Behavioral Genetics and Eugenics Distinctive Moral Concerns

The questions raised above might be characterized as generic questions about eugenics. The examples used have all been about physical diseases with strong genetic links. However, the actual history of the eugenics movement has largely involved what today would be labeled behavioral genetics. That is, what those advocates wanted eliminated from the human gene pool were genes associated with being feebleminded, lazy, alcoholic, violent, inclined to criminality, and so on. This raises a host of other moral and political and philosophic issues that are much more perplexing than the issues listed above.

If an individual has a gene variant that will result in affliction with cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease or an early-onset form of Alzheimer's disease, such disease processes are seen to be accidental afflictions of that individual's body. Those diseases do not alter people's fundamental nature as persons, as rational moral agents. However, if an individual is feeble-minded (or a genius), alcoholic, or inclined to criminality as a result of his or her genetic endowment, this seems to be integral to his or her nature as a person, as a choice-making creature. It also raises the troubling question of whether individuals with such genetic endowments can be held accountable for the behaviors that seem to flow from those endowments. The argument, stated very crudely, would be that people do not hold individuals responsible for having cystic fibrosis; consequently, those individuals should not be held responsible for their criminal behavior if that behavior is just another product of their genetic endowment.

Other troubling social consequences may be associated with behavioral genetics. Genes seem to "travel" in clusters: Family resemblances are a common social phenomenon. Those resemblances also show up among members of ethnic and racial groups. None of these observations are intrinsically troubling. However, if a particular racial or ethnic group is perceived socially to have many members who are less intelligent, more violent, more prone to engage in criminal activity, and so on, and if those undesirable traits are believed to be genetically rooted, those social groups as a whole will be vulnerable to serious social stigmatization.

The practical argument is obvious: If members of that group cannot benefit from social investments in education, why waste resources on them. In this way the worst social prejudices can be given scientific and political legitimacy as well as insulation from moral criticism. That is, if individuals in the disfavored group are denied various social opportunities, those denials can be justified morally on the grounds that those individuals are genetically incapable of taking advantage of those opportunities. This issue has been the focus of a political firestorm that initially was generated by Arthur Jensen and then reignited by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.

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