Have Mercy

I. Wall of Disclaimers

This is an essay about eugenics. I resisted the temptation to write it as long as I could (several days) but it remains, unavoidably, an essay about eugenics. You should stop reading this essay if you don’t want to read a thing that can be described as “an essay about eugenics”.

Before I make any positive claims I would like to draw some attention to some claims that I am not making.

I do not support involuntary medical interventions, be they sterilizations, treatments, or cures, for conditions in general, as long as the people with those conditions are capable of distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary for curious observers, they are not unremittingly deluded about the question being posed to them, and leaving them untreated doesn’t pose a public health/safety problem. (I’d like a term for people who have conditions and prefer to keep them but I can’t think of one that isn’t terribly stupid.)

As a policy matter I am against killing humans as long as they a) are not occupying other humans who find their presence unwelcome, and b) do not, themselves, actively prefer to die.

I am in favor of default voluntary immortality for anyone who wants it, and would also be in favor of rescue sims of past people if they looked feasible.

The above premises combine mean that I actively want to live in a world which contains not only every disabled (or trans, neurodiverse, etc.) person who prefers to remain that way who is alive now, but also all of the ones who have ever existed, as long as they themselves prefer to retain their characteristics. I embrace this conclusion; it is not a bullet I have to bite but a natural and reasonable output of my beliefs.

No one holds the position that because humans are valuable, we must embrace every way via which valuable humans may come to exist. My go-to example here is that my Beloved Spouse was once informed by his parents that he was conceived as a result of a broken condom. No matter how Beloved my Spouse, and I assure you he is Pretty Damn Beloved, this does not mean that I have to campaign for poking holes in condoms, or oppose attempts to make birth control ever more effective. A more generally applicable example is that it is approximately guaranteed that every human being living today has at least one, probably many, ancestors who were the result of rape. No matter how much you like existing, this does not mean you must endorse rape. We are all capable of distinguishing between “processes which have produced valuable humans” and “processes which should go on producing humans in the future”. I encourage you to do this now.

II. Value Cancellation

The rest of this section will assume that you have read my short story Threshold. Go do that now if you haven’t yet. Alternately, consider finding that trivially inconvenient and therefore ceasing to read this essay on eugenics (why oh why did I write an essay on eugenics).

In “Threshold” I contrive to have two options from a single instance of child-having both exist as characters at once. This requires a freak accident in the story and is not, in real life, ever an available option. You cannot have both Mercy and Lyle. You can have Mercy or Lyle, one and only one.

I am pro-Mercy.

My understanding of the pro-Lyle position (or rather, the position that yields pro-Lyle if applied to this case) is that Mr. and Mrs. Long are not entitled to a referendum on the value of (in this example) trans people*. That because Lyle likes existing (and he does; I am the author and I’d know), or because other people similar to Lyle like existing, the Longs should have him.

I don’t think the pro-Lyle folks are entitled to a referendum on the value of Mercy. Advocating for Lyle in place of Mercy, and because Lyle is valuable and likes existing, only goes through if you are willing to say that Mercy is not valuable and doesn’t like existing (but she does; I am the author and I’d know). In the manner of an equation, their value and enjoyment cancels out.

You must decide between them on other parameters.

Mercy is more comfortable. Mercy has a better relationship with her parents (it would barely be a stretch to say that Mercy has better parents). Mercy requires less medical attention. This is all totally predictable from the moment Mrs. Long has her prenatal testing done and looks at the list of available tweaks.

Lyle is “natural”, admittedly, but this appeal to nature, if it is not presented as a bare fact and thus safely out of the repertoire of anyone I’m interested in arguing with, is ripe for a reversal test. Left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t think anyone would criticize the Longs for not supplying their firstborn with twenty younger siblings. Nobody, except maybe the Quiverfull types, thinks that people have to have as many kids as they can squeeze out. But once they have decided to have one at all, some people may get very defensive of Lyle’s right to exist, even though they’d never make a peep about Greta Long, Hypothetical Sibling #19, no matter what list of conditions I assigned her. (Whether those conditions began with “cerebral palsy” or “sufficient genius to solve the problems involved in premature silicization when she grows up”. Or both.)

Whatever leads you to prefer Lyle over Mercy or Mercy over Lyle, it cannot be something they have in common. And one obvious thing they don’t have in common is that Mercy is a lot easier on Mr. and Mrs. Long, who are the ones having a child in the first place and begin the thought experiment as the only people in sight. Mr. and Mrs. Long – when permitted by their other constraints to do so – choose Mercy.

III. Who Find Their Presence Unwelcome

Why do I get the feeling that hardline anti-eugenicists don’t want me to breed?

That is to say, here is my paraphrase of the aggregate position of the firm anti-eugenics people: “If you want to biologically reproduce, you may not make any decisions about what kind of child to have except indirectly through partner selection (and it would be tacky to inquire after candidate partners’ genotypes instead of phenotypes alone). You may decide whether or not to have kids at all, but if you choose not to because you or your partner may pass on a condition and that condition isn’t on our short list of Real Bad Shit like Tay-Sachs, then you are probably making that choice for bad reasons and should feel bad. You should have as little information about a fetus you are gestating as possible if there is any chance you will use this information to make a decision about abortion; in many cases, it should be kept technologically impossible to learn this information. If you are not ready for all of the possible babies you might have, keep your gametes to yourself.”

This would be one thing to say in an era of enlightened universal health care; it is quite another in the real world. But that doesn’t form the core of my argument.

I am not ready for all possible babies.

But I am ready for most possible babies.

I would like to make use of the tools that are available to me to increase the probability of getting a baby more like the sort of baby I am ready for.

I, personally, have room in my life where others might not for babies of any sex/gender combination, babies who will need to learn to roll instead of walk, babies who never learn to speak aloud and prefer to write. Other people have other needs, more or less restrictive along various dimensions. Some needs are going to be more common than others. Some of them will change in response to new information about their subjects and some of them won’t. Letting everyone make choices based on lots of information will change the percentages of new children who have various conditions.

So it makes some sense that people who have strong feelings about those percentages would take an anti-eugenic stance, even against the gentlest, most opt-in, least coercive form of eugenics there can be.

But I’m not sure where in their reasoning they think they become entitled to, in the manner of a statistical cuckoo, place children of their favored conditions in other people’s bodies and families who find their presence unwelcome if those bodies and families have tried to open the door to other kinds of children instead. This is not kind to the parents and their opportunity cost is high. It is not kind to the children and their childhoods will be hard. It is not kind to the society around them who suffer externalities from a parent/child situation that nobody really wanted except the anti-eugenicist three towns over who doesn’t so much as have to babysit.

I will end that I have seen one solid argument against the greater availability of parental choice in child traits, which is that parents will optimize for positional goods and in aggregate everyone will end up worse off. For instance, it would be bad if everybody made their kids taller and taller. It doesn’t seem that there is an obvious way to coordinate parents with freely available choices to break out of a race like that before it causes problems, the way skewed sex selection has caused problems in parts of Asia. I don’t have an especially good reply to this specific argument and wanted to acknowledge its quality as an endnote to this goddamn essay on eugenics.

*The original concept of the story involved Mercy’s medical history containing an adjustment for a much more impairing condition, exactly what I hadn’t decided. Lyle existed as a separate character at first; him being Mercy’s trans baseline-reality counterpart came later and overdetermined the nature of her tweak.

9 thoughts on “Have Mercy”

  1. Excellent essay and story, thanks!

    You go pretty far on several axes: including maybe-disorders like being trans, allowing brain tweaks and leaving all decisions up to the parents.

    So, would tweaks like lifelong-obedience-to-parents also be OK? For some parents, misbehaving kids and wayward adult children seem to be major causes of distress.


    1. I don’t support arbitrary parental choice, and even if we assume you can engineer in obedience reliably (which seems non-obvious), I would not want it to be deployed because it would make kids easy to abuse (whereas most of the tweaks I’d support seem like they’d make kids less appealing to abuse, even if they don’t directly affect parental ability).


  2. Good essay! I confess I didn’t read the story yet but I think I followed anyway.

    One thing to note in this context is how the word eugenics is used to refer to two rather opposite things.

    We have coercive eugenics, in which the state or some powerful entity interferes with people’s reproductive choice to achieve what it considers good results.

    And we have personal reproductive choice, by parents, based on their own criteria, but with more information than they had in the past. This is also called eugenics, perhaps with a “voluntary” tacked onto it.

    Finally, we have the state or some powerful entity interfering with people using certain information for the purpose of reproductive choice, in order to achieve what it considers good results. This is… anti-eugenics.


    1. You are the only individual I can specifically remember mentioning it, but I don’t remember finding it overwhelmingly novel when I saw it on your blog. So I can’t say for sure, but it might have been you.


  3. To sort my objections by the section which they are objections to,
    It seems to me that there’s an important difference between holding that someone ought not to have come into existence because of the events by which they came into existence, and that they ought not to have come into existence because of what they are like.

    While I agree that the birth of Lyle has no major benefits over the birth of Mercy, the procedure by which Lyle is chosen over Mercy has the advantage of avoiding making overall judgements of the relative worth of people, and it seems to me that the general social rule that we do not make such judgements is more important than any advantages of choosing Mercy. The opportunities to make trade-offs between the existence of trans people and the existence of cis people do not end at birth – discrimination in the provision of welfare and charity money when there isn’t enough available to ensure everyone survives, discrimination in triage and discrimination in the hiring of similarly qualified people who are desperate for work all provide opportunities for such tradeoffs. It seems to me that the current practice of making these decisions under the assumption that the lives of all people involved are equal in value is necessary to provent transgender people from becoming second-class citizens. Once the decision to choose Mercy over Lyle has been made, I can see no grounds to continue such egalitarian practices, as the decision in fact based on the same position – that cis people are more valuable than trans people – as the others.

    If I understand your views correctly, you do not believe that two autistic parents who wanted an autistic child would have the right to ensure that their child was autistic. It strikes me as hypocritical to condemn as “statistical cuckoos” people who demand no more control over your childrens genetics as you do over theirs.


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