Monday, July 09, 2007

"Eugenics" or just family planning?

No Right Turn accuses Dr. Jim Flynn of advocating eugenics -- "putting contraceptives in the water supply to stop the poor from breeding." He goes on to insinuate that Flynn is sexist and illiberal. That's an awfully vicious misreading of what the guy actually said:
"The lower down the educational scale you go, the less people are in control of their lives, and less in control of planning for children," [Flynn] said. [...] Unplanned pregnancies by less educated women could be reduced, perhaps by future scientific advances.

"I do have faith in science, and science may give us something that renders conception impossible unless you take an antidote," he said. "You could of course have a chemical in the water supply and have to take an antidote. If you had contraception made easier by progress, then every child is a wanted child."

Contra NRT, this is not an attempt to "justify state interference and coercion" to "stop the poor from breeding." Flynn merely wants to reduce unplanned pregnancies, by making contraception the default state: in other words, switch to an 'opt out' rather than 'opt in' policy. There's nothing remotely illiberal or coercive about this (assuming the antidote - 'opt out' option - is widely accessible). On the contrary, the proposal is plainly intended to increase the control that poor people have over their reproductive options. Flynn's suggestion is akin to family planning, not forced sterilization.

Update: Flynn's clarification confirms my above interpretation.


  1. Sure, Flynn talks about family planning - but at the end of the day, the reason he's interested in it comes back to his belief in the marching morons and that it is a problem that some people have more kids than others. The first is something no-one should worry about; the second something that no-one has any right to.

    If Flynn wants instead to make a principled argument for free and easy access to contraception as a way to enhance human freedom, shorn of his Spencerian concerns about the feckless poor breeding too much and thereby lowering average IQ, then I'm all ears. But he's not, and it is dishonest to pretend that he is.

  2. Im not so sure Flynn is an expert

    "Flynn argues vigorously that race is not a determinant of IQ, but that class can be"

    Flynn has obviously been smoking somthing funky every time he looks at his data if he thinks race has no impact at all.

  3. I/S - the most reasonable reading of Flynn is that he holds the following views:

    (1) All else being equal, genetic fitness is a good thing. It's better (again, ceteris paribus) for children to be spawned from parents who are more intelligent rather than less so.

    (2) If we can improve the world without violating any rights, restricting liberty, or otherwise violating moral constraints, then we should do so. (Of course, forced sterilzation would violate moral constraints. But opt-out contraception doesn't.)

    Now, it seem to me that both of these claims are in fact quite obviously true. Flynn is simply advocating that we obtain utilitarian benefits in a morally permissible (indeed, freedom-enhancing) way. This should be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, your knee-jerk emoting obscures this basic moral reasoning.

  4. (Note especially the distinction between evaluation and prescription. One could hold that something is a 'problem' in the sense of being a bad thing, without being a 'problem' in the sense of something we ought to remedy by whatever means necessary. What's dishonest, then, is your post's insinuation that Flynn was advocating the imposition of eugenic goals through government "coercion". That claim of yours is simply false.)

  5. Richard,

    I'm not convinced, and I think you're defending the indefensible here. Since Flynn holds that class is the major determinant for IQ, your point (1) is irrelevant to defending Flynn, since class is not a genetic characteristic. His proposal is that less educated people should have fewer children, because in a socially mobile society those who tend to remain less educated do so because of poor genetic material. That this is a controversial claim goes without saying, and it needs to be held strictly accountable both to the evidence and to conceptual analysis (since one of the difficulties in this discussion is the slipperiness of the term 'intelligence', which actually covers a wide variety of things).

    The article isn't actually very clear. If Flynn did advocate putting contraceptives in the water supply, such a proposal does violate both rights and moral constraints, and I don't see how you could say otherwise. But some of the other proposals mentioned -- e.g., giving out contraceptives free at supermarkets -- are a somewhat different story.

    What is a little puzzling, in any case, is that Flynn's worry can only be a genuine one if we have reason to think our intelligence is declining. But it has been shown that measured by IQ it has been increasing; in fact, it was Flynn himself who showed it, and it's called the Flynn Effect. So IQ doesn't give us reason to worry about this issue; Flynn himself has usually considered IQ to be not a measure of intelligence but of some correlate. But since we have no other measurement of intelligence that shows a decline, either, Flynn's worry here is the entirely hypothetical one that over the extremely long term our mating habits will have a dysgenic effect on brain physiology. That this needs rather significant evidence before policy proposals can even be considered goes without saying. Otherwise it is a violation of rights and of moral constraints.

  6. Richard

    You are correct that the water supply suggestion does not restrict reproductive choice, people can still choose to have children under this policy. What it does do however is prevent people choosing whether or not to take contraceptives. This policy means that everyone would take contraceptives without their consent.

    I see civil rights issues here; I disagree with the Roman Catholic Churches stance on artificial contraception and would oppose laws outlawing contraception. But I do think Roman Catholics have a right to practise this teaching in accord with their beliefs. Catholics are not the only people with beliefs like this.

    Interested in your thoughts.


  7. Do the poor really have a choice whether or not to reproduce under this hypothetical situation? I do not think so; it would seem more economically viable for the rich to purchase the antidote, thus making it so that the poor cannot breed whether they'd like to or not. That's eugenics in my book.

    Richard, you do say that if the antidote were widely available, then there'd be no problem, and I agree--except that that's a very big IF. You might also say that if contraceptives themselves were widely available in our world where natural fertility is a (variable) norm, then there also would be no problem of overpopulation. I'm thinking here of European countries like France, Italy, Spain etc. where the lifting of both economic restrictions and social taboo have effectively reduced the birthrate to alarmingly low levels.

    Besides, and I doubt you actually advocate a policy such as this, do we really want to engineer infertility into the population?

  8. Richard, I don't think that your premise (1) fits Flynn's argument. All of Flynn's proposals would decrease the birth rate among the lower class (and perhaps to some extent among higher classes). None of them would replace less genetically fit newborns with more fit newborns, so it doesn't matter if the latter would be preferable.

    As MandM points out, mandatory contraception plus an opt-in antidote is not the same as opt-out contraception. I think that it's generally a good idea for people to have control over what goes in their own bodies. And I assume I'm not alone in not trusting the government to put chemicals into the water that would do something to a person's body as complicated as reversible contraception. Maybe I can explain the distrust this way: it may be possible for the government to do this responsibly, but it seems to me like the nearest possible (or possible future) societies where the government puts reversible contraception in the water are not societies that I'd like to live in. Free, plentiful, and easy-to-use contraception seems fine, though, and I wouldn't mind parents giving it to their adolescent children.

  9. One problem with that idea, besides the obvious cost issues, would be the increased liability on whomever put the contraceptive in the water supply. If for some reason it failed, they would be responsible for major damages.

  10. He apparently just meant the 'water supply' comment as a vivid (if silly) illustration, not as a serious policy proposal. So I think the real issue is more general: whether it would be okay to switch from 'opt in' to 'opt out' contraception. I can see how there could be bad ways to go about implementing this, but I can't see that it's necessarily wrongful, just as a matter of principle.

    Blar - right, my premise (1) should be about the relative frequency of genes in the gene pool. That is, it would be best for a greater proportion of children to be born to intelligent parents. (Concern for relative qualities in the population may be slightly more controversial, but still quite reasonable, I think. Cf. "average" vs. "total" forms of utilitarianism.)

    "As MandM points out, mandatory contraception plus an opt-in antidote is not the same as opt-out contraception."

    Yeah, that's an important point I'd overlooked. (I had assumed that the antidote would serve to perfectly "cancel out" the contraception, as if it had never been. In reality, things may not be so clear cut, alas.) Armed with this distinction, we can offer a principled rejection of some of Flynn's proposals after all - at least in light of actual limitations (in particular, the absence of perfect antidotes, etc.). Mind you, he was appealing to faith in future science, so maybe some of those limitations could be overcome ;-)

    Brandon - sure, the core moral principles I pointed to need to be supplemented by contingent facts in any particular case. But the latter aren't really relevant to whether Flynn's position is essentially beyond the pale, the way that NRT claimed.

    Your last paragraph is also puzzling. Whether an end is especially important or not makes no difference to whether the means is rights-violating. (In any case, the relevant baseline for comparison is not our current state, but the opportunity cost of inaction, i.e. however much improved society would be if eugenic goals were attained.)

  11. What bothers me about Flynn's passing off the 'water supply' point as a joke is that he does so for the wrong reason -- his reason for saying that it's a joke is that it is not practically feasible. But this ignores entirely the reason people are bothered by the suggestion. It is a ridiculous defense of a ridiculous statement. But that can be set aside.

    On contingent facts, I think they're obviously relevant to whether Flynn's position is essentially beyond the pale; applying a policy without adequate evidence (the possession of which is a contingent fact) can often be both immoral and rights-violating, so they can establish just how significant a level of evidence is required before any sort of proposal along these lines is even reasonable for consideration. (Suppose a scenario, for instance, that it turned out that our mating habits were actually increasing our intelligence, as the stupid rich people, genetically deficient because of a tendency to breed too late, have to be slowly replaced by more inventive poor people. Then anyone taken in by Flynn would surely have a right to question whether those who put the policy in place violated their rights by pushing a policy that was based on inadequate evidence and thus poorly suited to the real facts of the matter.)

    Likewise, it really does matter whether Flynn is right that less educated people tend in the long run to be genetically less intelligent, and whether in the long run our breeding habits will, in fact, tend to declining intelligence, because they are on the grounds for a proposal like Flynn's. Its moral acceptability, even at the most optimistic assessment, is conditional on both these points. In evaluating matters of policy, even hypothetical policy, we cannot ignore contingent facts; that's what policy is for, to deal with contingent facts. Nobody has policies for dealing with universal principles, precisely because they are universal. Policies are for dealing with contingent facts, and the very failure to do so properly can be rights-violating. That was the point of my last paragraph, which is not about ends/means, but about the fact that whether policies are rights-violating depends on the real-world facts, at least as best ascertainable by rational individuals; to take an obvious instance, application of emergency protocols (like martial law) in the absence of an emergency is rights-violating in a way that applying them in the presence of an emergency is not.

    The opportunity of cost for inaction here seems to me to be clearly unknown (and in any case is highly sensitive to the actual contingent facts of that matter), so I don't see how it can be a relevant baseline for comparing anything. What we really need to know is whether the policy is suitable to our present state or unsuitable to it -- or, indeed, if we really are interested in the more general question, whether there is any hypothetical state in which it would be suitable, and if so, what that state would have to involve for it to be suitable. Part of this analysis is whether the danger a policy is calculated to address is even a serious one, and under what conditions it could genuinely be serious. This is far more relevant, even on utilitarian considerations, I would think, than some hypotheticals about possible improvements, particularly in the absence of adequate information about their real probability.

  12. Hmm, I think you have a more all-encompassing conception of "rights" than I do. I'm just talking about liberal/civil rights. Being wrong doesn't entail being illiberal. In particular, I don't think that advocating misguided or inept policies violates anyone's rights; it's merely misguided and inept, and should be criticized on those grounds instead. Conversely: being right doesn't entail that no rights were violated. Martial law may still be illiberal, it's just that sufficiently dire circumstances may justify such violations.

    So, my claim is basically just that there's nothing illiberal about opt-out contraception (which seems to be what Flynn really means to propose, despite his poor choice of example), so a fortiori nothing illiberal about opt-out contraception for the sake of eugenic benefits.

  13. That probably explains some of the difference. (Although I'm inclined to think that under certain extremely rare conditions martial law is not illiberal at all.)

    Surely, though, whether something violates civil rights will depend on the constitution and government of the society in question? (I suppose that liberal and civil rights could be taken in a broader sense, since sometimes we seem count as civil and liberal rights not as those actually recognized by a society but those ideally recognized by it.) For instance, one could argue that any such policy would be a form of medical treatment; and if that were successful, it looks like it would fairly clearly violate the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, since that document requires at minimum that people have right of consent and right to refuse prior to treatment. (Whether it would violate more recent amnendments of it, I don't know enough to say.) Things would be different in the U.S., where, through an odd quirk of jurisprudence, we handle similar matters under the right to privacy through a generalized application of protections from search and seizure. And so forth.

  14. Yeah, I had in mind ideal rights, but now that you mention it, I certainly agree that concerns about legality, etc., are important too. And you're right that the particular contingent facts will be very relevant to that issue.

  15. I read a sci fi book about a group of peopel who in a fairly desperate attempt to save the world from itself released a virus that basically sterilized everyone.
    having just been through a seminar about how the earth was struggling under population pressures (eg fishing reserves etc) I had to be a little sympathetic.

    Anyway I would say flynn was making a somewhat flippant attempt to do exactly what richard proposes he was doing - trying to find a way to help the population become better at making choices without breaching rights - his solution probably fails for the practical reasons raised but it was an attempt.

    One policy might be to make chemical sterilization (which has an antidote) free from your local supermarket. Normal temporary contraceptives could then be made reasonably expensive.

  16. woops put this in the wrong thread


    I/S highlights that the effect is about .9 per generation. Potentially that could explain China's economic performace relitive to europe's.

    Afterall - lets say it has been in effect for the last 7 generations or so (in Europe but not in china), since the first of those people started complaining... well there is your average IQ difference for you.

    As to why that helps economically - well amongst other things you jut ned to be a certain level of intelligence to make a decent engineer/doctor etc.

  17. "As to why that helps economically - well amongst other things you jut ned to be a certain level of intelligence to make a decent engineer/doctor etc."

    Sorry to pick on just this comment, there are others that have this loose use of 'intelligence'.

    Surely you need only a certain level of training and specific knowledge and skill to be a decent engineer/doctor? What does it mean that you need a certain level of intelligence? I hope it isn't the ability to give x...

    1 1 2 3 5 x 13.

    Is it this kind of 'general aptitude' which is meant to be a genetic trait in some of the earlier posts?

    I just want some clarification about what each commenter means by 'intelligence', since it seams to be used everywhere in this discussion as though it has a referent.

  18. I’m happy to admit that IQ doesn’t test for the key traits perfectly and that there are a diverse list of key traits - for example a certain group of people might be better at arts and another group might be better at maths.

    However IQ tends to measure a more basic trait than "what you happen to have learnt, because it is pretty stable over time.

    Now lets say you have a group of people with an 'IQ' of 20 and a standardized reasonable doctors degree/test there is NO WAY the IQ 20 people can become a doctor. (Seriously...)

    As their 'IQ' gets higher they will find it easier to learn - at a certain point it becomes possible but difficult enough that it doesn’t matter, because no normal person will do it.

    No matter where you draw the line some populations will have a greater proportion of impossible or 'likely' than others.

    I presume raw Intelligence is more or less the speed at which your brain makes connections. Pattern recognitions is a fairly simple way to measure it although there could be better ways.

    Actually intelligence helps in many other ways than just the 'engineer level' I describe above. Although I note that people I know who went to engineering school are both significantly smarter and richer than average.

    What seems to happen here is that people don’t want to 'bite the bullet' and allow any specific group to be 'insulted'. So they deny the existence of intelligence or deny it is associated with anything or deny we can detect that association etc.

    That doesnt seem avery honest approach to the problem. Anyway - my theory is if you aren’t biting a built it's probably already in your brain.

  19. "What does it mean that you need a certain level of intelligence? I hope it isn't the ability to give x..."

    I'd want to distinguish an underlying trait from its possible symptoms. G's notion of capacity to learn seem like a good start.

  20. "What seems to happen here is that people don’t want to 'bite the bullet' and allow any specific group to be 'insulted'...That doesnt seem a very honest approach to the problem. Anyway - my theory is if you aren’t biting a bullit it's probably already in your brain."

    It's not just about who is insulted. 'General aptitude' is reified to an alarming degree. Children sit tests not on any topic, but on their 'scholastic ability' - and the results have very real consequences including exclusion from a chosen course of higher education (and in the very recent past, forced sterilisation, the issue we began with).

    To get into medicine in this country (Aus), people sit a UMAT test to "measure" their intelligence.

    The "bullet" in your post is not in my brain; I am not denying that intelligence is real, simply because of a low iq myself (I neither know nor care what my iq is).

    I recall this from de Jouvencel (a biologist working on intelligence testing 1.5 centuries ago):

    "I have noticed for a long time that, in general, those who deny the intellectual importance of the brain's volume have small heads."

  21. > Children sit tests not on any topic, but on their 'scholastic ability'

    tests can easily be designed incorectly. but if they were designed correctly then there would be no problem in using them by definition. Im inclined to think the tests used for getting into university in aust/NZ are far from perfect but are much better than random selection.

    > and the results have very real consequences including exclusion from a chosen course of higher education

    A lot of harm could be done the other way by either placing a profession they will never be good at OR changing the standard.

    > and in the very recent past, forced sterilisation, the issue we began with.

    that sounds like a slippery slope argument. Richard has posted on that one before and I concur with his old post...

    > I neither know nor care what my iq is.

    I think its somthing people should care about in the same way people should care about how much money they have in their bank account - but you need not worry about either of them.

  22. Hi Genius,

    For the top thing: I don't suggest random admissions. I also think the year 12 score thing we have in Aust. is ok, just not so much for medicine. Most aspiring doctors get year 12 scores above about 98, so they have this extra test to distinguish between them, which measures "intelligence". For the rest of us, our score is calculated on our year 12 marks in Maths, Science, English... and I think this is better; actual topics.

    On the second thing: "a profession they will never be good at" is, sorry, crap. Remember, they only get into the profession if they pass their uni course. And assuming decent unis, no one who is unqualified gets through. My earlier point stands: to be a good engineer/doctor, you need specific knowledge and practice - and the measure is exams on the topic - not iq tests.

    Third: not a slippery slope argument, they're about descent. Determining who can do what (procreate, have a certain career) based on iq tests is something we're growing out of, not something we risk falling into.

    As for caring about iq, i obviously dont think people should. They should care about real abilities and qualifications.

  23. one problem is that unis set their course difficulty level to throttle demand. They probably set it too high and produce too few engineers and doctors (despite them being desirable). As opposed to really setting them at the level where the marginal amount of damage caused by puting peopel into courses they will fail matches the benefit of the next marginal person becoming one of that profession.

    Of course from the output point of view it doesnt matter where you do your gatekeeping as long as you do indeed do gatekeeping - still you could be wasting some people's time and a lot of government money.

    > you need specific knowledge and practice - and the measure is exams on the topic - not iq tests.

    if you could test them as doctors that might be better but even a doctor's degree doesn't realy do that. At each stage the best you can hope for is the best decision to be made with the tools that one has. Again I think the enterance exam is not all that bad at determining generally speaking who will be good at any particular profession.

    one issue with specific tests though is like if I tested doctors for their ability to detect cancer - great for that task but not so great for determining their ability to detect heart disease... so maybe we test a more general skill - etc...

    > They should care about real abilities and qualifications.

    if I go to my doctor I dont care if he has aqualification - what I care about is if he can solve my problem.. but the quanification and his IQ might be factors in his abbility to perfomr the function I require of him.

    having said that I am actually in favour of taking a lot of the monopoly power away from doctors. Its ridiculous that I need to go to a doctor to ask him to tell me what I already know.

    >Determining who can do what (procreate, have a certain career) based on iq tests is something we're growing out of

    Im not sure we ever did that. But there are big changes coming in the next couple of generations that are likely to wipe out trends.


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