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This essay evaluates the moral logic of ‘liberal eugenics’: the ideal of genetic control which leaves decisions about what sort of people to produce in the hands of individual parents, absent government intervention. I argue that liberal eugenics cannot be justified on the basis of the underlying liberal theory which inspires it. I introduce an alternative to Rawls's social primary goods that might be called natural primary goods: hereditable mental and physical capacities and dispositions that are valued across a range of projects and pursuits. I suggest that reproductive genetic biotechnologies like embryo selection, cellular surgery, and genetic engineering, which aim to enhance ‘general purpose’ traits in offspring are less like childrearing practices a liberal government leaves to the discretion of parents than like practices the state makes compulsory. I argue that if the liberal commitment to autonomy is important enough for the state to mandate childrearing practices such as health care and basic education, that very same interest is important enough for the state to mandate safe, effective, and functionally integrated genetic practices that act on analogous all-purpose traits such as resistance to disease and general cognitive functioning. I conclude that the liberal case for compulsory eugenics is a reductio against liberal theory.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of PoliticsSt. Johns CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxford, England OX1 3JP, Email:

Publication date: 2007-03-01

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