Monday, November 07, 2005

Hauskeller - Agar's 'Liberal Eugenics'

"The title of this clear, scientifically well informed and philosophically sophisticated study is slightly misleading. What Agar is primarily interested in and what he strives to defend is not so much human enhancement as reproductive freedom. Whereas traditional eugenics is concerned with the improvement of human stock and its proponents consequently advocate a strict regulation of reproduction, Agar does not want to commit himself to a particular view of what would count as such an improvement. People have different conceptions of what makes a good life and what characteristics are desirable. From a liberal perspective, these differences ought to be respected, which rules out any form of authoritarian eugenics. What humans should be like is not for the State to decide. For the same reason, however, people should also be free to use enhancement technologies on their children in order to realize their own personal conception of human excellence, i.e. to make their children, in accordance with their own standards, better than they would otherwise be. Here, likewise, the state has no right to interfere. Just as a liberal outlook precludes any form of authoritarian eugenics, it encourages us to adopt a liberal eugenics which embraces not a monistic but a pluralistic view of human excellence. In this manner, "an evil doctrine" is being transformed into "a morally acceptable one." (135)

Unlike philosophers such as Jonathan Glover or John Harris, Agar does not claim that we have a moral duty to provide and use enhancement technologies. However, he argues that consistency with the moral values prevalent in a contemporary liberal democracy requires us to tolerate their development and use. There is no particular ethical theory on which Agar bases his conclusions. Instead of arguing from a Kantian, a utilitarian or any other ethical theory's perspective, he is looking for practices which we have already accepted as morally justified or, on the contrary, as not justifiable. By comparing a still unfamiliar practice to similar but familiar practices which "elicit moral reactions of which we are confident" (39), we get hold of moral images which indicate how morally to evaluate the unfamiliar. This "method of moral images" helps us to decide, without recourse to ethical theory, whether we ought to ban, tolerate or encourage the use of enhancement technologies. Since Agar wants to convince us that we should tolerate the development and use of enhancement technologies, he needs to demonstrate that those moral images which would support his view are in relevant respects closer to the practice of genetic enhancement than those that would rather support its ban or, on the contrary, an obligation to make use of it." - NDPR.


MH said...

The problem with Agar's position - if this book is simply an exgesis of his paper 'Liberal Eugenics' - is that reproductive freedom (and any right to such freedom) is an insufficient basis for the claim that genetic modification is ethically permissible. Rather, Agar's position is only a case for not legeally restricting the ability to use genetic modification.

Samuel Douglas said...

Is the differnce between a "basis for the claim that genetic modification is ethically permissible" and a "case for not legeally restricting the ability to use genetic modification" that signifigant? I understand that not everything that is legal is ethically permissable. But there is a popular perception that these two restrictions should at least roughly line up, especially when it concerns important decisions. My point is that if there is a good case for not making something illegal then it could not be that unethical, or the good that could come of it would outweigh the negative effects and so on.

Alternativley, it could just mean that there is a lot of money to be made in genetic modificaiton, and this, despite significant discomfort that many people have with the idea of this technology, keeps it legal.