Should Parents Choose More Intelligent Children?

By Ben Saunders, Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Academia.edu).


The Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu proposed that, where screening technology is available, parents have a moral obligation to select the children expected to enjoy the best lives. He terms this the principle of procreative beneficence. Unsurprisingly, this principle is controversial and it has been subjected to a number of criticisms, including accusations that it is eugenic. (I have criticised it myself here.)

My latest publication, ‘Procreative Beneficence, Intelligence, and the Optimization Problem’ (forthcoming in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy; doi 10.1093/jmp/jhv026), is a response to another line of criticism.

In a recent piece in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Adam Carter and Emma Gordon argued that even if we accept the principle of procreative beneficence, the results are less radical than Savulescu suggests. They accept, at least for sake of argument, that parents might have an obligation to choose healthy children rather than those that will suffer (or are likely to suffer) from disease or disability. However, they argue that Savulescu fails to provide a clear example of a non-disease trait that parents have an obligation to select for (or against). In particular, they focus on Savulescu’s favoured example of intelligence, arguing that greater intelligence need not conduce to greater wellbeing.

My paper responds to this criticism, on behalf of Savulescu. First of all, I argue that while greater intelligence does not necessarily improve wellbeing, it is nonetheless plausible that if often does (at least within a certain range). Second, I argue that, even if this is false, Carter and Gordon’s objection to Savulescu succeeds only if the net effect of intelligence on wellbeing is neutral. If, contrary to my earlier argument, intelligence is inversely correlated with wellbeing, then parents should select in favour of lower intelligence.

Finally, I note that the effects of intelligence on wellbeing are likely to vary at different levels, partly for social or positional reasons (for instance, as Carter and Gordon point out, someone much more intelligent than his or her peers may have difficulty finding companions). Consequently, the optimum intelligence, with respect to wellbeing, is unlikely to be either the maximum or minimum possible. Further, this optimum level will likely vary depending upon the reproductive choices of other parents. Thus, the principle of procreative beneficence does make demands on parents, but compliance with these demands is likely to be more difficult than hitherto realised.

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