I'm not a utilitarian, nor am I a eugenicist, but it seems to me that a utilitarian should support the accelerated adaptation of the human genome to try to mitigate things like genetic disorders or genetic susceptibility to certain medical issues. Would the long-term lack of these issues not outweigh the temporary suffering that eugenics would entail, whether it was painless killing, making them infertile, or maybe just a lack of welfare provisions? Should utilitarians not therefore support it? And why don't I see this position held by them more often?

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    Because "accelerated adaptation" is highly risky with potentially disastrous consequences for those "adapted" and no guarantee of supposed benefits. We cannot even determine which groups of genes are responsible for what exactly, for the most part, to project what would happen "long-term" with any confidence to do the outweighing. In the meantime, killings and sterilizations will have a very predictable corrosive effect on the entire society, it has been tried.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 17 at 8:25
  • As a programmer, I wouldn't want to modify a 2 billion year old program with millions of lines of spaghetti code that interact in unknown ways, written in a language I don't comprehend. You first! Jenner innoculated his child and himself...
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 17 at 11:27
  • @Conifold This is the case for some things, but for genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, they are demonstrably harmful and we know the genes that cause them.
    – edelex
    Commented May 17 at 17:01
  • +1 The downvotes are unfortunate. This question falls in line with a rich history of reporting purported absurdities entailed by utilitarian rationalism. Commented May 17 at 22:06
  • People with genetic disorders often have seemingly unrelated aptitudes and even if those do not manifest in them they may manifest in their offspring. Do we know the long-term effects of weeding out this or that disorder from the gene pool? Do we know how that will affect its adaptability to various new conditions? No. But we do know what effect killings and sterilizations of such people will have on their friends and relatives, many of whom will also do their utmost to derail them and the social order that engages in them. It will be anti-abortion movement on steroids and much larger scale.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 18 at 2:49

5 Answers 5


For your examples of killing people, forced infertilisation or eliminating welfare, we're talking about:

  • Inflicting significant guaranteed suffering in the short-term

  • For the mere possibility of reducing suffering in the long-term (concerns about future generations is relevant, but we're going to get into some butterfly effects, where it's really hard to accurately predict outcomes, and being less sure of an outcome decreases its utility)

  • This reduction in suffering may merely be an illusion, based on false ideas and biases (or malicious intent), e.g. people might think society would be better without member of a certain race, based on their own personal emotional bias against that race, rather than objective data.

    Our understanding of genetics is also limited and our attempts at artificial selection has had mixed results, at best. It's not particularly unlikely that our attempts to eradicate something everyone agrees is bad ends up selecting based on the wrong traits, or that some very desirable trait has a strong genetic pairing with the thing we try to eliminate, leading to our selection leading to worse genetics.

  • This reduction in suffering could potentially be achieved in other ways, e.g. finding a cure for a disease, or some form of anti-natalism, where people willingly, and without compulsion, choose to not have children.

    There are also plenty of cases where people with mental conditions suffer because their existence isn't considered in how society is built, and that can be fixed by changing society. If you resort to just erasing groups of people instead, you may be less inclined to consider alternatives like these.

  • If all of the above isn't already bad enough (which it should be), people aren't particularly fond of the idea of getting murdered, or their friends or family getting murdered, so this would result in conflict and violence, which would cause additional suffering.

  • Would society ever be fully "fixed"? Even if we ignore all these problems and grant the dubious claim that killing people now might lead to less suffering in future, would we ever get to that future? There's always going to be some "unwanted" genetic traits that society could conceivably be better off without, and traits may keep popping up, or we may never be able to get rid of them entirely. So this may just result in an endless cycle of inflicting suffering on people in the present, for the hope of a future that will never come.

So doing this just doesn't seem reasonable under utilitarianism.


The simple answer to your question: The fact that most utilitarians are not eugenicists shows one of the limits of utilitarism. Do not violate people in a severe way for the possible benefit of others.

I think here applies Kant’s Categorical Imperative:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

  • 1
    Right, don't treat some as a means to treating others as ends. People seem to forget that part.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 17 at 11:32
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    I don't quite understand what you're saying. Most utilitarians don't accept the categorical imperative right?
    – edelex
    Commented May 17 at 17:02
  • This isn't a "limit" of utilitarianism as much as it's a disagreement about what the greatest good for the greatest number is.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 17 at 20:20

Broadly speaking, the question of whether a particular desirable phenotypical expression justifies eugenic intervention hinges on one hand on whether that selection is reliably demonstrated to be an unambiguously positive source of utility, and on the other on whether the process of intervention is excessively costly to justify it. We do not have evidence on the former, and the latter seems to currently be a question of “can we, collectively, justify intervening on an individual choice?”. We allow individual parents choice to manage their reproductive technology themselves and pay for any interventions they wish, and do not impose it on those that do not wish it, as that would be a significant negative utility cost to introduce.

Evidence that an expressed phenotype is unambiguously positive still wouldn’t be enough to warrant dismissing the costs, but on top of that, the uncertainty around the relationship between genetics and traits introduces enough uncertainty that the expected utility calculations do not currently motivate the intervention. Those arguing passionately in favour of it have generally been making assumptions about certain kinds of genetic lineage that have either not been subjected to or not withstood reasonable scientifically rigorous scrutiny.

  • 1
    Alcohol, tobacco and firearms are legal, it might be easier to start there.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 17 at 11:30
  • But we do have evidence that certain genetic mutations have negative effects, even if we can't determine which are explicitly positive
    – edelex
    Commented May 17 at 17:04

Utilitarianism specifies 'the greatest good for the greatest number', not 'the greatest good for the collective whole'. It's a subtle but philosophically significant difference. Individualism is hard-baked into the utilitarian worldview, and so the benefit of unborn generations doesn't factor into its equations. Utilitarians might end up being de facto eugenicists, in the sense that a large number of utilitarian individuals might agree that it's utile to rid themselves of certain problematic and unsavory types. But it's unlikely utilitarians would be programmatic eugenicists. Trying to create a 'better humanity' is an abstract ideal that has no practical utility for any living, extant human being.

  • I don't see how 'the greatest number' would not apply to the greatest number across future generations?
    – edelex
    Commented May 17 at 17:02
  • @edelex: Because (logically) future generations vastly outnumber any currently living people but are incapable of expressing their interests, so either the utilitarian calculus would be entirely undecidable or it would reduce to the interests of currently living people. Trying to speculate on their interests isn't utilitarianism; it's some form of elite representation (where 'elite' in this case is defined as 'being alive'). Commented May 17 at 18:22
  • But we always have to make guesses in a utilitarian calculus, and we can probably pretty safely bet that people won't want cystic fibrosis for example
    – edelex
    Commented May 17 at 19:47

You'd have openly held that position before the 1950s, especially in Europe. However, today, the politics has been highly in favour of victimhood rather than agresiveness and merciless as before . Therefore, it should be understood that eugenics is one of the most politically incorrect view today. Only a few utilitarian Marxists like Sam Harris would endorse eating human babies today to meet the fleshly hunger for the pleasure of the majority.

  • If you think Sam Harris is a Marxist you are unfamiliar with Marxism and/or Sam Harris
    – edelex
    Commented May 20 at 7:55
  • Socialism and Marxism are often used interchangeably.
    – Michael16
    Commented May 20 at 16:48
  • When they are, that is incorrect. Marxism implies dialectical materialism, specific Marxist descriptive economics, and more. Plus, to my knowledge, Sam Harris's 'socialism' just just higher taxes and more welfare rather than any actual socialisation of the means of production or needs-based production.
    – edelex
    Commented May 20 at 16:57

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