This article is about 1) how a taboo against incestuous reproduction could be used to make the political mainstream comfortable with (explicit) eugenics, and 2) other ethical considerations surrounding human genetic enhancement – in that order.
One must differentiate what I call implicit and explicit eugenics. The implicit version encompasses those things which all people do in the interest of “good genes” but without actually thinking of it in those terms, such as mate selection.
An explicit, or more explicit, example is the outlawing of incest. The case for doing so is easy to make. Incest can lead to inbred children, and this is probably, in part, responsible for the neuroses that afflict the Islamic world, for theirs is a hyper-consanguineous culture. In recent times, I have come to think that the only chapter in the history of the European Church that one can praise without a dozen or more extensive caveats was their prohibition of inbreeding. As HBD Chick has discussed, this was instrumental in the evolutionary trajectory of (especially north-western) Europeans and the development of uniquely European traits such as individualism.
But how much difference do anti-incest laws make now? I would wager not much. Consanguineous breeding among Europeans is a highly marginal phenomenon even in places where it is legal, and I do not see how criminalising it could be any more effective than anti-drug laws. But Westerners have negative reactions to both incest and explicit eugenics. This could be seized upon, in theory: allow the consensually incestuous adults to have children, but make it mandatory for them to go through screening of the embryo’s genome first once the technology is widespread. The procedure could then be extended to, for example, mothers of advanced age, and then beyond.
The word eugenics is also a problem. Trying to revive it is pointless. A far better strategy would be to adopt a term which is descriptively accurate but with none of the nasty connotations, such as “directed evolution”. Saying “eugenics” purely to inflame people is childish.
I am sceptical of the reflexive libertarian position on human enhancement with respect to traits such as IQ, neuroticism, and all diseases with a genetic basis. Note: abortion-related concerns are moot since this is mostly about pre-implantation embryo selection. I do not see how refusing to use this technology when it is available is morally superior to child abuse. “You may allow a car to be built with a sub-optimal design, but you may not damage it once it is built” seems like the position of people who would condemn the latter but endorse the former of these. Allowing nature to take its course is now a choice, not an inevitability. Why should people be free to make that choice? Again, this is specifically with respect to the traits I mentioned.
Many mainstream leftists who balk at these possibilities are happy to accept that vaccinating one’s children be mandatory. So am I. So why not: increasing children’s genotypic IQ above a certain threshold (whatever it may be), or reducing their genetic propensity to experience negative emotion? Again this is a morally inconsistent position: “You are allowed to improve your car once it is built, but you may not just make better cars or, heaven forbid, mandate that better cars be built.” These mainstream leftists should just accept the moral salience of willfully increasing potential for future harm to their children by either refusing to have them vaccinated or refusing to genetically enhance them.
People will make excuses for why the analogy with vaccination is not a comparable situation, but people only come up with these post hoc. It is like when libertarians whine about the government’s taking away all their money but have no problem with huge global corporations’ outsourcing jobs to foreigners, either home or abroad. The net result is the same: fewer job opportunities – and therefore less money.
Neuroticism and low IQ are things that we happen to not give disease-like names to, up to a point. Where and why is that point set? Well, with neuroticism it is where you are continuously anxious about everything and nothing (generalised anxiety disorder), because this impedes daily functioning. With IQ it is 70, because a person with an IQ below 70 seldom if ever has the wherewithal to perform basic tasks. That threshold will go up, however, when society is technologically complex enough that even those of us between 100 and 135 are rendered useless. As for neuroticism, people are shit-scared of jumping out of planes even though skydiving is, statistically, probably less dangerous than a whole lot of other things they do without a second thought, such as driving. People’s brains are not equipped to assess risk in a technified society such as ours, and neuroticism is strongly anti-correlated with about a thousand negative life outcomes. Some people argue that there is a trade-off to be made with it for “creativity”, but one does not need an anxiety disorder to be creative, and I doubt that whatever difference it makes is worth it in QALYs.
“Everything is allowed unless it is explicitly forbidden. Something is only explicitly forbidden if it can be shown empirically to be harmful.” I do not literally think of those words every time I am pondering solutions to some social problem, but if you reverse-engineer my ideas about society, you will end up with some formula similar to this. I believe this is quite close to the mentality of the typical libertarian, except the primary difference is that most self-identified libertarians would never countenance forbidding inaction, e.g. not vaccinating one’s children. Luckily, I am not so arrogant as to assume the point of view of the universe. Not everyone agrees with me about what should or should not be mandatory. That is fine. They should not have to live around me, nor I them.