Sex and Reproduction Preventing a Brave New World

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Sex and Reproduction
Preventing a Brave New World

by Leon Kass

The primary concern expressed in this set of articles is the use of medical science and technology to improve humans in a way that goes beyond simply relieving them of pain and illness. Most of this is focused on eugenics, improving the human genome by selective breeding. Because this idea is strongly connected with some of its more horrible manifestations, i.e., “ethnic cleansing” people often simply stipulate that it is a bad thing. However, modern eugenics doesn’t advocate killing people with genetic defects, it only advocates inhibiting the reproduction of those defects, as well as cultivating the best genes in the pool. By contrast Hitler’s eugenics program involved, not only exterminating living humans, but, also exterminating the wrong ones. (Ashkenazi Jews have the highest mean score on generalized IQ tests of any ethnic group in the world.)

Brave New World is, of course, a reference to Aldous Huxley’s dystopic novel.

Huxley depicts human life seven centuries hence, living under the gentle hand of humanitarianism rendered fully competent by genetic manipulation, psychoactive drugs, hypnopaedia, and high-tech amusements. At long last, mankind has succeeded in eliminating disease, aggression, war, anxiety, suffering, guilt, envy, and grief. But this victory comes at the heavy price of homogenization, mediocrity, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debased tastes, spurious contentment, and souls without loves or longings. The Brave New World has achieved prosperity, community, stability, and nigh-universal contentment, only to be peopled by creatures of human shape but stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take "soma," enjoy "centrifugal bumblepuppy," and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passe.

Kass notes that, like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s story occurs against the backdrop of a totalitarian state. But he doubts that his is essential. Kass thinks we are, freely and democratically making choices that take us in the direction of a BNW.


Cloning is the reproduction of genetically identical individuals. It happens naturally with the birth of identical twins, but now the technology of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) allows us to clone just about anything, including humans. Kass points out that this idea used to provoke a lot of outrage, but now that we have seen the cloned products of various mammals (cloned kittens are still very cute) we are no longer as strongly opposed to the cloning of people.

Quite a while ago Kass wrote a paper called The Wisdom of Repugnance, which basically counsels us to pay attention to our initial gut reaction to things like this and not let it be assuaged by habituation, media images, and bad argument. Singer, of course, would agree with the bad argument part, but you’ll note that Singer would strongly disagree with the idea that we should accept counsel from our gut reactions.

Kass notes that there is currently very little interest from the public in cloning, but he is also concerned that it could become very appealing to infertile couples who are currently using in vitro fertilization techniques, or to individuals wishing to have a child on their own.

What are we to think about this prospect? Nothing good. Indeed, most people are repelled by nearly all aspects of human cloning: the possibility of mass production of human beings, with large clones of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality; the idea of father-son or mother-daughter "twins"; the bizarre prospect of a woman bearing and rearing a genetic copy of herself, her spouse, or even her deceased father or mother; the grotesqueness of conceiving a child as an exact "replacement" for another who has died; the utilitarian creation of embryonic duplicates of oneself, to be frozen away or created when needed to provide homologous tissues or organs for transplantation; the narcissism of those who would clone themselves, and the arrogance of others who think they know who deserves to be cloned; the Frankensteinian hubris to create a human life and increasingly to control its destiny; men playing at being God. Almost no one finds any of the suggested reasons for human cloning compelling, and almost everyone anticipates its possible misuses and abuses. And the popular belief that human cloning cannot be prevented makes the prospect all the more revolting.

To his credit, Kass notes that revulsion is not an argument, but he thinks this revulsion is grounded in the reliable intuition that cloning represents a rejection of things we hold most dear.

Kass has four basic objections to cloning:

  • it constitutes unethical experimentation;

    • the idea here is that cloning is currently in its infancy, and we will end up creating people who die in infancy or who have major disabilities and deformities.

  • it threatens identity and individuality;

    • the idea here is that the clone will experience identity crises due to being an exact genetic copy of its parent.

  • it turns procreation into manufacture

    • the idea here is obvious. Under a cloning regime, making a baby is not an act of love, but an economic act.

  • it means despotism over children and perversion of parenthood.

    • the more we think of a child as something to shop for, the less we think of it as a moral equal.

Kass thinks that parenthood is essentially about giving up control, of taking a certain kind of essential risk, and that this is part of what it is to mature into adulthoe.

When a couple normally chooses to procreate, the partners are saying yes to the emergence of new life in its novelty-are saying yes not only to having a child, but also to having whatever child this child turns out to be. In accepting our finitude, in opening ourselves to our replacement, we tacitly confess the limits of our control … Embracing the future by procreating means precisely that we are relinquishing our grip in the very activity of taking up our own share in what we hope will be the immortality of human life and the human species.

Shopping at the Genetic Supermarket

by Peter Singer

The Genocide of Deaf Culture?

Singer begins this article by considering the reaction of cochlear implants by the deaf community. Cochlear implants do not provide deaf children with normal hearing, but they do provide a way for them neurologically process spoken language.

The extreme response to this practice is that it is a form of genocide, which sounds outlandish, but the argument is straightforward.

FACT: The law says that genocide is the destruction of an ethnic group.

FACT: The law says that an ethnic group is "a set of individuals whose identity is distinctive in terms of common cultural traditions or heritage".
FACT: Deaf people are "a set of individuals whose identity is distinctive in terms of common cultural traditions or heritage".
=====> Cochlear implants are an attempt to eliminate the trait of Deafness.
=====> Eliminating the trait of Deafness will destroy "a set of individuals whose identity is distinctive in terms of common cultural traditions or heritage". (That "set" of individuals will no longer exist.)

Similar views exist among the dwarf community, and are expressed by parents of children with Downs Syndrome.

Singer captures the problem as follows:

The cochlear ear implant, the discovery of the gene for achondroplasia, and the use of selective abortion to prevent the birth of children with Down's syndrome serve to test the outer limits of our support for the politics of equality and diversity. We say that we believe that all humans are equal, and we value diversity. Does our belief in equality go so far that we hesitate to say that it is better not to have a disability than to have one? Does the value we place on diversity mean that we should oppose any measures that might weaken Deaf culture, or reduce the number of people born with Down's syndrome or achondroplasia? Should we stop the use of public funds for prenatal diagnosis or cochlear ear implants?

Singer goes on to examine the arguments of Diane Beeson, who strongly opposes genetic screening for such conditions. She believes that selective screening and abortion for genetic defects is based on the idea that "life with a disability is not worthwhile”.

Singer dismisses this view, claiming that no one who engages in this practice need believe anything stronger than that it would be better not to be born with such conditions than to be born with them. So, no one who aborts a child with the gene for Downs, for example, need be committed to the view that the life of people with Downs are not worth living.

From Singer’s point of view, Beeson’s claim that such practices show that we seek to eliminate disabled people from the world sounds insidious because it makes it appear that people who would prefer not to give birth to people with disabled people would endorse the elimination or immoral treatment of those who currently exist.

Singer embraces Allen Buchanan’s view that :

We devalue disabilities because we value the opportunities and welfare of the people who have them - and it is because we value people, all people, that we care about limitations on their welfare and opportunities. We also know that disabilities, as such, diminish opportunities and welfare, even when they are not so severe that the lives of those who have them are not worth living. Thus, there is nothing incoherent or disingenuous in our saying that we devalue the disabilities and wish to reduce their incidence and that we value all existing persons with disabilities - and value them equally to those who are not disabled.

However, he believes that it is overstated. We can not claim to value them both equally. Singer poses the following thought experiment to demonstrate this:

Suppose that there are two infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, and we have the resources to save only one of them. We know nothing about either of them, or their families, except that one infant has no disabilities, and the other has one of the disabilities that Buchanan mentions - a disability that will limit the child's "welfare and opportunities". In these circumstances, it seems rational, for precisely the reasons Buchanan gives, to save the life of the child without disabilities - but this shows that there is a clear sense in which we do not value both children equally.

What do you think about that?

Singer’s principle

To clear up these matters, Singer proposes the following interesting principle

For any condition X, if it would be a form of child abuse for parents to inflict X on their child soon after birth, then it must, other things being equal, at least be permissible to take steps to prevent one's child having that condition.

In regard to deafness, Singer takes it as obvious that rendering a hearing child deaf would be a form of child abuse. Hence, it follows from the principle stated, that it can not be impermissible to prevent the creation of children who are born deaf.

Singer goes on to examine some problematic applications of this principle. For example, how would it apply to homosexuality? Would it be a form of abuse to in inflict homosexuality on a child soon after birth? Singer’s basic response to this is that while there is something abusive about purposely making a child’s life more difficult, homosexuality can not be regarded as a disability anymore than heterosexuality. Homosexuals lack the ability to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, heterosexuals lack the ability to be attracted to members of the same sex.

Rons Angels

Singer considers the phenomenon of shopping for good genes like buying eggs at This simply raises the stakes of genetic screening, asking whether it is problematic to screen for something like beauty or high IQ.

Singer notes that:

Before very long… it will become possible to insert new genetic material safely into the in vitro embryo. Both of these techniques will enable couples to have a child whose abilities are likely to be superior to those offered by the natural lottery but who will be "theirs" in the sense of having their genes, not the genes of only one of them, or the genes of a third person, except (when genetic modification rather than simply genetic selection is used) to the extent necessary to produce the specific desired characteristics.

Many people find this objectionable, even though they don’t mind screening for genetic defects. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t any clear line between these two concepts. Consider something like IQ, which is easily quantified. Someone with a score below 80 is seriously mentally challenged, but not dysfunctional. What arguments for permitting the abortion of fetuses with Downs don’t apply to people who will have an IQ below a certain level?

Grounds for objecting to the genetic supermarket

  • Escalating the genetic arms race

    • This consideration is similar to the concern about the problem of the singularity. The genetic supermarket will allow selective breeding with an efficiency and at a rate that we have never before experienced. The ability to screen for height, for example, could cause a height arms race with highly unpredictable results for humanity.

  • Diminishing Diversity

    • Singer notes that while diversity is not always a good thing, if parents are willing to screen out unusual looking gene sequences even though they are not associated with anything bad, this could diminish useful forms of diversity.

  • Threats to Equal Opportunity

    • We already have tremendous inequality of opportunity, but the genetic supermarket could exacerbate this tremendously if it were out of reach to poor people. (On the other hand…)

The problem with doing anything about these problems is that it is deeply contrary to the ideals of a free society to interfere with individual decision making that is not clearly hurting other people. If this turns out to be an insuperable goal, Singer thinks that the only alternative will be for the government to become actively involved in genetic enhancement, by subsidizing it’s availability for the poor.

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