Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A brief rant about procreative beneficence ...

My first ever academic publication was an article criticizing Julian Savulescu's ethical concept of 'procreative beneficence' - see here for my article (or email me if you're come up against a paywall). Savulesu originally published his argument in 2001, so it's been around a while now (to precis Savulescu, he thinks that parents have an obligation to select children with high intelligence on the assumption they'll have the best life). Basically, and to not mince my words, I think it's nonsense - ethically, conceptually, empirically, politically, etc., etc.  - and dangerous nonsense at that - i.e. it's an example of market eugenics, or (more poetically) the promotion of a "MasterCard Race" (thanks to Colm and Allyson for inspiring that one!).

Now, I'm asked, every now and again, by academic journals to review papers about the concept, which I largely agree to do. I recently reviewed a paper for the Journal of Applied Philosophy because I'd reviewed another paper for them a year ago on the same topic - and this new paper was a response to that one.

Generally, I wouldn't make a blog comment like this, but I'm really just astounded at how persistent this ethical concept is, despite being nonsense (in my view). It makes me wonder how some concepts or theories persist for so long, while other ones don't even make it past a quick browse. Probably, and without doing any analysis of its reception, the concept of procreative beneficence (or PB) has stuck around because it's nonsense (or controversial if you want to be polite) and because it provides so much fodder for people to pick apart.

Anyway, here is why I think it's nonsense (you might need to read Savulescu's article before any of this makes sense) ... 

  • We can’t predict future so can’t tell what will be best for a child.
  • Entails problem of teleology; PB assumes we can know what best life of a child will be over their entire life course, some 70-80 years into the future (or even 100 years if we ‘select’ for longevity), at the end of that life, and we'll know that now. 
  • This assumes (a) we will know what life will be like over next 70-80 years; (b) we will know what the best life will be over next 70-80 years; and (c) we can tell all this from a test done before birth. 
  • Yet, PB is explicitly about making decisions on basis of “relevant, available information” and, therefore, we cannot make any such decision to select some non-disease trait because all we can go on are assumptions (i.e. tomorrow will be like today). 
  • PB implies parents should only select kids with tentacles/gills if they ‘believe’ (or ‘think’) strongly enough that it will give the child the best life (i.e. if they think the world will be flooded in next 50 years and we’ll all have to live like Waterworld). Why not select a third arm? That might give you a better life than two arms? 
  • Assumes positivistic cause-effect relation between genetics and behaviour (PB really should be updated to account for genomics). Basically, it’s out of date, scientifically.

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