Friday, August 10, 2007

Whose Future?

Via Bioethics International, an article with a rather misleading tagline: "Screening to weed out embryos that harbor abnormalities can help parents protect their children's futures."

This makes it sound as though one and the same child has been protected from genetic defects. But of course that's not it at all. Rather, the happy future is lived out by a different child than the one who would have lived without the screening. The damaged potential child is not healed, but replaced. This is arguably still an improvement, but the difference is worth noting.

I guess there is a reading of "their children" where it means something general like "whatever children they end up having", rather than referring to any particular individuals. But it is not the most natural reading. The woman quoted in the main article seems to have a clearer conception: "I truly believe that God gave us this technology to be able to protect our next generation." It's the collective generation that is benefited here, not any individual children.

Also of interest are three quick ethical objections mentioned in the article:
[1] Some disability advocates say the screening is a form of discrimination and implies that a life with a disability or illness is not worth living.

Indiscriminate judgment is not necessarily a virtue, especially for parents. Anyway, I think to choose a healthy embryo merely implies that disability or illness is a (pro tanto) bad thing -- worse than good health, not necessarily worse than nothing at all. That should be uncontroversial. You know, like why we don't deliberately cripple newborn babies. We recognize that they're better off without it.
[2] Groups against abortion are opposed to the procedure because it involves the destruction of embryos.

Isn't the destruction part of the usual IVF process, rather than the screening per se?
[3] Other critics fear that embryo screening is a form of eugenics (selective breeding) and a steppingstone to choosing only those babies who will grow up athletic, beautiful and smart.

I'm not sure what's so bad about choosing to have athletic, beautiful and smart children.


  1. Hi Richard

    Unfortunately, the conflation in that title is not uncommon.

    In regards to the brief arguments, the most interesting version of 1. is:
    This trait you call a disability is not a disability at all.

    You see the argument sometimes in some of the debates about deafness and it seems more troublesome than the standard version.

  2. Yeah, the deafness debates are interesting. Here's a test: if it's not a disability, then (ceteris paribus) it should be okay for parents to impose it on their children. I know some parents want to refuse treatment for their child's deafness. But does anyone really think it's okay to deliberately deafen a child?

  3. Isn't the idea that if you write an article that advocates something controversial like that, then you should make the grammar look as though you are doing something else (just to make readers feel good)?

  4. Might this discussion be getting confused by the fact that we tend to think of people as preexisting, detached from any set of biological material? I know I've sometimes been tempted to ask myself questions along the lines of "what if I had been born to different parents." This is as much nonsense as the confusion you attack Richard, but I wonder if you're attempt at a better position is really any better.

  5. It's the collective generation that is benefited here, not any individual children.

    That doesn't seem right to me. Ensuring a fitter next generation is not the same as "protecting" that same generation, unless your idea of protection here consists in avoiding the burden of caring for disabled persons. I don't know, maybe that's exactly what you mean, but otherwise you seem to be making the same mistake as that of the first quote.

    Anyway, I think to choose a healthy embryo merely implies that disability or illness is a (pro tanto) bad thing -- worse than good health, not necessarily worse than nothing at all. That should be uncontroversial.

    You talk as though we are simply absolving babies of their disabilities, as if we are healing them, but this is not the case. Rather, we are terminating what would otherwise be human lives with a view to their disabilities; this is something completely different. Consequently, axing a zygote with imminent birth defects can seem to say, "your life would not have been worth living."

  6. Here's a test: if it's not a disability, then (ceteris paribus) it should be okay for parents to impose it on their children.

    I don't understand this test at all; having an unusually long nose is not a disability, but it doesn't follow that ceteris paribus it is okay for parents to impose unusually long noses on their children.

  7. This raises the question posed by one of those philosophy sites (it had a quite good quiz i cant remember the site now..) which discussed questins like if your body was destroyed and you were recorded in a computer in order to be recreated at a later date would you still consider yourself to be alive.

    If for example you think you are the sum of your mothers egg and your fathers sperm then you might have to say no.

    when I am confronted with that sort of a question Im inclined to say that we are the pattern not the things that carry the pattern. Ie your child (in as far as you envisage him in the future) is the pattern that gets written onto the mixture of food and whatever else that goes into making him up.

    In that regard talking about a future person becomes more possible.

  8. Hallq - what makes you wonder that?

    Brandon - why not? (I guess an excessively large nose might open the kid to ridicule, but then it's arguably a "social disability" in some loose sense -- by which I really just mean that it's something children are better off without.)

    Anonymous (please choose a unique pseudonym as per my comment policy) - I am assuming that a healthy person will be more likely to live a happy life than a disabled person. So the next generation is "protected" or benefited in the sense that it (likely) contains happier lives than it otherwise would. (I recognize that they are different lives, so I am not making the same mistake as one who does not recognize this fact.)

    "we are terminating what would otherwise be human lives with a view to their disabilities"

    And replacing them with different lives that may be expected to go better. The comparison is thus not to nothing, but to the replacement. (I thought I was quite explicit about this, and did not talk as though we were "healing" one and the same potential child.)

  9. Richard,

    I think I would need to divide my answer to "Why not?" into two parts:

    (1) The non sequitur. Even if it is OK to impose unusually long noses on one's children in itself, this doesn't follow from its not being a disability, even allowing for the ceteris paribus qualification. There are two reasons for this. (A) The inference requires us to assume that as long as something is not an active harm or severe impediment that parents in general have the moral right to impose it. But this is not a truism; so the test can only work if we assume something controversial about parental rights. (B) It's generally uncontroversial, of course, that if it's a disability, it's generally OK for parents to remove it, even pre-emptively. But it doesn't follow from a claim about someone's right to remove any disability that they have the right to impose any non-disability, only that they have the right to impose those non-disabilities that are imposed in preemptively removing a disability. There may, for all that this tells us, be many non-disabilities no one ever has the right to impose, because the class of non-disabilities will be much, much larger than the class of disabilities.

    (2) The second, and more controversial issue, is whether it is actually OK for parents to impose any non-disability characteristic. The principle implies that parents have the right to impose anything on their children that isn't a disability; but surely it is not OK for parents to impose long-lasting physical characteristics on their children arbitrarily and for no good reason. That's just bad parenting, whatever else it may be. (In other words, the use of the ceteris paribus clause pushes it in the wrong direction: it makes it so that parents can impose any non-disability characteristic on their children that they please unless there is definitive reason not to do so. But this in effect removes parents from rational accountability in most of the things they might impose on their children.) If, however, we restrict the test only to cases where there are good reasons (so it reads, "if it's not a disability, then it should be okay for parents to impose it on their children if they have good reason for it") then it doesn't work as a test, because with such a qualification there are potential extreme circumstances where it would be OK to impose a disability on one's child (e.g., if one knew it could save their life in some way).

  10. Brandon - "it doesn't follow from a claim about someone's right to remove any disability that they have the right to impose any non-disability"

    I'm suspicious of such asymmetries. Doing/allowing, etc. Why privilege the status quo? (Well, I guess in practice there are indirect utilitarian reasons to be mildly conservative. I just don't think it's morally fundamental.)

  11. Well, I don't see it as a privileging of anything; rather, it's the logical point that you can't derive one from the other without introducing non-truistic premises. Thus the strength of the argument for the one claim (or the plausibility at face value of the one claim) doesn't carry over at all to the other without an adequate bridge -- i.e., it is something that has to be proven for the relevant type of case, not something that can generally be assumed. The conclusion, "Parents have a right to intervene to impose any non-disability, all other things being equal," is a much stronger claim than, "Parents have a right to intervene to remove any disability, all other things being equal." We can't pull the former out of the latter without some substantive rational work.

    But on the general issue of privileging the status quo, it seems to me that the status quo doesn't need to be privileged; being the status quo is already a state of being (indirectly) privileged, because to be the status quo is to be the state such that the existence of a state other than it requires an expenditure of things of value (time, money, resources, effort, etc.) beyond that of normal maintenance. You don't have to justify changing the status quo itself; but you do have to justify the expenses and losses required by the change.

  12. My inclination here would be to set very limited restrictions on parents. As long as the selected embryo wasn't obviously going to have a much much worse life that the others, then I'd leave them to their decision. So intelligent, athletic babies are fine, as are deaf babies, unathletic babies and not-so-intelligent babies.

    I am uncomfortable with defining what will constitute a good human and imposing that on others, because it seems that that could lead to a loss of diversity. I'd rather have a world where the average human has a crappier life, but with a bigger variety of lives lived.

  13. Yes, I definitely wouldn't want the state to be "imposing" their (or my) preferred baby design on parents. That would be terribly totalitarian!

    Do you think that diversity is intrinsically valuable? (That seems strange to me. In an ideal world, I would not want some people to be stupid or violent or bigoted, just for the sheer diversity of it!) But I can see the attraction on skeptical pragmatic grounds: I'm not certain what the best life is, so diversity increases the chances that someone will get it right!

  14. Yeah, I would argue that diversity is intrinsically valuable. Consider the following thought experiment:

    We have two identical Earths with identical inhabitants, identical histories and identical futures. Since the second earth doesn't add any "new" consciousness we could that the two worlds have only one Earth worth of value.

    If we then consider two earths in which there are slight differences, but the inhabitants are by and large the same people then we could attribute the planets one and a bit earths of value.

    Finally considering two quite different earths inhabited by completely different people, we assign them two earths of value.

    Following from this argument the value of two objects is not the simple sum but depends also on how different they are from one another.

    I'm not entirely convinced by my own argument here since one could argue that the inhabitants of the two identical earths exists twice as much as if only one earth existed and thus have twice the value. Hmmm.

    Anyway, I'd mostly agree that we don't want people to be stupid, violent or bigoted since there's I'd say that such traits have a negative value, nevertheless that negative value would be slightly offset by their diversity value in a society where the traits were uncommon.

  15. So a member of a set if twins is slightly less valuable than any other random person... and we should intentiponally GE odd looking people inorder to maximize the value of society? hmmmm...

  16. My objection to this kind of selection wouldn't be on the basis of an ethical argument, but on the sheer discomfort I have with hubristic notion that anyone could purport to know what genetic material would make for a "better" person or a "better" life. I guess I would take what Richard called a skeptical pragmatic stance. How would we measure more attractive? Measurable traits such as symmetry? The parents' personal standards? Even more intelligent is tricky, especially since intelligence is not a singular thing and great proficiency in one area is often accompanied by deficiencies in others (as is the case with so-called idiot savants).

    It all feels a bit like the reproductive equivalent of going back in time and killing Hitler or something - you don't really know what results one little "improvement" might unleash. Seems safer to just do what the other animals do and look for a good mate.

    (new here, by the way, but enjoying all of the discussions)


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