On Friday I posted about a new scientific study that suggests babies are not born with a basic right sense of right and wrong, but instead largely depend on their social development — for example, parenting — to gain moral understanding. This is not necessarily a problem; it’s just what the science says is (probably) true.

Yet I’m guessing that’s not how Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, sees the situation. According to a recent article in The Telegraph, Savulescu thinks parents have a moral duty to genetically engineer ethical babies.

Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s Savulescu making his case:

By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out. In the end, he said that “rational design” would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.

“Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting? … So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. … To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.”

“Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. … They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others. … If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should.”

Whether or not this would work is one thing. Obviously the question is whether, regardless of effectiveness, this kind of procedure is ethically sound. I’m not sure I have an answer to that yet, or even a compelling counter-question. But just in case you think this should be outright rejected as too radical an idea:

He said that we already routinely screen embryos and foetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome and couples can test embryos for inherited bowel and breast cancer genes.

Rational design is just a natural extension of this, he said.

He said that unlike the eugenics movements, which fell out of favour when it was adopted by the Nazis, the system would be voluntary and allow parents to choose the characteristics of their children.

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