Everything Not Obligatory Is Forbidden

[seen on the New York Times’ editorial page, February 6 2065, written by one “Dr. Mora LeQuivalence”]

It’s 2065. Not giving your kids super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy isn’t your “choice”. If you don’t super-enhance your kids, you are a bad parent. It’s that simple.

Harsh? Maybe. But consider the latest survey, which found that about five percent of parents fail to super-enhance their children by the time they enter kindergarten. These aren’t poor people who can’t afford super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy. These are mostly rich, highly educated individuals in places like California and Oregon who say they think it’s more “natural” to leave their children defenseless against various undesirable traits. “I just don’t think it’s right to inject retroviral vectors into my baby’s body to change her from the way God made her,” one Portland woman was quoted by the Times as saying earlier this week. Other parents referred to a 2048 study saying the retroviral injections, usually given in the first year of life, increase the risk of various childhood cancers – a study that has since been soundly discredited.

These parents will inevitably bring up notions of “personal freedom”. But even if we accept the dubious premise that parents have a right to sacrifice their children’s health, refusing super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy isn’t just a personal choice. It’s a public health issue that affects everybody in society.

In 2064 there were almost 200 murders nationwide, up from a low of fewer than 50 in 2060. Why is this killer, long believed to be almost eradicated, making a comeback? Criminologists are unanimous in laying the blame on unenhanced children, who lack the improved impulse-control and anger-management genes included in every modern super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy package.

There were over a dozen fatal car accidents on our nation’s roads last year. The problem is drivers who weren’t enhanced as children and who lack the super-reflexes the rest of us take for granted. This is compounded when they drink before getting on the road, since unenhanced people become impaired by alcohol and their already inferior reflexes deteriorate further. Since the promise of self-driving cars continues to be tied up in regulatory hassles, we can expect many more such needless deaths as long as irresponsible parents continue to consider science “optional”.

And finally, there was a recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland Europa – even though we thought this disease had been eradicated decades ago. Scientists traced the problem to unvaccinated tourists. They further found that all of these unvaccinated individuals were unenhanced. Lacking the cognitive optimization that would help them understand psychoneuroimmunology on an intuitive level, they were easy prey for discredited ideas like “vaccines cause autism”.

So no, super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “personal choice”. It’s your basic duty as a parent and a responsible human being. People in places like India and Neo-Songhai and Venus which suffer from crime and disease make great personal sacrifices to get their children to gene therapy clinics and give them the super-enhancement designer baby gene injection that ensures them a better life. And you start off in a privileged position in America, benefitting from the superenhancement of millions of your fellow citizens, and you think you can just say “No thanks”?

So I don’t want to hear another word from the “but my freedom!” crowd. Unenhanced kids shouldn’t be allowed in school. They shouldn’t be allowed to drive. They shouldn’t be allowed in public places where they can cause problems. And parents who refuse to enhance their children should be put in jail, the same as anyone else whose actions lead to death and suffering. Because not super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “choice”. It’s child abuse.

Mora LeQuivalence is an Assistant Professor of Bioethics at Facebook University. Her latest book, “A Flight Too Far”, argues that the recent Danish experiment with giving children wings is a disgusting offense against the natural order and should be banned worldwide and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court. It is available for 0.02Ƀ on Amazon.com

Related: Transhumanism Is Simplified Humanism, Alicorn’s Alternate Universe Social Justice Series

595 thoughts on “Everything Not Obligatory Is Forbidden

  1. SFG

    I always thought eugenics got a bad rap because of those Nazi guys. If it doesn’t involve killing millions of people, what’s wrong with it?

    1. Anonymous

      No, that’s backwards. No one associated eugenics with the Nazis until about 1960. First it got a bad rap, and then people associated it with the Nazis because it all bad things are the same. (I’m not sure if people used the Nazis to attack contemporary eugenics, or that only really became popular after eugenics wound down around 1970.)

      1. Anonymous

        No, you are turning it backwards. of course it was associated with the Nazis — the Nazis openly admitted to copying our involuntary eugenic sterilizations programs, and the American advocates pointed to Germany’s great scope as something we should emulate. Shamefully, doctors involved were convicted at Nuremberg while we still were running those programs, even though the doctors quoted Buck vs. Bell.

        1. Anonymous

          The doctors were tried at Nuremberg for euthanasia, not sterilization. Everyone saw that as very different, including the Nazis, who did the sterilization publicly and the euthanasia secretly.

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  3. bellisaurius

    Thank you for making me think. I thought it was an allegory about vaccinations, but when I got to the part that talked about an extra 150 deaths a year, the lightbulb sprang on, and I realized you were arguing that these are kind of different sides of the same coin if the effects are reduced to the net societal goods.

    The nice touch is how I still find myself looking at an extra 150 deaths from not vaccinating (I’m assuming the real number is lower, but in the ballpark), and the extra 150 deaths from murders differently. The utiliatarian and libertarian are having a nice argument over that.

    1. TPD

      “The nice touch is how I still find myself looking at an extra 150 deaths from not vaccinating (I’m assuming the real number is lower, but in the ballpark), and the extra 150 deaths from murders differently. The utiliatarian and libertarian are having a nice argument over that.”

      I guess the primary difference is that stabbing someone has a 1:1 relationship with someone being stabbed (the bad outcome), whereas not vaccinating your kids only has a 1:1 relationship with creating a vector for reduced herd immunity that has been linked statistically to x number of deaths by some studies, and not a 1:1 relationship with actually getting a virus and spreading it (the bad outcome).

      One of the problems is that the risk is distributed through collective action, so individuals don’t feel like forcing them under direct threat of prison is proportionate to their actual individual contribution to increasing societal risk. I have a feeling that people would be less worried about vaccination regulation if they weren’t imagining such severe penalties being imposed on individuals (My uncle thinks they should send “the army” in to force vaccines on people…). Perhaps fines would get people less up in arms, because then you can choose not to get a vaccine, but you’ll be paying for it.

      A option even libertarians could accept is that the punishment be the loss of access to certain public services, as this would remain consistent with libertarian theory while still representing an incentive to vaccinate. The argument could be that you lose access to public benefits if you contribute to negative public outcomes. Example: in a country with a “Universal Healthcare” service, those who do not vaccinate lose access to the normally free care, and instead have to pay. The result should be that most will get their shots.

      So, there are options for libertarians here too (providing they don’t go full ancap).

      1. Anonymous

        Of course we treat murderers differently than people who don’t vaccinate their children. But the essay is not about murderers, it’s about parents of murderers.

  4. WhyTheForm

    One of my friends had an interesting phrase to describe the people who won’t have been born with genetic enhancements. They will be the “genetic amish”. Which I think is a wonderful phrase, because just as the amish don’t really participate in moving the world forward, so too might it be hard (but not impossible) to contribute meaningfully to the world when everyone else is genetically enhanced.

  5. Russell Wallace

    Vaccines are a good idea, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that a gene causing that belief, is itself a good idea. There is very unlikely to be any such thing as a gene coding specifically for the proposition ‘vaccines are a good idea’. If you find a gene causing an increased propensity to hold that belief, almost certainly what you’ve actually found is a gene coding for something like an increased propensity to believe what you are told by authority figures. I need not remind you that this can have bad consequences as well as good ones.

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  7. dlr

    ““I just don’t think it’s right to inject retroviral vectors into my baby’s body to change her from the way God made her,” one Portland woman was quoted by…”

    No, no, no, surely it will be “…to change her from the way GAIA made her…”

  8. Santoculto

    I was positively favorable to eugenics in the recent past. Today i think people no have intelect enough to do WISE choices. People don’t give same positive values than called smart people. When ordinary people think in “intelligence”, will be not like smart intelectuallized people think. I think today completely amoral abortion of down syndrome babies. Humans should be evolved morally to be able to do the best and ‘humane’ choice, but biotechnology evolved faster. The most ironic note about human evolution. Genius and creativity tend to flourish because many this evolutionary noises. How the “modern” eugenics could maintain both in a “perfect” world??? Most of the beautiful poetry or revolutionary scientific or philosophic insight was made because afliction and profound melancholy. Nature favour health or balance and not extremes. In a brave new world dystopia, real human life experimentation will substitute by big ego of god-parents. Eugenics should eliminate violence and other few objectively undiserable suscetibilities. The rest, i think should be maintained.

  9. Not Robin Hanson

    I don’t think the situation outlined in OP is socioeconomically plausible. (Assuming a social and economic climate similar to our own present—but if this assumption is dropped the thought experiment collapses anyways.) Anti-vaxxing can continue to exist socioeconomically because anti-vaxxers largely suffer few consequences for not vaccinating. Some might get measles etc., but not many enough to the point that can’t be rationalized away. (At least as long as herd immunity is maintained.) For those that don’t get measles etc. (and for those who do but successfully recover), there is nothing keeping them from full participation in “rich, highly educated” society.

    But SA was proposing (later edited out due to issues of definition) a difference of 40 IQ points. In addition, the same difference in “impulse-control and anger-management” that affects the murder rate is likely to manifest itself as poor social graces in less extreme circumstances, especially when combined with the IQ difference. How are these children supposed to remain among the “rich, highly educated” segment of society? How are they supposed to make and maintain the right connections and go to the right schools to keep up with the super-enhanced?

    If “these aren’t poor people who can’t afford super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy,” in one generation they will be.

  10. John Schilling

    I’m surprised nobody has brought up the obvious, classic SFnal reference; Robert Heinlein’s “Beyond This Horizon”. Genetically-engineered superhumans have created a nearly post-scarcity utopia, but unaugmented humans exist as a protected and subsidized minority on account of truly superior intellects recognize that monoculture is a Bad Thing and that having a population of the only known intelligent life form with a hundred thousand years of demonstrated survivability across the broadest possible range of circumstances is a useful hedge against the supermen having outsmarted themselves with this relatively newfangled genetic engineering stuff.

  11. cypher

    I’m only for mandatory vaccination in the event that vaccination levels fall dangerously low. Not sure what to think here, since vaccinations should result in no preference alterations, and the ethics of preference alterations is rather unclear atm.

  12. ciil

    0.02Ƀ?! Prices have gone up considerably again. I remember when I could make that much buck in about a week. Then all those Generation S super-enhanced kids took over the economy. Damn country is going to pieces.

  13. jdpink

    There is a great sci-fi short story from the New Yorker along similar lines. In the future we have the ability to speed up the development of children and allow them to skip right to adulthood in a matter of weeks. People who raise kids the old fashioned way (“the Slows”) are confined to a reservation planet and treated with disgust as savages who cruelly and unnecessarily force the weakness and inhumanity of childhood on their offspring.

    “But the Slows appeared to enjoy the helplessness of their larvae—the lack of humanity, the deplorable fervor of the little creatures, their muteness, their mindless appetites, their selfishness, their ignorance, their inability to act. It seemed that the most disgusting of traits were what inspired the most love in savage parents.”

    The Slows

  14. Abaleth

    Really interesting argument, I think you’ve hit on a genuine problem with the anti-anti-vaxxer movement.

    I would suggest that the satirical situation given has a fundamental difference in moral weighting to the anti-vaxxer movement’s situation though. The commentator LeQuivalence makes it quite clear that there are significant personality changes involved in the “enhancement”, whereas in the case of vaccination we’re pretty certain that there’s no profound change in being involved in the person vaccinated.

    I think that, without the “it changes your personality” bit, I might agree with LeQuivalence.

    Interesting thought experiment.

    1. Irrelevant

      Mmm, I’d argue he’s just found the problem with authoritarians again. I consider the anti-vax ringleaders the moral equivalent of pedophiles,* which I assume and hope makes me as polarized against them as it’s possible to be. But I would never vote for legally mandated vaccinations because I consider it immoral to use the law that way. The problem is the cavalier attitude most voters have towards forcing people to do things at gunpoint.

      *Presumably because I have a moral category for “harms children to make money”, but this wasn’t a conclusion I reached rationally, so I’m guessing.

      1. cypher

        I don’t want to support mandatory vaccination, but I will if vaccination levels get too low and the outbreaks get worse. If you just have a handful of anti-vaxx, you can get away with it, but not if you have a significant number.

        1. Irrelevant

          I consider that stance unprincipled and wrong, but admit that it’s probably the average person’s.

          Ultimately, I think the problem is that people insulate themselves from the methods by which laws are enforced and cast their votes as if the result will be implemented by hosts of flawless benevolent angels editing everyone’s minds to value the law.

          It would be utterly insane to see someone drive by with no seatbelt and a broken muffler, and conclude that it’s your moral duty to chase them down, knock them out, and lock them in your shed until they learn their lesson. But since people refuse to think about implementation methods, and possibly also refuse to draw the equivalence between taking an action personally and voting to pay someone to take that action on their behalf, we end up with traffic laws that have precisely that result for the poor.

          1. Nita

            Do people really get knocked out and jailed for driving without seatbelts in your country? We just fine them around here.

          2. Irrelevant

            Theoretically? No. Functionally? Yes, because the enforcement mechanism for non-payment of fines is jail.

            A lot of laws that seem like justifiable responses if you’re blind to enforcement mechanisms look totally immoral when they’re factored in, which is why I advocate personalizing the reasoning like that. I’m willing to use chains to stop you from poisoning the river. I’m willing to use a hammer to stop you from assaulting someone. I’m not willing to use either to force you to vaccinate your children.

          3. Nita

            the enforcement mechanism for non-payment of fines is jail

            Well, apparently your laws suck. Write to your representatives or something?

          4. Vorkon

            What do they do to people who refuse to pay fines in your country? Issue them more fines?

            I’m sure you can imagine why that might not work.

            I suppose I can theoretically imagine a system in which the penalty is simply them refusing to provide you with OTHER vital services until your fine is payed off, but I don’t know of any government that does this exclusively, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t be too effective even if they did. Other than that, I can’t think of any government in which the use of physical force is not the ultimate penalty for refusing to comply with a law. That’s kind of the defining feature of government.

          5. Nita

            We were talking about drivers. So, the first consequence is that their cars can’t pass the mandatory annual checkup. Their license can also get suspended. If all else fails, it’s the same as with other debts — a judge can authorize bailiffs to seize and sell some of your stuff.

          6. Vorkon

            And how do those bailiffs go about seizing your property, exactly? By asking really nicely and hoping you don’t just tell them to go pound sand?

            In the end, it all comes down to violence or the threat thereof.

          7. Nita

            First they investigate your assets and income.

            If your income is high enough, they can receive their share directly from the source.

            If that doesn’t work, they can freeze your bank accounts and ask nicely. Would you rather be able to use some of your money or none of it? You’d like to use the rest of your money, so you’ll give them what you owe.

            Failing that, they can enter any of your properties, or any places that contain your property, even without your presence. However, if you’re present, you can choose which stuff they’ll take.

            And finally, if all of that is not enough, they can sell your real estate, and the new owners will change the locks.

            I suppose you could get into a fight in the last two stages of this process. But no one’s knocking anyone out for not wearing a seat belt.

          8. jaimeastorga2000

            So, the first consequence is that their cars can’t pass the mandatory annual checkup. Their license can also get suspended.

            And what happens if they try to drive anyway? They get arrested, yes? Escalation of force.

          9. Anonymous

            Nita, did you read Irrelevant’s link? Americans almost never get jailed for failing to pay debts or fines (except child support). They get jailed for failing to show up in court to acknowledge the debt.

          10. Nita


            If they try to drive anyway and get caught, they get another fine. If they get caught again within a year, they get another fine and have to spend 5-15 days in a short-term jail. They can ask the judge to split this time into several chunks to accommodate their work schedule.

            More realistically, though, the usual sanction for driving without a seatbelt is a warning. Getting back to Irrelevant’s original point, telling someone to stop and reminding them to wear a seatbelt doesn’t seem “utterly insane” to me.


            Ah, thanks. I had read about this issue a while ago, and apparently didn’t remember it well enough to question Irrelevant’s summary. I’ve looked at a couple of administrative court decisions from my country, and judges seem to just shrug and proceed without you if you don’t show up.

            Also, single parents are exempt from administrative arrest here.

  15. Peter

    I like the bit at the end, where Mora turns out to be quite conservative and perfectly willing to describe something as “a disgusting offense against the natural order”. Well played!

    1. Ben

      This is an exact analogue of how you will get people who are “pro-science” when it comes to global warming and vaccination, but are also convinced that GM crops or nuclear power are very dangerous.

  16. Daniel

    Let’s compare two social panics:

    (1) refusing measles vaccines, which might lead to other peoples’ measles.
    (2) performing gay marriage, which might lead to other peoples’ lack of worthwhile marriage.

    Measles vaccines are the evidence-backed highest-performance way to prevent measles. There’s no equally efficient alternative. There’s no serious debate about its efficacy.

    Forbidding gay marriage is anything but the evidence-backed highest-performance way to help heterosexual marriage. There are plenty of alternatives. There’s not even a majority belief in its efficacy.

    Empirical data and situational alternatives matter. After all, we can create hypotheses where anything is necessary to human survival — even murder. “Your refusal to engage in revenge killing is what enables those bandits!”

    Likewise, we can come up with a future society that really does depend on each citizen having perfect biological wiring.

    Or we can come up with a future society where robots keep us all honest and safe, and other robots watch to keep the robots well-behaved, and biological humans can be as “defective” as they want.

    In one of those societies, genetically engineered kids could really be a moral obligation. In the other one, the claim would be disgusting. I happen to think the first society is unlikely. But what matters is the empirical details of how the society actually works.

    Moral duties depend on the consequences and alternatives. Those consequences and alternatives aren’t usually questions of philosophy. They’re questions of fact.

    And where there is debate, it has less to do with abstract questions of what makes a moral duty, and more to do with what different groups trust as evidence.

    I trust science; some people trust tradition; of course we’re going to disagree. There’s no need to call in Dr. LeQuivalence to explain that.

    You know what would really be valuable? Explaining how to make it easier for the tradition-minded to trust science, and for that matter where the science-minded, like me, should trust tradition instead.

    Because in a world where we didn’t have such a divide between “I trust scientists and data” and “I trust tradition and moral authorities”, the gay marriage fight, the vaccine fight, and the hypothetical unenhanced kids fight would all be kinder.

    1. Irrelevant

      (2) performing gay marriage, which might lead to other peoples’ divorce.

      No, their argument was “performing gay marriages, which might lead to an overall cultural devaluation of marriage as a sacred duty, preventing future marriages and destabilizing society.” You just omitted the causative mechanism, got the conclusion wrong, and then claimed an argument didn’t make sense.

      Further, vaccination is a highly counterintuitive and non-obvious solution to disease. It’s simply empirically proven to work. And you don’t appear to be arguing that “even counterintuitive theories deserve a chance to demonstrate themselves” so I’m really not understanding what your point is supposed to be.

      1. Daniel

        Thank you for your correction about the anti-gay-marriage argument. I was trying to be concise, but you’re right that I ended up with something that’s just unrepresentative. I’ve edited the post.

        My point was that “we should force X on people” depends on how good our evidence is for “For other people’s well-being, X is both effective and necessary.”

        I think of vaccination as a pro-health instrument with a lot of evidence and few alternatives.

        I think of forbidding gay marriage as a pro-marriage instrument with minimal evidence and lots of alternatives.

        I think which way one should feel about Dr. LeQuivalence’s claims in the hypothetical depends on how much evidence there is that LeQuivalence’s solution is, for other people’s safety, both effective and necessary.

        That is, it’s not a philosophical question, it’s an empirical one (in the world of the hypothetical). So for me, the interesting question is “why is there so much disagreement in real life about how to weigh the evidence on these questions?”

        Because it seems to me that much disagreement about things like vaccination or gay marriage has less to do with high philosophy and more to do with what counts as evidence for different people.

        I’d like to see Scott write a post on how to make it easier for empiricism and tribalism to reconcile. The current system really doesn’t seem optimal. Even nominally “progressive” tribalisms can get vehemently unempirical — see any SSC SJ post for examples.

  17. Viceroy Bubbles Von Salamancer

    The only flaw I can find in the reasoning, if we assume it’s about vaccines (Which i immediately did, the allegory is obvious. However, your comment made me think about deeper thinking itself being its own reward. You never fail to make me think, Scott) is that if we do designer-babies, we’re altering something much more fundamental about ourselves- Our very instructions to our body, who we, basically are. (If you haven’t figured out from what I’ve written, I’ve wasted many a good hour musing on this. It only ends in nerves and some sort of paradox-suicidality.) I can’t see any moral quandaries about vaccines- They shield you and others from nasty infections using your body’s immune system- Sweet! No transhuman or ethical ambiguity there. Designer babies? Not so much.

    1. Irrelevant

      The rules where you’re an intellectually confident adult advertizing your ability to flout arbitrary rules, rather than a teenager advertizing your ability to comply with them in order to be taken seriously.

        1. Jiro

          You are confusing “compliance” and “compliance with parents”. Compliance with peer groups is actually a thing among a lot of teenagers.

        2. Irrelevant

          Was that supposed to be sarcasm? Because in addition to what Jiro said about peer groups, there are those of us who spent their entire teenaged period wanting our thoughts and opinions to be considered just as valid as those of adults. And in my case, one of the effects that had was spelling and grammar naziism. Both of which went to hell in about my junior year of college, because I no longer felt they were necessary priorities for the status I was after.

    2. Anonymous

      There’s only one comma inside quotations marks. It’s probably a mistakenot intentional. (There’s also one outside.)

    3. Deiseach

      By what rules of punctuation do quotes go outside of commas, but inside of periods?

      “These rules,” she said. “If you’re writing English English, that is. I have been given to understand that American English is different, but I don’t know that for myself”.

        1. houseboatonstyx

          USian here.

          Zie did not say “Jones”, zie said “Smith”.

          This is pretty accepted on the forums I read, especially in mono-spaced fonts, as being parallel to

          We use ‘octopuses’, not ‘octopi’.

          I’m told that early typesetters preferred the small end punctuation to be inside the quote mark when possible, so it wouldn’t get lost.

  18. Alex

    I feel that having kids who resemble you is a fundamental human experience. Vaccines help with that, since if your kid gets some awful sickness, they might die and this might prevent them from resembling you.

    Powerful genetic enhancements, in contrast, would disrupt this experience. So I’m not sure I see a dilemma.

  19. Dumky

    In 2064, you’d imagine that healthcare insurance, driver’s insurance, protection services and so on will be able to charge more for such un-enhanced people. Certain places will have minimum coverage requirements to let you in.
    If you don’t have the impulse-management genes (either by birth or lack of augmentation), then protecting and insuring your property would cost more. It may even be exorbitantly expensive. Known criminals can only go to a few places under stringent conditions.
    Parents’ health insurance would go up as they take risks that the insurance will have to cover. Some (or maybe most) schools, attraction parks, malls or even cities may not let you in. Some employers won’t hire you. There will be a diversity of regimes and agreements.

    In short, my point is that you may be drawing a false dichotomy between freedom and social good. All the externalities that you raise can be internalized.

    PS: going back to the conceptually simpler domain of adult choice, have you taken your flu shot?

    1. Nita

      healthcare insurance, driver’s insurance, protection services and so on will be able to charge more for such un-enhanced people. Certain places will have minimum coverage requirements to let you in.
      If you don’t have the impulse-management genes (either by birth or lack of augmentation), then protecting and insuring your property would cost more. It may even be exorbitantly expensive

      How is this internalizing externalities? The choice is made by parents, but all these costs are heaped onto the children.

      Parents’ health insurance would go up as they take risks that the insurance will have to cover. Some (or maybe most) schools, attraction parks, malls or even cities may not let you in. Some employers won’t hire you.

      Are you assuming mandatory health insurance and public school attendance? Some parents already shun modern medicine and schooling. In fact, the kids’ lack of schooling (and subsequent employment difficulties) is a benefit to the parents — cut off from other options, the children are more likely to be obedient and stay in the parents’ community.

  20. swanknasty

    The difference here is that ‘failing’ to super-enhance a child does not spread the same ill-effect to other children. But, if we knew that X failing to super-enhanced his child with +2SD height meant that there was a high probability several other children would lose 2SD in height, then the same viewpoint is reasonable.

  21. Anonymous

    Guys, this isn’t a parody of pro-mandatory vaccine position, its a parody of bioethicists. Scotts message isn’t pro or anti human enhancement, its anti-bioethicist.

  22. ilzolende

    I’ve seen the idea that coercive eugenics and mandatory vaccination must be classified from a moral standpoint simultaneously before:

    It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. (Buck v. Bell)

    My immediate instinct upon seeing that was wanting to send the quote to anti-vaxxers, because I want to hear the argument “if you force us to vaccinate our kids, then you have to support eugenics, and that would be terrible” in place of the argument “if we vaccinate, then kids will be autistic, and that would be terrible”.

    I suppose if these genetic modifications really were similar to vaccines today in that they did not lead to an overly restricted range of minds/personalities and only had positive impacts in the overwhelming majority of cases, I would support making them mandatory. While I have trouble actually accepting this hypothetical, if it were true, I’d have to support mandatory modifications.

  23. JYS


    I share your strong prejudices in favor of individual consent/freedom over public goods. That is to say my threshold for restricting individual consent/freedom in order to ensure a public good is high relative to those who are currently calling for mandatory vaccination. That said, your more rational opponents will just shrug and agree that your future fantasy scenario is analogous to the current situation… and they would be for mandatory intervention in that context as well.

    There is another case to be made, however. Let us presume you believe that the benefits of the CDC, ACP, AAP’s recommended vaccination schedules outweigh the harm. (Which is an informed belief I have.) Let us further presume that ideally you’d like vaccines whose benefits currently outweigh their harms to be distributed in a manner that maximizes their utility. (Universally for things such as MMR. In the specific context in which they are useful like as, for instance, smallpox vaccination used to be.)

    There is indirect evidence that the type of risk communication that occurs in the popular media hurts the cause of appropriate vaccination. There may exist, but I am not aware of, evidence that the side effects of mandatory vaccination in the face of vitriolic rhetoric may have societal side effects (in the form of distrust for authority, for instance) that are not worth the strong assurance that children in public schools, for instance, will be vaccinated against MMR. It may even be possible to ensure relatively universal vaccination without those side effects through empathetic, thoughtful risk communication. This is probably true though the literature isn’t currently strong enough (at least that I am aware of) to support this statement to a skeptical audience. If you haven’t read Dan Kahan’s thoughts on this, you ought to. You would find him interesting generally and with specific reference to this issue.

    For instance:

      1. JYS

        I am in this instance.

        The CDC’s (and other public health authorities’) advice is generally though not strictly good and data driven. The benefit of non-experts listening to trusted public health authorities overwhelming outweighs the risk. There is a deeper argument than this that extends beyond public which I may make later. (To be clear, I am not arguing for a credulous public. I can go into more detail later if you’d like.)

  24. Aaron

    It’s irritating when someone makes an obviously incendiary comparison and then tries to be coy by denying any responsibility for the ensuing debate. “Any similarity to persons living or dead,” etc.

    That, and the comparison clearly breaks down insofar as vaccination, from the perspective of pro-vaxxers, has secondary public health effects in the form of maintaining herd immunity. Maybe you have a right to make decisions for your child re: gene therapy, but there is a strong a priori claim that not vaccinating endangers others and therefore is appropriately regulated by the gOvernment. Maybe the bullet can and should be bit but the disanalogy is obvious, is what I’m saying.

    1. HeelBearCub

      But Scott is making a claim of endangerment here.

      He is claiming that those enhanced are far more likely to be victims of the disease of sociopathy, leading them to murder other members of the herd.

  25. HeelBearCub

    Who else is bothered by the assumption required to make the “intuitive dissonance” work? There is an implied statement at the beginning which is, “Assume that by 2065 we have developed and made available gene-therapy that has an equivalent track record to vaccination in terms of both efficacy and saftey”.

    There are two things that bug me about this. One is essentially a quibble in that we would need for the techology to be already developed and working to have an equivalent track record to vaccination, so it already has the ring of inauthenticity. Second, I intuit that a big problem with these types of scenarios is that they force you to assume something for which you have no evidence. As an aside, this has always bugged me about the hypothetical morality tests involving people and train tracks as well. It seems to me that having a built in suspicion about someone telling you a story, and then asking you to take actions based on that story, is perfectly sensible.

    To go back to the train track example, IIRC in one of the original studies, they concluded it was very unlikely that someone would say they were willing to push someone onto the train tracks to be killed if it would save 10 other people [citation needed]. This doesn’t strike me as cognitive bias so much as common sense. If someone tells you, “push that guy onto the train tracks and it will stop the train” does that sound realistic? Or fantastic? Even though you have been told to assume that it is true, you haven’t actually come to the conclusion it is true. Honestly, I think that mechanism works for the “switch the train from one track to the other” part of the setup as well. How much do you know about train switching? Have you ever done it? If someone asked you to be in charge of switching a train from one track to another, would you feel confident you could do it without causing an accident?

    I wonder what would happen if you took people who did train switching for a living and described in detail a very techically correct situation how they would answer the question.

    I think the dissonance will come into play more strongly the less confident you feel in the assumption.

    1. Rowan

      That just sounds like there’s a skill of “not fighting the hypothetical” that some (probably most) people lack.

      1. HeelBearCub

        But, it’s different than an action/inaction bias.

        Put another way, if you don’t know what you are doing, you are less inclined to do it. This is roughly akin to the bias to not run if you have your eyes closed.

        Which is why I am interested in whether th action/inaction bias is truly that, or something else.

      2. DrBeat

        Is it really lacking a skill of “not fighting the hypothetical”?

        Or is it possessing the skill of “not allowing yourself to be bullshitted”?

  26. jtgw

    I’m totally in favor of letting people design their own babies if they want; I’m totally against the government forcing them to do so. I’m a hardcore libertarian and would allow parents maximum discretion in how they raise their kids; I only draw the line at not allowing them to directly cause bodily harm. And if you think your own life is made less comfortable or safe by the presence of the unenhanced, then either move to an enhanced-only neighborhood or get a fucking gun and learn how to defend yourself.

    That being said, I would be in favor of the state treating felons with various therapies in order to change their behavior. Basically, if you want to continue unenhanced, you have to not screw up; if you blow it, you get “upgraded”. If your felony is particularly bad, I’d also be happy with getting “deleted”. But I’m very scared by the idea of the state forcing us all to become Cybermen without our consent.

    1. Jiro

      That is a bad idea because the same state that decides whether someone is a felon is likely to benefit from changing the behavior of the felon. Unless the change in behavior only decreases their chance of committing crimes *and nothing else*, that’s a huge conflict of interest. Imagine a situation where, for instance, the state gives all felons behavioral treatments that increase their likelihood of obeying authority figures.

      1. Jtgw

        I see your point. Perhaps instead the state should be able to offer either behavior-changing therapy or something more straightforwardly punitive. I think individuals should be able to choose such therapies themselves.

        1. Jiro

          That doesn’t work either, because that has a similar conflict of interest where the same state that decides how bad to make the punitive treatment, also benefits when the criminal decides he would prefer the behavior-changing therapy to the punitive treatment.

          1. Jtgw

            Ok. I’d be interested to hear what the state should do to felons. Or should the state be abolished and people left to devise punishments on their own?

          2. Jiro

            The state should punish felons in ways that do not benefit the state, and cannot easily be abused to benefit the state, beyond the fact that the felons are not committing crimes or are discouraged from committing crimes.

            Jail or even the death penalty would be okay, as would fines that are not so large that the state makes a profit after adding in the cost of the police and courts.

          3. jtgw

            You don’t think behavioral therapies could be defined narrowly enough not to be abused by the state? I kind of think ANY duties left to the state can be abused, but libertarian as I am, I’m not an anarchist who thinks we can do without the state entirely.

          4. Julie K

            I’m not so scared of that prospect, but only because I don’t think the state would be competent enough and organized enough to carry out such a program.

    2. Illuminati Initiate

      You are confusing modifying the personality of potential people with modifying the personality of actual people. Mandatory designer babies (whether you think its a good idea or not) isn’t turning anyone into a cyberman- it might be making cybermen out of the blue, but no one who wasn’t a cyberman becomes one. Whereas the forcible altering of criminals you mention could result on the state turning people into cybermen against their will.

      How parents design their children does harm other people- their children. I am generally in favor of personal freedom type stuff, but reproduction is not personal freedom, it by its very nature involves greatly changing the situation of others. I am very much bothered by how people treat people treat having children as a personal liberty thing.

      1. David Friedman

        “I am very much bothered by how people treat people treat having children as a personal liberty thing.”

        If one is seeing personal liberty entirely as a good in itself, I agree. But if your arguments for personal liberty are consequentialist , then the same arguments go through, with somewhat less force, for children.

        The consequentialist argument is that you are the person most likely to make decisions for yourself on the basis of your own self interest, and are likely to have a lot of private information relevant to what decisions are in your self interest.

        To apply it to your children, we observe that, of people other than the child, the parent is the one most likely to value the child’s welfare, and that parents have a good deal of information relevant to decisions affecting their child that other people don’t have.

        The more general point is that the issue is not “should parents be compelled to make the right decision for their children” but “should parents decide what decision is right for their children or should the state decide.”

  27. Mai La Dreapta

    Since so many people upthread are cool with mandating genetic therapy for the reasons described in the op-ed, I assume that all of the following therapies (which are likewise self-evidently healthy, normal, and contribute to the well-being of society) will be uncontroversial:

    1) A treatment to ensure that all children are heterosexual and cisgendered
    2) A treatment to ensure that children have high religiosity
    3) A treatment to ensure that children are extraverts
    4) A treatment to ensure that children are not promiscuous or interested in deviant sexual behaviors (even aside from those treated by #1)

    I must remind you that these treatments are mandatory. For the good of society. If you object to any of these, please talk to your physician, as they may be able to prescribe you something which will eliminate your opposition.

    1. jtgw

      Exactly! Progressive transhumanists who salivate at the thought of everyone being designed can’t assume everyone doing the designing, even the government, will have the same ideals in mind. Seriously, being coerced to accept any kind of treatment is frightening, whether we’re talking vaccination or genetic therapy.

      1. RCF

        I don’t know if that’s a valid argument. After all, what if someone said “You think that it’s okay for the government to outlaw murder, but once you agree that the government can outlaw things that people don’t like, how do you know that they will dislike the same things as you dislike?”

        1. Mary

          There are people who have been jailed in England because thugs broke into their homes and they defended themselves. Murder laws have already led to bad things.

          are we not to consider trade-offs, ever?

          1. Peter

            “Defended themselves” – if I’m thinking of the case you’re thinking of, then “shot the burglars in the back as they fled, then lied about it in court” is another description, IMO a more accurate one.

    2. William O. B'Livion

      … will be uncontroversial:

      2) A treatment to ensure that children have high religiosity

      Um. If they selected for low religiosity, how would they get more progressives?


    3. Princess Stargirl

      No. None of those benefits are nearly as large as the befits Scott’s genetic enhancement provides. Force should only be used when the magnitude of the harm/help is very large.

      1. thirqual

        You are assuming that everyone will agree with you on those points. That’s far from obvious for many people, alas. See the previous thread and the discussion on why (male) homosexuality is obviously immoral because normal people are disgusted by anal intercourse.

        Also, considering the current suicide rate for trans persons, one could argue that it would be better had they been born cis. The fact that this suicide rate is due to social problems could be not that relevant for a social conservative.

        1. Matthew

          I’m a social liberal, and I was still stunned by how many people were defending the idea on Ozy’s open thread that we shouldn’t want to prevent future incidence of something that causes severe dysphoria, and not just for social reasons.

        2. maxikov

          Actually, you don’t even need to go to suicide rates to make the argument for everyone being cis. Binary trans people apply a great deal of effort to get the body of the gender they identify with, sometimes at the expense of general health, and it doesn’t always perfectly work – genital surgery options for transmen are rather inadequate, and there’s nothing we can do about skeletal features (aside from the limited possibilities of facial surgery). Thus, many of them would have probably benefited from being born with this body to begin with (and some explicitly say: “I wish I was born a girl/boy”). Thus, they would have benefited from being born cis.

          1. Nita

            Presumably, the treatment would alter their brains to match their bodies, not the other way around.

            And what about nonbinary people like Ozy?

          2. Anonymous

            OTOH, everyone could just be cis-by-default and/or be engineered so they have control over what kind of changes they go through.

          3. maxikov


            If we’re talking about embryo selection then neither brain nor body gets altered; they just exist in accordance with each other in the first place.

            If we’re talking about prenatal or early postnatal treatment, it doesn’t actually matter whether the body or the brain gets altered. That won’t work with adults, because even if we had the technology of actually changing one’s gender identity, it would be a personality-altering procedure, and probably not many people would agree to undergo it, since people value their personality. But newborns and fetuses don’t have personality, so only the future outcome gets changed. Currently the algorithm for selecting the gender of the future child is “flip a coin.” With this procedure the algorithm becomes “flip a coin, and if the fetus isn’t cis, do the opposite.” In both cases gender is selected randomly, and no one’s preferences are violated in either case.

            And you’re right – that doesn’t apply very well to nonbinary people. And I would prefer the development of advanced nanite medicine that would allow people, among other wonderful things, to change their sex like no big deal. But I do want to note that the opposite argument is stronger than merely the one about the suicide rates.

        3. Princess Stargirl

          Being smarter healthier and with better reflexes is much more important than any of the “Benefits” is 1-4.

          I never claimed people wouldn’t disagree with me. However my own views are not inconsistent. Parents should have a choice unless the effect is gigantic. Note my position makes me pretty sympathetic to anti-mandatory vacines. I am not really sure the benefits of vaccines are enough. I do think vaccines make the cut to be mandatory even though its close.

          What is not close to the borderline is the genetic enhancement in Scott’s post.

          1. thirqual

            In the model of the world running in my head, some people think like Chairman Yang (from SMAC. Choice of a fictional character rather than a real person absolutely deliberate), and would not agree that 1-4 are not as important. Especially if they favor a stratified, authoritarian society.

            For other persons, 1, 2 and/or 4 trigger their systems 1 hard enough that they would rate a correction to 1/2/4 above smarter/healthier/better reflexes. The extremes to which conversion therapists go are a good example.

            Re-reading your comment, I think we are also placing enforcement/choice on a different level. You talk about parental choice, I see societal pressures (legal or peer/media pressure intense enough) as the main potential driver.

          2. Princess Stargirl


            If people have terrible emotional reaction and cannot realize these are irrational then my ethical stance will not stop them from doing terrible stuff.

          3. Jaskologist

            Mandatory vaccination (and one assumes this varies by disease) seems like one of the few things where we could actually do a pretty good utilitarian calculation.

            [Odds of catching disease] *[Odds of spreading it to others] * [deadliness/severity of disease] – [risks of vaccine]

            Note that the basis of comparison is not 0% vaccinations; it’s however many people would get vaccinated without a mandate (which most people do, after all).
            All of these variables are, of course, highly dynamic.

            It’s not at all obvious to me that this lands on the “mandate” side. The marginal danger of a person opting out is likely very small, especially in a world where most people get vaccinated anyway.

          4. James Picone

            Some vaccinations are much more reliant on herd immunity than others – whooping cough is the big one. The population that’s most vulnerable to whooping cough in a they-might-die sense is very young babies, and they can’t be vaccinated for reasons of very-youngness. The maths on a whooping cough vaccine mandate would probably be one of the stronger ones.

            Also maybe some way of taking into account that there’s a chance of completely eliminating some diseases if you can get sufficient herd immunity worldwide. Polio, something something.

          5. Jaskologist

            I agree that eradication campaigns probably carry additional weight. But that’s not usually what is being considered. US mandated measles vaccines, for example, would not fully eradicate the disease. We already eliminated it from the country; it just keeps leaking back in from outside. You’ve got to get the rest of the world to go along, too.

    4. haishan

      No, diversity is too important as an intrinsic good. Better to edit out all of the negative responses to diversity; in fact, let’s make people more trusting/charitable/happy when they’re surrounded by people different from them, while we’re at it! Get sexism, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, transableism, and pedophilophobia out of the human genome forever!

      (Fence? What fence?)

    5. maxikov

      (2) is very different from the rest of the suggestions. (1), (3), and (4) are a matter of preferences, while (2) is a matter of adopting false beliefs. If high religiosity means they all want to go to church on Sundays, I’m fine, but if it makes them reject scientific method, then no – I’m not willing to pomo enough to agree that faith and justified evidence-based beliefs can be equally worthy depending on the culture.

      As for (1), (3), and (4), let’s also consider their counterparts:

      1.n) All children are pansexual and gender-fluid
      3.n) All children are introverts
      4.n) All children are promiscuous, kinky, and immune to STDs.

      It could actually make more sense to combine (1, 3.n, 4) and (1.n, 3, 4.n): the world where everyone is up to having sex with everyone, but socialization is painful to them, would be a pretty sad place; likewise, the world, where everyone is not really up to having sex, but they want to socialize all the time, is a-OK place, but wanting to have sex would be better for them.

      I do think that (1.n, 3, 4.n) is a happier place than (1, 3.n, 4), and both of them are happier than (1, 3, 4) and (1.n, 3.n, 4.n), but one thing for sure – they’re all happier than the real world, in which people with completely incompatible preference have to coexist, and create a lot of frustration to each other.

      1. Troy

        (1), (3), and (4) are a matter of preferences, while (2) is a matter of adopting false beliefs.

        Response 1: Well, that’s your opinion.

        Response 2: Not having false beliefs, even if it will make us all better off? What is this antiquarian sacred value?

        1. Mark

          Response 1: Well, that’s your opinion.

          Okay, then let’s compromise and avoid changes specifically designed to make people believe highly controversial things.

          Response 2: Not having false beliefs, even if it will make us all better off? What is this antiquarian sacred value?

          Are people in the matrix better off than the people who unplugged? Probably not under most people’s conception of “better.”

    6. Samuel Skinner

      “1) A treatment to ensure that all children are heterosexual and cisgendered”

      I’m fine with that. It also has the benefit that no one ever has to worry about their sexuality making puberty less awkward.

      “2) A treatment to ensure that children have high religiosity”

      Why? That only contributes to social well being if everyone has the same religion.

      “3) A treatment to ensure that children are extraverts”

      Do you mean they like interacting with others, they are better at interacting with others or they need to interact with others more? Because the first is a neutral preference, the second is good and the third is bad.

      ” 4) A treatment to ensure that children are not promiscuous or interested in deviant sexual behaviors (even aside from those treated by #1)”

      I’m also fine with this.

      I’m not seeing what is so terrible about these changes. You are eliminating things that are preferences to give individuals ones that more closely approximate what the majority has. I’d fall under 3 and 4 but I’m pretty indifferent to the idea that a potential me could have had different preferences in those categories.

    7. Anonymous

      Why would anyone try to force these on parents when the parents will almost uniformly volunteer? It’s very different from Scott’s examples.

    8. jaimeastorga2000

      One and four seem like no-brainers to me.Two gives me pause but I would probably still be okay with it; I’m pretty sure religion is false, but empirically it does seem to lead to much better lives, and that seems like a trade-off worth making. And three is the only one I would be seriously opposed to, probably because being an introvert is such a large part of my identity.

    9. cypher

      The ethics of preference alteration are even less worked out than conventional ethics at this stage.

      I don’t think we can say with confidence that the proposed enhancement treatment should, ethically, be mandatory.

      The distinction is that vaccinations don’t meaningfully alter one’s personality.

      1. Irrelevant

        >The distinction is that vaccinations don’t meaningfully alter one’s personality.

        Your anti-schizophrenia drugs, on the other hand, do. What’s your stance on mandating those?

        1. Deiseach

          Anecdotes are not data, I know that, but samples of workplace dealing with clients suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, when off their meds or heading towards needing a period of hospitalisation:

          (1) Believes the government, and we as agents of the government, are planting cameras in their home to spy on them (sounds funny, not so funny in reality when they’re phoning up in a high state of agitation and upset to rave on the telephone for twenty minutes at a stretch about this)

          (2) Having to warn our workmen, inspectors and anyone else who may have cause to call to the house to always go in pairs, for their own protection and that of the client, else the person will ring up afterwards and complain that the council visitor attacked them, trashed their house, etc.

          (3) Multiple times changing door locks for client who consistently maintains neighbours are stealing their keys, entering their house, and burning their clothes, smearing substances on the walls, etc. Minor inconvenience to us and strictly speaking we’re not supposed to do it, but we generally send a guy out to change the locks just to give the person reassurance. This client also frequently rings up, visits the office, etc. and spends prolonged periods of time making mildly odd to bizarre (depending how bad that point of their cycle is) complaints; will also ring up when hospitalised to do so. Really seeking reassurance and sympathetic listener, as they’re very isolated despite family attempts to keep in contact.

          Basically, much of a muchness: can’t get on with neighbours, distrustful, erratic, prone to long visits/phone calls making vague but agitated complaints, not often violent either verbally or physically (we have some right charmers who are, but they’re not the schizophrenics) and more of a hurt to themselves than others.

          Medication may not be great but when they’re on a settled regime of a drug that works for them, they’re more functional and their lives are that bit easier.

          Which is why I would burn with fire all those goddamn movies about quirky creative types who are buffaloed into forced hospitalisation and force-fed meds which turn them into dull-eyed zombies and mean they can’t paint/make music/write poetry/be the manic pixie dream girl or boy as they do/are when they have their creatively inspiring bouts of mental illness.

          It’s not like that in reality. Mental illness is not stimulating, creative, or gives you access to a higher plane of consciousness. If you’re creative, I think you would be the same without the illness, and that you are creative despite and not because of it.

    10. lmm

      If we stipulate that I’ve seen convincing evidence of the benefits (which I doubt is possible for 2) then yeah, sure. Duh.

  28. Bartolo Polkakitty

    I don’t think a comparison between mandatory vaccination and mandatory genetic engineering works very well, for a few reasons:

    – We already know that vaccines are pretty much as safe and effective as any medical procedure gets, but we can’t say the same thing for sure about a hypothetical future form of gene therapy. In practice, we might have to deal with questions like “is it worth it to go into massive debt and compromise the care and education I can provide for my child to be able to give them a treatment that might make them smarter, but only has a 10% chance of working,” or “the treatment has been shown to increase IQ, but most of the people who get it develop bipolar disorder, so does that offset any increase in quality of life?” I think the “editorial” framing device has a definite limitation here, because the in-world person who’s supposed to be writing the editorial would presumably say the treatment is safe and effective regardless of whether it actually was, simply because arguments are soldiers and all.

    (Also, I’m not sure how many of the people who will read this post this applies to, but, just as you described in your Cowpox of Doubt essay, when I first read this, I really wanted to get mad at it. A minute later, I realized that was just because of how many grievous offenses against basic niceness and sanity I’ve seen written in this sort of editorial format, and what kinds of things I’ve been conditioned to expect anyone writing in that format to say. Still, I guess a lot of people will be pointing to this and calling you an anti-vaxer in the next couple of weeks, either for that reason or because they’re still mad about something you wrote months ago and they want something to point at and go “see what horrible monsters my outgroup all are.” When you said “half the people will think I’m arguing against vaccination”, I have to glumly agree.)

    – It seems to me somewhat implied that the gene therapy can only be done when you’re a baby, and you only get one chance to have it done (which is plausible, given how much brain development happens as a baby as opposed to an adult.) I’m not sure whether that’s what you intended, but to people who have not had their genes enhanced by amazing future technology (such as everyone currently alive on Earth,) if it’s too late for them to get super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy, it could easily seem more “fair” to them for nobody else to be able to get it either so that nobody would be able to surpass them in any way. I mean, I don’t *agree* with that argument, but it would inevitably be a popular argument against the therapy, and it’s an argument that defenses of vaccination don’t have to contend with, because we know you can get a vaccine at a later age, and anyway it’s inherently impossible to make the argument “I got measles and died when I was 10, so it’s only fair for everyone else’s kids to have to get measles and die as well.”

    – The biggest reason, though, is that the purpose of vaccines is just to do one thing, to prevent you from getting dangerous diseases, and there’s no way a rational person can really prefer that any other outcome should happen to them. If, as in the Simplified Humanism essay, the effect of getting super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy is just “increase your IQ by 10 with no side effects”, then yeah, there is no good reason to ever want your parents to do anything else. But what if, for your entire life, you’ve wanted nothing more than to be a musician, but your parents optimized your genes to make you the best accountant possible? And what’s worse, nobody will ever want to listen to any of your music, because every time you pick up an instrument, you just sound like a pathetic joke compared to anyone who got super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy optimized for musical talent?

    Basically, you could end up with a situation in which you could be convincingly argued to be a child abuser not just if you choose not to modify your child’s genes, but if you fail to modify them specifically in such a way as to help them in the future with a way of life that you had no way of knowing they would ever choose. Also, just the use of the word “designer” implies that your parents will have a degree of control over your future that’s inherently creepy, even if it does turn out in your best interest. And you can postulate that some other genetic modification might be possible that would ensure your greatest dream will be to be an accountant no matter what, but I don’t think I really have to explain what’s creepy about that idea….

    But even that isn’t what I really worry about when it comes to genetic engineering. What I really worry about is what I am usually worried about, which is anti-intellectualism. And I’m not referring to the usual “WOO WOO PLAYING GOD EVIL” kind of anti-intellectualism that inspires a lot of arguments you hear about genetic engineering. I’m talking about the possibility of a movement arising that actually employs genetic engineering to prevent people from becoming intellectuals.

    Whether we hold elections or not, political leaders will always need to be able to persuade a large section of the population that they’re in the right just to be able to accomplish any of the things they want done and not be overthrown, so they don’t have any incentive to want the public to be smart enough to think critically about anything they’re being told they should do. They have an incentive to want a public that’s just barely smart enough to be able to take orders. And if you take a good look at today’s campaign ads, you will see just how casually they dehumanize anyone who disagrees with anything they want, tossing around accusations of “hating freedom” and “wanting the terrorists to win”, and the absolute demonization of science and scientists that now comes out of both parties in the US demonstrates both how intensely anti-intellectual they are and the existence of a mainstream audience that actually finds such anti-intellectualism persuasive.

    So I seriously think the biggest problem related to intelligence we’re going to face in the future is not “make sure we enhance our intelligence in a safe and effective manner,” but rather “prevent state power from being used to ensure that mass numbers of people are engineered specifically to be stupider under the pretense of eliminating “male entitlement” or “alternative lifestyles” or some mindless bumper sticker slogan like that.” If we can get through the next century without that happening, I will seriously consider it one of the greatest victories that humans as a species have ever won.

    1. Irrelevant

      >it’s inherently impossible to make the argument “I got measles and died when I was 10, so it’s only fair for everyone else’s kids to have to get measles and die as well.”

      Best line in this thread so far.

        1. Irrelevant

          Ha. Also, what happened when that came on during the game was amusing.

          “At Nationwide, we believe in protecting what matters most:”
          *long pause*
          Several people simultaneously: “Gingers?”

    2. HeelBearCub

      Some excellent points here, and as I argue down-thread, I think much of the dissonance invoked is because we, the reader, don’t actually assume what the writer of the argument implicitly or explicitly tells us to assume. (i.e. safe, efficacious, unalloyed good, etc.)

    3. William O. B'Livion

      …political leaders will always need to be able to persuade a large section of the population that they’re in the right just to be able to accomplish any of the things they want done and not be overthrown,

      But if one of the enhancements is elimination of sociopathy…

    4. suntzuanime

      It would be immoral to optimize for genetic accountancy talent until we’re able to simultaneously optimize for genetic accountancy desire, is what you’re saying.

      1. Irrelevant

        That doesn’t make sense unless we assume the process involved reduces capability in other fields. If it’s a direct improvement, guaranteeing your kid can become excellent at accounting is to their benefit no matter what their primary interests end up being.

        1. Bartolo Polkakitty

          Yes, all things considered, it definitely would be better to have your genes optimized for accountancy talent, but not interest in accountancy, than to not have your genes optimized in any way. At the very least, such optimization would have to involve giving you a very high general intelligence, and potential to develop skills that could be applied in other places.

          My point is that gene therapy is complex in a lot of ways that vaccines aren’t, since there isn’t just a question of whether you do it or not, there’s also a question of what exactly you optimize for, which is likely to involve choosing between traits that are mutually exclusive (you’d need to be taller than average to be a champion basketball player, but you’d need to be shorter than average to be a champion gymnast.) And if you have to compete for jobs with people who have had their entire genomes optimized to be as good at those jobs as possible, not only is it not an option to opt out of super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy, it’s probably not an option to only optimize for traits that can’t be a disadvantage in any situation. We could end up with a situation in which, in order to get an engineering job, it’s not enough to have an IQ of 160, you need an IQ of 160 and an obsessive focus on tiny measurements that makes you come across socially as too weird and off-putting to succeed as a teacher or a psychiatrist, say.

          (But then, it could probably be called into question how different that would necessarily be from the world we already live in. As it is, most people will never have the physical attributes necessary to be a pro basketball player, or the mental attributes necessary to be an MD….)

          I guess what’s really scary about the idea of super-enhancement designer baby gene therapy is the implicit culpability it adds to any outcome that might happen. It’s the difference between “my son grew up to be a failure, but I did everything I could for him” and “my son grew up to be a failure, and it’s my fault for giving him the wrong genes.”

  29. Albatross

    Not all morality should be legislated. I’m fine with critics and religions shaming jerks who cheat on their spouse, but I don’t want adulterers thrown in prison. FDR was needed for the war effort and all that.

    While parents aren’t perfect, if they are responsible for children they need to be able to make choices. While vaccines are an easy choice and 95% of parents make the right choice in the future parents might have more complicated choices: Oscar winning actor or world champion basketball player? Ballet vs. Sumo. IQ vs. EQ. T vs. A.

    Having parents decide is imperfect and we should mock the ones that make bad choices, but it isn’t like the government is a great choice either.

  30. Dan Simon

    I imagine that in the future, societies will come up with ingenious, sophisticated mechanisms for resolving moral conundrums like these collectively, so that people won’t be reduced to thinking them through in their own heads, coming up with absurdly dogmatic and simplistic moral determinations, then heaping verbal abuse on all the supposedly morally inferior fellow citizens who dare to disagree. Just for a lark, I’ll lump those amazing futuristic society-organizing mechanisms under a randomly invented label, such as–oh, I don’t know–“democracy”…

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Doesn’t democracy require everyone to think things through in their own heads first, so they know how to vote?

      1. William O. B'Livion

        It used to, but there was a vote on it and 50.5 percent said they didn’t want to have to think that hard, 48.25 percent thought thinking was a good idea, .75 percent voted for Mickey mouse. Several people voted “Purple” and one voted for “Hooloovoo”, but since he used red pen we think he was crazy.

        Besides, “This is a Constitutional Republic not a Democracy”.

        1. onyomi

          Lol… very nice.

          Historically, democracy is pretty impressive in its ability to fail to harness the “wisdom of crowds.” Maybe if it were something more like Wikipedia. BTW, the founder of Wikipedia was inspired by Hayek.

          1. Dan Simon

            “Pretty impressive in its ability to fail to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds'” compared to *Wikipedia*? Are you serious?

            Perhaps you’d like your country to be governed by the board of Wikipedia (or its political equivalent, whatever that might be), but I, for one, will stick with democracy. It’s truly the worst form of government, except for all the others.

          2. onyomi

            Actually, yes, I would. Wikipedia functions much, much better than the federal government in my opinion.

      2. Emp

        Actually it doesn’t. Democracy represents your own self-interest. Conceptually, there is absolutely no requirement to think at all, or even to vote at all. It’s a right given to people to safeguard their self-interest and how one chooses to exercise that right is one’s personal prerogative.

        1. Dan Simon

          Precisely. It’s funny how many people respect the good sense of that arrangement in the context of economics, while dismissing it as completely unworkable in the context of politics.

          1. Jaskologist

            In economics, your “votes” tend to get parted from you quickly if you act the fool. That feedback loop is much looser in politics.

      3. Deiseach

        Doesn’t democracy require everyone to think things through in their own heads first, so they know how to vote?

        Scott, there was a proposal in my country to lower the voting age to 16 (this, like so many more of the government’s shiny new proposals, has been scrapped).

        The average 16 year old is more interested in:

        (1) listening to Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan discussing the IMF bailout and deciding which party to vote for in the next general election on the basis of that discussion
        (2) getting the shift and getting absolutely locked when they get their Junior Cert results

        You tell me 🙂

    2. Anonymous

      Democracy is pretty flawed, and doesn’t actually solve the problem you suppose it solves. Because people are “thinking them through in their own heads, coming up with absurdly dogmatic and simplistic moral determinations, then heaping verbal abuse on all the supposedly morally inferior fellow citizens who dare to disagree.”

      1. Dan Simon

        Yes, remarkably many Americans take exactly that approach, with all sorts of negative effects on politics. I think it’s less common in other countries, though. (For example, Americans devote an enormous amount of effort to finding ways to circumvent democracy and impose their own dogmatically embraced beliefs on society despite strong majority opposition. In most countries, it’s rare for anyone to do such a thing except for reasons of nakedly corrupt self-interest.)

        1. David Friedman

          Very worst form of government except … .

          From which one might conclude that government is a very poor form of human organization, and so as little as possible should be done through that mechanism.

          1. lmm

            Government is the worst way of providing healthcare, except for all the others that have been tried.

            Repeat with other issues according to taste.

          2. onyomi

            “Government *is* human organisation.”

            Can you not think of any forms of human organisation that are not government? Corporations? Clubs? Labor unions? Boards of Regents? Neighborhood Associations? PTA…

            And if you think all those things are government, can you not see some pretty obvious differences between them and what we typically call government? (Power to tax, territorial monopoly, etc.)

          3. Randy M

            “Government *is* human organisation.”

            Government is the form of human organization that refuses to admit the validity of any other form of human organization.

  31. Quite Likely

    Hmm, jumped off the slippery slope a bit with this paragraph:

    “So I don’t want to hear another word from the “but my freedom!” crowd. Unenhanced kids shouldn’t be allowed in school. They shouldn’t be allowed to drive. They shouldn’t be allowed in public places where they can cause problems. And parents who refuse to enhance their children should be put in jail, the same as anyone else whose actions lead to death and suffering. Because not super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “choice”. It’s child abuse.”

    Obviously discriminating against the unvaccinated or the unenhanced isn’t acceptable, but if there weren’t actually any dangers / negative side effects, I’m pretty much on board with superenhancement being a moral necessity. You could maybe make the case for letting people refuse it for themselves, but for children who can’t decide for themselves? Given that one choice is purely superior with no downsides?

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Some things that are obvious to you may not be obvious to others.

      (I have no link for “unvaccinated kids should be allowed outside in public places” because I saw it on – of course – Tumblr.)

      1. William O. B'Livion

        If you want the benefits of the Herd, you got to follow the rules of the Herd. If you don’t want to follow the rules, then the herd has every right to exclude you.

        This isn’t really even a “always never” kind of question. There are around 22 (I forget the exact numbers) of vaccines that are generally given to children, including the flu vaccine. If a parent were to say “I don’t want to give *that* vaccine because it’s cultured in fetal tissue and I think that’s immoral” but takes the other 21, fine.

        if a parent says “In my risk/benefit analysis these 12 are important, but those 10 are not”, well, that’s something worth having a discussion over .

        I don’t get a flu shot right now. I don’t get one because I’m a computer geek who can work from home for the slightest reason, works once or twice a week from a remote office where no one is. Which reduces my exposure and minimizes my exposing other people. I have (as previously mentioned) every other vaccine, and when I was in the Reserves I got my flu shot like a good little airman because it was required and I had greater risks and was a greater risk.

        But just because we can’t force (and shouldn’t) force parents to do what *we* have overwhelming evidence is good for their kids and society, at the same time we don’t have to allow their little disease vectors access to children who’s parents have followed the rules but for whom one or two of the vaccines didn’t “take”.

        Choices *should* have consequences.

        No, choices *must* have consequences.

        1. Mary

          So if you don’t hop right in with the witch hunters, cheering them on and providing “evidence”, they get to burn you at the stake as an obvious witch?

          1. Anonymous

            If witches existed and were stealing penises, then witch hunter is a praiseworthy occupation.

            In this case I’m pretty sure germs are real and vaccines help guard against disease.

          2. Mary

            “If you want the benefits of the Herd, you got to follow the rules of the Herd. If you don’t want to follow the rules, then the herd has every right to exclude you.”

            The herd says witches exist. Therefore, witch hunter is a praiseworthy occupation, and you should be burned as a witch for denying their existence.

            That YOU are pretty sure that germs are real, and vaccines help, is moot unless the herd agrees with you. Indeed, if the anti-vaxxers win, and the herd declares that vaccines hurt, it is your duty to comply.

            Or, of course, you are rejecting the logic I was arguing with, and agreeing with me, in which case you should have said so more clearly.

    2. Irrelevant

      >”Obviously discriminating against the unvaccinated isn’t acceptable”

      “Discriminating” implies “without valid cause” in standard use. The people arguing for what you’re dismissing as “discrimination” think they have a supremely important cause: defending their children from harm. You’re gonna need a stronger argument.

      I’ve got “you should never create a law you aren’t willing to kill someone for violating”, but I don’t think most people accept the implications of that one.

      1. William O. B'Livion

        I’ve got “you should never create a law you aren’t willing to kill someone for violating”, but I don’t think most people accept the implications of that one.

        What about laws against J-Walking? Almost no one would argue for killing someone for j-walking, but it’s more or less what got Michael Brown into the altercation where he was killed.

        J-walking *needs* to be against the law as a way of telling idjits “No, really, you WILL cross at the crosswalks and not amble down the street”, thus keeping them out of the way of lethal weapons known as Cars, Trucks and Motorcycles.

        However there are a small number of people who think that they are above the law and get all shitty when called on it. They then tend to break other laws which leads to taking a ride on the end of a taser, pepper spray, a beating or getting shot.

        1. thirqual

          Cultural bias. Jaywalking is not universal. The priority of cars on walkers is not a given in other countries.

          1. Deiseach

            “Jaywalking” is an American term, which I had to look up back in the day having heard references to it, and still couldn’t wrap my head around “You mean in the U.S. it’s against the law if you cross the street anywhere but at a zebra crossing?” 🙂

        2. Anonymous

          >J-walking *needs* to be against the law as a way of telling idjits “No, really, you WILL cross at the crosswalks and not amble down the street”, thus keeping them out of the way of lethal weapons known as Cars, Trucks and Motorcycles.

          Are you saying these “idjits” WOULD cross the street at dangerous moments if not for jaywalking laws?????

          1. Nita


            Because otherwise the judge will hold the driver responsible for not overcoming the laws of physics?

          2. houseboatonstyx

            A US jury may consider all the factors that led to the accident, such as weather, lighting conditions, the car’s speed, from what distance the walker would be visible — and whether zie was where the driver would expect pedestrians normally to be.

      2. Randy M

        ““Discriminating” implies “without valid cause” in standard use.”

        No, not really. “A man of discriminating taste” was a valid construction. Discriminating means different treatment based on judgements made.

  32. atrasicarius

    I mean, I think if the technology to, for example, eradicate genetic diseases existed, then choosing not to use it on any children you might have would absolutely be the equivalent of refusing vaccination, and that both absolutely count as child neglect. You can do whatever stupid shit you want to yourself, but if you try to inflict your stupidity on other people, especially someone in a vulnerable position like your child, then we’ve got a problem.

    Is that the message I was supposed to take from this? I’m really not sure.

    1. Anonymous

      this is just jive.

      the only thing that can enhance any race is breeding or evolution, because the effect of many changes may be quite different from the sum of the effect of each change individually.

      and even breeding hasn’t worked on thoroughbreds for the last 40 years. Secretariat is still the fastest horse ever, and he won the triple crown in 1973.

      the fitness landscape is rugged. that is, metaphorically, climbing a mountain is not like walking up a really long flight of stairs.

      remember the tobacco company apologists who criticized the linear extrapolation model? they were right. one cigarette a day isn’t necessarily 1/40 the risk of two packs a day. it might be more. it might be less.

      1. Anonymous

        Thoroughbreds don’t respond much to selective breeding because they have very little genetic diversity to work with. But pretty much everything else, including other breeds of racehorses, it works great.

      2. RCF

        “the only thing that can enhance any race is breeding or evolution, because the effect of many changes may be quite different from the sum of the effect of each change individually.”

        The former doesn’t follow from the latter. Genetic engineering has been quite successful.

        “and even breeding hasn’t worked on thoroughbreds for the last 40 years. Secretariat is still the fastest horse ever, and he won the triple crown in 1973.”

        You’re just cherry picking one statistic. Of the top ten winning Kentucky Derby times, six of them came after 1973. Of those, only one was from before 1993. So during the last 40 years, twice as many top ten scores have been posted as in the entire history of the race before 1973, and during the second half of that 40 years, there have been five times as many top ten scores as in the first half.

        1. Anonymous

          no cherry picking.

          the point is that there may be, or is, a LIMIT.

          steve shoe has gone off the deep end, so to speak, in assuming that the linear extrapolation model is fact, and that therefore it should be possible to engineer Telosians. http://www.tarrdaniel.com/documents/Ufology/images/ExtraterrestrialRaces/Telosian1_small.jpg

          it isn’t possible.

          unlike some. i’m very much in favor of eugenics to some extent,

          but it would disappoint hereditists mightily.

        2. Anonymous

          and of course the former doesn’t follow necessarily, that’s why i used may.


          1. given the four studies i’ve mentioned which accounted for chorionicity,
          2. given Devlin, and
          3. given the still local nature of the twin and family studies,

          it’s safe to say that:

          the hereditist position is FALSE.

          that is,

          to the extent that there is an independent effect of genes on psychological traits whether absolute or relative, this effect is very far from dominant.

          — BGIer, 100% male European gentile BGIer, btw

        3. Anonymous

          it is tres un-PC to mention such things, but in the battle against hereditism it is pertinent.

          100% Western European, heterosexual, and from an RC background.

          hereditism is bullshit, and it always has been.

          1. Secretariat

            I haven’t been commenting on SSC very long, but I’m touched how much you all love me. ❤

          2. Anonymous

            and according to wikipedia it was 31 lengths!

            the announcer’s voice breaks at the end.

            Secretariat was a god…is a god.

        4. Samuel Skinner

          “to the extent that there is an independent effect of genes on psychological traits whether absolute or relative, this effect is very far from dominant.”

          I was never under the impression that hereditarianism held that view. They merely held that it was large and that, under conditions with similar environments genetic effects become more pronounced (aka once everyone has similar calorie and nutritional intakes and access to similar sources of information genetic explanations for outcomes become stronger than they were for past outcomes).

          1. Anonymous

            in that case hereditism is


            it has NO political or moral/ethical implications AT ALL.

    2. Deiseach

      I thought it was pretty clear that the super-enhancement was not about having disease or illness or disability free children (the ordinary enhancement has presumably already covered that); super enhancement means the “six foot and taller, blond/blonde, blue-eyed, straight white teeth, smarter, can play both the piano and basketball to professional level, Venezuelan beauty-contestant levels of attractiveness and will reliably get the high status jobs” child in future?

      We seem to be arguing on here that of course you should have the enhancement that will protect your child from cancer done; Scott’s piece has it that the super-enhancement means they can drive faster and in a more risky fashion because they have better reflexes and can get absolutely smashed off their faces and still act only a bit tiddly 🙂

      1. Anonymous

        Normal enhancement is blonde blue-eyed six foot beauty contestant. Super-enhancement is smart, good reflexes, not impulsive, and disease-resistant.

        1. Deiseach

          Nah, see, I’m convinced enhancement will be sold on exactly those “will no-one think of the children?” grounds.

          First comes the “don’t you want baby Johnny to grow up big and strong and smart and healthy?” so all the fixable stuff like heritable diseases, then disease resistance and so forth, will be worked on – the way the ‘three parent’ IVF technology has been sold in the U.K. right now (‘it’s only for having healthy babies! no designer babies ever will come of this! how can you be so heartless as to refuse people the chance to have a baby of their very own?’)

          Once that camel has been swallowed, and enhancement is not alone an everyday thing, it’s practically a moral imperative, then the ‘stronger, smarter, prettier, Olympic athlete and La Scala diva’ enhancements come along so little Susie and Johnny are the blond(e) blue-eyed genius mountain climbers of the future 🙂

    3. David Friedman

      “I mean, I think if the technology to, for example, eradicate genetic diseases existed, then choosing not to use it on any children you might have would absolutely be the equivalent of refusing vaccination”

      It isn’t the equivalent of refusing vaccination, because your unvaccinated child might get the disease and infect someone else. Genetic diseases are not contagious.

  33. Dude Man

    ” This is compounded when they drink before getting on the road, since unenhanced people become impaired by alcohol”

    Alcohol makers will not be happy.

  34. Irrelevant

    Actually, I’m pretty much convinced this is how it’s going to work. I predict a one-generation gap from it being considered immoral to enhance your children to it being considered immoral not to.

    1. Anonymous

      Does your theory predict the past? What is the path of public opinion on prenatal screening for Down’s, something that has been available for a bit over a generation?

      1. Nita

        Prenatal screening doesn’t cure Down syndrome. You won’t get the same kid, only without the extra chromosomes. At best, you’ll get another kid a while later. And there’s a bit of a disagreement on whether abortion is murder.

        1. Anonymous

          That’s 92% of positive tests, not 92% of Down pregnancies. I think only 2/3 of Down pregnancies are terminated in America (and about 90% in Europe), but most mothers who wouldn’t abort chose not to be tested, and thus not to be tempted.

          But according to some studies, it is a huge temptation: 1/3 of those tested tested claim that they would not abort, but in the end 3/4 of those do end up aborting. I think that is relevant. (I’m suspicious of these studies, though.)

      2. Deiseach

        You didn’t hear about Dawkins (yes, it’s that man again) advising a woman on Twitter that it would be immoral not to abort her Down’s Syndrome foetus?

        The geneticist’s latest Twitter row broke out after he responded to another user who said she would be faced with “a real ethical dilemma” if she became pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome.

        Dawkins tweeted: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

        I do think that there is a sense that it is immoral or somehow wrong to continue with a pregnancy when the pre-natal testing comes back with the wrong result; I wonder how many medical personnel respond with “And here are the resources on raising a child with Down’s Syndrome” as against “We can schedule the termination within six weeks”?

        1. Albatross

          1. Those tests are garbage. They indicate you won the Powerball.
          2. Dawkins is a jerk. Down Syndrome people can be happy and nice. Abort Dawkins.

          1. Mai La Dreapta

            Anecdotally, Down Syndrome children are especially happy and peaceful, and they cause relatively little distress to their parents once the parents get over the initial shock and disappointment (unlike some forms of developmental handicap). It seems pretty likely a Down Syndrome child is a net positive to global happiness.

            Dawkins, on the other hand…

          2. C.S.

            2. Dawkins is a jerk. Down Syndrome people can be happy and nice. Abort Dawkins.

            Yeah. And about as much use in a technological society as a parrot.

            Someone who has a Down syndrome kid is consciously making this choice: I don’t want to have a kid, I want to have a pet.

          3. RCF

            I don’t think asking for someone to be killed, even if worded in a misuse of the word “abort”, should be allowed.

          4. Anonymous

            CS, that’s a fucking disgusting thing to say.
            This whole thread is bad, but you are the worst. Comparing people with intellectual disabilities to “pets” is beyond the pale. And what an utterly shitty thing to say about their parents.

            Do you think your comment was true, or kind, or necessary? Do you know any people with intellectual disabilities?

            I would bet that most people with Downs are a lot more valuable to society than you are.

          5. Ilya Shpitser

            I agree with the above poster. More generally, I feel Scott is too tolerant of toxic little shits.

          6. C.S.

            Do you think your comment was true, or kind, or necessary? Do you know any people with intellectual disabilities?

            Of course it’s not kind, but you’re not doing anyone any favors by lying to them in order to avoid hurting their feelings.

            Why should I know any? From where? Work? Don’t know of any mentally disabled in my lines of work. They probably can’t do it thus don’t work there.

            As to necessary, it’s imperative from time to time someone calls a spade a spade, otherwise, B.S. flowers unchecked.

            I would bet that most people with Downs are a lot more valuable to society than you are.

            As I’m not a criminal and thus a drain on society, you are wrong.

            Down syndrome people can’t take care of themselves and are dependent on the charity and goodwill of others for survival. Same as many types of pets. I can take care of myself okay.

            Let’s just continue with the assholery and make a comparison:


            Pets: people claim having them makes them happier.

            Down syndrome kids: parents say how they’re ‘happy’ they did not abort them and how their happy personalities are a joy. Also allow their parents to feel ‘virtuous’ for ‘not killing’ a baby. So Feels, feels and more feels.

            Usefulness to society:

            Pets: a net zero, in my opinion. They make people happier, on the other hand they seem to also work as children substitute to make lonely careerists or deluded DINKs feel less alone.

            Down syndrome kids:
            They can’t be used for any but the simplest work, where there already is lots of surplus labor.

            Having a DSK likely deprives the society of a normal child which could’ve been born in place of a DSK. So, usefulness to society: negative, most likely.

          7. C.S.


            Of course there’s more ways of being a net drain on society than being a criminal.

            Politicians for example. The people who behave like criminals but are aren’t ‘officially’ criminal because they’re in charge of deciding who is and who isn’t a criminal.

            That someone is a net drain needn’t be their own fault, however, does not mean society should not make an effort to minimize the occurrence of such individuals. Which is what Scott’s fake opinion column is about.

            I’m not a fan of the reasoning in it, though.

          8. Deiseach

            And thank you, C.S., for illustrating my point that we are already perfectly happy to treat some humans as non-persons. So the existing Down’s Syndrome humans are not humans, they’re pets?

            (1) How speciesist of you to use a slur about companion non-human persons!

            (2) Society is made for people, not people for society. Society is a human construct. If we can’t construct a society that enables persons of all abilities to live to the best of their capacities, then we’re creating a global Procrustean bed: chop and change people to fit society, not alter society so that everyone can have a place.

            (3) In which case, transhumanists, you’re fucked. There will never be post-scarcity society, there will never be FAI or any of the rest of it, because we’ll be too busy chopping off bits of ourselves and pruning out non-persons to create a society for everyone to flourish. We may get shinier machines, we’ll still be in thrall to Moloch.

            (4) I can take care of myself – says the person living in a world where they need clothes, shelter and medicine.
            Unless you’re smelting your own tools out of the ore you dug out with your own hands and growing food you planted by pulling the plough yourself and independently re-inventing every goddamn technology that enables any of us to exist, you can’t take care of yourself. Same if you broke both your arms in a fall down the stairs and had to wait for them to mend and have no help from anyone in the meantime – good luck being able to turn on the tap to get a drink of water, or maybe you’ll get lucky and it will rain and you can stick your head out the window and keep your mouth open?

            (5) And this is the dust speck world; the minor inutility each person may suffer to make society more functional for those less than ‘perfectly normal’ stacks up so that the death of those persons is better, rather than the minor inconvenience I may suffer. Which is another reason why the dust-speck argument is a shit argument as far as I’m concerned.

            Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid

          9. Anonymous

            I may not want to have a child with DS, but I’d much prefer a society that embraced people with DS as valued and respected members, to one in which a person’s worth is based on their ability to “contribute.”

          10. Irrelevant


            (2) Society is made for people, as a tool to allow them to alter and constrain the actions of other people. If society did not edit people, it would have no function.

            (3) Transhumanism is not the belief that everything can, much less will, be made perfect by human effort. It is the belief that a significant category of problems which are currently considered unsolvable will no longer be unsolvable in the future, because we will attain the ability to alter the hardware side of humanity.

            (5) Stop conflating hypothetical and existing people. There is no contradiction between believing that existing humans have a right not to be murdered for causing minor inconveniences but that hypothetical inconvenient people should not be created, just as there is no contradiction between believing that mothers have an obligation to feed their children but not that every woman must have six to twelve children.

        2. Anonymous

          30 years ago in America, the mother was supposed to talk to a genetic counselor about both topics before getting the test. Now that the tests are non-invasive and more widespread, I’m not sure that still happens.

          1. Matthew

            Steelmanning a bit (still not much of a steelman, as it’s arguably a selective demand for rigor), one could offer some of the following:

            — It’s not terribly fair to the non-down siblings who are going to get a diminished amount of parental care (relative to the amount they would have gotten if the additional sibling was not down).

            — If the parent’s have one less fully-functional child that they would have had if they aborted and tried again, the world with the down baby is less good than the alternative world.

            — Barring exceptionally wealthy parents, a down baby is going to be a drain on public healthcare resources, resources that could have been spent on other healthcare issues were it not for this “elective” need.

          2. Irrelevant

            This is gonna be some of the weirder logic I’ve ever used, but I think I can explain it. Our moral calculus for responsibly raising children involves projecting the interests of a hypothetical idealization of their eventual adult self onto them. “The 25-year-old rational enlightened self you might become wants you to go to school.” “The 25-year-old rational enlightened self you might become wants me to not buy you a bag of chips.” “The 25-year-old rational enlightened self you might become wants you to not play in the street.” As they grow up, the idealization is hopefully modified in reaction to the child’s observed actual desires, and internalized by the child themselves as they develop the capacity for long-term priorities, until you eventually get a decent correspondence between the actual person and the image.

            At the point the child has yet to be born, they have no known preferences, only the image exists. It’s sensible, if not precisely correct, to view the image of the child you’re pregnant with and the image of the child you’ll be able to have next year if you get an abortion as being the same, and conclude that “your first/second/Nth child” wants to be born without major genetic defects that will stop that 25-year-old rational enlightened self from ever existing, just as they don’t want to play in the street at age 8 because they could get hit by a car.

            So, yeah. It’s wrong because it harms a hypothetical person, in a way that looks extremely odd when spelled out, but matches up with our intuitive standard of moral parenting in which we need to serve the interests of our children’s future selves over and against their actual present desires.

          3. C.S.

            Because society is better off if it’s made up of effective and healthy people, not mentally disabled ones with a myriad of congenital health probems?

            Incestuous and cousin marriages are banned for the same reason: the offspring are very often just plain unhealthy and damaged.

          4. US

            Just to add a little data to this discussion: I’ve looked around for data on this stuff before and I’ve been annoyed by how hard it is to find anything (I haven’t spent that much time, but enough to get frustrated), however one estimate I’m familiar with is an old 1999 estimate of the lifetime costs associated with Down’s syndrome from Florida. This estimate puts the total lifetime costs/case at nearly $500.000. These are presumably ‘1999 dollars’ and we’ve had 15 years of inflation since then, so the corresponding number today would be higher, even assuming away changes in service provision or health care cost growth during the time period in question (especially considering the health care cost development in the intervening period, the number is probably substantially higher today).

            The total costs today are most likely higher than the median lifetime earnings of a high school graduate (see figure 2 here). It’s a lot of money which you can’t use for other purposes.

            Now, I have had type 1 diabetes since early childhood so I’m not super comfortable with the ‘only let people who’ll be net contributors survive’-argument. But when people mention costs in contexts like these, it’s important to not just pretend that money doesn’t/shouldn’t matter. This is a lot of money, and fairness issues surrounding who’re supposed to pay for that kid are obviously there, lurking in the background. Parents deciding whether or not to have the child despite knowing that it’ll have Down’s are also implicitly deciding whether or not other people get to provide a substantial amount of money/resources to their offspring for a long time into the future.

        3. Anonymous

          CS: Being valuable to society is precisely all about “feels.” The concept of “utility” people use so much around here approximately translates to happiness. Not usefulness.

          Someone who is happy and nice adds to the net utility of society with their own happiness, and with the happiness of the people who spend time with them. Vice versa applies too.
          A lot of people with Down Syndrome have precisely the kind of personality that adds net utility to the world just by the fact that they exist.
          You, on the other hand… well, the fact that you exist has deprived the world of a person who isn’t a piece of shit who could have been born in your place.
          The fact that you have some kind of job merely deprives your co-workers of a non piece of shit who could have done that job instead of you.

          A person would have to a some kind of unique level of non-substitutable individual genius which they’re applying in a very good cause to compensate with their work for the net disutility produced by a personality like yours. And you don’t strike me as that level of bright.

          So yeah, most people with Down Syndrome are more valuable to society than you are.

          It was obvious you don’t know people with ID, by the way. If you did you’d be very aware they’re human beings, not animals, and you’d probably be less of a total shit. That’s a good reason in itself why you should know some people with ID.

          1. Jiro

            The concept of “utility” people use so much around here approximately translates to happiness. Not usefulness.

            Which means you can maximize utility for someone by drugging them in such a way that they lose the ability to compare their state to an undrugged state. People with severe mental disabilities are like people permanently drugged in this way.

            This is just another variation of the blissful ignorance problem with utilitarianism. A version of utilitarianism that is based around happiness says that being blissfully ignorant about something you would not want if you were aware of it is not a loss in utility. But most people decide such things by deciding whether they would be preferred by a hypothetical version of the person who is informed and aware, not the person as he is now.

            (Also, if you really believed that there was no loss in utility from having a severe mental disability on the grounds that the person is happy, you would endorse intentionally causing a child to have such a disability.)

          2. Anonymous

            anon you replied to: I’m not actually a utililitarian. If I was, your response might be relevant or provocative or something.
            Was merely continuing the discussion on the same terms on which it began.

          3. Anonymous

            Also, if people who don’t know any people with intellectual disabilities could stop generalising what they are like, that would be awesome, or at least a minimum standard of human decency.

            People with disabilities are not pets. They are not people who have been drugged.

            No, they are not even “like” that, because they are not like you imagine them to be while you sit there on your office chair.
            I’m inclined to speculate about what kind of person believes that human personality, awareness and sensitivity consists 100% of intellectual reasoning, but I’ll keep those speculations private.

          4. Irrelevant

            Oh, please, save the sanctimony. I did grow up with people with intellectual disabilities, and they were fucking hellish nightmares who kept everyone I loved miserable and endangered for a decade. Still want to argue that this issue should be judged on the basis of personal emotional context rather than reasoning?

          5. Anonymous

            Hey, there, Irrelevant.

            I wasn’t talking to you and that wasn’t my argument.

            (am I missing a joke here? Is it a gimmick account?)

          6. Irrelevant

            Whether you were addressing me doesn’t come into it.

            You argued he would have a better opinion if he were personally familiar with intellectually disabled people. I am, and everything I’ve experienced says that for some intellectual disabilities, knowingly creating more people with them would be actively evil.

          7. Anonymous

            No. I will paraphrase my argument in case it helps clarify: people unfamiliar with ID shouldn’t attempt philosophical analogies about it (because the results are fucking stupid when they do.)

            That position does not bear any resemblance to either of the arguments you have attributed to me. I’m not sure where you got confused.

          8. David Friedman


            I think you are being unjust as well as hostile to C.S. I took his comment about pets to be a reference not to the moral value or otherwise of the child but to what he believed the relation was between parent and child.

            I don’t know if he was correct, but it isn’t an absurd conjecture. Pets to a considerable degree are child substitutes, and someone who is happy with a child who will never pass the intellectual ability of a nine year old might well be relating to him more as a pet than a child.

            One further point, tying this together with the action/inaction distinction. Suppose the parent has decided to have only two children. Failing to abort the Downs Syndrom fetus means failing to produce one non-DS child that would otherwise come into existence. If you oppose the aborting of the DS child, does that mean you are supporting the nonexistence of the child who as a result is never born? Is there a reason why eliminating that child is better than eliminating the DS child, if those are the two alternatives?

          9. Anonymous

            The comment contrasted kid/pet. Your interpretation doesn’t make it any less disgusting, or less stupid. It was a reprehensible thing to say about both children and parents, as I said in the original response.

            I’m definitely not being unjust. Go and read the follow up comment they posted after that one. And maybe have a think about what kind of instincts you have that would would lead you to defend this person.

            I haven’t engaged in the abortion discussion and don’t intend to.

          10. David Friedman

            “And maybe have a think about what kind of instincts you have that would would lead you to defend this person. ”

            While you think about what kind of instincts you have that make you respond to someone who disagrees with you by accusing him of being a bad person–not how you put it but pretty clearly what you meant.

          11. Anonymous

            On the contrary, I was fairly explicit about them being a bad person. I had to be, in order to elucidate the “value to society” argument.
            And it wasn’t because they disagreed with me. People disagree with me all the time and most of them are perfectly okay people.

  35. Paul Torek

    It’s 2090, and some irresponsible parents are still refusing to transform their children into cyborgs. Some are just too lazy, and some have a misplaced attachment to the original human body. But the results are deadly. Last year, over 100 people died in falls, industrial accidents, and other bodily injuries. Only one was a cyborg, despite the much higher population of cyborgs.

    It’s 2110, and some irresponsible parents are still having biological brained children. This, knowing full well that the life expectancy of cyborgs is only a few hundred years! What’s the attraction of the slow, feeble, fragile things? Sure, they have internal processes that weren’t copied into silicon. But for good reason! All that “conscious experience ” gets you is slowness, even if you try to make up for it with integrated silicon.

    1. Shmi Nux

      I hope this is the way it goes, given that wetware-only “conscious experience” is as likely as immortal souls.

        1. Steven

          Oh, there’s more than one person. Would you like to join us?

          It’s simple enough concept; consciousness is the name for what happens when a facility for modeling and predicting minds is applied self-referentially.

        2. jaimeastorga2000

          You don’t need to know exactly how consciousness works to be able to guess that it is not going to turn out to be magic, and that if you can build an input-output system that behaves exactly like a conscious being, then chances are the system contains a conscious being somewhere in it.

  36. Shmi Nux

    “parents who refuse to enhance their children should be put in jail, the same as anyone else whose actions lead to death and suffering. Because not super-enhancing your kids isn’t a “choice”. It’s child abuse.”


    Her 6 out of 7 children died in infancy; all had a very poor quality of life, she knew that they would suffer and likely die after her first three died within days, yet continued to have children, anyway. Wouldn’t you call it child abuse?

    1. Nita

      she knew that they would suffer and likely die

      Her mother also carries the mutation, yet she is healthy. Presumably, she was hoping for a similar stroke of luck.

      Now, we can argue whether it’s ethical to play Russian roulette with your kids’ genetics — but everyone already does it with random mutations, only with better odds. So, at what odds does abuse begin?

  37. nike

    What’s up with the “Facebook University” part? Would that be the “company that has not enough money to influence people on a subtler level buying real life adspace”-move, like the “Red Bull auditorium” at Vienna University?

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I was thinking that in the future universities will be replaced by online courses like Khan Academy, then, like all online things, eaten up by either Google or Facebook.

      I admit it’s a stretch.

  38. Muga Sofer

    I’ll bite the bullet: vaccines should not be mandatory, and parents who don’t vaccinate their children should not be subject to sanctions.

    I’m glad that Amish people, and anarchists, and yes, even Nazis exist. For the same reason a limited number of anti-vaxxers should exist. A world where we imprison all the anti-vaxxers for “child abuse”, as the strawman in Scott’s article proposed, would be a dystopia. Think about it for five minutes!

    Now, I’m biased. My parents didn’t get me vaccinated.

    Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a good idea. But my parents weren’t rabid anti-vaxxers, or even non-rabid anti-vaxxers. My parents weren’t anti-vaxxers at all – they were agnostics. They had heard a bunch of anti-vaxxer arguments, a bunch of pro-vaccination arguments, and decided the benefit wasn’t worth the risk given the current state of their knowledge. (They are now pro-vaccination, last I heard.)

    You know what? I think vaccines are a good idea, but I’m not infallible. That’s the entire point of our rhetoric about “freedom” and “diversity”, guys! The costs of not vaccinating a child are real, but they are also small. It is not a sufficiently clear-cut public good that it should be universally mandated!

    On the other hand, those upgrades do sound pretty awesome … but no, there should still be people without them around (especially if they care enough to go against all the incentives to adopt a technology this awesome.) What if some virus adapts to exploit them and wipes out humanity, for chrissakes?

    EDIT: This should go without saying, but: there probably should not be so many baselines clinging on that it’s causing health scares, or whatever, if its really that good. People should probably be nudged harder in that direction, via propaganda campaigns or “opt-out” policies or whatever. They just shouldn’t be forced into it.

    1. Nita

      What should happen if a non-vaccinated child infects a child who couldn’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, and the other kid dies? Would anyone be liable — the non-vaccinating parents, the people who persuaded them, no one at all? How much money (if any) would be fair compensation?

      1. Muga Sofer

        *shrugs* Yeah, if someone refuses vaccination and later catches the disease, I don’t see any problem with them being considered responsible for that action.

        I guess you could argue that if the disease was sufficiently rare, they couldn’t reasonably have known that it would happen. But that would, by definition, be astronomically rare. (Equivalent to the murders in the metaphor.)

        1. Jiro

          Muga: The reasoning that leads you to conclude that if their child does get sick and infects someone else, it’s their fault, doesn’t depend on the relative beneifts of vaccination. So it would apply even if instead of vaccination we substituted something else with different tradeoffs. For instance, imagine that there’s a 1/5000 chance of a normal kid growing up to be a homicidal murderer and killing one other person. There’s a preemptive treatment for that but with a 1/10 chance of killing the child. By your reasoning, if someone refuses to give their child this treatment and the child then kills someone else, they are responsible.

          1. Irrelevant

            By your reasoning, if someone refuses to give their child this treatment and the child then kills someone else, they are responsible.

            Sure, if those risk assessments are true and known, but they’re responsible for a death 1/5,000th of the time instead of 1/10th, so refusing the treatment is clearly the ethical route. How is this supposed to be a compelling objection?

    2. J Scott

      Do you mean only that they shouldn’t be forced into it by the government applying coercive pressure (that is, you can’t go to school, operate vehicles, etc, as a baseline)?

      Or do you mean that being a baseline should be a viable choice in the face of economic competition? Imagine that instead of threatening them with government sanctions, they just…can’t get a job. Or keep up in school because they’re competing against super geniuses who all can do calculus by ten. And we live in the least convenient possible world where this isn’t discrimination based on anything other than merit. And because of this they also face severe social penalties, and are generally seen as ugly and witless.

      I’m not sure that resisting government sanctions is meaningful in the face of economic competition that will do pretty much the same thing anyway.

    3. Janus

      You know, most of your argument would work just as well if you were talking about things you would call real child abuse (without scare quotes) instead of “child abuse”. You’re no more infallible about child abuse than you are about “child abuse”.

  39. Bugmaster

    > In 2064 … the promise of self-driving cars continues to be tied up in regulatory hassles…

    It’s sad because I have a feeling it’s going to come true 🙁

    1. Anonymous

      I like to believe this is because self-driving jetpacks and the Teleporters’ Union having regulatory capture under control.

  40. stubydoo

    So in 2065 you have a treatment that can be applied to any baby and will decrease their probability of being a murderer by more than 75%, is sufficiently cheap that the government is ready, willing and able to offer it free of charge to everyone, and I’m supposed to be convinced by the people who say it shouldn’t be mandatory so we can preserve their fundamental freedoms.

    I could be convinced that there is a case based on side-effects, but not if the only side-effects that I ever hear about are completely imaginary.

    There may be other good ways I could be convinced, but if the anti-enhancers of 2065 choose their arguments as poorly as the anti-vaxxers of 2015, I’m afraid I’m left with no choice but to nod along with this Op-Ed (assuming I survive long enough to be around in 2065).

    1. Matt C

      > So in 2065 you have a treatment that can be applied to any baby and will decrease their probability of being a murderer by more than 75%

      Actually, that is not what the good professor said. What she said was that the experts were unanimous in telling us the increase in murder was due (somehow) to Unenhanced Persons.

      > and I’m supposed to be convinced by the people who say it shouldn’t be mandatory so we can preserve their fundamental freedoms.

      Even in the happy future of infallible experts, we are still talking about this treatment decreasing one’s absolute risk of murdering, or being murdered, from practically negligible to a smaller value of practically negligible. I suppose if no one ever dies any more from car accidents or falls or food poisoning or sports accidents in 2065 the disregard of the liberty interest might make sense to most people, but from 2015 I don’t think it does very much.

  41. thepenforests

    I find the whole “sins of omission/comission” distinction fascinating. I have a *very* strong moral intuition that allowing something preventable to happen is just as bad as causing it to happen, and I sometimes get very frustrated when people don’t agree with this in debates (this most often happens when I argue the anti-death side in a debate about life-extension). And I wonder how much of this intuition was inculcated in me by reading things like LW and Scott’s Consequentialism FAQ, and how much was inborn. Like, are my opponents working from totally different moral intuitions, or have they just not reflected enough/read enough to see the “obvious” truth of what I’m saying? I mean, I could *maybe* plausibly say that the people I argue against aren’t that well-read in philosophy, and simply haven’t thought about the matter enough to reach the truth. But there are also non-consequentialist *philosophers*! The fact that philosophy as a discipline hasn’t converged on consequentialism sometimes unsettles me.

    1. Wrong Species

      So do you think that the average first world person, who doesn’t spend much money on life saving charities, is just as bad as someone who murders a child? Even Peter Singer, who devotes something like 20% of his income to charity, still doesn’t spend all of his money and allows countless people to die. Even if you bite the bullet can’t you see why people would consider the kill/let die distinction incredibly important?

      1. thepenforests

        See, it seems like no matter what position I end up holding on morality, people are going to come up with difficult questions like that. And I feel like consequentialism is where I have to make my stand. Counterintuitiveness abounds no matter what, and I’d rather consider myself (and Peter Singer) a moral monster/hypocrite than abandon the principle of Morality Must Live in the Real World.

    2. Muga Sofer

      I think some people think “this act is bad” means “if someone did this, I would assume they were A Bad Person”; when, of course, sins of omission are much less likely to be a result of sociopathy than sins of commission.

      Helping a person yourself and donating to charity do the same amount of good, but they may indicate different amounts of personal virtue (depending on the obviousness of the cause and the difficulty of the act.)

      Only a monster would let a child drown, but maybe the guy who turned down your request for a donation is already giving money to some other worthy cause, and it might take a hero to run into a burning building.

    3. Irrelevant

      I’ve got an easy answer and a hard answer to that one.

      For the easy way out, “consequentialism” isn’t meaningful in itself. The heavy lifting is all in the priority set you attach to it, and utilitarian priority sets have really obvious and difficult to repair failures.

      For the more difficult path, philosophy has to be philosophy of humans. The mind is not infinitely mutable, it has biologically engrained, socially learned, and seemingly random priorities and you have limited leverage over these. The goal, then, is not to find the ideal philosophy, it is to find the ideal philosophy that can be implemented on human hardware and under current social conditions. Any philosophy that doesn’t consider proximity of consequence and degree of hypotheticality relevant variables in its moral calculus is not doing philosophy for humans. So consequentialism, at least in the sense you appear to be using it, is almost certainly not in the field of consideration.

    4. LTP

      People have different intuitions about things, it’s not that they haven’t seen the right arguments or whatever. My intuitions lead me to find some of the implications of consequentialism horrifying, and find the idea of reducing morality to a glorified math problem to be a category mistake. I also think many of the responses of consequentialists to criticisms of their systems reek of ad-hoc reasoning. I don’t see a way (currently) to determine which of us have the correct intuitions about morality.

      This is actually a problem in the field of philosophy as a whole (except formal logic), see this lecture on the lack of convergence among professional philosophers on the big questions in the field by David Chalmers, or this paper of his, if you prefer to read, on the same topic.

    5. Dr Mist

      Pen Forests- That’s certainly a self-consistent and defensible position, but somehow I don’t believe you really hold it. You’re letting kids in Africa starve by wasting your time commenting on this blog rather than, I don’t know, sending them food or something. I envy your certainty but I can’t say I share it.

    6. HeelBearCub


      See my longer answer downthread, by I have a feeling that the action/inaction distinction is more tied to the certainty you feel about the utility of the action. If a register nurse is a bystander, I don’t think they will be in any way subject to bystander effect unless they know they are in a crowd of ER personnel.

  42. Anonymous

    Intuition re-gruntler: vaccines don’t fundamentally alter the nature of a person’s soul the way the proposed gene therapy would. (Who other than radical anti-ablists would oppose non-neuro, straightforward disease curing gene therapy?)

    1. ishaan

      And, if the anti-vaccination people were *factually correct* about psychological side effects, then they’d be well within their rights. As it stands, I think its consistent to oppose (not force) anti-vaxxers while not oppose gene therapy abstainers. Altering personality alters the calues of the species, and that’s a nightmare on the order of “unfriendly AI” except even more plausible.

      On the other hand, if we are just talking about reversing novel mutations rather than altering normal and evolutionarily determined individual variation on traits that selection has produced, I’d be much more on board with opposing but not forcing abstainers. The aversion comes primarily from the idea that we might lose something important when we try to impose our values upon the very genome without knowing the full extent of what we do, not the simple fact that its novel gene stuff.

      (So, for example, I’d consider maybe socially opposing people who would not correct achondroplasia mutations or Downs mutations immediately, but I probably would not oppose people who don’t want to pick and choose among MAOI polymorphisms or something, because who knows what advantageous or other aspects of human experience we’d be missing out on by eliminating variations which were at one point under positive selection and have been sticking around possibly serving us in difficult to understand ways?)

      And I guess if there comes a time when humanity *does* understand what it doing I wouldn’t even object to that.

      (I’m the parent anon just continuing comment forgot to label)

      1. Anonymous

        psychological traits are NOT genetic and neither is life expectancy. so who should give a f—?

        all of this jabber over a LIE.

        as Swanknasty has rightly commented, “hereditists don’t care if hereditism is true.”

        but it’s more than that. they are incapable of grasping why all the evidence they think is in favor of their theory isn’t..

        —BGI volunteer

        1. ishaan

          hereditist: a believer in the theory that heredity, more than environment, determines nature, characteristics, etc.

          (Just for the record, i am not even slightly a “hereditist” and believing there exist polymorphisms which influence a thing doesn’t imply the belief that genetics is the primary explanatory variable for that thing.)

        2. Thomas

          No? I can’t tell if this is a joke I’m not getting. Many psychological traits have genetic components, and genetics certainly affect life expectancies.

        3. Ahilan Nagendram

          So you say, but the evidence collected over many previous decades proves otherwise, anon.

        4. David Friedman

          “psychological traits are NOT genetic”

          And you know this how?

          I haven’t looked at the data. My confidence that you are wrong, assuming you mean “not at all genetic,” is the striking similarity in personality between my father, myself, and both of my sons—one of whom was reared mostly by his mother and her second husband. As my current wife put it, describing a particular incident, what she was seeing was the same personality at three different ages interacting.

        5. Cadie

          Just because there’s no single “you will live to be 95 years old” gene doesn’t mean that life expectancy isn’t at least partially genetic. It’s obvious that some inherited genetic conditions dramatically shorten one’s lifespan, and others are likely to shorten it indirectly and to lesser extent, by making the person more susceptible to other diseases. In that case, isn’t it intuitive that other genes could indirectly lengthen it, perhaps by making you a little more robust than normal against cancer, infection, some kinds of heart disease, and other conditions that often kill the elderly? And even if that somehow isn’t the case, the absence of major life-shortening genetic conditions is itself genetic. You’re not going to get cystic fibrosis, for instance, unless your parents each have at least one gene for it, barring very statistically unlikely de novo mutations. If they don’t have CF and aren’t carriers, then you will inherit their absence of CF and will usually live much longer than you would have otherwise.

          There is plenty of disagreement on how much heredity influences which traits, but heritability/genetics not mattering at all is not supported by evidence.

      2. Eli

        I really do have to ask: how are “the values of the species” more important than the actually existing individuals?

        1. Irrelevant

          Because the actually existing individuals might decide to value the construction of enormous stone heads at any cost.

    2. ilzolende

      I kind of think that being neurotypical as opposed to autistic would have fundamentally altered the nature of my soul (working from the “soul as personality and sort-of-mental-state-like thing” definition). Practically every trait I have has been called an autism symptom (hyperlexia, atheism, interest in technology, use of scripted speech, etc) by sources of admittedly varying reliability.

      Also, if wanting the future to include a nonzero quantity of people with mental states similar to mine makes me radical, then I’m not sure what the non-radical position is.

        1. ilzolende

          Reading by 4 (maybe 3? can’t remember) and having a wide vocabulary is great, and I’d love to see more of that in the general population.

          However, while having the general population prefer transcripts and articles over speeches and radio news, like movies better with the subtitles turned on, and learn new names and words primarily via text would be beneficial to me personally in that I would like my preferences in this area to be the societal defaults, there’s no real reason why the general population would benefit from having these preferences.

          I would like to see a future with autistic people in general (although I don’t object to hypothetical implants that would improve face recognition/ability to read social skills, so I can’t object to gene therapy that does the same, and I don’t really feel bad about removing sensory overstimulation either), not just people with one autism-correlated trait.

          1. Vegemeister

            Unless they’re borderline-illiterate (or have specifically trained the ability, like blind people using screenreaders), most people can read faster than they can comprehend speech.

      1. Anonymous

        I agree with this sentiment. It creeps me out to think of well-intentioned people gradually eliminating people like me.

      2. maxikov

        > Also, if wanting the future to include a nonzero quantity of people with mental states similar to mine makes me radical, then I’m not sure what the non-radical position is.

        I guess that depends on how far into future you look. For 2065 that’s a really mild position. For 3065 that starts sounding like radical non-interventionism – if you’re nearly guaranteed to be uploaded, and can change yourself with the ease of AGI, the desire to retain similar mental states is a highly non-trivial one.

      3. ishaan

        (same anon)

        You’re framing it as disagreement, but I think you actually agree with me here – I specifically said I would not want people to attempt to edit most mental illnesses out of the genome for exactly the reasons you described.

        I think enrichment of the human experience related to disorders and disabilities comes from mostly either trade-offs related to the disorder (“pleiotropy”, in the case of genetic stuff) and from compensatory mechanism. Aspergers mostly falls under “pleiotropic trade off”.

        To the extent that autism is caused by genetic variation which stuck around, I would be extremely cautious about removing it. (However, to the extent that autism might be caused by inflammation, brain damage, infection, fetal disturbances, extremely novel mutations, and similar maladies I would want to do everything possible to treat it.)

        “Radical anti-ablist” (don’t know if that’s actually the term) would be people who would oppose, say, cochlear implants, on the grounds that deafness and subsequent language-related differences shapes your entire personality and has a rich culture surrounding it. I sympathize, because I *do* believe compensatory strategies enrich us, but I don’t think they make up for the deficit.

        1. ishaan

          I’m fairly open to changing my mind on the stance of doing everything to treat disabilities with no inherent trade offs, though. This isn’t a strong stance.

          Even the anti-cochlear implant people *almost* convinced me (It does sound ridiculous at first, but the arguments against implants for the simple purpose of preserving deafness are more convincing than one might expect going in … but honestly, still not THAT convincing that I’d not give an infant implants.)

          So it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to this line of thought – I recognize the costs, it’s just that I think the cost-benefit calculation ultimate comes out against it, and in the case of soon-to-be persons such as infants these decisions must be made by someone.

          1. Cadie

            One argument against giving children implants that I found somewhat convincing is that the quality of cochlear implants is still improving, and getting a set in 2015 may make it harder or even impossible to get a different set in, say, 2030 with higher-quality sound and more variety to get clear sound for a larger number of people. Since deafness is a disability that can be accommodated quite well, I can understand why someone might not rush to get the implants for a small child now; if they wait until they’re adults or older adolescents, they’ll probably have much better implants to choose from. But that’s not an argument against using implants at all, quite the contrary.

            If I had a deaf infant I know I’d need to do a lot more research on that before deciding whether to get implants for them right away. I would expect it to be done at some point, but if there’s very strong evidence of rapid improvements in quality and difficulty of giving someone implants when they already have a set, enough to offset the years of lost hearing in between, I would consider waiting until later.

      4. Anonymous

        Yeah, add me to this chorus. I’m pretty sure that my most favourite things about my personality come at least partly from genes that could easily have sent me down the path to schizophrenia.

        I’m sure I’d have contributed a lot more to society with my high IQ if I had spent less time walking really close to the border of sanity. I might even have been happier (unsure of this. Less suicidal despair but also less ecstatic spiritual bliss.)

        But I know I wouldn’t swap. And I think some people who are wired like me contribute a LOT to society; it’s a bit of a lottery, but I’m certain it would be a net loss for humanity if our genes stopped playing it.

        Even aside from the fragile and vulnerable genetic ecosystem we might end up creating in this scenario, I’m pretty sure that culture would become quite sterile once all the dysfunctional weirdos get weeded out.

  43. James D. Miller

    Some changes in genes will likely impact political beliefs, and politicians will almost certainly give great weight to such considerations, just as today when deciding on immigration policy many decision makers factor in who the potential immigrants and the potential immigrants’ children will likely vote for.

    1. Randy M

      I don’t think any politicians want/don’t want immigration because immigrant DNA predisposes them to one or another party, but rather that they can expect increased votes in those demographics as a payment for allowing the immigration in the first place.

      1. James D. Miller

        Many Republicans (I ran as a Republican for the Massachusetts State Senate) think that even if the Republican party becomes extremely pro low-skilled immigrant, most of these immigrants would vote Democrat even if the immigrants recognize that they only became citizens because of Republican political help.

    2. C.S.

      But of course.

      Everyone knows conservatives are nasty people because they’re fearful and liberals are shiny people who like novelty and are not afraid of it.

      Would you consign your child to the sad fate of the scaredy-pants conservative, or risk they might end up *shudder* as a reactionary? That’d be perverse!

      1. Mary

        And then everyone dies because they’re all liberals and don’t recognize a life-threatening situation quickly enough.

          1. Bugmaster

            What C.S. said. The quote actually rhymes in Russian (“доверяй но проверяй”), which makes the English version inferior, IMO. Hmm… I wonder if someone could come up with a rhyming version in English…

    3. Dumky

      Political genes, interesting.
      Maybe in 2064, the Orange Party will force adults and children to get their “Orange shot”. Anyone who doesn’t is negatively affecting the public order 😉

      1. Deiseach

        Maybe in 2064, the Orange Party will force adults and children to get their “Orange shot”.

        Singing The Sash as everyone lines up for their shot?

    4. Surlie

      But what happens when religious-propensity genes are identified alongside them?

      Will it be okay to hardcode your religion into your children’s DNA? If we can nurture children into a certain religion with some reliability, why not?

      1. Irrelevant

        Practically? The associated science is rejected as blasphemous by every major religion, and 200 years later the prevailing faith on earth is the Neo-Calvinist Church of the Sacred Gene.

  44. Charlie

    The values that might cause other people to do things I think are bad are silly and pointless.

    The values that might cause me to do things other people think are bad are important and not to be overridden.

      1. Wrong Species

        And we know that the science is on your side because you are subscribed to “I fucking love science”.

  45. Anonymous

    In related news, it has been revealed the CIA conducted a fake child-enhancement program in order to gather DNA.

  46. Alex

    >”Since the promise of self-driving cars continues to be tied up in regulatory hassles…”
    oh god, this is so possible its terrifying.
    Also, i’m kinda surprised you arent an honorary GMU econ professor by now.

    1. haishan

      That was my favorite part of the post.

      My least-favorite part was Scott forgetting to link to Dr. LeQuivalence’s book on Amazon. You’re leaving .001Ƀ per purchase on the table, Scott!

  47. Totient

    …raising awareness of cases where our intuitions conflict is its own reward.

    This is driving me insane.

    I’m okay with legally mandating vaccination. But I’m imagining a moderately inconvenient world where it turns out that having better eyesight is a small, but very real advantage in keeping yourself and others injury-free and that we’ve developed gene therapy to the point where we can give everyone 20/20 vision at the same level of risk associated with modern vaccines.

    (Why eyesight, and not your examples? Your examples seem a bit too “science-fictiony” to me, which, in my brain, makes the whole moral dilemma seem a lot less real. Which is no statement against your writing; my brain just flags stuff as “not real” arbitrarily.)

    And yet, I’m not okay with mandating gene therapy.

    Well done, Scott. You got the “cognitive dissonance” alarm to go off in my brain again. It hasn’t happened this month yet, so I guess it was time.

    1. Anonymous

      If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Philosophy (which has largely been attempts at formally describing human intuition) it should be that intuition is a pretty B- way to make decisions or try to learn things about the world. This very insight, while temporarily discomforting, should be celebrated!

    2. Bugmaster

      Why not ? I would be perfectly fine with mandating the eyesight-enhancing gene therapy, as long as its risk factors were similar to those associated with vaccination today.

      I suppose you could argue against mandating the therapy on financial grounds; but are there any other reasons to avoid it ?

    3. MicaiahC

      I really like that you acknowledged your discomfort and tried to meet the hypothetical halfway instead of fighting it.

      I don’t have much else to say, other than wishing that this was done more often.

    4. David Friedman

      It’s worth noting that the action/inaction, benefit/avoidance of harm distinction plays a strong role in a lot of our attitudes and institutions. Most people are comfortable with the idea of tort liability for doing something that damages another person or his property. Very few are comfortable with applying the same idea to failing to take actions that would benefit someone.

      I think making sense of this distinction requires us to drop the wildly unrealistic assumption of a world of certainty, where there is no significant difference between “doing X because Y” and “doing X because you believe Y.” Most of the sort of cases where tort damages come into play are ones where the causation is pretty clear—my car dented yours. Applying the same approach to cases where there is something I could have done and didn’t that would have benefited you is a lot harder.

      1. HeelBearCub

        I’m not sure action/inaction bias comes in to it, or not as clearly as you seem to be saying.

        If I walk by a car that’s parking brake is not set, see it, do nothing about it, and it rolls into your car and dents it, I certainly won’t be liable.

        But if I fail to set the parking brake on my car, then I am quite likely to be liable for the dent in your car.

  48. Drew

    This seems a lot like the trolley problem. It’s only “hard” because we’ve got a bias towards inaction.

    Except for this inactivity-bias, the choices reduce to {baby_with_cancer, baby_without_cancer} or {one_dead_person, five_dead_people}. In each case, there’s a clear right answer.

    But somehow, “Should parent be allowed to expose their children to chemicals that raise their lifetime risk of cancer by 18%?” seems really different than “Should parents be allowed withhold chemicals that lower their children’s lifetime risk of cancer by 18%”

    1. fubarobfusco

      This seems a lot like the trolley problem. It’s only “hard” because we’ve got a bias towards inaction.

      That’s why you have to throw an opt-out form in front of the vaccine trolley in order to kill your kid.

  49. Princess Stargirl

    I actually agree with this. If the enhancements really work then you should be forced to enhance your children. The benefits of enhancement seem (From your article) to be much stronger than the benefits of vaccination.

  50. Wrong Species

    I think what confused me the most about this post is that it was obviously a parody of people who are pro-mandatory vaccination but it was very convincing. It’s like reading A Modest Proposal and suddenly you start thinking that eating babies is a good thing.

    1. Nornagest

      I’d be astonished if Scott is anti-mandatory vaccination, perhaps modulo a few caveats. I would be… not astonished, but somewhat surprised, if he’s against designer babies.

      Extending the reasoning for the former to the latter in a world where that technology’s mature is counterintuitive, but the logic’s fairly solid (and that’s transhumanism for you). We needn’t see this as a polemic, though. Seems to me that the more interesting issues around it have nothing to do with the object-level example and more to do with the way we conceptualize risk and public health, and how that changes with circumstances.

  51. DanielLC

    How can most people have an IQ of 140? It’s defined as being smarter than a certain portion of the population.

    1. Nornagest

      That’s true now, but historically it’s often (more often?) been expressed in terms of developmental delay compared to a reference population. I can see reasons to revert to that or a similar scheme in a world where you can’t assume a normal-ish distribution of IQ scores.

      Though the real answer is probably more along the lines of “because Scott needed a quantified shorthand for intelligence, and IQ is what was available”.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      If places like India and Neo-Songhai and Venus where enhancement isn’t practiced contain most of the population, average IQ could still be 100.

      …but good point and I removed that part.

      1. Bugmaster

        On a separate note, if 2065 is the kind of place where self-driving cars are still just a dream… then it is also the kind of place where Venus is still just a distant point of light in the sky, forever out of our reach.

        Though I suppose you could buy an apartment building here on Earth and call it “Venus”, that would technically work…

        1. lmm

          Self-driving cats are a dream *in the US*. The Singapore space program has colonised Venus. US editorials continue to ignore the rest of the world.

          1. houseboatonstyx

            Self-driving cats are a dream *in the US*.

            I think our cats are too self-driving already.

    3. Deiseach

      How can most people have an IQ of 140? It’s defined as being smarter than a certain portion of the population.

      That’s rather the point, isn’t it? As enhancement becomes widely available, relatively or actually cheap, and socially acceptable, the enhanced intelligence treatments means a lot more people will have (by the measure of the old, uncorrected test of 2015) an IQ of 140. The new, corrected IQ test of 2065 will measure this as ‘average’ or 100, and so the pressure for more enhancement will continue.

      Just as once upon a time high school education was enough to get a decent job, then a bachelor’s degree, then go for more and more – the enhanced world will mean if you haven’t degrees in three fields, don’t even think about applying for an entry-level job. So parents will want Junior to have the (new) 150 IQ enhancement. And everyone (or a vast majority) gets enhanced to 150, which is now adjusted to be the new average 100.

      And the hamster wheel turns round and round and round, running to stand still.

      1. David Friedman

        “And the hamster wheel turns round and round and round, running to stand still.”

        That assumes that everything that matters is relative. What good does it do me to live to 130 with no serious impairment when almost everyone else makes 140?

  52. blacktrance

    Parents have significant obligations to make their children’s lives good. When their capability to improve their children’s lives increases, their extent of their obligations increases as well. Fortunately, there’s an easy way out – if you don’t like vaccines or genetic modification, don’t have kids.

    However, this is a good example of how “genetic enhancement is a choice” can break down.

  53. Anonymous

    and hey, unmodified children have unmodified immune systems, they might be harboring diseases – genetic superenhancement isn’t perfect, they could still get your kids sick!

  54. SUT

    Biology is the last domain where Bad things happen to Good people.

    To date, the most dramatic win is reduction of childhood mortality. But as the anti-aging people point out, its a travesty that every good person has to die. Or walking back from that extreme, there are many people living with debilitating, chronic problems that current medicine can not cure or even understand.

    When we get to the point of engineering humans to grow wings, we’ve probably come quite far with the technical possibility of immortality, and being able to repair or rebuild any health impairment a person faces. With biology mastered, only good things happen to the good people, in the way that mastery of food production has made a life where we might die of hunger simply inconceivable.

    Living in a time where we control our own fate is a reality difficult to comprehend, and I don’t think the concerns of today “map” to that future world (just as a primitive agricultural society wouldn’t understand epidemic levels of obesity) In fact, the concerns of both sides today are mainly that we feel biologic risk is out of our control, whether that be coming down with measles or autism.

    1. Randy M

      “Biology is the last domain where Bad things happen to Good people. ”

      How so? What other domains existed where this is no longer so?

      1. SUT

        Food – for the ancients, when the rain didn’t come, you died. Not because you were lazy in your farm work, just unlucky.

        Violence – As Pinker pointed out, if you were a hunter gatherer, 25% chance you’re murdered. Not because you were acting criminally, but because someone saw it to their advantage to kill you, unlucky.

        1. Randy M

          So, is the prevalence of, say, Down’s syndrome greater than the odds of being murdered? Or were you considering everything less than IQ 140, 6 foot tall, straight-teeth bad things on a scale unequaled elsewhere?

          1. SUT

            ” one in every 152 — were due to homicide.”

            it’s ridiculous to think the median american’s probability of being murdered ~1%. A small subset of the population has ~10% of being murdered, while for most it’s < 0.1%. These are the "good people" – you have control over the chance you will be murdered: don't be involved in crime, live away from crime areas, don't sleep with anyone's wife or date a biker guy.

            Meanwhile, the good people will do anything for success in the biology world – play their baby mozart in utero, etc – but it's really unclear you have any control over conditions like Down Syndrome.

          2. haishan

            Meanwhile, the good people will do anything for success in the biology world – play their baby mozart in utero, etc – but it’s really unclear you have any control over conditions like Down Syndrome.

            Empirically, a fairly significant proportion of the people least at risk of being murdered or having their kids murdered aren’t even vaccinating their children against deadly diseases… and you’re claiming that they’re doing everything they can because of in utero Mozart?

            I’m just out here thanking every God I can think of that nobody’s claiming iodized salt causes schizophrenia or something like that. (Edit: Oh wait. This is the Internet. Of course someone’s making a claim very similar to that.)

          3. David Friedman

            “Empirically, a fairly significant proportion of the people least at risk of being murdered or having their kids murdered aren’t even vaccinating their children against deadly diseases… and you’re claiming that they’re doing everything they can because of in utero Mozart?”

            As best I can tell, most of them are avoiding vaccination because they believe that benefits their kids, although the belief happens to be mistaken. So that isn’t inconsistent with “everything they can” in the context of their beliefs.

            Also, describing Measles as a “deadly disease” in the contest of modern medicine is a considerable exaggeration.

            “Among the 70 (32%) measles patients who were hospitalized, 17 (24%) had diarrhea, 15 (21%) were dehydrated, and 12 (17%) had pneumonia. No cases of encephalitis and no deaths were reported. ”

            (cdc web site, giving figures for 2011)

            That was out of 222 reported cases, and there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that any of the ones who were not hospitalized died either.

          4. haishan

            David Friedman:

            How about the flu? There have been about 350 influenza-related pediatric deaths in the US over the last three flu seasons; there are a lot of parents, even fairly well-off parents, who don’t get their kids vaccinated because they just can’t be bothered.

    2. haishan

      “Biology is the last domain where Bad things happen to Good people.”

      We should let the philosophers of religion know about this. They can finally stop arguing about theodicies.

  55. onyomi

    I love the film Gattaca, even if it does potentially discourage designer babies (and I’m for designer babies), as I think it also captures some of that ambiguity. Also, very nice article, though I’m amazed some could take it as an argument for designer babies rather than a cautionary “slippery slope” parable about compulsory vaccination, if only because of the setting (seems more reasonable to interpret future stories as allegories for the present than the other way around).

    1. Drew

      I didn’t feel like Gattaca raised all that much ambiguity.

      As I remember it, the conflict was that the main character had non-optimized genes, and ran a high (90%, irc?) chance of getting a heart attack. He wanted to go to space, but the corporation wouldn’t let him.

      The corporation’s morality really depends on how much we believe their actuaries. But neither case seems all that complex.

      One possibility is that they were right. The main character really did have a high risk of getting a heart attack in space. If so, the corporation’s decision was sad, but pretty defensible.

      NASA would fail people now for heartbeat irregularities. And I bet they’d do it at much less than a 90% risk. 10+% of people would get lucky. But that’s not an argument against stethoscopes.

      The other possibility is that the actuaries were basically wrong. They took a perceived difference between groups and assumed it applied to all individuals in those groups.

      This follows the same pattern as sexism and racism: Some X’s are bad at Y. You’re an X, so I’ll assume you’re bad at Y, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

      The movie can be taken as an argument against gene-racism. But I don’t really see how it’s an argument against genetic manipulation anymore than, “people could discriminate against hat-wearers” is an argument against the morality of hats.

      1. onyomi

        I think the film still showed some ambiguity and grey (literal, as well as figurative). There was an obvious implied condemnation of prejudice against the non-genetically enhanced, but the movie also doesn’t seem to imply that the genetic enhancements themselves are bad, or should be stopped. It is implied that many social problems have been mitigated and new advances in technology and art (12-fingered pianist) achieved as a result. The downside is an underclass of the non-enhanced, which seems like a very real and probable downside of widespread enhancement. I will say that, to be truly nuanced, I would have liked if they had made the future seem an overall brighter, happier place, with more examples of impressive tech, as would surely be the case.

        On a much smaller scale, think about straight teeth: it never used to be an issue because nobody had perfect teeth. Once orthodontics made perfect teeth a possibility, it started to become expected that one would at least fix the most severe cases. Now, having severely crooked teeth, an overbite, etc. is an obvious marker of low status in some segments of society. How much more would this apply to something so much more important than teeth straightness?

        1. Drew

          The downside is an underclass of the non-enhanced, which seems like a very real and probable downside of widespread enhancement.

          I agree that we could end up with an underclass. But enhancement isn’t creating the bottom quartile. It’s just changing the people who end up there.

          A lot of the movie’s tension seemed to be driven by the idea that our protagonist (who’d be high-status now) could end up consigned to a low-status job.

          This works as a personal threat. I’ve got a good job now and it sucks to imagine a world where I’d only be qualified for janitorial work. (Or a world where cosmetic surgery has made me relatively ugly)

          At the same time, those ‘harms’ are purely a matter of relative position. I haven’t gotten worse looking. I’ve just fallen lower on the ladder.

          It’s hard for me to come up with a moral argument that this is wrong. If I recognize that someone has to be bottom-quartile attractive, how can I morally object if it happens to be me?

        2. C.S.

          The downside is an underclass of the non-enhanced, which seems like a very real and probable downside of widespread enhancement

          How is that a problem? The un-enhanced are mostly people who’d have done fine in the old world, and thus by themselves are unlikely to be much of a problem in the sense of crime and so on.

          It’s also, a bit funny. I mean, aren’t stupid people a giant drain on the society? All the crime, dysfunction, welfare spending, etc?

          Having less stupid people and more who are merely ‘unenhanced ‘ and thus consigned to shit jobs would be a great improvement of the situation. At least they’re capable of work, unlike people who can’t show up on time and sober.

          1. onyomi

            Certainly I am in favor of designer babies, and think they will make the world a better place to live. That said, there is still the unfortunate issue of relative happiness, one Libertarians like myself prefer to avoid (we will say, “who cares if the gap between rich and poor grows, so long as the poor are better off in absolute terms?). That said, envy is a very real and powerful force, and one I’m not immune to myself. If relative happiness were not a big component of our well-being then almost everyone in the first world would be ecstatic all the time: after all, we enjoy luxuries and technologies emperors and kings of ages past never could have.

            I’ve often that I’d rather be a poorish to middle income individual in a libertarian world than a super-wealthy individual in our current world, not only because so many others would be better off, but because (in my view, at least), the technology, medical care etc. available to the poor and middle class in libertarian world would be better than that currently available for the super-wealthy (after all, wouldn’t you rather be a low-to-middleish income 21st c. American than King Henry VIII?).

            That said, I am a lot more pained by the idea of being stupid and ugly not because I myself changed at all, but because everyone else got so much smarter and prettier.

            Now if designer baby technology becomes widespread, then that state of affairs will almost surely come about at some point, though probably not till after I’m dead. But to imagine being plunged into such a world straight away is pretty awful, and I think that is why we are supposed to feel sympathy for the underclass of unenhanced individuals in Gattaca.

            Just as I don’t think envy is a good enough reason for wealth “re”distribution, I don’t think the desire not to be viewed by one’s great-grandchildren as a troglodyte is sufficient reason to hold back designer baby technology, but it’s still understandable.

          2. jaimeastorga2000

            That said, there is still the unfortunate issue of relative happiness, one Libertarians like myself prefer to avoid (we will say, “who cares if the gap between rich and poor grows, so long as the poor are better off in absolute terms?). That said, envy is a very real and powerful force, and one I’m not immune to myself. If relative happiness were not a big component of our well-being then almost everyone in the first world would be ecstatic all the time: after all, we enjoy luxuries and technologies emperors and kings of ages past never could have.

            I’ve often that I’d rather be a poorish to middle income individual in a libertarian world than a super-wealthy individual in our current world, not only because so many others would be better off, but because (in my view, at least), the technology, medical care etc. available to the poor and middle class in libertarian world would be better than that currently available for the super-wealthy (after all, wouldn’t you rather be a low-to-middleish income 21st c. American than King Henry VIII?).

            Like I pointed out the last time someone brought this up, most people in first world countries have lives that are much worse than those of kings and emperors in very objective sense, not merely in a sense that can be described as their being envious that other people have even more. Zero-sum competitions cannot be solved by technological improvements, and they have a very real effect in your quality of life. In fact, the strongest steelman against inequality I can think of is that sufficient disparity allows people at the top to win zero-sum competitions so hard that everyone else is completely miserable, if not outright killed off by their inability to compete.

            If all these rich super-genius athletes are flooding the job market, how are you going to find work? How are you going to get the 3 PhDs you need to be considered competitive for an entry-level job? Even in a fully libertarian economy where there are no government credentials or minimum wages and you can be hired at your Ricardian comparative advantage price point no matter how inefficient you are compared to other people, how are you going to afford rent when the price of land has crept up to what the genetically engineered humans can afford on their normal salaries? Sure, you might be able to buy the iPhone 12 which comes with 10 weeks of battery life and lifetime unlimited data because the geniuses have advanced technology that much, but that’s going to be a small comfort when you drop dead of exhaustion because you can’t afford a place to sleep and there is no such thing as a public space in libertariantopia. And this is all assuming you don’t even care about the status differential or the lack of political power or the inability to get a girl which of course you do; humans are social animals, our lives are about status.

            tl;dr: Parts of the pie fixed and cannot be made bigger, and since you kinda need those parts to live, you might want to be wary of “making each individual slice of the pie bigger is better for everyone even if the relative sizes of the pie pieces change as a result” type arguments that are a staple of rightist economics.

            EDIT: And to answer your question, I am banking on some long shots like the intelligence explosion, and I am an infophile with a taste for neoractionary screeds and hard science-fiction besides, so I am not quite at the point where I would want to trade places with old Henry, but it’s close. As for average working-class or middle-class men in a first world country, I have no doubt whatsoever that they would be much happier as British monarchs from the 1500s than they are with their current lives (granting some common sense assumptions like being allowed to bring their families with them).

          3. Irrelevant

            Any zero-sum competition is equally zero-sum regardless of your social organization or level of inequality. Every non-zero-sum competition, meanwhile, takes place under conditions of continuously increasingly total and per capita energy capture. And given that we’ve demonstrated quite thoroughly that you can bribe everyone with toys to have less children, population is expected to stabilize well before land access becomes a global constraining factor. This is an imaginary problem.

          4. jaimeastorga2000

            And given that we’ve demonstrated quite thoroughly that you can bribe everyone with toys to have less children, population is expected to stabilize well before land access becomes a global constraining factor.

            The supply of land is not as simple as surface of Earth / number of people. In order to be useful, land must be near other people; that’s why tracts of land in the middle of nowhere are so cheap. And land in and around cities is already scarce. There are lots of unoccupied houses and large quantities of undeveloped land at these locations, and yet homelessness and house poverty is a problem for people who have no trouble affording food or electronics and who could no doubt scrape together the couple thousand dollars it would take to buy a camper van or some other perfectly adequate shelter. Why? Because the people who own the land find it profitable to merely sit on and speculate its future value, and they have won zero-sum games hard enough to do so without serious competition from people who don’t have a full-time middle-class job, at a minimum.

            In any case, I am also far from convinced that we know exactly what causes the demographic transition, or that it will keep on working indefinitely in the face of Azathoth and Cthulhu.

          5. David Friedman

            “Zero-sum competitions cannot be solved by technological improvements, and they have a very real effect in your quality of life.”

            Competitions that are literally zero-sum are very rare. It isn’t as if there is a fixed set of jobs to which people are allocated on the basis of status. If ten percent of the population gets much brighter, that doesn’t automatically reduce the productivity of everyone else. It might reduce it, it might increase it, depending on to what degree different inputs to production are complements or substitutes.

            Status itself is less of a zero-sum competition than it at first appears, because you have a good deal of control over what group of people you judge your status relative to. The low income chess master is high status in the world most relevant to him, as is the high income person who is a weak chess player.

            The one important zero-sum game is mate selection, which may explain why humans have so much tendency to think in relative rather than absolute terms. But if you enhance sizable chunks of the population, you are increasing both the number of high quality men and women, so unenhanced individuals competing for unenhanced mates are in about the same situation as before—provided that polygamy isn’t an important mating pattern.

          6. Tracy W


            And land in and around cities is already scarce.

            Not actually, at least not in the USA. Housing costs are high in cities where land is heavily zoned. (Part of this is what matters is not land-per-se, but occupable space, if you build a whopping big skyscraper on a bit of land, you’ve drastically increased the number of people who can use that land.

            And people can use very steep land. I once lived in a building that consisted of 6 flats and 6 stories, 1 flat per story, 4 of the flats were at ground-level, and the topmost flat, while above ground, was below the level of the road. The building stepped its way down the slope. At one point in the central city where there was a cliff, tall office buildings were built along the base of the cliff with entrances at the base and at the top – I would take visitors on a walk into ground level, up 7 floors in a glass lift, then out at ground level.

          7. Good Burning Plastic

            The one important zero-sum game is mate selection

            I’m not even sure that one is zero sum — there are plenty of people who are single because none of their potential partners find them desirable enough, so maybe making everyone a more desirable mate would result in fewer people being single.

        3. Peter

          Teeth: there also seems to be this stereotype of British people having bad teeth. I’ve no idea how prevalent it actually in America but it filters it’s way to my side of the pond a moderate amount…

          1. onyomi

            There is definitely a stereotype among Americans that the British have bad teeth. It may have been justified at one point, as I think orthodontics became prevalent here before in the UK (and everywhere else, but we pay more attention to the UK).

          2. Tarrou

            This is mostly because British actors don’t all have identical veneers like American actors. Realistically, 90% of the british people most Americans will ever see are on the screen, so this is the primary driver. We tend to figure that if even your actors have jacked up grills, your poor people must be that much more messed up. In reality, it’s just a different social convention where actors in britain are expected to look like actual people.

          3. onyomi

            Now that you mention it, it does seem like European TV and movies in general have more of an aesthetic of showing people who look like “real people” or “average joes,” whereas everyone on American TV looks improbably perfect. It’s not just the US, though. Check out Korean dramas or Bollywood.

          4. Irrelevant

            Straight, bleached teeth are no more “improbably perfect” than styled, washed hair is, given the appropriate technologies. And according to writers from the early days of movie theaters, there was in fact a large, quick move towards conformity and investment in hair maintenance when the general public gained exposure to high-status beauty images via film.

            We’re at a point now where bleaching your teeth is very comparable in time and monetary cost to hair maintenance, so of course it’s going to take over among anyone remotely status-conscious.

        4. onyomi

          Well there are definitely SOME ways in which it would be better to be a monarch even of ancient egypt, than to be an average guy today, but more than land, I’d say most of them involve people. That is, human labor was so cheap (and even enslavable) in olden times that times past were definitely better if you wanted someone rubbing your feet, another person rubbing your shoulders, and another person singing a song about how great you are. (and you wouldn’t even need to be a king to afford this–just relatively well-off). And of course there’s the possibility of many wives for many premodern monarchs and nobles, though one could also just be a Mormon. To some people, being the center of attention like this might seem better than TV, AC, cell phones, etc., but as soon as you got a toothache or a bacterial infection or needed surgery of any kind I’d bet you’d be longing for your 21st c. life. As for land, sure kings had land, but what could you do with it? Hunt deer? I can do that now without actually owning land.

          1. jaimeastorga2000

            As for land, sure kings had land, but what could you do with it? Hunt deer? I can do that now without actually owning land.

            You are missing the point here. Most of the reason people have to work is because they don’t own land. And work is terrible. Owning land, specially enough land that you can rent some out to other people, specially an entire country like a king does, means not having to worry about obtaining and keeping the highest-paying full-time job you can, like most people in the first world do at all costs.

          2. onyomi

            Well I guess it also depends on how much one hates working. Premodern people in general, from peasants to kings, had a lot more free time than we did: think about farmers in the off-season. The problem is, what do you do with all that time? To me it seems like it would be incredibly boring. Sure, if you really really hate working then, yes, better to be a premodern noble than a 21st c. poor person, but I would sooner work at McDonald’s and have AC, personally.

            Also, in the US at least, if you are willing to accept a pretty low standard of living (but one that probably still involves a car, tv, microwave, ac, and cell phone), you can probably find a way to do so without working much, if at all. The number of people I know on some form of disability assistance, all of whom could do plenty of jobs without worsening their conditions, for example, is pretty staggering. I don’t blame them, mind you–they are strongly disincentivized from working because then they lose the money they’re now receiving. I’m just saying, if your goal is to loaf, the 21st c. is also a better time to loaf in, and certainly a much better time to work in.

            That Gwern post is interesting food for thought, though. As I move into my 30s myself, I do realize how hard it is to both take good care of oneself and pay the rent, even for someone highly educated and more motivated than average, like myself. That said, I wonder if more people don’t choose a different, potentially healthier path, only because they don’t know it’s a possibility?

            I know someone who got perfect SAT scores, went to a top university, and ended up working as an organic farmer. Partially because it was a cause he believed in, but I think also because of an “Office Space”-type decision–it may not have been what society expected of someone of his talents, but he deemed it better for his own psyche, and was probably right.

          3. onyomi

            One other thought: though this wouldn’t solve the “work is terrible” problem, I’d also note that much of the unavailability of cheap labor right now is artificial. Sure, most Americans can’t afford to hire other Americans to rub their feet and clean their toilet, but there are plenty of Haitians right off the cost who’d do almost anything for the chance to come here and do just that.

            In places like India it’s still common for even middle income households to have a lot of “help,” and it seems to me that we are making both our lives and the lives of the would-be immigrants worse by refusing to let them come here.

          4. jaimeastorga2000

            Well I guess it also depends on how much one hates working.

            It’s not just that work and commutes are terrible; it’s also that jobs are really hard to get and keep. So you sacrifice all sorts of things to get one, like time and money and relationships and quality of life, and in the end you are always worried and anxious that you are going to lose it anyways. At least some of this is a direct result of technological advancement; in our hyper-efficient economy, the level of competence you need to avoid simply slowing down an employer’s operation is absolutely brutal. See gwern and The Last Psychiatrist.

            And of course there’s the possibility of many wives for many premodern monarchs and nobles, though one could also just be a Mormon.

            Do you realize how many men today would kill for the prospect of having even one wife? As the king of a country you are virtually guaranteed a young, beautiful, and virginal wife, and as many mistresses, prostitutes, and flings as you want.

            To some people, being the center of attention like this might seem better than TV, AC, cell phones, etc., but as soon as you got a toothache or a bacterial infection or needed surgery of any kind I’d bet you’d be longing for your 21st c. life.

            Humans are social animals whose lives are about status. Women in poor countries risk their children’s lives rather than risk looking poor. I think you are seriously underestimating how appealing being the leader of a country would be for most men (and how appealing being married to the leader of a country would be for most women).

      2. Protagoras

        I may misremember, but I thought he had a low, but above average, risk, not a high risk. Which from the point of view of the corporation is sufficient; why take the even slightly more risky person when you don’t have to? He may be willing to take the small chance of dying because he really wants to go, but what incentive does the corporation have to take even a small extra chance of a failed mission?

    2. Ghatanathoah

      I saw it as an argument for designer babies because I kept in mind just how many people die from car accidents throughout my reading of the post. That’s a lot of death.

  56. Brandon

    Everything I need to know about societal implications of genetic engineering, I learned from Gattaca.

    1. Anonymous

      If I recall correctly the protagonist in Gattaca gets a surgery to make himself taller, because his subpar hight would out him. So, getting enhanced to be a more productive member of society is bad, but enhancing yourself to fraudulently get access to jobs and women is heroic.

      1. C.S.

        Except in Gattaca you can’t get enhanced, they don’t have technology for that.

        All they had was embryo selection.

        1. Anonymous

          In a deleted scene it is revealed that you can get enhancements for extra money. If the parents were not so cheap, maybe the good son would not keep losing those swimming races.

    2. aguycalledjohn

      The problem in Gattaca wasn’t the genetic engineering, it was the rest of societ holding the idiot/villain ball and discriminating based on it far more than the science justified, and just generally being assholes. Its little better than a straw dystopia, no argument is made about how the genetic engineering necessaril leads to the societal outcomes

      1. Nita

        People being assholes to those who are not only considered, but scientifically proven to be “inferior” is unrealistic? Really?

        1. lmm

          The scientific evidence for e.g. racial differences is stronger than ever. The difference between now and the ’50s isn’t the science, it’s the society.

  57. Paul

    This scenario is the exact plot of Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion: http://www.amazon.com/Intrusion-Ken-MacLeod/dp/1841499390

    Imagine a near-future city, say London, where medical science has advanced beyond our own and a single-dose pill has been developed that, taken when pregnant, eradicates many common genetic defects from an unborn child. Hope Morrison, mother of a hyperactive four-year-old, is expecting her second child. She refuses to take The Fix, as the pill is known. This divides her family and friends and puts her and her husband in danger of imprisonment or worse. Is her decision a private matter of individual choice, or is it tantamount to willful neglect of her unborn child? A plausible and original novel with sinister echoes of 1984 and Brave New World.

    1. Princess Stargirl

      What is sinister about this. Of course its willful neglect of her child. At least assuming the pill really works.

      1. Matt C

        The pill really works, in a fairly comparable way to how vaccines really work today. It’s definitely a net benefit overall.

        The sinister part of the story is what happens when Hope tries to go against the consensus. I found it quite unpleasant, probably other readers here would see it as no more than appropriate.

    2. Matt C

      I came here to say this. Good book. I could see SSC readers arguing over whether the world in Intrusion was a utopia or a dystopia. Ken puts his thumb on the scales (especially in one scene that should have been left out IMO) but I imagine there’d still be plenty of takers on both sides.

      1. Anonymous

        Should it have been left out because of the thumb on the scales or for some other reason?

        (I haven’t heard of the book and have no idea what scene you’re talking about.)

        1. Matt C

          I think a lot of readers will see the unpleasant events that Ken describes as not very different from what we already see today. This particular scene would trigger “that couldn’t possibly happen here” for most readers, and makes the plausibility weaker.

          1. Paul

            I saw that scene as a deliberate in-joke, a way for the author to say that only something as ridiculous as an unrecognized oracular/time-travel gene could justify the protagonist’s rejection of widespread benevolent and effective genetic engineering for her child.

          2. Matt C

            You’re talking about a different scene than I meant. I filed the improbable time travel stuff under “implausible premises I accepted for the sake of a lively story”.

            I was talking about one of the scenes where Hope receives disincentives against pushing back in the wrong way, I think it was in a van or a truck.

            Nope, just checked, it wasn’t Hope. It was Geena, who I had mostly forgotten. I garbled this up, oops.

            Anyway, it’s interesting what you took away from the story. Very different from what I did. I doubt it was an in-joke the way you describe, but I would be less sure if it weren’t obvious from other books that Ken is something of a libertarian sympathizer.

          3. Paul

            Ken’s a hard-left anarcho-techno-socialist (?) with a deep understanding of anarchist libertarian thought, but more importantly he’s scientifically literate. Based on this alone I think the ‘time travel gene’ bit wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. My impression was that the protagonist was there just to resist, and thus show how state coercion might be applied in a future high-tech society.

            Either way, though, something about the van scene makes me think it was directly transposed from present-day events in a client dictatorship of the US or UK. Perhaps the point of the scene was to show the difference between how the state treats in-group dissenters (neo-anti-vaxxers, basically) and out-group terrorists (AQ/deep green anti-industry mashup, forget the name).

      2. Eli

        The only thing that a sufficiently motivated asshole can’t find some way to portray as a dystopian horror is the status quo. Everything else is subject to the usual rules of political spin: “That which makes me uncomfortable is MONSTROUSLY EVIL”, no consideration of facts or alternatives needed.

        1. Corwin

          Isn’t that how authoritarians see the world all the time? A scary dystopia where their ingroup and its values are constantly beset on all sides by existential threats?

          It doesn’t even seem, to me, very hard to write up, “the status quo as a dystopian horror”. Know what, I can do that in one sentence : “Have you seen the last 15 years of laws passed in the US?”

  58. Not Really Anyone

    Not sure I got the point. My reaction to “We should force everyone to have super-enhanced kids!” was “Obviously”, and my reaction to kids with wings was that it’s a cool idea but unneeded. Further the changes needed to make wings viable in day to day life would ultimately make it wasteful. Perhaps the lower usage of fuel would make up for it, but I’d hope we’d be using renewable energy by the point we can just give kids wings.

    I don’t like the idea of just banishing unenhanced kids (not their fault their parents are awful), and I dislike jail as a punishment period, so that set me off a bit? Yeah, I dunno what’s trying to be said.

    1. aesthete

      Why would the answer to this question be so obvious? Surely there are costs associated with enforcing that type of regime. In any case, shouldn’t those who would justify a specific enhancement need to show that their enhancement is universally safe and beneficial in the manner that has been established with our best-case vaccines, before committing to this type of comment?

      1. Not Really Anyone

        Yeah there are costs. There are costs with vaccines. It’s worth it.

        I assume super enhancements didn’t pop out of nowhere. 95% of kids get super enhancements. The parents of those kids aren’t wildly guessing that their kids will be fine, nor are they being forced to – the article is saying they should be forced to, so they aren’t yet – so I assume that it’s been shown to be safe.

        Or to put in another way, vaccines MIGHT do some bad stuff still, shouldn’t we be absolutely sure and do more research before we inject our kids with them?

    2. Eli

      I don’t even understand how the hell they intend to give children wings. Even small people aren’t aerodynamic, you know? You’d need something more like jet packs, and those are much more easily built as mechanical devices than biological ones.

  59. Wrong Species

    I’m completely down with genetic engineering but I have some reservations about genetic engineering on babies. Raising their intelligence seems obviously good but what about changing their personality? Can I make them extraverts? Is it ok to make my babies have the same political views as me? What if I program them to always be obedient? I think most people would have a problem with genetically engineering your baby to have Downs Syndrome but where should the line be drawn?

    1. Anonymous

      Hell, should it be legal to allow a child to be born with a noticeable dysfunction once we can implement gene therapy in the womb? Would letting your child be born with Downs or deaf or any other number of aliments that we might have a panacea for be considered abuse?

        1. Drew

          My big sticking point for this view is that it seems obviously wrong to let parents cause a disability in the womb.

          And I can’t really find any morally significant difference between ‘choosing to allow X to happen’ and ‘causing X’.

          1. Anonymous

            Now, assume we have a cure for deafness no matter how you acquired it and it works instantly, be it in the womb or full bodied. Deaf culture is a legitimate thing. Should be mandate the cure to deafness for all children despite effectively wiping out deaf culture?

          2. Drew

            @Anonymous: People would still be free to join whatever culture they choose.

            Parents could raise their hearing children as L1 speakers of sign language.

            There’s only a threat if we assume that — given a real choice — people would choose to abandon the culture.

            I don’t think cultures have any right to be protected from abandonment. Especially when the ‘fix’ is restricting people’s ability to leave. I like consent too much.

          3. Drew

            I’d also turn the question around on you.

            Suppose we had a similar culture of people who’d lost the use of their limbs later in life.

            They notice that advances in car safety mean that fewer and fewer people need wheelchairs. This is starting to create a threat to their culture.

            Do they have a right to demand some ceiling on car-safety? If so, how should we decide the “correct” rate of new members?

            Should they get the same inflow they had in 1900? 1950? Or just enough to keep their community alive?

          4. Anonymous

            In this case I’m highly simplifying deaf culture (whose basic tenant is that deafness is not a ailment but a difference in the human condition) to one which is only truly applicable to the deaf; those of us who can hear cannot truly be part of it. Thus we are effectively legislating out an entire culture.

            I don’t quite think your hypothetical applies here, as we’re talking about people later in life when we assume they have a choice in regards to car safety. Regardless, I’m of the opinion in both cases that the harm in allowing the culture to continue is outweighed by the value of having our kids hear or not be crippled.

        2. Wrong Species

          Taking it one step farther, I think there is something wrong with not aborting a baby with Downs Syndrome. Of course, I’m not willing to take that to its logical extreme, especially since the problem seems to be fixing itself, so the status quo seems fine until genetic engineering is available.

          1. James D. Miller

            Genes show that if not aborted a fetus will become an autistic child, with an 80% of having a very low IQ, but a 5% chance of being a super-genius. Lots of parents would abort, even though on average the child would go on to make a significant positive contribution to society.

          2. haishan

            I’m curious — if you don’t get your fetus prenatally tested for Down Syndrome, and only find out after it’s born, do you think it’s morally justifiable to kill the infant? Do you think it’s morally required?

            (Of course you could say “it’s morally wrong not to get prenatal screening,” but maybe you didn’t know you were pregnant. Plus, false negatives.)

          3. William O. B'Livion


            All tests have a margin for error, so it’s entirely possible to have the pre-natal screen and still have a down’s baby.

            But what you’re really asking is “when does it become human”.

          4. haishan


            No, what I’m really asking is “what does Wrong Species think about the ethics of killing an infant with Down Syndrome?” Because the disability-based argument for abortion still seems to go through (unlike arguments based on, say, bodily autonomy.) So I’m wondering if they’ll bite the bullet and say that it’s justifiable to commit infanticide in those cases, and if not, if they can provide a reason why the cases differ.

          5. maxikov


            Infanticide prevents the existence of a person with a Down syndrome at the expense of a human life. Abortion prevents it at the expense of an ethically worthless embryo. Because of the loss aversion, killing a human creates a huge negative utility, that is utterly incomparable with the zero utility of refusing to create a human, and a little bit of positive utility of creating one. Thus, not creating humans with Down syndrome is OK, but killing them is not.

            The only question here is when exactly (could it be even after birth?) and at which rate a developing organism gains the full ethical value of a human.

          6. David Friedman

            “Abortion prevents it at the expense of an ethically worthless embryo. ”

            That assumes that what is in physical reality a continuous change maps into a striking discontinuous change in moral reality. Which seems, at least to me, wildly counterintuitive.

          7. Wrong Species

            Haishan, definitely not. I don’t support killing babies. I don’t know exactly where I think abortion is wrong, but I support the same schelling point for everyone regardless of genetics. Abortion before that point is fine(and good for Downs Syndrome kids) but bad after that.

          8. Mary

            not creating humans with Down syndrome is OK

            A being that can be torn limb from limb, or that you can vacuum the brains out of, has already been created, and you are killing said being.

            And if it’s not human, what is it? An oak?

          9. haishan

            Wrong Species:

            I don’t support killing babies.

            This sounds less like a considered moral position and more like a slogan. Why not support killing babies, at least in some cases? Euthanizing a newborn with Down syndrome is a noncentral example of infanticide.

            I don’t know exactly where I think abortion is wrong, but I support the same schelling point for everyone regardless of genetics. Abortion before that point is fine (and good for Downs Syndrome kids) but bad after that.

            Okay, so, like, if you think abortion is morally right for fetuses with Down syndrome, and you’re some kind of consequentialist, you apparently believe that the good of not having to support a person with Down outweighs both any moral agency the fetus has, and (to some extent) the preferences of the mother. But it’s not remotely clear that a DS neonate (really any neonate, but let’s say especially a DS one) has any more moral agency than a later-term fetus, and given that false negatives are a thing, you could have a mother with a strong preference not to raise a DS kid, who’s now gotten screwed on sheer moral luck… unless it’s permissible for her to euthanize it. Give me a reason to think that the infant has moral agency that tips the balance, here.

            BTW, I don’t think adoption gives you an out here. If someone out there has a strong preference for adopting+raising a DS kid, that person would presumably have a strong preference for adopting+raising same when it’s discovered in utero. At which point you might say: doesn’t matter, you should still abort it. In which case you still ought to “abort” after birth. Or you might say: it’s up to the mother. But at this point I don’t think the mother has any right to discriminate based on the test results! If you believe the bodily-autonomy arguments for abortion rights, the mother certainly has a right to abort her fetus for bodily-autonomy reasons… but those reasons are unchanged by the results of a screen for DS.

          10. Irrelevant


            It’s a hypothetical person. It has no actual desires yet, only the ones you predict it will or might have in the future. The moral weight of hypothetical people isn’t zero, but they’re definitely fungible.

          11. lmm

            @Irrelevant How are unborn fetuses any more fungible than newborn babies? Both have had very little environmental experience so far and possibly have many different possible future personalities. Both have their full complement of genes that and can be uniquely identified by that. What’s the difference?

          12. Irrelevant


            When you say more, do you mean “more”, or do you mean “fundamentally distinct”?

            I addressed “more” in this comment, arguing that moral parenting is a type of iterated negotiation. The less iterations into the process you are, the less information exists and the closer your expectation is to a blind guess of average. https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/02/06/everything-not-obligatory-is-forbidden/#comment-181510

            I don’t believe “fundamentally distinct” is supportable, but am willing to accept the implications of that. Altruistic infanticide is both conceivable and observable, particularly in the case where the alternative appears to be certain starvation.

          13. Wrong Species


            It’s pretty simple. There are two separate moral intuitions at work here. My “respect for human life” intuition says that you shouldn’t kill innocent people. My “consequentialism” intuition says that we should promote the greater good. I apply my “respect for human life” intuition to people(and yes, I consider a late term fetus to be a person) and my “consequentialism” intuition to early fetuses. You’re not going to convince me that infanticide is a good thing.

          14. Mary

            “It’s a hypothetical person. It has no actual desires”

            You have no actual desires in your sleep.

          15. Irrelevant


            Yes, and that is considered morally relevant when considering coma patients, pain-minimizing constructions of utilitarianism, and crimes and sins committed while sleepwalking. It’s even given some weight when assessing the heinousness of murders.

            I am comfortable concluding that it is wrong for you to suffocate me in my sleep, but in a significant sense less wrong than suffocating me while I’m awake and aware.

          16. Anonymous

            If you concede that smothering in your sleep is wrong even if not so wrong — well, by the rule propounded, it is no more wrong than your killing a Downs syndrome baby in utero.

            At an age, mind you, when premature birth could have rendered the possibility of abortion moot.

          17. Irrelevant

            by the rule propounded, it is no more wrong than your killing a Downs syndrome baby in utero.

            That is not the rule being propounded. The rule being propounded is that it’s OK to take a sleeping person, precisely record their mental state by a destructive process, clone them, do gene therapy on the clone that improves their IQ by an average of 50 points, and then input their recorded mental state into the clone. And we’re unable to extract explicit consent for the process for arbitrary reasons but we only do it when all their close relatives agree and every clone is grateful we did it after the fact.

            That’s what “fungibility” implies.

      1. Emile

        I think that’s mostly a hypothetical question, as once it’s practically feasible to avoid having kids with Downs, the vast majority of parents will do so, making it even rarer and thus even more unthinkable to not do so; whether we count it as “abuse” or not won’t have much of an impact on the trend.

    2. Randy M

      I’m not sure it is remotely feasible to do genetic engineering on non-babies, without the risk of releasing retroviruses into the wild free to mutate and such. Probably for a long time all genetic manipulation will be on the unaware, unless my bio knowledge is outdated.

      1. Daniel Speyer

        The standard for genetically modifying adults is to put the gene of interest into an otherwise empty adenovirus protein coat. The resulting “virus” doesn’t contain the dna to code for itself, and therefore does not reproduce. It won’t spread beyond the tissue its injected into unless you accidentally hit a major blood vessel, much less beyond the organism.

        1. Nornagest

          Out of curiosity: how does this target a particular segment of the DNA sequence? Or does it only work when you want to code for a de novo protein and don’t much care where it gets inserted?

          1. Anonymous

            Adenoviruses do not integrate their DNA into the genome of the cell, but rather simply deposit it into the nucleus where it is independently transcribed. So, yes, this sort of genetic modification is done through inserting code for new proteins rather than modifying existing ones. To get genes into the genome you need a retrovirus.
            Where in the genome it is inserted is hard to control when retroviruses are used, not so much for the expression of the new code as for the effects of disrupting something important, such as cancer-preventing genes. Thus retroviruses generally aren’t used where the wellbeing of the organism being modified is a consideration.

    3. William O. B'Livion

      How do you genetically engineer anything other than babies?

      The egg *generally* comes first.

    4. Ghatanathoah

      Here’s where I draw the line:

      It is good to genetically modify your child to give it abilities that will improve its ability to achieve its goals in life. It is bad to modify your child to change what its goals in life are.

      So yes to curing genetic diseases, no to making babies obedient. Extraversion is a gray area for me because I’m not sure to what extent introversion is caused by valuing frequent human contact less, and to what extent it is caused by being bad at frequent human contact.

      1. Mary

        As if there were a bright line. An inability to heed authority figures has enormous impacts on your ability to achieve your goals.

  60. JohnMcG

    Of course, one could write a similarly harrowing dystopia where we go to the other extreme, and society enforces absolutely zero norms on public behavior, how children should be raised, etc. Perhaps in this case, our Op-Ed writer is complaining that the public high school said their teenage daughter either had to wear clothes or go home, or the life gurards ordered thier undiapered diahrretic baby out of the local swimming pool, etc., demonstrating the increasing totalitarianism of the police state dictating how parents raise their children.

    So, right, nobody wants either extreme. We don’t want a future where parents are required to subject their children to any treatment that may improve public health, but we think society has the right to establish some requirements for those who participate.

      1. Wirehead Wannabe

        You misspelled “The universe becomes tiled with Quiverfulls who wanted to maximize their offspring so that their religion would take over the world.”

        Edited to add: this essay on why I’m terrified that this will actually become a serious problem. Imagine if this was combined with genetic engineering.

          1. Belabored Yearning

            I’m not so sure it’s inevitable in the Quiverfull sense. It’s imaginable that non-religious-fanatics could develop a highly pro-fertility culture and squeeze out the fanatics, or that governments might attempt to restrict individual fertility on a eugenic basis, or that technological advances in drugs which make people happily childfree might permanently outpace the rate of evolutionary change.

          2. jaimeastorga2000

            technological advances in drugs which make people happily childfree might permanently outpace the rate of evolutionary change.

            Doesn’t work unless you have a powerful singleton enforcing it. Otherwise genes or memes against trying the happy pills even once quickly reach fixation as all people who lack them die childfree.

          3. Irrelevant

            Or on the bright side, the future of the earth where we selected for highly forward-looking religious fanaticism is almost certainly preferable to the future where we selected for being too irresponsible to take your virtually-free and perfectly-effective birth control.

          4. maxikov

            There is one problem with this strategy: being a Quiverfull is not a hereditary trait, it’s acquired. Granted, parents are in a very privileged position to influence their children’s views, but there’s still no way to guarantee that they won’t deconvert. So here we’re talking about the evolution of memes, where humans are merely the environment rather than the subject of selection, and that can outdo centuries of Quiverfulls’ efforts within a decade.

          5. Sam

            Yes, and the Quiverfull movement has something like an 80% dropoff rate by the time the kids reach adulthood, because kids born in those households can also tell it’s fucking crazy. So I’m not super-worried about them overwhelming all the sane people just because they have lots of babies.

          6. Mai La Dreapta

            The Mormons are a better example, since their fertility does outpace their defection rate. The Amish, too. A future in which the majority of Americans are Amish or descended from the Amish seems pretty great to me.

          7. Mary

            that governments might attempt to restrict individual fertility on a eugenic basis,

            Thus becoming yet another selective pressure. I note that people with a high desire to have kids are the very ones who would evade such measures with the most vigor.

            or that technological advances in drugs which make people happily childfree might permanently outpace the rate of evolutionary change.

            No, it won’t, because that would merely put “humanity” on the infertile list. The planet will then belong to the fertile of another species.

          8. Eli

            Or we could just wait until the population pressure of the Quiverful’s over-reproduction causes them to go full ISIS and start massive wars for land and resources, then casually exterminate them as they throw themselves at us yelling the Sinner’s Prayer.

            Brutal, but hey, that’s nothing compared to living in a world split down the middle between Quiverful and ISIS.

            Or maybe all us smart people could just move to space colonies already.

    1. William O. B'Livion

      Right now we have a case here in Denver where a 17 year old Latina who was driving a stolen car may or may not have tried to run over a police officer and was shot and killed.

      One of the “activists” was arguing not only that “drive a stolen car shouldn’t get the death penalty”, but that she herself had boosted cars “when she was kid” (she is 26) with the sort of attitude that says there’s nothing wrong with that.

      There’s a video floating around where a *mother* acknowledges that her son breaks into houses and steals things, but he’s not violent and would *never* carry a gun–which he’d just been caught doing.

      So I think we’re on the cusp of a society where at least in certain places the limits on what is socially permissible are a lot wider than they really should be.

      1. JohnMcG

        I think this points to another dimension in play — the severity of the social sanction for not playing your part.

        What we seem to be considering now is ratcheting up the social sanction for not vaccinating (IMO, in a way that is unlikely to be effective).

        I think your examples aren’t so much about a general license for bad behavior, but questioning whether the consequences are proportional to the offense.

      2. Devilbunny

        The video you are mentioning is linked here. He wasn’t just carrying a gun – he was one of three teens who attempted armed robbery and killed the victim when she resisted.

  61. Michael Watts

    Kids with an IQ of 60 today are generally kept out of normal schools, and as far as I know most people think of that as the way it should be. I don’t see a big difference with trying to keep unenhanced kids out of the regular schools of 2065. That the unhenanced kids are substantially more impulsive and violent only makes things worse. Keeping your kids away from stupid, impulsive, and violent kids isn’t the story of 50 years from now, it’s the story of today.

    I do wonder why the children of enhanced parents need treatment themselves. 😉

    If I, as a (hypothetical) parent, raised my children so as to ensure that they were as far behind the population mean as the unenhanced children of 2065 — three standard deviations dumber, shorter, prone to drunkenness, etc; maybe I give them a little patch of land and restrict them to eating corn that they grow on it themselves, make sure they never get any iodine, and provide only vodka to drink — how many people would consider that child abuse?

    1. onyomi

      Even without designer babies I already am a bit concerned that we are probably moving towards a world in which the gap between the highest and lowest IQ individuals gets much bigger (and not just the extremes–I mean the difference between say, the top 25% and bottom 25%).

      This is because there seem to be a lot of broadly dysgenic trends: smarter, more responsible people having fewer children, but also the tendency for Ivy League schools now to act as high IQ dating services, given that they are now co-ed and much more meritocratic than in the past. Combined with designer babies, might this not, in a century or two, result in a world where the top 25% all have IQ 150 or higher, while the bottom 25% have IQ 70 or lower? And what then would society look like? It might not be all bad, in that maybe you’re happier doing a boring manual labor job at IQ 70 than IQ 100, but it would seem detrimental to all our fine notions about equality. How long before IQ 150+ people started enjoying legal privileges, in addition to the higher levels of respect they, to some extent, already enjoy?

      1. roystgnr

        “It might not be all bad, in that maybe you’re happier doing a boring manual labor job at IQ 70”

        Maybe, until you discover what those jobs will eventually pay: the amortized cost of a robot capable of the job plus the cost of the kilowatt or so needed to run that robot.

        The idea that you need to own enough capital to survive is a prehistoric one; it probably dates back to the first time a territorial animal peed on a tree… but we’ve now enjoyed centuries during which a new baby’s mere existence endowed it with a large sum of human capital, and the lower your IQ is the less time you may have before you see that fact revert back to the nasty brutish status quo.

      2. Michael Watts

        The society you describe is a caste system; the most prominent real-world analog is premodern (and modern, but a little less so) India. The most prominent fictional analog is Brave New World. I’d start with India if I really wanted to get into the question “what would that society look like?”

        A lot of people would tell you that, right now, high-income professionals and the rest of their social class (including, say, low-income artists) enjoy legal privileges that other people don’t. As I see it, a better description of the current state of affairs is that high-IQ people don’t really need special legal privileges to obtain better legal outcomes.

        1. Anonymous

          A quick googling for “Brahmin IQ” has stormfront and HBD blogs on the first page, which is a good indication that research into this topic would involve opening a huge and biased can of worms.

        1. Vulture

          Praiseworthily good, but I think the idea is that the normal model will become even worse of a fit, and the described gap will be present as hypothetically measured by current tests (think the Flynn effect).

        2. Jiro

          That result is not ruled out by Chebyshev’s Inequality. Chebyshev’s Inequality says that a certain amount of the distribution is within a certain number of standard deviations from the mean. If the distribution has peaks which are far from the mean, the standard deviation is correspondingly large, so the inequality is true but the distribution is not ruled out by it.

          1. haishan

            The joke is that IQ tests are deliberately normed so that the mean is 100 and the standard deviation is 15, so 25% of people having an IQ over 150 is indeed ruled out by a straightforward application of Chebyshev. As is 25% with an IQ of 70 or less, since there’s exactly one distribution where the equality holds for a given mean, s.d., and value of k.

          2. onyomi

            When I talk about IQs changing over time, I am talking about in comparison to some fixed standard, such as the average at some point and place in history, which, as Scott mentions elsewhere, is not an uncommon practice (how else could you say things like “average IQ has gone up in the past 100 years?”).

            I understand that, as it’s currently measured, average IQ is always 100, but quite frankly, I have no idea why one would want to use a system that makes meaningful comparison to times past difficult and confusing. Really, I think it should be changed to reflect what almost everyone already thinks IQ actually means, which is a measurement of certain cognitive abilities relative to a fixed standard, not relative to the rest of a given population.

          3. haishan

            onyomi: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I was making a snarky joke. I assumed outright writing “The joke is…” would have made that clear but I guess not.

            I understand that, as it’s currently measured, average IQ is always 100, but quite frankly, I have no idea why one would want to use a system that makes meaningful comparison to times past difficult and confusing.

            Difficult and confusing it is, but they still renorm IQ tests every couple of decades. To which I can only say: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      3. C.S.

        Combined with designer babies, might this not, in a century or two, result in a world where the top 25% all have IQ 150 or higher, while the bottom 25% have IQ 70 or lower?

        That’s going to happen anyway, even though US fertility trends are at present eugenic.

        Africa keeps having more and more people, and for $reasons they apparently have average IQ a lot lower, so the world you’re so scared off is going to happen inevitably barring designer babies.

      4. Tom Scharf

        It’s a good thing that high IQ people are being separated out. These same people used to work on farms 300 years ago and did little good for society or themselves.

        I have never understood this “drag the high IQ people down” mentality. I know you don’t mean it like this specifically, but the general thought is prevalent in the inequality arguments that many put out there.

        High IQ people do seek each other out and that is programmed into the DNA to breed with the strongest mate that is seen in many species. From a species advancement viewpoint, this is the optimal method. Wolves couldn’t care less about inequality in their society, so this is uniquely a human trait. Winning and losing the gene lottery isn’t fair, but it’s not clear whether trying to equalize this is a good idea. I doubt it.

        1. Nicholas

          I seem to recall some evidence that non-human animals engage in something like equality seeking. The two examples that come to mind are the primate tendency to form labor unions in currency-having societies and timberwolves to maintain a retirement social safety net.

      5. Eli

        Do you have any statistical evidence for a dysgenic effect occurring at all, let alone being traceable to social customs you happen to feel uncomfortable about?

    2. Nornagest

      It’s been better than a decade since I had to suffer through mandatory schooling, but when I was, there were kids with IQ 60 or lower in the same school as me. They did spend a lot of time in their own classes, but they were mainstreamed about as much as practical considerations dictated they could be; in middle school and earlier, it wasn’t uncommon for them to spend most of the day in regular classrooms. My understanding is that the trend since then has been towards increased integration, although I haven’t been following fashion there closely.

      (Note too that IQ 60 isn’t all that low on the scale of intellectual disability; your average Down syndrome patient scores around 50, and there are much worse conditions than Down syndrome.)

    3. Randy M

      “Kids with an IQ of 60 today are generally kept out of normal schools”
      I don’t have a good feel for what that translates to, but I suspect it isn’t true, after having been in special education classes held at a normal school recently.

      1. Nicholas

        It really depends. I worked in developmental disability support two years ago, and while many schools maintain special education staff on site, there was also a stand alone dd school that students who were from schools without appropriate staff could be sent to instead. Some students, to my understanding, were sent to the stand alone school from schools with support staff, because they were more disabled than the integrated classes viewed as within their capacity to help.

    4. Princess Stargirl

      I was already convinced that genetic enhancement should be mandatory (As described in the article). But your story of no iodine only vodka parenting makes things even clearer. That paragraph creates a horrific mental image. And not giving children sufficiently strong genetic enhancement is that bad or worse.

    5. Anonymous

      As far as I know, the issue of special ed integration is not settled at all.

      This entire debate makes me more than a little uncomfortable from a disability rights perspective. I’m not sure what to think about legislation trying to stop people like me from being born.

    6. Deiseach

      I do wonder why the children of enhanced parents need treatment themselves.

      Because there is always going to be tweaking with the enhancements. Yes, the last round meant every baby grew up to be 6′ 2″ with an IQ of 140, but if you don’t enhance your baby with the newest treatment, they will only be 6′ 2″ with 140 IQ* while everyone else’s enhanced baby will be 6′ 6″ with IQ of 150 and this means your kids will only be able to get a job supervising the robots that sweep the streets.

      Don’t you want your children to have all the advantages they will need! Studies show taller people have advantages in the workplace and socially! How will a 6′ 2″ person be able to compete for promotions on an equal playing field when it’s a 6′ 6″ world out there?

      * Because that will be the downside of the enhancements – they do exactly what it says on the tin, and over-ride any ‘natural’ expression of genes that might let two 6′ 2″ parents have a baby that grows up to be only 5′ 11″ – or 6′ 4″.

  62. DrBeat

    I’m not sure if the message I got from this is the message you wanted me to get from this, given how ga-ga other people around here tend to be for transhumanism.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I predict half the people will think I’m arguing against vaccination, half will think I’m arguing for mandatory designer babies, and a rare few wonderful people will understand that raising awareness of cases where our intuitions conflict is its own reward.

      1. Shmi Nux

        Not being one of the “rare few wonderful”, I was totally sure you are arguing for eugenics (well, genetic design), so the title quote from TH White (?) confused me.

        1. Deiseach

          What, you didn’t see the media post where someone was arguing that sure, maybe parents have the right not to vaccinate their kids, but if they’re willing to forego the public good (by threatening herd immunity), then they should also be willing to forego public goods – like letting their children out in public, go to public schools, etc.

          That’s what Dr Mora was arguing about not letting un-super enhanced ‘natural’ kids in school or on the roads 🙂

          1. Jiro

            Deiseach: That is another case where the reasoning doesn’t depend on the relative tradeoffs. Imagine if vaccination had a large chance of seriously harming the kid being vaccinated–you could still make that public good argument. “If you’re willing to avoid contributing to the public good just because the vaccination has a 1/10 chance of killing your kid, then you should be prohibited from using other public goods like schools, public areas, etc.”

          2. ad

            if they’re willing to forego the public good (by threatening herd immunity), then they should also be willing to forego public goods

            If you can stop individual people from getting it, it is not a public good. It is a good provided by the state, which need not be the same thing.

            And ultimately, it is hard to solve the free-rider problem without in some way punishing free riders. If you can come up with such a solution, we can eliminate the tax system. Because right now, force is how we get people to pay for public goods.

          3. Eugine_Nier

            Well, in keeping with the theme of the parent, I’d like to point out that having kids go to public school (or at least some school) is in fact normally mandatory.

          4. David Friedman

            One point that gets ignored in arguments about whether vaccination or the like should be mandatory is that externalities are a matter of degree. Almost everything we do has at least some external effects, positive or negative. But if I am paying 99% of the cost of a decision and getting 100% of the benefit, the decision that is optimal for me will almost always be optimal for us. Given that individuals are much better at making decisions for themselves than the political system is at making decisions for them, that’s a strong argument for leaving such a decision unregulated.

            The argument is a lot weaker if I am paying 10% of the cost or getting only 10% of the benefit. So in all of these arguments, one wants to ask not only “is there an external cost or benefit to my action” but also “how large is it relative to the private costs and benefits?”

            In the case of vaccination, my guess is that most of the benefit goes to the kid and his parents, and only a small fraction to others. There is no benefit to either unless, if unvaccinated, he would have gotten infected. If he does get infected, in a world where most of those around him are vaccinated and so highly, although not perfectly, resistant, he suffers the disease with certainty (aside from the special case of carriers), and it is possible but not terribly likely that someone else catches it from him and suffers.

            But I don’t have any data–this is all speculation.

          5. Nita


            having kids go to public school (or at least some school) is in fact normally mandatory

            Not in the USA.

      2. DrBeat

        You do seem to be a pretty pro-designer-baby kinda guy, though. It sure seems like a natural outgrowth of a lot of the other things you have said.

        I think that the moral quandaries of the obligation to have designer babies are not at all comparable to the obligation to vaccinate because there is a huge difference between preventing something bad from happening and causing something good to happen. And there’s a lot more things we can all agree are bad than we can all agree are good.

        1. Scott Alexander Post author

          I mean, I am pro voluntary designer babies, although I’m only confident about this in cases where it’s clear enhancement (eg giving kids genes that make them healthier) and not control (eg giving kids genes that make them want to always do what their parents say).

          I don’t think I’m pro mandatory designer babies. You might be able to convince me depending on the exact details of the situation. But it probably wouldn’t be through an argument like this.

          That “transhumanism is simplified humanism” post at the bottom explains where I’m coming from pretty well.

          1. Wrong Species

            But you’re a utilitarian right? By utilitarian reasoning, it seems like the greater good would be achieved by forcing every parent to raise their kids IQ as much as possible. Isn’t that similar to your beliefs on vaccines?

            Edit: I also agree with Dr. Beat. The benefits to vaccines are enormously positive and the negatives are small. The difference with GE is that benefits are still good but the negatives are horrifying.

          2. DrBeat

            And I think the conflicting moral intuition here is not due to a flaw in moral reasoning, it’s the too-often-ignored possibility that people are being lied to.

            My moral intuition says that mandatory vaccination is good, and mandatory designer babies that the author assures me are just universally-positive things that can’t be misused and there is no reason not to take, are bad. I don’t think this is an example of me just thinking the things that are already here are good and things that are new are evil (as you imply with the end of your article), I think this is my reaction to the possibility the author is lying to me about how impossible these enhancements are to misuse.

            You can’t separate the moral intuition about enhancement-only designer babies and about control-oriented designer babies because trusting anyone who says they will only provide the former will just end up with you getting the latter.

          3. Randy M

            Someone who has the authority to mandate vaccines and the ability to produce genetic changes with an injection, and the inclination to misuse the latter, can do so in the guise of the former, and thus you should oppose both if that is your rationale.

          4. vV_Vv

            I am pro voluntary designer babies …

            I don’t think I’m pro mandatory designer babies. You might be able to convince me depending on the exact details of the situation. But it probably wouldn’t be through an argument like this.

            A society where voluntary designer babies are allowed but not mandated would be quite unequal and arguably unfair:
            if genetic enhancement works as good as you described, then whether you are enhanced or not would be probably the stronger causal variable affecting of your quality of life. It would be pretty unfair if it depended on the whim of your parents.

            Moreover, as you note in your post, unenanched people would be a cost to the society.

            Also, such a society would probably have lots of discrimination against the unenhanced, a la Gattaca. What enhanced person in their right mind would ever want to interact with the stupid and violent unenhanced people?

            Assuming that you support mandatory vaccination, I can’t see why you have conflicting intuitions about mandatory genetic enhancement.

            Maybe I will understand your reasoning better if you tell me your position on infant male circumcision and infant female genital mutilation.
            In these cases, the decision harmful to the child is active rather than passive (but this shouldn’t matter to an utilitarian) and the level of harm inflicted is different, but they are otherwise similar scenarios.

          5. Anonymous

            I think we should hold off on tinkering with the genes of humans until we can say successfully do the same with dogs; better capacity to alter genes doesn’t entail better judgement in doing so and we don’t want to ingrain our descendants with pernicious disease as we strive for more superficial or easily measurable traits. It’s easy to say that you’re pro “clear enhancement” but harder to correctly identify it, and harder to rigorously enforce it.

          6. Anthony

            @Wrong species

            By utilitarian reasoning, it seems like the greater good would be achieved by forcing every parent to raise their kids IQ as much as possible.

            Define “good”. Would the children be happier? (Probably, but not definitely.) Would society actually be happier?

            What if the Great Filter is reaching a level of intelligence where it’s so obvious that life is meaningless and pointless that everyone at that level either commits suicide, or refuses to reproduce? (And reaching that level is generally easier than achieving interstellar travel.)

          7. Tom Scharf

            “A society where voluntary designer babies are allowed but not mandated would be quite unequal and arguably unfair”

            I don’t think so.

            A society where there wasn’t equal opportunity to get a designer baby would be unfair.

            If a parent chooses to not enhance a baby, then the reason the baby faces an unfair world is because it’s parents actively chose to make it so. The baby will suffer for its parent’s choices, as we see in our society every single day. In my view, people have the inalienable right to be stupid. Society has a burden to try to prevent this, but not through force in most cases.

            Many parents already choose to give their children unfair advantages such as proper diet, reading to them, and providing proper role models. The fix for this isn’t banning a proper diet.

            Unfortunately the most likely scenario is that gene modification and super babies will be very expensive when the technology is first developed and only available to wealthy people. Only wealthy people had cell phones at one time. The technology will become available to all eventually but there will be a super baby gap for a while.

          8. vV_Vv

            A society where there wasn’t equal opportunity to get a designer baby would be unfair.

            Getting a designer baby doesn’t primarily benefit the parents, it primarily benefits the child.
            Therefore, a society where getting a designer baby is allowed but not mandatory, people would not have equal opportunity to get the genetic enhancement which would be critical for their functioning in the society.

            In my view, people have the inalienable right to be stupid. Society has a burden to try to prevent this, but not through force in most cases.

            People have the right to make stupid choices, as long as the harm of their choices falls upon themselves, and even this right is not unlimited (seat belts and helmets are mandatory, for instance). The right to inflict harm on their children for their stupid choices is much more limited.

            There are trade offs with religious liberties and enforcement difficulty, but as a general principle parents are allowed to harm their children.

            For instance, infant female genital mutilation is an uncontroversial case in most countries: some parents, for traditional reasons want to cut various pieces of their daughters’ genitals. We say fuck them, the child’s right to bodily integrity trumps the right of her parents to practice on her their barbaric traditional rituals.
            Infant male genital mutilation is generally allowed, since it is part of endogenous traditions/religions, but it is increasingly perceived as controversial.
            Vaccinations are more or less mandatory in various jurisdictions.

          9. Tom Scharf

            I agree that the right to be stupid has limitations, and that is always where it gets sticky. No matter where you draw the line, it will be gray, not black and white.

            My philosophy is to always allow stupidity until it starts harming others. But public education needs to do their best to prevent self destructive behavior. For example, it would be appropriate for schools to give a detailed explanation of immunization now versus only a cursory discussion 10 years ago. Stupidity is a moving target as we all know.

          10. David Friedman

            “it seems like the greater good would be achieved by forcing every parent to raise their kids IQ as much as possible.”

            Are you assuming that increased IQ has net positive effects for other people? It might result in your curing cancer, but it might also result in your doing a better job of swindling other people.

            If there are no net positive externalities, the usual rule of assuming people make better decisions for themselves and their children than other people would make for them applies.

          11. Wrong Species

            David Friedman, I think the positives of that policy would easily outweigh the negatives. Curing cancer would save millions, maybe billions of lives. A substantial number of people would have to be pretty awful people to offset that. But you’re right that I don’t really know the consequences of that policy so I probably wouldn’t support it.

          12. Citizensearth

            @Scott, I originally thought one of the points of the post was to say that there’s not actually going to be a practical difference between voluntary and mandatory designer babies. And that therefore we ought to have a careful, calm, fact-based discussion about what was ok and what wasn’t, rather than pretending people will be making isolated choices. Doesn’t feel likely. It’s already beginning to feel like your regular polarised political “debate”. 🙁

            Are you open to shifting on the simplified-humanism transhumanism at all? My reason for asking is that article is basically a refutation of one fallacious attack of transhumanism (“its too simple”), but then that refutation is presented as a reason to believe in transhumanism. “X was unfairly attacked one time, so X is true”. Even if “it’s too simple” was a bad heuristic (and I’m not sure it is, because every moral issue I’ve seen is pretty complex), it’s seems like kind of a bad reason to adopt a position.

            “If you take common sense and rigorously apply it”
            Oh man, I particularly winced in this part. I don’t know why, but some people in the rationalist crowd seem to feel its ok abandon logic and evidence in favour “common sense”, just because they’re crossing the border into the humanities (Yudkowsky is obviously not silly). Standards of rigour ought to apply to all important topics.

            If I’m not coming across to obnoxiously, I’d definitely love to put forward some alternative positions.

          13. TheAncientGeek

            “Also, such a society would probably have lots of discrimination against the unenhanced, a la Gattaca. What enhanced person in their right mind would ever want to interact with the stupid and violent unenhanced people?”

            It would have as much discrimination as it allows itself to have. I don’t think you can guess how libertarian or egalitarian it would be. You are not allowed to discriminate about people’s genes vis a vis race and sex in the current US.

            ” If a parent chooses to not enhance a baby, then the reason the baby faces an unfair world is because it’s parents actively chose to make it so. The baby will suffer for its parent’s choices, as we see in our society every single day. In my view, people have the inalienable right to be stupid. Society has a burden to try to prevent this, but not through force in most cases.”

            Its hard to prevent unfairness at source, and idoing so often involves unacceptable levels of force,but there is another approach: compensate for unfairness after the fact. Tax the purchase of unfair advantages and redistribute the money in assistance programmes.

        2. Michael Watts

          I think the reason the moral quandaries of the obligation to have designer babies aren’t usually explored is because it isn’t contemplated that someone wouldn’t want to. Or rather, it isn’t contemplated that the people who do want to wouldn’t quickly take over society and wipe out the conservatives. It’s like the moral obligation to own guns if you’re a new guinea tribesman during the time of initial european contact.

          1. Tom Scharf

            Proper enhancement techniques will allow you to take the red pill or the blue pill.

            Imagine the arguments over what the proper social enhancements should be. Anti-gay genes should be illegal! Pro-gun genes are banned! Small government genes are for the ill informed and should be forced to have a permanent elephant tattoo on their head! Women must be of equal strength! Large breasts are outlawed! What a field day the social justice warriors would be having.

        3. Mary

          Genetic enhancement can backfire as badly as vaccines ever could. Or worse.

          the first is when you, say, enhance the immune system, and they all die horribly of autoimmune diseases.

          The second is when the gene actually codes for several things, and turns out one makes children sociopaths, a fact learned a little too late to stop producing a lot of them.

          Or everyone codes their babies for cheerful, happy, optimistic, and society lacks the sourpusses to put a damper on idiocies.

      3. Abel Molina

        I take it as pointing to an audience for compulsory vaccination what some of the supporting arguments can be extrapolated to in a hypothetical situation. Thus challenging the readers to see whether they would apply the argument there too, and if not, to figure out if they are being contradictory. Feels like a fun challenge. Debate about actual designer babies feels a bit off the point, and should probably start with actual studies about the topic and not the imagined ones that make the extrapolation compelling.

        1. Belabored Yearning

          Woops, yeah, I also presumed that the “obvious” interpretation was that Scott was pointing out, via an imaginary parallel situation, that the arguments being made about vaccination are not as uncomplicatedly beneficent as we might like to think.

          Now I’m just confused. But that seems to be a fine state of mind to inhabit.

        2. ryan

          On the topic of evidence, this article says that in Europe it seems to make no difference to vaccination rates whether they’re mandatory or not:


          Factors like access to health care, government health resources and the like seem to explain most of the variation in vaccination rates.

          And a possible hypothesis then is that the way to maximize vaccination rates is to make them widely available and free.

          1. Anonymous

            You have to be careful about what is mandatory as opposed to “mandatory,” but the difference between America and Europe is that vaccines really are mandatory in America, enforced by schools, as your link says.

      4. Anonymous

        “rare few” being folks who read Three Worlds Collide and are now inoculated against too hastily taking sides in hypothetical-future-fiction

        1. Daniel H

          I read TWC and actually had none of the above thoughts. I thought of how other people would interpret this article clearly not how Scott intended, also none of those thoughts.

          Specifically, I thought “People will misread this as an example of how developing voluntary genetic engineering will be a slippery slope to people writing something like this”, and how this feeling would be enhanced by knowing the author is sympathetic to (if not necessarily supportive of) the view expressed.

        1. haishan

          “What conflict? Jabbing kids full of mercury is intuitively dangerous, giving them retroviruses to reprogram their DNA is intuitively dangerous.”

          (yes, I know that we don’t actually use thimerosal [also, why do we call it that in the US instead of the much more obvious thiomersal?] in most kids’ vaccines anymore — unless we actually do and the government is covering it up to further its nefarious motives of a neuroatypical majority by 2100 or whatever — but that’s not really the point)

          1. ilzolende

            I, uh, kind of do like the idea of a neurodivergent/neuroatypical majority by 2100? Not enough to tamper with things, but it sounds intuitively great to have lots of the population be similar to me, and to have my access needs be the assumed default. I’m not involved in vaccines at all, other than getting them, so don’t be concerned.

          2. vV_Vv


            The type of autism that the anti-vaxers are talking about is low-functioning autism, which can be diagnosed at an early age, not high-functioning autism, Asperger’s, being a nerd, etc.

          3. injygo

            @vV_Vv There’s not really a sharp line between low-functioning autism and what you call “being a nerd”. See this essay for a better explanation than I can summon right now.

          4. ilzolende


            I was diagnosed sometime between 4 and 6. (I still haven’t been allowed to see my own medical records, so I can’t give more detail.) I can pass for NT a lot (thank you, mock trial training), but I have dealt with crashes/meltdowns caused by sensory & stress overloads, self-injurious behavior, and very rare aphasia incidents, just not as much as other autistic people have. It’s a difference in degree, not in kind.

          5. DisfunctionalMachina

            @vV_Vv @neurodivergent @ilzolende @injygo

            The vaccine issue is more complex than that and relates to epigenetic effects. Unfortunately, due to everyone “talking down” the issue, the only dialog we have is Anti-vacers (shoddy vaccines are destroying our children) and Pro-herd immunity vacers (god says we’re right.).

            My mother was given a measles vaccine when she was, unknowingly, pregnant with me. The doctor scheduled her for an abortion. According to them, I was going to be born blind, retarded, or autistic. I am a “super genius” firmly on the autistic spectrum. I have a ton of “little” health issues – all of which are related to epigentic triggers.

            My niece is autistic and she was vaccinated with the multiple vaccination shot. And, to be frank, there’s a lot of evidence regarding genetic family histories like this that never get talked about at all. There’s abundant evidence that there’s something “there”. But, unfortunately, we are not likely to ever seriously discuss it.

            For me, the societal upshot is that we should not have measles or polio. And, that the massive uptick in autism spectrum and somatic effective disorders gets a serous look. But, if we have to be expedient and choose ‘just one’. Then it seems to me that herd immunity ought to win out, regardless of the negative impact on families like mine.

          6. ryan

            A neuroatypical majority is a fun idea because it’s technically a contradiction in terms but also something one can understand.

          7. Neike Taika-Tessaro

            @ryan: Hmm, is it a contradiction, though? Wouldn’t it be possible to have a neuroatypical majority by having, say, 40% of all people be the neurotypical base-line, 30% of all people be of a neuroatypical variety A and 30% of all people be of a neuroatypical variety B? (That’s definitely not meant to be a rhetorical question, by the way – I’m only bilingual, not a pure native speaker, so some subtleties of the word ‘typical’ could easily be invisible to me.)

          8. Irrelevant


            “Typical” implies more than being the largest plurality in a category. It implies that the trait is prevalent in the category to the point that it is, though not logically necessary to membership, very strongly associated with belonging to the category.

            So it makes sense to make statements like: The typical swan is white. The typical snake has one head. The typical human can recognize, distinguish, and recall human faces. The typical family residing in Beijing does not have four blonde girls. The typical child does not weep with sorrow whenever they are forced to stop playing their piano. Black swans, two-headed snakes, face-blindness, expatriates, and musical savants are all conceivable variations within the listed categories, but they are surprising variations.

            It does not, by contrast, make sense to make statements like “The typical flower is yellow.” or “The typical human is Christian.” because, while I expect to see lots of yellow flowers and lots of Christian humans, it is in no way a shock to find exceptions.

            So, no, a population that was split roughly evenly between three highly distinct mental state would not have a typical mental state.

          9. Tracy W

            So it makes sense to make statements like: The typical swan is white.

            Having grown up in New Zealand, it took me ages to work out what the black swan metaphor meant. I kept reading things like “black swans are everywhere” and thinking “yeah, so”?

      5. lmm

        I think we learn more when people take positions – or at least are unambiguous about their uncertainty.

        (I took the post at its word, and agreed with it)

      6. Princess Stargirl

        Where is the conflict? Parents should be forced to give their children sufficiently valuable treatments. The way you described the treatments they are incredibly important. So its a slam dunk that the parents should have no choice.

        The case for vaccines is considerably less clear. But in my opinion vaccines clear the bar for being mandatory. Imo anyone who thinks vaccines are even close to important enough to be mandatory should be 100% convinced that genetic enhancement (as in the article) should be mandatory.

        1. Alexander Stanislaw

          Intuitions are funny. People generally see preventing something bad as much more mandatory than causing something good of equal magnitude.

        2. William O. B'Livion

          And what about people who really don’t want to give anyone else the authority to determine what is good for them?

          After all, there are quite a few people who think that the evidence that eating vegan is “sufficiently valuable” that we should all be forced to eat that way.

          And there are a quite a few people who think that being Christian (or Muslim) is sufficiently valuable to your eternal soul that there’s no reason *not* to be forced to live that way.

          Yeah, no problems *at all* with giving someone else that authority.

          Freedom doesn’t mean “You have the right to make correct choices”, it means “You can chose to be evil”.

          Oh, and tell me again how Ulcers are caused?

          Do note that I am (or was) a needle-phobe (to the point where I kept 2 copies of my innoculation records JUST IN CASE) and I have *every* vaccine that I was able to get, and have done so with my daughter, and if it’s still considered safe she’ll get the HPV vaccine on time, so it’s not like I’m anti-vax, and I don’t know how far I’d have been willing to go in “upgrading” my kid, but I’d certainly have listened to the sales pitch.

          1. Princess Stargirl

            Imo there is no escape from conflict. If you really believe with high confidence that eternal damnation awaits non-Muslims then you really shouldn’t tolerate people arguing against Islam. You should not sit back and let someone damn more people to hell.

            My opinion is one should tolerate people making mistakes unless the mistakes are very severe. And we are confident that the mistakes are really mistakes. Imo this gets you quite far. For example one might believe drugs are bad. But its much harder to argue drugs are extremely bad and we know this with high confidence.

            However yes if someone has very inaccurate factual beliefs my ideology supports them doing bad things. But I do not think this can be avoided.

          2. Jiro

            Stargirl: You probably believe with high confidence that there are people in Africa who would be dead unless someone buys them malaria nets. Publically arguing that we should not buy such people malaria nets is likely to lead to them dying in the same way that publically arguing against Islam is, to a believer, likely to lead people to go to eternal damnation. If the Muslim is morally required to not tolerate people arguing against Islam, does that mean that you would be morally required to not tolerate people arguing against malaria nets?

          3. Corwin

            The Muslim is morally required to not tolerate people arguing against Islam because of what Islam says. That is at least circular logic.

            Altruism does not require to not tolerate people arguing against giving people malaria nets. Intuitively, altruism would even require to tolerate people arguing against itself.

          4. Jiro

            Corwin: The argument isn’t “Muslims shouldn’t tolerate people arguing against Islam because Islam tells you not to tolerate people arguing against it”. The argument is “Muslims shouldn’t tolerate people arguing against Islam because since non-Muslims get eternal suffering, tolerating such a thing makes it more likely that people will suffer eternally, and doing things that make people suffer is really bad”.

            That could equally well apply to other things–we shouldn’t tolerate someone arguing against malaria nets because malaria nets prevent suffering, so tolerating such arguments will make it more likely that people will suffer.

          5. houseboatonstyx

            In 2064 there were almost 200 murders nationwide, up from a low of fewer than 50 in 2060. [….] Criminologists are unanimous in laying the blame on unenhanced children [….]
            There were over a dozen fatal car accidents on our nation’s roads last year. The problem is drivers who weren’t enhanced as children [….]

            If the large majority of US drivers by 2060 were enhanced as children under 10, and the driver pool includes drivers up to the age of 70, it must have been widely available since 1990, and at least somewhat available since 1980.

            Enhancement schenhancement, such a project happening here in secret would require too big a conspiracy. So likely it happened elsetrack, and Scott is an early model, planted here here for some unknowably brilliant reason.

        3. HeelBearCub

          Princess Stargirl, I’m finding this really hard to square with your advocation for the elimination/nerfing of the regulatory power of the FDA on the suboxone thread the other day.

          I don’t understand how in one thread you can argue for eliminating the function of the FDA that ensures efficacy and safety, and in another argue for genetic therapy by government mandate. Maybe I am missing something.

          1. Princess Stargirl

            The FDA faces very bad incentives. So its not shocking the FDA is incompetent. I certainly do not want the FDA deciding what is allowed/banned/mandatory. Given that the FDA is likely to ban alot of gentic enhancement it should be clear the FDA and I do not agree.

            I stated what I think the laws should be. I have no idea for how this would be implemented politically. Since the vast majority of people disagree with me strongly my ideas are not getting implemented anytime soon.

            Though I do think some number of Asian countries will keep genetic enhancement legal. And this will eventually force the rest of the nations to allow it or get badly left behind.

          2. HeelBearCub

            Stargirl, that is an argument for changing how the FDA does its function, not an argument for eliminating the function.

            How can you decide what to make mandatory unless you study the costs and benefits? And the inverse is also true, how can you decide what is allowed unless you study the costs and benefits.

            I assume that you are against allowing companies to put lead in paint or gasoline or other consumer products which are likely to lead to lead ingestion directly or indirectly. This is the “pro-environmental regulation” stance you professed earlier.

            But this is merely the function of studying harms and efficacy. Why is it different for pharmaceuticals than other consumer products? “I only rarely would like the government to ban something or make it mandatory” is very different from “I would like to eliminate the government from the role of assessing efficacy and saftey”.

          3. Princess Stargirl

            Ok yes I concede if the current FDA is making the laws then I am for parents rights.

            However I could imagine a decent government agency. If this existed (maybe because of genetic enhancement making people smarter) then I am not for parents rights.

          4. Tom Scharf

            Princess Girl,

            “decent government agency” = one that aligns with your values.

            Your decent government agency may not be decent in another’s view, and not because they are “wrong” and you are “right”.

            For example, I personally think the FDA does a decent job of what it was intended to do. And this is from decades of interaction with them on the design and development of medical devices. A world in which anyone can hook up unregulated and untested instruments to me in a surgical suite isn’t a preferred world of mine.

            I’m not a fan of some of the FDA’s rules and regulations, but the answer is not FDA anarchy. When you learn why certain rules were put in place, they do make sense. Some, not so much.

          5. David Friedman

            Apropos of BearCub’s exchange with the Princess …

            I think it’s important to distinguish between arguments for outcomes and arguments for institutions. One may believe that a particular outcome which could be, even which had been, produced by an institution is good but disapprove of the institution, on the grounds that you expect its average effects to be bad.

            Taking the specific institution being discussed, one may believe both that the decision to ban Thalidomide was very good and that the same institutions that made it possible also made it possible for the FDA to delay the introduction of beta-blockers, causing an excess mortality of about a hundred thousand lives. If so, it becomes unclear whether giving the FDA the power that made both decisions possible was a good or bad idea.

            To take a more general version, you may believe both that it’s a mistake for parents not to vaccinate their kids and that it’s a mistake to take decisions like that out of the hands of parents.

        4. Mary

          Thank you, we’ve seen that. “Parents should be forced to give their children sufficiently valuable treatments,” being in the passive voice, leaves out the most important criterion: who are these paragons of virtue and wisdom who get to force valuable treatments.

          Involuntary eugenic sterilizations were deemed an excellent and progressive use of that rule.

          1. Anonymous

            It looks like widespread social pressure being spearheaded by intellectuals using local government is the way this thought experiment imagines it. Basically the same way as dealing with anti-vaxxers.

        5. Anonymous

          But in my opinion vaccines clear the bar for being mandatory

          I genuinely don’t think many people could come to this conclusion if they knew what vaccines actually do – that is, that they are responsible at the very most for the last few percentage points of decline in infectious disease mortality over the past century. People seem to think that without vaccines we’d be back in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, which is at least 90% nonsense.

          If you knew that and you still think vaccines should be mandatory, then you should certainly think that exercise and caloric restriction should be mandatory, and smoking and alcohol banned, as the benefits there are incomparably huge.

          1. Jiro

            Smkoing causes a lot of harm, but the harm caused by banning it is also larger than for mandating vaccination.

            If smoking and drinking were a thing that smokers and drinkers did a couple of times in their lifetime, you might have a point.

          2. Tom Scharf

            It really just depends on the specifics of the vaccine. Some are obviously better than others. The argument over whether vaccines en masse should be mandated or voluntary isn’t really very interesting.

            In my view, the bulk of the losers from not taking a measles vaccine are likely those who didn’t take it and got measles. So it is a self resolving problem over the long term. Once a big group of anti-vax parent’s kids actually get measles because they are sufficient in number to no longer have herd immunity, they will learn the hard way.

            I understand there are some exceptions who can’t take a vaccination.

        6. Tom Scharf

          “Where is the conflict? Parents should be forced to give their children sufficiently valuable treatments.”

          Ummmmm…we can start with who gets to decide what is a “sufficiently valuable treatment”.

          When people make statements like this, they always imagine a world in which those imposing such treatments have the same values as themselves. They are never the ones who are being held against a wall against their will and getting a needle shoved into them.

          Give me liberty or give me death (unless of course I was given the anti-liberty shot as a baby which made me sufficiently passive toward government).

          1. Justin

            Are you also against mandatory public education? What about child abuse laws? The problem with your line of reasoning “It’s an assault on my freedom” is the same as any issue regarding children and freedom, the children are the ones who end up paying the price for parents’ assholery. It isn’t a infringing the parents’ rights so much as preventing them from infringing on the rights of others.

            On the other hand, I do share an extremely healthy wariness on many issues for the reasons you stated. The question of “Who gets to decide?” derails many otherwise great plans.

            I obviously don’t think is a valid excuse to remove any form of control on parents. Life is one big messy patch of grey, but the proper response isn’t to move as far to one side as possible in an attempt to find clarity.

            You have to muddle through the muck and accept that sometimes things will go awry. With these kind of issues we need to be especially vigilant to prevent misuse, and should examine very closely the motivations, drawbacks and benefits of any proposed childhood mandates.

            To insist that the potential for misuse precludes any pragmatic application of childhood mandates though is almost a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

          2. Tom Scharf

            I agree with you. You can even make exceptions for the fringe with things like home schooling. Usually if you give people options on how to reach a goal (education) it will be enough. When you mandate exactly how it must be done it can get blow back.

            Quite frankly I was under the impression immunization for certain diseases was mandatory. It was when I put my kids in school a decade ago.

            This is probably one of those areas where a simple majority opinion is not a good enough level to institute government mandates. A superset of 2/3rds would be fine by me.

          3. Tracy W

            Are you also against mandatory public education?

            Firstly, I think parents have a right to put their kids in private schools.

            Secondly with mandatory education, you can always reject the values you were taught at school, for example, see how women picked up on feminism, or the rise of atheism in Europe even though Christianity was taught at school (or possibly because Christianity was taught at school.)
            Rejecting many medical treatments when you reach adult hood is harder.

      7. Jiro

        One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Pointing out that the arguments for vaccination can be used for designer babies could mean you are speaking against vaccination (to people who oppose designer babies), or for designer babies (to people who support mandatory vaccination). It’s not surprising, then, that some of your audience will pick one and some of your audience will pick the other.

        Of course, this assumes the situations are comparable. Like many others here, I am skeptical that genetic engineering of babies will actually be as safe, effective, free of side effects, and honestly intentioned as vaccination is today.

        1. 27chaos

          Side effects is the biggest one I see. I am cautious about genetic engineering because I don’t want it to slowly turn humans into biological versions of Hanson’s ems. Also, I don’t want it to be something that only the super rich do.

          1. Princess Stargirl

            I find it unlikely genetic enhancement gets you to hanson’s ems. The initial people are going to be super rich. This is going to be very, very unpleasant for society imo.

            However eventually the benefits will spread to most of society.

          2. Tom Scharf

            The technology is inevitable. You could ban it in the US, but the Korean’s and Chinese may not, and when they start winning all the Nobel Prizes and figure out FTL travel, well that ban will be lifted. It’s an ethical decision until the US starts falling behind and suffering consequences.

            At a very high level the Internet has us on a path of effectively becoming a very large new organism with extensive shared group knowledge and so forth. That’s the most likely path IMO.

          3. David Friedman

            “The initial people are going to be super rich. This is going to be very, very unpleasant for society imo. ”

            Why are you confident of that? Giving my children desirable characteristics might impose costs on other people, but it might also provide benefits. If the latter, then they effect might be both an increase in inequality and an increase in the welfare of the mass of the population.

            Do you think the world would be a better place if one could somehow give all the super rich a treatment that lowered their IQ by twenty points? Their children’s IQ? If not, why would preventing them from raising IQ be desirable?

        2. Mary

          It will eventually, in all probability. After all, our safe vaccinations leave behind a trail littered with corpses and cripples, but –we got here.

      8. Kiya

        I think the difference in popular intuitions between the two cases arises mostly because vaccines are an established technology that nearly everyone considers proven unambiguously good, whereas genetic engineering of humans is a hypothetical technology that we can’t know the exact effects of until we try it. I don’t think the 2065 editorial’s position is unreasonable within the 2065 society it describes.

        The rest of the discrepancy, I’d attribute to the genetic engineering in question being mind-affecting — always scarier than externalizable things like disease prevention. Change my genes so I have 10% less risk of cancer, and I’ll be like “Cool thanks.” Change my genes so I have +10 IQ, and I’ll be like “What did you do?! Am I the same person anymore?! What side effects might that have had on the way I think and feel? Not okay.”

        1. William O. B'Livion

          I think a significant number of people want to have children that are *theirs* and that the more you monkey with the genes (yes, I see what I did there) the less “theirs” it is.

          And yes, there are plenty of counter-examples. My parents never had any children that lived (endometriosis IIRC), so they adopted. My father was much better about it than my mom (or my mom is just a cold fish, whatever, she did her best).

          1. David Friedman

            At a slight tangent on people having children that are theirs …

            My favorite proposal along these lines is the technology in one of Heinlein’s early novels, that lets parents choose, among the children they might have, which ones they do have. It’s done by selecting separately on egg and sperm, with a very clever solution to the problem of doing genetic analysis without destroying what you are analyzing.

      9. Anonymous

        I thought, “I have no idea what Scott is arguing here. Guess I’ll know when the punchline comes.”

        And then I though, “Well, shit.”

      10. RCF

        I don’t see much connection between “intuition gives one answer in one situation, and a different answer in a different situation” and “intuition conflicts”.

      11. Mary

        I know the feeling. I’ve been putting forth anti-vax arguments because I’ve found blog comment sections rife with people who don’t realize there are trade-offs. Or don’t care.

        Or think they can solve ’em all by saying that unvaccinated children are not allowed in public.

      12. Omegaile

        I was one of the third half that although both thoughts passed on my mind, they didn’t make sense by the end of the piece. So I got confused by not understanding the meaning, and went to the comments to see an explanation.

      13. maxikov

        But there’s no need to think about the world of future to illustrate it; we already have a perfect example: genetic screening and aborting embryos with Down syndrome. Pro-lifers could have made a case that it’s as bad as killing people with Down syndrome, but for pro-lifers, who are supposes to equally value an embryo and gametes, it should be equivalent to taking a pill that would guarantee that your kids won’t have it, which is also equivalent to curing the newborn from it. Furthermore, failing to do so is equivalent to giving Down syndrome to a healthy baby. Failing to do so because it’s expensive is equivalent to giving Down syndrome to a baby in exchange for the equal amount of money. If you really believe that embryos aren’t people, then by not doing genetic screening you’re basically depriving your future baby of health care. And yet for stating this belief (in a more form, where refusing to do genetic screening is not bad, but doing it is absolutely 100% OK) I was called an ableist and a Nazi by a pro-choice pro-vaccination person, who was pointing out to all the wonderful people with Down syndrome, whom, according to their interpretation of my beliefs, I would like to kill. In fact, I was called ableist for even thinking that genetic screening should be allowed, because at some point we may encounter homophobic parents deciding to abort homosexual kids (I was scared away from noting that it’s actually not bas, since it totally solves the problem of homosexual kids growing up in homophobic households and ending up killing themselves).

        Or another example – cochlear implants. From the utilitarian perspective, failing to provide them to your child is equivalent to deafening a healthy child (especially since CIs work much better when installed early on). Thus, at very least it’s not bad to give CIs to children, and it could potentially be bad to not do so. And again I was called ableist, who wants to destroy the rich culture of sign language, developed by deaf people, by eliminating deafness.

        Calling out ableism in generally is a flamethrower worse than any other superweapons. Yes, the discrimination of people with disabilities is real, and yes, a lot of their problems can be solved by accommodation, and yes, we should do something about it, but even the worst feminist and LGBT activist strawmen don’t want nearly as much harm to the humanity as anti-ableism folks seriously suggest. Research in the fields of robotic prosthetics, exoskeletons, mobility rehab, genetic screening and therapy kinds implies that disabilities are bad, which kinda implies that disabled people less happy, which kinda implies that they’re less of humans – therefore, let’s ban it all along, be more inclusive instead, and build more wheelchair ramps (not that we don’t need them, but aren’t wheelchairs and exoskeletons both technical means of increasing one’s mobility?).

        BTW, “Lacking the cognitive optimization that would help them understand psychoneuroimmunology on an intuitive level, they were easy prey for discredited ideas like “vaccines cause autism”” – this fantastically parallels the world of Echopraxia, where developed countries internalized the idea of the deterministic universe, and regard countries that still have the concept of choice, will, and responsibility in their legal systems as barbarian.

        1. gattsuru

          I’ll note that this analysis, while interesting, is highly dependent on a number of unstated assumptions. Even before touching on the activity-inactivity distinction, for example, it’s not clear that people internally experience disabilities gained after young childhood the same as they do those they’ve always had or had since the formation of memory.

          ((There’s a paradox for utilitarianism here — whether you value internal experiences or external effects produces some issues — but I’m not familiar with its technical name.))

          1. maxikov

            For practical reasons, I hugely discount the wrongness of inaction and action/inaction taken for conformist reasons. Otherwise I end up being a jerk in the world of jerks, and I don’t want to live in such world; furthermore, statistically, radical ideas are likely to be wrong, and I use this meta-knowledge for my ideas as well. Thus, I don’t actually blame people who don’t do genetic screening, but I’m really darn sure it’s not morally wrong.

            The idea that losing some function may feel much worse than never having it is totally valid. For example, most people aren’t frustrated by the lack of functional wings, and most people, despite all the efforts of transhumanists, don’t feel bad about being mortal either. This situation is probably different from not having an ability that most people have, since in this case there’s a frame of reference, but even here loss aversion probably kicks in, and makes losing something feel worse than never having it.

            At the same time, while I know that studies show small to nonexistent effect of disabilities on happiness level, I wonder to which extent it is and can possibly be controlled by sour grapes bias. One of the anti-death arguments is that people convinced themselves that mortality is OK because there’s nothing they can do about it, and I can help thinking whether the same could apply to disabilities. Videos like these serve as moderately strong evidence that this idea may be up to something:

            But let’s consider the least convenient possible world. Deafness is accommodated for as good as it can possibly be – everyone is fluent in sign language, all audio communications are doubled with text, etc. We know that deaf people are exactly just as happy as hearing people. We know that hearing-born but then deafened (painlessly) during the first days of live babies feel exactly the same way as babies born deaf. I have a strong suspicion that even in this world, most people would still continue believing that deafening babies is wrong.

          2. Ghatanathoah

            I often internally experience the disability of being unable to fly under my own power. I can do this even though I (and every other human) has been unable to do this since my memory formed.

            I stand at the bus stop and rage at the fact that I’d be home by now if I could fly. I see a crosswalk several blocks down a busy street and rage at the fact that if I could fly I could cross here instead of having to walk to the crosswalk. I slog through the snow and think about how if only I could fly I wouldn’t have to get my feet cold and wet.

            I assume that it’s even easier for people with disabilities that other people don’t have. I don’t get to constantly see people flying around, but they get to see people walking around, listening to music, etc.

            Other disabilities I often experience include:
            -Only having two hands.
            -Getting tired when I run.
            -Not being able to choose my words perfectly when I speak off the cuff.
            -Not understanding high-level math.
            -Not being able to learn any language in a week.

            All these disabilities suck. I clearly internally experience their suckage.

          3. maxikov


            Me too, which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about jetpacks, protractable bat-like wings, and at very least plan to get a pilot license once I finish my PhD, get a highly paid tech job, and can afford flying lessons. Also, a surprisingly high percentage of people on a local LW meetup reported having been in a control of an aircraft at least once, which gives me a data point for the hypothesis that wishing to fly is quite common among transhumanists. At the same time, a lot of people I’ve talked to outside of this circle can easily be more existed about cars and motorcycles than about flying (every time I see a luxury car, I think “damn, you could have bought a Cessna 172 for the same price,” but evidently, the owner thought otherwise). Thus, I conclude that the general population is probably fine with being mostly two-dimensional.

        2. Ghatanathoah

          who was pointing out to all the wonderful people with Down syndrome, whom, according to their interpretation of my beliefs, I would like to kill.

          I am utterly baffled by this response, but it occurs often enough that there must be some sort of twisted logic behind it.

          It seems obvious to me that it’s quite possible for a person’s life to be worth living, but not as good as it otherwise could have been. These disability rights advocates do not seem to believe this is possible. To them either your life is 100% perfect and couldn’t be better, or it’s so horrible that you should be euthanized immediately. There is no middle ground where life is good, but has room for improvement.

          I am baffled at why anyone could believe something I find so obviously stupid. Can anyone who believes this, or who used to believe it, please explain it to me?

          Right now my working hypothesis is that these people have this binary view that “anyone who says disability is bad must want to kill all disabled people” for the same reason some gun control opponents told people Obama was going to send cops to confiscate all their guns. It makes people afraid, and therefore more likely to support the activists. They’re cementing their power with scare tactics. But that seems too mean, and I am open to other hypotheses that don’t presume these people are evil.

          1. maxikov

            The most charitable explanations I can think of is the following: most people don’t think a lot about identity theory (timeless or not), teleporter paradox, and time paradoxes. You can often see online discussions, where people say that if time travel was possible, they would do X, Y, and Z, without thinking that going back in time and killing Hitler would be impossible without killing every single person living now, and replacing them with a new set of people, at best only vaguely resembling the old ones. They can think “I wish I was born A, B, and C,” without noticing that it’s logically impossible: they wouldn’t have been born at all, and a different person would be born to their parents.

            These points are very clear to me, which is why when I say things like “let’s do genetic screening for Down syndrome” or “let’s ask potential parents to think twice before deciding to have kids when their country’s economy spins into oblivion,” I mean future people only, and not for a moment I think “I wish this person with Down syndrome wasn’t born” or “I wish I wasn’t born”. But for people who can think about changing the past without falling into logical BSoD, this distinction may not be so obvious.

          2. Anonymous

            >It seems obvious to me that it’s quite possible for a person’s life to be worth living, but not as good as it otherwise could have been. These disability rights advocates do not seem to believe this is possible.

            Or rather, probably they imagine that you don’t think this is possible. The claim “babies with Down syndrome should be aborted” kind of sounds like “a life with Down syndrome is not worth living” (especially, perhaps, to someone who is not 100% sure that fetuses are not people?).

          3. Nita


            It seems obvious to me that it’s quite possible for a person’s life to be worth living, but not as good as it otherwise could have been.

            That’s a point in favour of CIs, but not abortions.


            So, the only thing that prevents you from wishing they didn’t exist is time paradoxes?

            And you don’t see why it might be unpleasant to hear something like “we should improve the future by preventing people like you from being born”?

            Regarding CIs: People with disabilities used to be (and in many places still are) treated very badly by society, so I can’t blame them for being distrustful of mandatory “solutions”. For instance, as recently as 1950s, the “solution” to deafness involved punishing deaf children for using sign language.

          4. Irrelevant

            So, the only thing that prevents you from wishing they didn’t exist is time paradoxes?

            When you’re given a time machine, you go back to Eden, and you kill all the snakes.

            Which is to say, yes. If history were mutable, existence would not carry a moral weight. The forward-looking goal of utilitarianism is “no more sad stories”, if you’re an omnipotent time-traveler you can drop the “more.”

            Picking supremely counterfactual premises gives weird results, who would have thought?

            And you don’t see why it might be unpleasant to hear something like “we should improve the future by preventing people like you from being born”?

            Yeah, that’s unpleasant, but it’s unpleasant due to a category error. Non-existent people don’t want to exist, while the statement invites them to empathetically project themselves into the non-existent person, at which point they erroneously bring in their own desire to exist and are distressed. Going back to the time-travel analogy, if the omnipotent time-traveler counsel appears to you and tells you they’re making you not be born for the sake of total happiness, then they’re dicks and you can be mad at them, but they aren’t dicks for doing it, they’re dicks for telling you.

            This is also why I take an extremely dim view of a lot of animal rights activism methods, incidentally. Telling people to imagine they’re a cow that’s being killed for food is predictably distressing. But since the people are not and cannot be cows, it’s completely irrelevant. So the activists are going around being manipulative and causing people emotional pain… and that’s it.

      14. Emp

        Yes, I very much doubt most people would get the (highly sophisticated) point here. It’s a good point, and very few people without advanced philosophy degrees get this.

        This post is at least partially about action-inaction distinction. If not preventing (allegedly) bad things is the same thing as causing them, then no one has the freedom to do anything but the (allegedly) optimal action.

        This post invites people to look at whether they want a world where people free to make very poor choices. He’s highlighting the fact that inevitably poor choices have indirect impacts on others as well. The question this post raises is whether people are wise enough to let people make unambiguously bad choices out of true respect for freedom and/or because you understand the catastrophic consequences if the person deciding ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions makes a mistake in a top-down system.

        1. FMB

          “If not preventing (allegedly) bad things is the same thing as causing them, then no one has the freedom to do anything but the (allegedly) optimal action.”

          Thanks EMP. I know life becomes pretty unbearable when I try to impose this restriction on myself. I can’t imagine the horror of being required by law to always do the “right” thing.

      15. Moshe Zadka

        I…I am not sure my intuitions conflict?

        I am taken as a given that the facts of your world are equivalent to the facts of our world — the soundly-discredited study is indeed as horrible as Wakefield’s, and there’s wide consensus that side-effects are minor and rare, and that the intervention works reliably well. In that case, f that noise — same solution as what I support now — declare not giving enhancers as “gross child negligence” and “denying of appropriate medical care” and take those children from these monsters of parents.

        [Again, taking your description as true.] If driving cars is indeed the main mode of transportation, as it is today, and we have an intervention to make humans non-sucky drivers — this is huuuuge. It’s almost the equivalent of childhood vaccination against adult heart disease, in terms of lives saved. I am really willing to take kids from their homes in order to do this.

        1. David Friedman

          My main problem with the comment is that you don’t distinguish between “If X is true then policy Y is justified” and “The government should have the power to implement Y if it decides that X is true.”

      16. Anonymous

        Even if all the parents were completely rational agents with perfect information there could be less than perfect immunisation, because at some procentage of vaccinated children fixed cost of taking the shot becomes equal to diminishing cost of being unprotected in almost completely immune population. Thus 98% of vaccinated children could be individualy rational but socially suboptimal.

        This is where the analogy with enhancement breaks down. As the procentage of enhanced children approaches 100% incentives to get your children enhanced get bigger. Less than 100% enhanced population is the result of different values, and not of a collective action problem to be fixed.

      17. Eli

        While “super-enhancement shots” shouldn’t necessarily be mandatory, they should damn well be on the public health plan!

        (Which requires that we first have a public health plan. Goddamnit.)

      18. Anonymous

        The story doesn’t do much for me because I don’t think my intuitions conflict in these cases. Not all enhancements are created equal; that seems obvious from the get-go. They alter different capacities and some are more intrusive than others.

    2. gattsuru

      Given the title and the last line, the intended message seems to have very little to do with the specific scenario, beyond providing framing for light.

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