How Do We Develop Our Ethical Positions on Eugenic Actions

Alexander Washburn
How do we develop our ethical positions on eugenic actions
Just over a century and a half ago Charles Darwin published his timeless book The Origin
of Species in which he discussed his theory of natural selection and a paradigm of hereditary
progress known as evolution. Since his theories were published much controversy has arose over
their validity and application. One application that has emerged is the concept of eugenics.
Eugenics is defined as ???The study of methods of improving the quality of the human race,
especially by selective breeding??? (Collins). Eugenics application consists of allowing human
intellect, rather than the environmental forces of natural selection, to guide the course of human
evolution. In the past eugenics applications have been bias toward ethnicity as desirable traits
and have left the field of study a taboo. Now with the study of genetics and the completion of
the human genome project, forms of potentially helpful medical research and treatment, both to
the individual and the community, are sometimes viewed as unethical. If we as a species wish to
use our knowledge to advance ourselves forward we need to critically evaluate the ethical
boundaries of eugenic applications now possible with emerging technologies. An analysis is
needed of how we develop our ethical positions on eugenic actions.
Many ethical conflicts occur over eugenics. A simple way to understand some of the
ethical issues regarding eugenics is to look at specific applications. Pregnancy termination based
upon genetics screening, predictive genetic screening for hereditary health problems, DNA
databases, euthanasia, and forced sterilization are some of the applications of eugenics at have
raised ethical questions. Each of these applications hold lucrative benefits of a eliminating
genetic diseases, significantly reducing medical expenses, reducing crime, improving
productivity, and accelerating evolution respectively. As alluring as the benefits are, they fall
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outside the reach of realization due to ethical limitations. In our gut we often feel that these
eugenic applications are immoral without analyzing this feelings origin or considering the
benefits. How do these gut feelings emerge and influence our conclusions about eugenic actions
A sociologist named Dr. Jonathan Haidt has done substantial research on moral reasoning
and developed a model for how we arrive at a moral decision. Dr. Haidt calls his moral reasoning
model the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM) which postulates a quite different reasoning system
then previous rational models. Dr. Haidt writes ???The central claim of the social intuitionist model
is that moral judgment is caused by quick moral intuitions and is followed (when needed) by
slow, ex post facto moral reasoning??? (Haidt 817). Dr. Haidts claim is quite revolutionary because
his social intuitionist model stresses the importance of intuitive reasoning and that rational
reasoning comes after when prompted. Rational reasoning is not the source of ones moral
reasoning but comes after when an individuals stance is questioned. The individuals stance is
already established intuitively and rational reasoning simply verbally justifies the intuitive
reasoning but does not affect it. Haidt elaborates by stating ???…intuition occurs quickly,
effortlessly and automatically, such that the outcome but not the process is accessible to
consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs more slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least
some step that are accessible to consciousness??? (Haidt 818). He explains that intuitive reasoning
is desirable in many cases because it is effortless and a conclusion is arrived at with no conscious
effort. The two forms of reasoning are separated by their relation to consciousness; distinctly the
effort exerted and availability of reasoning. According to Haidts SIM our moral stance is arrived
at by intuitive reasoning, which is quick and effortless, and defended by rational reasoning when
In 2009 Paul van der Zande, a sociologist from the Netherlands, conducted a study
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identifying moral reasoning in genetic education. His study was designed to determine to what
degree moral reasoning was addressed in education and how this affected students views on
certain applications of genetics technology, chiefly genetic testing and screening. When he
published his study van Dr. Zande asks ???Do the emotions that established an intuition in the past
still mirror their present values??? (van der Zande 3) Van der Zande reference to the past can be
explained by a Haidts SIM. Haidt also makes clear that ???feeling and thought are to some extent
separate systems with separate biological bases??? (Haidt 819). His statement reflects the fact that
feeling, emotion and empathy come from one part of the brain while logical reasoning and
rationalization comes from a distinctly different part of the brain. Haidt also explains in an
interview with the New York Times that ???We have a complex animal mind that only recently
evolved language and language-based reasoning. No way was control of the organism going to
be handed over to this novel faculty??? (1). Haidt very simply put that the emotional region of the
brain is theorized to have developed much earlier in our evolution then the rational region. A
simple example would be to look at the behavior of a rabbit. Rabbits live by running around
scavenging for food to nibble on, running from danger, and looking for places to sleep. These
tendencies are instinctual to the rabbit. They come effortlessly and without conscious effort. This
is the rabbits intuitive reasoning and it is the only reasoning skill a rabbit possesses. It alone
allows the rabbit to survive based a very complex system of stimuli and intuitive responses. In a
similar fashion to the rabbit; humans relied on intuitive reasoning to survive before we evolved
language based reasoning skills. Because the emotional region of the brains ability to make
effortless intuitive decisions is a contributing factor to human survivability it was a integral part
of our evolution and our current state. Van der Zandes question regarding the emotions that
established an intuition in the past still mirroring their present values is quite engaging. It
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questions whether the intuitive reasoning we evolved in the past is accurately responds to the
present, particularly to genetic technology.
During Van der Zandes study the high school students gave predominately anit-eugenic
statements. Here Van der Zande gives an example of student responses: “Not only do I know
something about Downs children, but it would be my child! I will not let it be taken away; it
would be my child” (van der Zande 5). This student, like the majority in the study, responded
with anti-eugenic attitudes. Van der Zande comments on this quote: ???other strong motive was: I
will not let it be taken away; it would be my child. A consideration she did not explain further, as
for her it did not need any further explanation. This was labeled intuitive reasoning…??? (van der
Zande 5). When concluding the study Zande stated that ???all students used emotive and intuitive
reasoning as well as rationalistic reasoning, although they were not aware of this.??? Van der Zande
statement shows concern for the lack of awareness as to how one creates his decisions. Haidt
states that ???the roots of human intelligence, rationality and ethical sophistication should not be
sought in our ability to search for and evaluate evidence in an open and unbiased way??? (821).
Haidt statement is simpler then it may seem; that human intelligence and ethics stem not from
rational reasoning but from the intuitive reasoning region of the brain that has been honed by
years of evolution. Haidts statement and Van der Zandes study both reveal how the students
ethics stemmed from intuitive reasoning.
Isaac Rabino, a professor at Empire State College, conducted a different survey in 2003.
Rabino sent a questionnaire to over 1200 scientists who were members of the American Society
of Human Genetics. In his survey Ranino assessed the attitudes of the scientists as to their views
on genetic testing and screening. Based on his survey results, Rabino informs us of those
working more then ten years in the field of genetics 85% agree with pregnancy termination if
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likelihood of severe retardation, 64% agree if likelihood of severe childhood disease, and 39%
agree if likelihood of mild retardation (Rabino 395). Rabinos survey shows that the majority of
scientists working in the field of genetics agree in genetic screening for genetic defects. The view
of genetic scientists towards genetic screening is quite different from that of Van der Zandes
survey of students in secondary education. Rabinos study also shows of those working more
then ten years in the field of genetics that 56% agree with precautionary surgery (Rabino 394).
Compare this to the average response of Van der Zandes survey when asked about preventative
mastectomy ???When you get it, you can always try to operate then. To do it up front, I think is a
bit exaggerated??? (Van der Zande 5). Van der Zande shows that on average the students do not
agree preventative surgery. Between Rabino and Van der Zandes surveys we can see that those
working in the field of genetics have quite different moral reasoning on genetic testing and
screening then those learning about the field in secondary education even though both groups
have the same moral reasoning system according to Haidts SIM. To discover how these groups
have diverging conclusions from moral reasoning we will have to look to the past.
Van der Zande shows us that ???there are increasing indications that we make our moral
decisions based on intuition and emotion. We use our arguments only to justify our position after
this position in taken intuitively??? (Van der Zande 1). Van der Zandes proposition, like Haidts
SIM, is quite revealing and might lead to a way of overcoming ethical barriers concerning
eugenic action. Our moral decisions are based on our impulsive emotive and intuitive responses.
Our logical arguments form in accordance after our decision has been made in our mind.
According to Haidts SIM and van der Zandes research all humans for decisions in this manner.
This insight is quite useful when trying to understand how other could act in ways that seem
parallel to human social intuitive reasoning. In regards to the holocaust Geoffrey Scarre, a
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philosopher studying the moral phenomenology of the Third Reich, had this to say ???If the Nazis
had a real belief that the Jews posed a threat to Germany, then their persecution of the Jews takes
on aspects of a (tragically misguided) program of self defense??? (429). Scarres statement doesnt
attempt to justify the Nazis actions but rather help us understand the root of their moral
reasoning. Because the German population viewed the Jewish population as a threat from years
of propaganda their reasoning is not based in logic or emotional care-based reasoning, but from
an intuitive reasoning. The German population and the Nazi regime formed their ???logical???
reasoning for their persecution after this stance was clearly rooted in their intuitive response.
This shows a clear but grim example of how the emotional and intuitive reasoning that forms our
modern ethics were subverted to allow eugenic action.
The moral phenomenology of the Third Reich is very important to understand because
the aftermath of Nazi actions changed the ethical boundaries of eugenics for the duration of the
twentieth century. Many countries, including the United States, had national eugenic programs
implemented until the Nazi regime called into question the validity of the field of science. Scarre
also addresses this issue by stating ???Himmlers basic problem may have been not that his
morality was bad but that his relevant factual beliefs were false??? (Scarre 429). Scarre make a
very necessary distinction when considering how people make moral decisions. Scarre illustrates
that Himmers beliefs and actions came intuitively when presented with information and
Himmler did not reflect on the validity of these beliefs and actions or their origins. During the
height of the Third Reich, Himmler found himself in the position of leading the S.S. in hunting
down and exterminating the Jewish population. There is a troubling lack of self-inquiry on
Himmlers part as to how he arrived in such a position.
Van der Zande shared this concern when conducting his survey of genetics education. The
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primary goal of his survey was to determine the extent, if any of moral reflection in genetics
education. Van der Zande explains ???Due to reflection on this ex-post facto reasoning, people may
be capable of changing their intuitions either through private reflection, for instance initiated
through role play, or through social persuasion, when they get feedback from people they
respect??? (Van der Zande 3). Van der Zandes statement explains that while our intuitive reasoning
is effortless and unconscious our conscious mind can, through a variety of ways, alter our
intuitive reasoning response. Haidts SIM also addresses moral reflection, though its basis is
intuitive reasoning, he acknowledges that the language based reasoning skills we posses can
affect of intuitions. Haidt states ???A person comes to see an issue or dilemma from more than one
side and thereby experiences multiple competing intuitions. The final judgment may be
determined either by going with the strongest intuition or by allowing reason to choose among
the alternatives on the basis of the conscious application of a rule or principle??? (Haidt 819).
Haidt goes on to remark ???Ever since Plato wrote his Dialogues, philosophers have recognized
that moral reasoning naturally occurs in a social setting, between people who can challenge each
others arguments and trigger new intuitions??? (Haidt 820). Haidt illustrates how when multiple
intuitions compete our default intuitive reasoning can change. These competing intuitions can
stem form a debate amongst peers and also from private reflection on a moral dilemma. In both
cases exposure to new competing intuitions can cause a changing in intuitive reasoning.
In the case of Himmler and the Third Reich a lack of moral reflection lead to what would
be considered unethical eugenic actions. In Van der Zande study he reports an overall antieugenic
response when presenting students with the ethical issues of genetic testing and
screening. In Rabinos survey of those working in the genetics field the majority of those
surveyed supported eugenic actions such as genetic screening and testing. Van der Zandes
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survey shows us the extent to which moral reflection is incorporated into genetics education. Van
der Zande concludes ???Teachers did not report planned moral reflection, but spontaneous
discussions with moral dimensions??? (Van der Zande 7). Van der Zande goes on to say ???To the
best of our knowledge, this kind of reflection on moral reasoning is not currently being practiced
in secondary education??? (Van der Zande 8). Van der Zandes study quite conclusively expresses a
lack of moral reflection in genetics education. Consider back to Rabinos survey of those
working in the genetics field. From his survey Rabino states ???The majority of respondents accept
the idea of therapeutic abortion in response to test results indicative of serious disease or disorder
but find it ethically unacceptable to terminate a healthy fetus on the basis of discovered traits or
characteristics deemed more or less desirable??? (Rabino 396). All the individuals Rabino surveyed
have worked in the field of genetics for more then ten years. These individuals are not only more
familiar with the practical applications of the field but also have been exposed to the moral
dilemmas of the field for at least ten years. Dr. Haidts explains ???People are capable of engaging
in private moral reasoning, and many people can point to times in their life when the changed
their minds on a moral issue just from mulling the matter over by themselves??? (Haidt 819). Dr.
Haidts statement tells us that our subconscious intuitive reasoning response can change given
enough time to consciously reflect on it. The scientists from Rabinos study have at least ten
years of moral reflection, from debates with colleagues to internal personal reflection,
represented in their responses. The extreme difference in the responses from secondary education
students and genetic scientists to the same moral dilemmas can be directly attributed to the
amount of moral reflection the individual has been exposed to.
From the contrasting studies conducted by Van der Zande and Rabino it is clear how vital
moral reflection is on forming our opinions on ethics of eugenic actions. When concluding his
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study Van der Zande states ???In short, these findings can be used to aid moral reflection so as to
teach the students how to improve their moral reasoning and, by doing so, empower them for
dealing with future moral dilemmas such as those concerning genetic tests??? (Van der Zande 8).
He makes clear moral reflection is a necessity in dealing with bioethics and eugenics and needs
to be improved in genetics education. Comparatively when concluding his study Rabino states a
need for, ???A more genetically literate public to deal effectively with their own genetic health care
as well as to be informed about the scientific, legal, and social issues in the public debate about
human genetics??? (Rabino 397). Rabino stresses the need for genetically literate public which
implies both education and moral reflection on eugenic issues as to contribute the creation of
rational ethical boundaries. Both Van der Zande and Rabino call for an increase in moral
reflection, either through internal thought or open debate, and reform in genetics education to
create rational ethical boundaries towards eugenic applications in the field of genetics.
Eugenics promises many advantages to individuals and the population as a whole. Haidts
social intuitionist model reveals how we form our ethics from intuitive moral reasoning and how
this reasoning has allowed our race to advance. Scientific advancement has been a recent change
supported by rational reasoning. Studies have shown that people do not perform moral reflection
to ensure that their intuitive reasoning is also rational in the situation. Because of this internal
conflict between our intuitive reasoning and rational reasoning ethical conflicts occur and define
the degree to which science can progress. It seems apparent that ethical conflicts can only be
overcome by moral reflection. It is clear how we form our ethics on eugenics and that a vast
increase in moral reflection is necessary to overcome the ethical barriers that stand in the way of
scientific progress.
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Works Cited
Collins. “Eugenics.” Def. 1. Collins English Dictionary. 30th Anniversary Edition ed.
HarperCollins, 2003. Print.
Haidt, Jonathan. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist
Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review, 108.4 (2001): 814-834.
Rabino, Isaac. “Genetic Testing and Its Implications: Human Genetics Researchers
Grapple with Ethical Issues.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 28.3 (2003): 365-402.
Scarre, Geoffrey. “Understanding the Moral Phenomenology of the Third Reich.” Ethical
Theory and Moral Practice, 1.4 (1998): 423-445.
van der Zande, Paul, Mieke Brekelmans, Jan Vermunt, and Arend Jan Waarlo. “Moral
Reasoning in Genetics Education.” Journal of Biological Education, 44.1 (2009): 31-36.
Wade, Nicholas. “Is Do Unto Others Written into Our Genes.” New York Times, (2007):

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