Daniels, Norman (2000). “Why Not the Best" in Buchanan, Allen et al. eds, From Chance to Choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 156-203.
This chapter seeks to answer the question why parents should or should not seek the best – even through genetics - for their children. Parents are generally regarded as having permission and, some say, obligation to produce the “best" children possible. This includes development through nutrition, exercises, sports, and other investments to produce the best prudential or moral agents possible. The poor may struggle just to have their children survive and this may be the best they can do or expect of the child. We recognize that best as perceived by society may not constrain many religion’s pursuit of what they feel is best for their children. Neglect and abuse aside, interference is viewed as a fundamental interference to a parent’s conception of a good life. Environmental pursuits seem to be different from genetic because it is viewed as working within the natural capabilities of the child. This modifies the phenotype of the child and there is no agreed upon "best" as to what this should look like. Daniels rejects genetic determinism and claims that it is components of the phenotype that is central to our conception of self, not genotype. Because we leave so much room for environmental effects, this should undercut any idea of genetic determinism. Are there adequate or defensible standards as to what makes a child “best”? Who is allowed to make such decisions under what criteria?
Three positions supporting attempts to perfect children through genetic intervention:
1. Strongest – it is morally required of parents or others to seek to produce the best children possible.
2. Weaker – it is morally good for parents to use a variety of mean, including genetic interventions, to attempt to produce the best children possible, i.e., we attempt to benefit the child for the child’s sake.
3. Weakest – within the legitimate authority of parents in having and raising their children to use at least some forms of genetic interventions in seeking to improve their children.
Is the use of genetic intervention morally good or desirable, other things being equal, in the same way as environmental interventions? Even if some genetic intervention is on balance undesirable, is it morally permissible because of a parent’s legitimate authority over their children? The history of eugenics should give us caution when answering these questions but Daniels notes that prejudice and stereotyping is just as much of a problem for environmental interventions as it could be for genetic.
If we are to say that a parent tries to produce the best child possible, we must reasonably expect the child to share the value and criteria of best means. The problem is that childrearing shapes the values and evaluative standards that shape their outlook on their life and other standards so, in a sense, a child is tainted by the very practices in question. Daniels argues that any attempt to justify an endorsement of steps that produces the effects on the child must include the notion that the child later has the independent capacity to evaluate those steps. The problem here is that the notion of choosing your own character is incoherent when one considers that one must have character and values before one can evaluate character and values. In this respect, this criterion is insufficient to justify a child’s character. Disability is brought up again and he notes that different groups have advocated that their disability allows for a flourishing of other abilities so, with accommodations, this removes much of the disadvantages the disability confers. I think this is problematic in the same way a child's upbringing shapes the perspective of value as both a means and an end to that upbringing. Daniels further notes that there is not systematic contrast between harms and benefits that is objective, i.e., a harm to my life and child may be a benefit to yours. The idea of normal species functioning, Daniels argues, provides a prima facie case for elimination or benefit from genetic intervention in the treatment of disease. This is problematic, however, because it begs the question of who determines the medical boundary line. The authors seem to reject the idea of a parent’s neutrality in the use of genetic intervention and claim that it may lead only to particular or idiosyncratic conception of what the parent’s idea is of a good life.
Daniels then appeals to Feinberg (1980) to explore the case of a child’s right to an open future. I'll make only a few comments as I have studied this concept before in bioethics. He does feel that right to an open future is compatible to genetic intervention in the same way environmental intervention is compatible but he does question how much this has the possibility of limiting those options. If environmental interventions affect evaluative prospects of a future child and genetic interventions have the possibility of doing the same, is the idea of a right to an open future viable considering that autonomy is affected one way or the other? In other words, how much does a parent affect adaptive capacity? A child has moral and legal rights but we also know that even society limits the scope of these rights because they are not in a position, due to development, to make certain moral choices on their own. Daniels next goes into what role the state should play in genetic intervention, if any, of a child. He cautions that a society’s concern does rule out a perspective of what is best for the society, rather than for the individual. I think this disturbs them that eugenic history may repeat itself if society had too much power in this respect. He does think that it may be less problematic in a liberal democracy if it concerning all-purpose traits such as resistance to tooth decay. He argues that a society’s neutrality must be more stringent than a parent's concerning any type of intervention.
Daniels then appeals to Rawls’ notion that reasonable people, despite their own comprehensive moral views and conceptions of a good life, must incorporate within their views a view that others may reasonable disagree about such matters. As such, parents must aim to create children with the intellectual and emotional capacity to do the same, even if that means that child disagrees with the parent. This may be problematic for both environmental and genetic intervention because how can we know the future state or evaluative position of a child that we are responsible for developing?