, ,

[content warning: eugenics, discussion of various morally reprehensible thought experiments]

I just read The Infamous Chapters In Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics In Favor Of Murdering Disabled Babies, and I am not entirely sure that his argument holds.

Singer’s argument is that, under total utilitarianism, it is ethical to kill a potential person when either the potential person’s life will probably contain more misery than happiness or when the potential person is “replaceable”– that is, when the parents, after an abortion, will have another child of equal or greater happiness. (Under another form of utilitarianism, which he calls “prior existence” utilitarianism, it is wrong to kill beings that already exist but okay to fail to bring beings into existence.) He therefore argues that it is ethical to abort hemophiliac babies, even though hemophiliacs’ lives contain more happiness than misery.

(Singer argues that infants are potential people, rather than people. I buy his argument, but I know a lot of people don’t and it’s somewhat irrelevant to my point, so for the rest of this post let’s just assume Magically Awesome Genetic Testing.)

However, I think this argument may prove too much.

Imagine a mixed-race couple. They know their children may be read as white or black. If their children are read as black, they will face a lot of racism: hiring discrimination; an increased risk of being arrested and harassed by police; disparities in health care. On the other hand, if their child is read as white, the child will not face this discrimination. Is it ethical for them to abort any fetuses the Magically Awesome Genetic Testing predicts will have African features?

Most people would say “no”.

Now, you might say that this is unnecessarily rewarding racists. We should not respond to racists by getting rid of all the people they don’t like, because that just encourages people to be racist. On the other hand, a lot of the harm from disability comes from failure to accommodate people with disabilities– things like an absence of wheelchair ramps. Surely the same argument proves that we shouldn’t reward ableist refusal to accommodate disabled people by aborting disabled babies.

You could say that there’s a difference between those things, because accommodating disabled people costs abled people a lot. On the other hand, becoming less racist also costs people a lot (particularly if you consider subconscious racism). I suspect that most black people would respond to this hypothetical with “I don’t CARE how hard it is for white people to stop being racist, they should still stop being racist! We should not abort black babies!”

Similarly, imagine a couple that said that they didn’t want any children with IQs below 120. Would it be ethical for them to abort all children with IQs below 120? (And, yes, having an IQ above 120 is correlated with happiness.)

This is perhaps a more direct comparison to the problem of aborting intellectually disabled children than the blackness example. Thanks to the Flynn Effect, a person whose IQ means they would be intellectually disabled now would be neurotypical in 1900; therefore, aborting intellectually disabled children today is basically the same as aborting non-gifted children in 1900. (…assuming 1900 had Magically Awesome Genetic Testing.) If you would be against a couple aborting all their nongifted children, you really should be against a couple aborting all their intellectually disabled children.

I suspect some people– perhaps including Peter Singer– would bite the bullet on this one and say that it is fine for parents to abort nongifted children and children who don’t pass as white. But I suspect that many people would have more repulsion to both hypotheticals. (Indeed, a partner of mine who is quite pro-eugenics blanched when I suggested reducing the risk of me having a child with antisocial personality disorder by aborting all male babies.)

I am extremely confused about eugenics but I think I might be able to sketch out an argument.

I think there is a solid case to be made that diversity of minds and (less so) bodies contributes to human flourishing. Obviously, of course, people with different minds are good at different things: if everyone wanted intellectually challenging work, then maids and garbagepeople would universally be miserable. But beyond that, I think that there’s an advantage to society having a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different desires, a lot of weirdness. Perhaps this is merely a personal aesthetic preference or a cultural bias from someone who grew up in a diversity-prioritizing culture, and I certainly can’t ground it in any principled fashion. But I think my life is better off when there are people who are far different from me.

My intuition is that mind-selective abortion is more morally problematic than body-selective abortion. A society where everyone looked exactly the same would be a bit confusing (although maybe what it’s like for faceblind people all the time!), whereas a society where everyone thought exactly the same would be horrifyingly dull. My intuition is also that abortion to eliminate disabilities like autism, which affect all of one’s mental functioning, are much more morally problematic than abortion to eliminate disabilities like dyscalculia, which are limited to a specific area.

A common objection to anti-eugenics arguments is that it would be very strange if the optimal level of diversity for human flourishing is the level that happened to come about because of genetic mutations, evolutionary pressures, etc. I agree. But I am also a transhumanist so it is not remotely problematic for me to agree that there should be far more diversity of minds.

The diversity argument also shows why race-selective and disability-selective abortion is objectionable in ways that non-selective failing to bring potential people into existence is not. Me choosing to abort a child I’m not financially ready for (or, for that matter, to not be pregnant right now, or to choose one potential father over another) does not reduce the amount of diversity that exists in the world.

However, the diversity argument doesn’t mean that we should be against all eugenics or even all abortions of disabled babies. It is kind of an asshole move to go “yes, you are in tremendous pain for the entirety of your life, but the diversity your suffering adds enriches society.” The eugenic elimination of Tay-Sachs– which even the most ardent anti-eugenicists are usually in favor of– is perfectly legitimate. Similarly, I suspect eugenic elimination of major depressive disorder would be perfectly ethical.