Recently Oxford philosophy professor Julian Savulescu moved his campaign for "moral enhancement" out of the ivory tower and into the mainstream. This month Reader's Digest is carrying his article, "It's Our Duty to Have Designer Babies," in which he promotes the idea that "people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children." By select he means to screen embryos genetically to determine which will have superior moral traits.
As a historian, I find his suggestions troubling. They seem to parallel the misguided attempts of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which promoted the artificial selection of individuals by controlling reproduction. This led not only to compulsory sterilization laws in many U.S. states, but also to the Nazi campaign to kill the disabled, during which physicians murdered more than 200,000 people.
Savulescu tries to assure us that the new eugenics that he is proposing is essentially different from the early eugenics movement. The objectionable feature of the early movement, he claims, was its compulsory nature, while the new eugenics is voluntary.
However, if Savulescu convinces us that "designing" moral babies is an obligation, how long will it remain voluntary? In 2008 he was singing a different tune. In an article that Savulescu co-authored, he advocated coercion: "If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory."
His recent insistence that "moral enhancement" would be voluntary might just be window dressing to make his views more palatable. But even if it were voluntary, his proposal to improve the human species morally by genetically selecting the most moral individuals is fraught with problems, both philosophical and practical:
(1) The science on which it rests is shaky. Savulescu claims that because of advances in genetics we "now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes." This claim is not scientifically proven. The early eugenics movement also claimed scientific status for overblown claims about heredity, and most scientists now see it as "pseudo-scientific." Even if some behaviors are biological, they are influenced by many genes. The idea that we can produce more moral humans by choosing this particular gene and eliminating another is simplistic and does not do justice to the real science of genetics.
(2) If humans are largely marionettes of our DNA without any real moral choices, as Savulescu implies, then it is hard to know why he thinks we have any real moral duties or obligations at all. If morality is merely the product of random mutations occurring over eons of evolutionary time, then morality is subjective and changes over time. The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse have famously stated that "ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate." If this is so, then Savulescu's moral imperative - the "duty to have designer babies" - evaporates. It's an illusion. There is no such thing as "moral enhancement," because there is no goal toward which to improve.
(3) What specific moral traits should we promote? If both altruism and selfishness are biological traits bequeathed on us by evolution, then what rational grounds do we have to prefer one to the other? Savulescu and I agree that altruism is superior to selfishness, but James Watson, one of the most famous geneticists of all time, advised young scientists to be selfish. Maybe Watson would select DNA to make people selfish, while Savulescu would choose altruistic DNA.
(4) Savulescu ironically assumes that the very humans in need of "moral enhancement" will make wise moral decisions about genetic selection. Hmm.
(5) The selection he is proposing is itself ethically controversial, because it involves embryo screening and selective abortion. In concrete terms Savulescu is proposing killing human embryos that are deemed genetically less moral and preserving those deemed more moral.
I applaud Savulescu's goal of making people more loving and moral. However, his program undermines itself, because it strips away the true meaning of love and morality. What he really means is: My DNA tells me that I should select DNA that makes people more moral. My response: My DNA does not tell me that, and even if it did, why should I listen to a bunch of chemicals?
Richard Weikart is a professor of history at California State University in Turlock, Calif.