Monday, 11 June 2012

What Will Be Born, And What Has Already Died

A few quick comments on Ross Douthat's latest piece.  First, the obligatory cheap shot, which I wouldn't make if if he didn't leave himself open to it as often as he does: this is not a man who should feel comfortable criticising others as "privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position".  This in an article arguing that liberals are going to bring back social Darwinism with all our Godless science, no less.

Secondly, consider the meat of Douthat's argument: some people who championed eugenics in the 1920s were liberals.  The idea became morally repulsive after WWII, and provably unhelpful a few decades later.  But that doesn't mean we've abandoned the idea!

Yes, Ross.  Yes, it does.  Dredging up the spectre of a past long since dead is pointless, a way of distracting readers from the fact that you're actual argument regarding the here and now is nothing more than "it's theoretically possible we'll find ourselves atop what might be a slippery slope, maybe".  At heart, it's no different from those recent painfully dumb articles about how Republicans are the real party of civil rights, because they were better on the subject until the 1960s, and should be taken no more seriously than all those the jokes about Germany's recent economic strong-arming being their closest alternative to invading France.

There's another of Douthat's most common themes in here, a tendency to think the worst of science.  He admits that the eugenics of 80 years ago didn't understand how intelligence is linked to genetics (or rather, they thought it was linked in ways it it isn't), but it doesn't occur to him to make the obvious link: it's through scientific advancement that we worked all that out.  Exploits like mapping the human genome are what has made the concept of social Darwinism medically counter-productive in addition to morally abhorrent. 

That means those who might champion the idea no longer need to merely switch off their basic humanity, they need to ignore the data as well.  Perhaps more than a handful of people still exist.  Perhaps, some are even liberals, though I can't for the life of me imagine the tangled thought processes that would take to justify.  But the same research that makes it increasingly unlikely that anyone would sensibly want to try such a thing would also make it theoretically (as oppose to economically) feasible to try it, and that's all Douthat can think about.

In some ways, this is a more disappointing article than usual from Douthat, because his final point - should we feel comfortable about aborting foetuses with serious life-long but not life-threatening genetic conditions - is worthy of discussion. Contra Douthat, that's not really a consideration which depends on one's feelings regarding the nature of a foetus; if you're pro-life, the answer is clear.  It's only a thorny issue for those of us who are pro-choice: does supporting a woman's right to say "I do not want to have this baby" extend to supporting them saying "I will only have this baby if..."

Like I said, it's a conversation worth having.  Douthat either can't or doesn't want to go there, though, so he's reduced to arguing that voluntarily deciding whether to have a baby given certain conditions is kind of like forcing people who are more likely to generate such a baby to undergo sterilisation.  Like those evil liberals once wanted to do.  Or something.

One last point.  It would be hard to pin Douthat down on this, because the man has an insufferable habit of pretending to be arguing from a secular perspective until actual secularists slap him down, when he suddenly claims to be writing for Christians after all, but there is one question I'd dearly like to ask him: what are the secular grounds for not allowing siblings to marry?

Right now, of course, incest is illegal. A lot of reasons are given for this, but as far as I can tell, they break down into social points and medical points, and almost invariably involve the resulting children.  The former are frequently persuasive as to why it's not a good idea (two parents who had the same upbringing don't have the necessary spread of experience, social ostracism, confusing family reunions), but many of the specific arguments can also be aimed at single parents and same sex (or even mixed race) marriages, which makes it hard to believe they're strong enough to justify a blanket ban.

The genetic argument seems to me to have far more force; there's an increased risk of all sorts of unpleasant conditions that a child borne of siblings can have.  But if Ross is against the idea of medical tests to determine the genetic structure of a baby, shouldn't he be in favour of allowing siblings - at least those separated at an early age and being reunited as adults - to get married? 

That's the problem with bright-line positions like the one Douthat is knocking around here.  Sooner or later you find something that's on the wrong side of it.  The problem with Douthat himself, of course, is that this sort of realisation always leads to another horribly tortuous spiel of sophistry in an attempt to paint the line somewhere slightly different, rather than facing up to the fact that the bright line never existed, and never can.

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