Rawls seems partial to the idea of eugenics, as perhaps this is the corollary of the difference principle. Am I correct in this understanding? I refer to p.92 of A Theory of Justice (1999):

In the original position, then, the parties want to insure for their descendants the best genetic endowment (assuming their own to be fixed). The pursuit of reasonable policies in this regard is something that earlier generations owe to later ones, this being a question that arises between generations. Thus over time a society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects. These measures are to be guided by principles that the parties would be willing to consent to for the sake of their successors.

  • @iphigenie Thank you for the edit! I'm not very good at working the dialogue box. Jun 14, 2014 at 17:07

2 Answers 2


The original position is Rawls replacement of the (hypothetical) originary state of Mankind theorised in social contract theory - the state of nature, as by Hobbes; the principles that govern society are to be chosen behind a veil of ignorance; in the original position one does not know what talents, what gender what race or intelligence one will be endowed with; hence Rawls argue that fairness will govern society.

One supposes in this situation that eugenics would be ruled out; for after the veil is removed perhaps you find that one is in a category in which non-existence is prescribed, for you're not of the best genetic stock.

Now Rawls writes just prior to your extract:

I have assumed so far that the distribution of natural assets is a fact of nature and that no attempt is made to change it, or even to take it into account.

Up until this point Rawls had analysed the institutions of society and not individuals; he will now go on to discuss Justice for inividuals but before doing so he commits himself to not discussing the 'natural assets' - that is the talents of a man - seeing them fixed; he won't discuss in depth the possibility of change; this of course is known as Eugenics, and Rawls will have known its implication in the Holocaust (as described by Hannah Arendt in her densely detailed book - Totalitarianism - the science of eugenics was widespread on both sides of the Atlantic); and this is the reason for his silence; his intellectual honesty pushes him to note however that:

But to some extent this distribution is bound to be affected by the social system. A caste system, for example, tends to divide society into separate biological populations; while an open society encourages the widest genetic diversity

and also

In addition, it is possible to adopt eugenic policies, more or less explicit. I shall not consider questions of eugenics, confining myself throughout to the traditional concerns of social justice.

He affirms here, that post-holocaust questions such as these were not even possible to speculate on.

So the answer to your question is no; Rawls refuses to develop a theory of eugenics; he purely admits its possibility.

  • Whilst he doesn't develop a theory of it, would I be right in suggesting that his admission of its possibility would show that he could do so (though he might not like to)? Cheers. Jun 15, 2014 at 18:43

While Rawls himself did not offer a theory regarding the ethics of eugenics, I believe that Rawls would argue that we have a strong moral obligation to promote good births, which is the original meaning of eugenics, asserted by its founding theorist, Francis Galton. (It is an intellectual mistake to relate eugenics to the historical atrocity since Hitler himself regarded his atrocious act as the final solution to the Jewish Question, not as a method of eugenics.) Here, I first explain the morality of eugenics and then explain why Rawls has to espouse the duty to eugenics.

The morality of eugenics The duty to eugenics (or good birth) is founded on common sense. We frown upon a pregnant woman heavily drinking or taking cigarettes. We think it is morally permissible to abort a fetus if a prenatal test reveals serious defects in the fetus. Our disapproval or permission originates from the concern for the wellbeing of the next generation. The scope of duty to eugenics, however, is unclear. Galton, due to the limit of technology of his time, suggested selective breeding as the method. Living in the era where human life can be reduced to the information of bits of 0's and 1's, and creating life can mean nothing but ingenious circuit designing (in synthetic biology), we wonder how far our duty to eugenics would extend. Negative eugenics moralists would argue that the selection against genes associated with disease and disability is morally permissible. Positive eugenics moralists, on the other hand, would permit the selection of 'superficial' genes (like height or eye color) since parents should ensure the best genes for their future children for the sake of the wellbeing of the children.

The original position and eugenics As the questioner helpfully highlighted ("a society is to take steps at least to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects"), Rawls clearly endorses negative eugenics morality. Rawls seems to be open to the positive eugenics morality, since the negative eugenics is a minimal requirement for him. Given the paucity of Ralws' commitment on this matter, pursuing any further on Rawls' stance on this matter is unfruitful.

What is fruitful to pursue is why the (negative) duty to eugenics matters to Rawls, when most scholars find the duty to be tangential in political or social philosophy. The reason, I maintain, is due to the conceptual defect in the original position. The original position is a place where a social contact, although hypothetical, is taking place. Behind the veil of ignorance, each is equal, rational and reasonable, and expects mutual benefits. They are rational in that they know what are genuine goods for them. They are reasonable in that they are not envious of the bundles of goods of others and able to arrive at the consensus that they can live by when the veil of ignorance is lifted.

The postulate of the original position has been widely criticized for various reasons. For our purpose, relating to eugenics, the feminist criticism is most relevant. Martha Nussbaum, for one, argued that in no society individuals are equal: individuals are fundamentally and undeniably unequal in their capability. Many depend on the care of others for a long period of time (e..g., children, chronically disabling illness, or lifetime of severe disability). These people have no representation in the original position, which envisions the contracting individual as an unattached single man. To Rawls these 'attached, care-needing' individuals are anomalies in his theory of justice, and can be represented only after the veil is lifted, through legislative and judicial means. This concession means that the just society obtained through the original position is limited in its scope of justice. There then is reason for Rawls to endorse the duty to (negative) eugenics, that all members of society be as normal (meaning, equal and independent) as possible, so as to be a member in the original position.

References: 1. "Eugenics" in Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy 2. "Feminist Perspectives on Disability" also in SEP

  • 1
    Galton's explicitly endorsed "as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation", including sterilizations and marriage restrictions for "useless" classes, which started to be implemented in his lifetime in the US. Nazis, and Hitler personally, credited the "US model" for shaping their racial policies in 1930-s, see Nazi Connection: Eugenics, p.37 . So there is no whitewashing Galton's "original meaning".
    – Conifold
    Jun 7, 2017 at 2:25
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    As for "duty to eugenics", it presupposes an ability to determine what is "good" or "fit" and what is a "defect" or "disability" ahead of natural selection, as if there can be such things abstracted from the (unknown) future environment. This is based on fundamental misunderstanding of how evolution works, which goes back to Galton: it is not the fittest who survive, but those who survive that are the "fittest". Who knows which "defects" will turn out to be "fit" in the future. We may have a duty to well-being of our descendants, but deriving any kind of genetic action from it is a fallacy.
    – Conifold
    Jun 7, 2017 at 2:39

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