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  • Liberal Eugenics & Human Nature:Against Habermas
  • Elizabeth Fenton (bio)

In the course of developing his arguments against making genetic enhancements to one's children, Habermas assumes that a clear line can be drawn between the natural and the manufactured. But given the current state of medical science, this is precisely what we can no longer take for granted.

The view now often dubbed "liberal eugenics" holds that people should be able to choose genetic enhancements for their offspring, should these become safely available. This view is opposed by what I will call the "human nature" objection to genetic technology. This objection holds that human nature, or "what it is to be human," is definable and natural (that is, has not been tampered or interfered with, by, say, human technology). The human nature objection also assumes that a clear line can be drawn between what is natural and what is unnatural, and that this line marks a moral difference: whatever is unnatural is wrong, or at least morally suspect, and whatever is natural is morally valuable, perhaps intrinsically valuable. From this assumption comes the claim that human nature is fixed, to the extent that it should not be improved upon.

Proponents of this objection, such as Jürgen Habermas, George Annas, and Francis Fukuyama, conclude that genetic technology is intrinsically wrong, since it threatens something intrinsically valuable. Human nature thus requires protection. Annas urges the establishment of a "human species protection" treaty, calling such technologies "crimes against humanity."1 Habermas states his support for a "right to a genetic inheritance immune from artificial intervention"—a right that has also been requested by the [End Page 35] Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council.2 Francis Fukuyama argues for the establishment of a new regulatory agency with "a mandate to regulate biotechnology on grounds broader than efficacy and safety" and with "statutory authority over all research and development."3

But human nature is not vulnerable to such threats. While "slippery slope" arguments against liberal eugenics are powerful and important, attempts to couch such arguments in terms of the protection of an intrinsically valuable human nature are misguided. Habermas and Annas, in particular, are guilty of begging the question that science forces us to ask, namely, whether there are aspects of being human that are or that ought to be unchangeable. Both assume that there are such essential aspects and rebuke science for attempting to change what ought not to be changed. But to answer the challenge from science, it is necessary to bracket this assumption, for whether there are such aspects is precisely the question at issue.

This paper takes up Habermas's efforts to develop the human nature objection to liberal eugenics. I critique four arguments deployed by Habermas: (1) that, as a threat to human dignity, liberal eugenics is a threat to the foundations of the human moral community; (2) that liberal eugenics will fundamentally alter relationships in the moral community, since with it reproduction will change from a natural process of creation to an artificial process of manufacture; (3) that manufacture will undermine moral equality, and thereby human rights; and (4) that liberal eugenics will undermine individual freedom and autonomy. In showing that there are significant problems with Habermas's position on liberal eugenics, which is perhaps the most complex and detailed of those mentioned here, I hope to show that the human nature objection to liberal eugenics more broadly is weakened by these problems.

What Liberal Eugenics Is and Is Not

Unlike the authoritarian eugenics programs envisioned in the early twentieth century, a liberal eugenics would not lead to genetic alterations being imposed on whole populations by way of state policies. The focus of liberal eugenics is the individual, not the nation, race, or class, and it gives primacy to the individual's own values and conception of what constitutes a good life, not the values of the state. The role of the state in a program of liberal eugenics is merely to facilitate rather than to impose eugenic choices, enabling parents' particular conceptions of the good life to "guide them in their selection of enhancements for their children."4

One charge often made of liberal eugenics is...


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pp. 35-42
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