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Comparisons Are Necessary
Some genes are better than others
There is a considerable egalitarian impulse within progressivism that extends beyond wanting equal social and legal treatment. Progressives tend to reject the existence of genetic differences between populations because such differences would be unjust in a cosmic sense, a phenomenon that Anomaly and Winegard (2019) call “cosmic egalitarianism.” Even the idea of individuals being different across socially valued traits for genetic reasons is repugnant to many progressives. Proponents of such views are accused of endorsing “genetic determinism” or “eugenics.”
This widespread and persistent tendency exemplifies what Davis (1978) called the “Moralistic Fallacy,” which is the idea that if a proposed fact of nature has socially unpleasant implications, it is false. Rushton and Jensen (2005) note this attitude is often accompanied by the corollary belief that those who fail to observe the moralistic fallacy deserve demonization. Many insisted that those who accept specific controversial hypotheses are motivated by bigotry and a desire to maintain an unjust social order. Often, critics are willing to avoid entertaining certain conclusions as if it were their moral duty. Some even condone deliberate distortions for moral reasons, such as Daniel Dennett in Freedom Evolves (2003):
I don’t challenge the critics’ motives or their tactics; if I encountered people conveying a message I thought was so dangerous that I could not risk giving it a fair hearing, I would be at least strongly tempted to misrepresent it, to caricature it for the public good. I’d want to make up some good epithets, such as genetic determinist or reductionist or Darwinian fundamentalist, and then flail those straw men as hard as I could. As the saying goes, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Where I think they go wrong is in lumping the responsible cautious naturalists (like Crick and Watson, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and myself) in with the few reckless overstaters and foisting views on us that we have been careful to disavow and criticize. (Dennett 2003b: 19–20)
While some invidious comparisons may be unnecessary in specific contexts (e.g., telling a stranger they are overweight and may die sooner than if they weighed less), comparisons about sensitive topics are often vital in scientific or political contexts. A medical establishment that refuses to take the health implications of obesity seriously will fail to provide good public health recommendations. Similarly, ignoring genes when discussing health outcomes will hamper medicine. Not considering genetic confounding when discussing social science will lead to severe misunderstandings and replication issues (Schmidt, 2017). Not using polygenic scores when selecting embryos will mean less healthy children.
It is reasonable to consider it distasteful to entertain a question like which sibling in a family has better genes. However, a similar but distinct question of which embryo has better genes is morally relevant for IVF couples. To say that one genome is preferable to another is a distinct question from one person being preferable to another. All human worth does not reduce to genes. However, when a couple faces the “embryo choice problem,” the genes are almost all there is to guide the decision and should not be ignored.
All else equal, it is better to choose an embryo that will become a healthy child rather than one that will become a sick child. Accepting this is not to say that parents should not love their children regardless or that the lives of the less healthy are not worth living. These objections may sound strange, but they are common. Few have these intuitions about comparisons in other medical contexts. If a new drug were developed to prevent a child from having a debilitating illness, raising these objections to parents who use it to help their child would be odd. Most would find no issue with parents saying they prefer the hypothetical world in which their child is not ill.
The harm resulting from an unwillingness to take genetics seriously will increase dramatically soon with advances in genetic enhancement technology. Couples who could use polygenic screening to improve the health of their future children but do not on account of moral intuitions about interpersonal genetic comparisons will have children that live worse lives on average. Thankfully, the desire to have healthy children is strong. Parents will likely abandon their weak convictions about genetics and do what is best for their children.
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