First, I'm sure there are, but I have yet to read much in this area. It seems that most moral arguments are or quickly become historical arguments about violent or judicial racism, which may then even be retrospectively applied to, say, Plato's Republic.

Most societies, including ours, already have various types of eugenic steering, from marriage practices and prenatal care to situational abortion, not all residing solely with the family. At the same time, we seem content to massively, randomly overproduce populations, then eliminate large segments by "socioeconomic selection." Like the empty chamber in the firing squad, the eliminations are made, but no one is responsible.

It seems to me that a humane genetics could be theorized to meet the standards of utilitarian, virtue, and perhaps even deontic morality, as, say, a duty to reduce suffering among sentient beings. The problem, of course, is who decides and how. But is this really such an insurmountable objection? The same applies in any area of political judgment. Can anyone point me to some interesting debates in this area. It seems unusually shrouded in taboo.

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    Caplan's et al. BMJ paper What is immoral about eugenics? that defended individually driven ("liberal") eugenics against moral objections sparked quite a backlash. SEP also surveys recent debates over liberal eugenics. The main concerns are slippery slope into coercion, widespread biases for/against superficial traits, and lack of appreciation for correlations between wanted and unwanted ones.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 22:13
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    Is there really that much "socioeconomic selection" in first-world countries? If not, there would be ethical problems with foisting eugenics on poorer countries with more deaths due to poverty, especially since the most straightforward way to reduce population growth in those countries is for them to get wealthier and better educated leading to a fairly predictable demographic transition to smaller families that seems to happen in every country which goes through such changes.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 23:12
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    I think "eugenic steering" is a nonsense phrase. It is one thing to restrict people from reproducing, and another to give others data about which they can make informed decisions in the form of prenatal screening.
    – Cell
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 23:34
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    By selection, I don't just mean mortality, but whatever is defined as suffering or inordinate social risk. Of course, there are very slippery slope issues with this and with most aspects of real application to the world we now know. But we do accept similar judgments in many areas, such as imprisonment. The conscious decision of China's one-child policy is vilified as immoral, for example, but was it more immoral than consciously adding another 1 billion Chinese to the last generation? As an aside, I don't agree with the idea of "affluence" as population reducer, locally maybe, not globally. Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 23:42
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    The Stanford Encyclopedia article presents 4 general critiques of "liberal eugenics" (i.e.. based on personal choices not forced sterilization, etc.).
    – Brian Z
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


I do judge Plato as a racist advocate of propaganda, and as Popper put it 'enemy of the open society'.

Dawkins recently tripped up over a very similar attitude to the word eugenics that you are showing. He attempted to use the term eugenics to mean any strategic non individually decided influence on reproduction. But that's not how the term is used. It invariably implies coercion. So the moral arguments are the same as apply to any other kind of coercion by a group or state against an individual's interests or choice, ie it would have to be for morally consistent reasons, to be moral. If coercion is not involved, it's just the niche we are adapting to changing, and that's not eugenics.

Dawkins attempted to distinguish between 'negative' and 'positive' eugenics, ie between sterilising deaf people and encouraging the 'master' race to breed more. It did not go well.

Fundamentally, humans are not primarily conditioned by our genes. They certainly impact averages, and we can certainly find causal relationships to niche phenomena. But what is uniquely human, is our hugely extended development period. We are defenceless far long as a fraction of lifespan and in absolute terms than any other animal. Our neocortex, which chiefly governs impulse inhibition, is not fully developed until about age 25. Our adaptability as a species is all about culture meeting malleable brains. The film Gattaca is a superb consideration of the issues.

"overproduce populations"

Another canard. The increase in global resource use by the top consuming ten percent, outpaces the increase from population growth of the poorest 50%. 'Overproduction' is about organisation, not resources. See China's amazing coastal aquaculture for instance, which produces 10% of their calories.

The birthrate is now at or below replacement in every region except Subsaharan Africa. The reasons for such demographic transitions are both obvious and extremely well studied, and give the lie to your "randomly" (which puts me in mind of Churchill justifying causing the Bengal famine because "they breed like rabbits"). Whenever there is access to healthcare especially antenatal care but also vaccines, education for women, and access to contraception, the human strategy switches from large families in the hope some will survive, to small families with largest possible investment of resources in fewer children.

Also, and this becomes a moral argument against, consider how much we don't know. Cloning causes health abnormalities we can't currently fully explain, or prevent. The number of genes humans have is remarkably small, and as I understand it given hominids fused two ape chromosomes, we actually have less genes than chimpanzees. Genes are each enormously complex multifaceted tools, and we know selection pressures on animals cause health side effects. Humans are also exceptionally genetically similar, because of the population bottleneck to below 10,000, possibly below 1,000, linked to an eruption 70,000 years ago. There is less genetic variation in all humans, than within some breeds of dog. It should also be noted that genes have been highly mobile, like the spread of lactose tolerance. Genes with clear advantages don't need help, and spread between populations.

Lastly: "unusually shrouded in taboo" You are on course with your use of words in your post, to make yourself the enemy of all right-thinking people. Don't use the word eugenics casually or fuzzily, it carries the weight of the greatest crime in human history with it. Your lazy inferences about "randomly overproducing" link directly to the so ridiculously totally discredited racist thinking of Malthus. You sound a step away from outing yourself as full-blown sterilise-the-disabled racist. I can't think of a better taboo to have than against that.


There is a game-theoretic argument against eugenics. It's the same argument that applies against 'pure' group selection in genetics, and required it be reformulated as multi-level selection. Basically, because the unit of selection is genes, whenever a group entity tries to act consistently against the interests of a significant fraction of individuals, it incentivises the creation of a free-rider problem, non-contributing extractors, shielded from selection. This has been a problem for absolute monarchies and unrestricted aristocracies, and autocratic states everywhere, making them less creative and efficient than voluntarily cooperative groups, and selecting for an out-of-touch elite who become increasingly unable to adapt to change.

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    These are good responses, though a little heated, hence my "taboo" comment. Still, they slip into the common thread I was trying to place to one side of the discussion, i.e., correlation with racism and genocide, envisioned as straight state coercion. I am a bit of a Malthusian, his more odious ideas aside. The broader question is to what extent we required planned societies over generations and to what extent that evolves according to our scientific capabilities. Obviously, many evil scenarios can be imagined, but this overlooks the extent to which we already have planned societies. Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 16:35
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    When I speak of "randomly overproduced," I am referring to the dynamics of commodity overproduction, followed by crisis and collapse. This is an undeniable "malthusian" pattern of modern capitalism in particular, and I believe it applies to population and the "commodity" of labor as well. Population growth globally pushes down wages, enables outsourcing, and is essential to concentrated "affluence" elsewhere. I don't believe the liberal doctrine that population issues just solve themselves. Today we don't outgrow the potato supply, but we outgrow medical, educational, and other resources. Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 16:46
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    "You are on course with your use of words in your post, to make yourself the enemy of all right-thinking people." Are you for real?
    – gonzo
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 2:38
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    @NelsonAlexander: It is regulatory frameworks and financial incentives which enable outsourcing, not the existence of growing populations. Potatoes is a good example, because it was not lack of food that caused the potato famine, but UK government policy. I hope you might listen to the powerful anti-Malthusian argument of Joe Walston in this episode of Mindscape youtu.be/SR3jNfW2xHw He argues all our concerns converge on suppirting the demographic transition from somewhat r-strategy to more K-strategy, and supporting development of healthy cities which are dramatically more efficient.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 12:19
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    @criglCragl. Thanks, I'll check out the video. And once again, I am looking for philosophically grounded moral arguments against what I'll call scientifically based "population planning." Most simply leap to "genocide" and racist historical crimes. We are already opening a Pandora's box of scientific capabilities to both prolong and shape life, all of which come with moral issues. I do believe that population is a core moral issue, particularly in the form of unemployment and environmental-social resources. Malthus's point was that one growth rate is exponential, what sustains it is not. Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 15:37

The claim that eugenics guides marriage practices is not an accurate explanation of the observation. The recurrent trend of the selection of partners for procreation of a common ethnicity has a far stronger foundation in psychology, in that the subconscious and somewhat inept desire that drives many to have children is to nurture a child like reflection of the parents themselves, physically, and often psychologically.

The basis of eugenics, regardless of the particular strain or origin, is that there are physiological characteristics of a population of a particular ethnicity that are the causality of a statistical superiority in I.Q, when compared to that of another population of differing ethnicity. To simplify why this is a fallacy, it is important to see that every argument in support of this premise has mistaken causality for correlation, a very common mistake made by affluent simpletons throughout history that considered themselves academics in the field of science.

To summarise, there is no moral argument against one holding such beliefs, freedom of thought should always be paramount, which is also why no one will take this seriously in the scientific community when it is subject to peer review.

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    Thanks, but my broader concept of "eugenics" has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, simply planning overall reproduction for a better social outcome. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 14:46
  • I think you might be confusing the word broad with the words vague and misleading Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 15:38
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    Well, maybe I should dropped the term "eugenics" for "planned parenthood." Though it is true I was intending a bit of provocation. In any case, my argument for more rational, eudaemonic population planning has nothing to do with IQ, ethnicity, or the fallacies of Charles Murray and others. And my question was not about the morality of freedom of belief, though "peer review" as a model of constraint may be relevant. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 16:10
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    Well thankyou for so elegantly misappropriating words and altering your intentions to be the provocation of catharsis in the reader of the gibberish. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 16:17
  • @Adam: I think you overreacted a bit. For what it's worth, there was nothing wrong with Nelson's question, as far as I am concerned. I think that he made his intention to discuss the topic free from the 'historical taint' of eugenics quite clear. You don't have to froth from the mouth with fantasies of racial cleansing to ponder the ethical ramifications of analytically considering genetic factors in procreation.
    – J.Galt
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 20:10

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