times when they are unfounded concerns -- e.g., people misunderstanding what is going on, or going on just a vague association in their own imaginations, both of which happen a lot in other cases -- but it's absurd to pretend that they aren't already focusing on the ethics.