Genetically Modifying Utilitarianism

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This paper presents a refreshing look at Utilitarianism and furthermore ties the ideas of utilitarianism to the process of Eugenics. Using John Mills ideology, Utilitarianism and Eugenics are first evaluated as separate entities. Utilitarianism is focused around the ideas of right and wrong and their application to decision making. The ultimate goal of this view is the make the most amount of people happy. Eugenics and Genetic engineering is the study and process of creating a genetic profile of an unborn child and then taking a part of their DNA and replacing it with "better" DNA. After evaluated separately, Utilitarianism is applied to Eugenics, specifically looking at the decision-making process for genetically manipulating a child. The results of this comparison show that Eugenics is accepted in utilitarianism conditionally. This application of Utilitarianism will help establish an understanding of Mills' philosophical views and will help other students better understand the utilitarianism decision process in the future.


Utilitarianism was a theory first proposed by Jeremy Bentham and then was further adopted by John Stewart Mill. Mill was alive from May 20, 1806, through May 8, 1873. He was not only a philosopher but a political economist. He was born and flourished during a time of great scientific enlightenment and social expansion; There was a high demand for democracy as well as answers to life's big questions.

Utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism, is a theory formed around the ideas about right and wrong actions. According to John Mill, the morally best action is the one that creates the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people. This idea is known as the rule of utility. Mill also taught his audience that the only two absolutes in life are pleasure and pain. These two traits are what govern mans life.

Utilitarianism has many types associated with it. The main types of utilitarianism are negative, act, rule and preference. Negative utilitarianism requires the promotion of the least amount of harm. Another way of looking at this is to prevent the greatest amount of harm for the most amount of people. The issue that this view of utilitarianism looks at is that there are many more ways to do good than harm. The greatest amount of harm has many more consequences than the greatest amount of good.

Act utilitarianism is centered around the idea that an individual should pursue the act that leads to the most amount of happiness. Rule utilitarianism is similar to act utilitarianism in the fact that the best rule to follow is the one that would create the most amount of happiness. According to this idea, rules should be looked at as guidelines. These guidelines should only be followed in situations where the consequences are difficult, costly and time-consuming. The general rule of thumb is if the consequences of the rule without a doubt will overall reduce happiness, then the rule can be ignored. Lastly, preference utilitarianism is what defines the utility in terms of preference satisfaction. According to the terms of preference satisfaction, the right thing to do is the one that produces the best overall consequences.

Utilitarianism can also be looked at in terms of biology. Utilitarianism and consequentialism look at individuals as egoistic. These individuals, that are egoistic, must compromise with each other. The result of this idea is a social contract. If society implements this social contract, then the individual that is egoistic ultimately has an increase in happiness. Individuals who follow utilitarianism will argue that other members of the society should follow the social contract unless it messes with their happiness. If it messes with their happiness, then they can break the contract, and no one can hold it against them.

After looking at these facts, there are some issues that arise with the ideas of utilitarianism. First, it is challenging to prove these philosophical ideas through science. Happiness for one person may be defined as unhappiness for another person. Happiness would need to somehow be quantitatively measured in order for it to be compared person to person and in turn be scientifically measured. Another critique would be the definition of happiness. According to utilitarianism, happiness is defined as the biggest happiness which every human being looks for (Utilitarian philosophy). Happiness can differ among people which is not something that Mills addresses. These challenges with utilitarianism are only some of the reasons why utilitarianism wasn't universally accepted.

Eugenics and Genetic Engineering

Now that utilitarianism has been looked at, the idea of eugenics is nare evaluated. Eugenics is "the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population's genetic composition(websters)." The actual action of genetically cloning some sort of DNA is called genetic engineering. This process alters the structure and nature of the genes in questions and can apply to humans, foods, and animals. Through genetic engineering, DNA is modified and transformed of a specific organism and then cloned and put back into the original organism. This process, specifically in humans, uses the manipulation of a fertilized egg. Once a family decides that this is the only way to achieve their goal, the geneticist will modify the DNA of the child to the parental specifications.

This all sounds good, but Eugenics has a dark history. It was idealized in the Nazi era to create the perfect population. This method was used to control population growth. It started with only certain people could be put together and only certain people, those with the ideal traits, could reproduce. The goal was to increase the overall genetic and biological quality of the human race. During this time, the German government, as well as some people around the United States, we're trying to eliminate mixed races. Many individuals believed that the only population that was supreme, was the one that was purely white. As science and thought advanced, geneticists started to find ways to genetically modify the DNA without having to be in control of who married who. During this time, society started moving away from white supremacy and slowly towards equality. In the late '90s and early 00's there became more ways to genetically map DNA for testing and possibly manipulation.

Genetic testing and Eugenics was also shown in the media, which helped with the popularity of the idea. A good example of this is the movie franchise, Jurassic Park. In these movies, scientists used the same technology that was being developed for humans to clone and bring dinosaurs back to life. At the time, people thought that it was a far-fetched fictional story, but as the field of genetic engineering progressed, the amount of fiction in the movies decreased. As the science developed, genetic cloning became a popular basis for many movies. Examples of these are the Star Wars Franchise, Body Snatchers and more recently Oblivion. This shows how the popularity of genetic engineering grew and morphed into the designer baby ideas of today.

Genetic therapy, testing, screening, and counseling is used to create a genetic profile of individuals. This process is what causes the shift from eugenics (ideas) to genetic engineering (the process). These tests can identify diseases, disease severity, medication doses and possible allergies to medication. The results from the genetic testing are compiled into a list of possible genetic complications and mutations that their child might inherit. From here, the fertilized egg is moved to the genetic lab where the DNA is removed from the cell where each gene is removed from the isolated DNA and multiplied for genetic testing. Once multiplied, the geneticist then mutates the genetic code until it is the correct sequence. As soon as the genes are manipulated, they are inserted back into the fertilized egg and then put back into the female for growing. This process must be done very quickly after the fertilization of the egg because the growth of the child needs to be a single cell. Furthermore, it has to be inserted back into the female when it is still a single cell so that there can be as much healthy growth as possible. Because this is a very quick and sensitive procedure, the main way to test that the manipulation worked is if the baby starts growing and grows correctly throughout its life.

There are many arguments for the use of eugenics and genetic engineering. First, using this method, there is the possibility of genetically transmitted diseases decreasing or even going away completely. This is because the gene that is causing the problem can be removed from the DNA of the egg and sperm and replaced with another gene that is much less harmful. Another benefit of eugenics is to help doctors prepare for the future medical needs of the child that is being created. All of the tests that create a genetic profile allow for doctors to foresee future diseases that the child may possibly have. This allows the medical professional to pre-emptively treat the disease, sometimes before the child is even born. This testing and genetic manipulation also have the possibility of eliminating infertility and defective genes, as long as those problems are specifically caused by the gene of the mother and father.

Even if there are plenty of advantages, eugenics and genetic engineering have some large disadvantages. The testing, equipment, and processes involved are very expensive, time-sensitive and complex. Eugenics requires a lot of tests to map out all of the possible genetic combinations. Furthermore, the time and expertise required for the single manipulation of an egg can take weeks. You can only complete the tests once a month, based on the cycle of the female, and the success rate for the genetic cloning is less than 50%. As more genes are added that need to be manipulated is increased, the success rate of having a healthy mother and child significantly decreases. Because there is a lot of movement of the fertilized egg from the mom to the lab and back to the mom, it is a very risky procedure for both the mother and the child. Additionally, the mother can develop challenges caused by the manipulations throughout the pregnancy. Eugenics can also be bad because it can create more serious diseases that doctors haven't seen, especially those that are genetically altered.

Eugenics and Genetic Engineering Utilitarian Application

When comparing utilitarianism and Eugenics, the idea of ultimate happiness must be looked at. If the idea of eugenics is applied to negative utilitarianism, eugenics would not be allowed. Because negative utilitarianism is centered around the idea that there needs to be the least amount of harm, some may argue that removing the fertilized egg and causing the death of the unborn child until there is the correct combination of genes would be causing a greater amount of harm than happiness. If the eugenics process is being looked at through this lens, then it would go against utilitarianism values and would be considered unjust and evil.

When applying Eugenics to act and rule utilitarianism, the differences between the two must be established. Act utilitarianism is the amount of utility calculated each time an action is performed and is judged on a case by case basis. Rule utilitarianism is all about the general rule and addresses the decision everyone should make every time they happen upon a similar act, regardless of the specific details. If looked at through act utilitarianism, one may come to the conclusion that Eugenics would be good and acceptable if the genetic manipulations of the child were because that child would have inherited a life-threatening illness that is relatively uncurable. If this was the case, removing that gene would yield the most happiness because the family would be less likely to see their child suffering from that genetic trait.

On the other hand, if a family chose to genetically manipulate their unborn child because they wanted their child to have blonde hair, the amount of testing and the stress put on the child and mother would decrease overall happiness, thus not being allowed under the Act utilitarianism view.
When Rule utilitarianism is applied the Eugenics, it must be looked at as whether or not the process of Eugenics as a whole is generally right or generally wrong. Through the combination of negatives and positives as well as the situational nature of the process, rule utilitarianism would deem Eugenics as an acceptable practice. Overall, genetically manipulating the unborn child would increase the happiness of the parents because they would get the exact child they want down to the gender. This would also lead to the increased happiness of the child because the parents are more likely to accept them for who they are if they know what they are walking into.

When looking at Preference Utilitarianism and comparing it to Eugenics, one must ask if the consequences of Eugenics outweigh the positives of Eugenics. Purely looking at the pros and cons, the idea of Eugenics would be frowned upon. This is because it may be the right thing to do in certain situations but there are overwhelming odds that both the child and the mother must overcome. It is very dangerous for both parties; the tests are very sensitive and only work part of the time and it is very costly both in time and money. These negatives along with the emotional turmoil put on everyone involved including the laboratory technician and doctor automatically make Eugenics an unethical practice in a utilitarian society.

Lastly, Eugenics and biology go hand in hand. There is no better way to describe the utilitarian principles of Eugenics than the biological explanation. According to Mills biological explanation, individuals are seen as egoistic and greedy. Eugenics is the poster child for this idea. Starting during WWII, Hitler wanted to use the science of Eugenics to create a supreme race, a race genetically high above the others. As science progressed, geneticists and doctors are receiving more requests for "designer babies". These babies are genetically modified to the exact specifications and combinations of a couple's genome. The couple gets to choose hair color, sex, genetically linked traits and so much more. The majority of these requests are not because the child may have a life-threatening genetic disease, but because the parents want the perfect child. This idea is described thought utilitarianism. It is not enough anymore to just have a child, now parents want the perfect child and they use science to do so.

Results and Conclusions

Taking into account all of the different views and aspects of utilitarianism, Mill would say the Eugenics is conditional. The action of Eugenics would be an acceptable action if it is used for removing the gene of a serious genetically inherited disease because it would ultimately increase the happiness of everyone involved and it would create the least amount of harm. Mill would also say that a couple who wanted to genetically mutate their child purely because they wanted the perfect child, the harm of the action would cause more unhappiness, thus making it not an acceptable action under the principles of utilitarianism.

Looking at all of these factors that play a role in the eugenics decision making, specifically under the umbrella of utilitarianism, I would have to disagree with Mill. I would say that genetic testing is ok, but the act of genetical cloning is not acceptable because the costs, both monetarily and emotionally outweigh the benefits. Yes, a family would have the possibility of having a healthy child that is disease free, but they also could have a child that is sicker because of unsuspected genetic mutations. I think that this technology, as well as the personnel required to perform the tests, would be better-used researching and finding cures for diseases that can affect everyone, not just one child. Furthermore, I think that Mill would agree with me on that point, saying that the resources could be used for the good and happiness of all rather than the happiness of the few.

Overall, Eugenics and genetic engineering have a long way to go before it can be a completely viable option. This science has the ability to be abused and has the ability to save a life. This view being applied to utilitarianism is able to punch some holes in Mills' philosophy. In conclusion, Mills would agree with eugenics and genetic engineering on a case by case basis. I would disagree with Mills' philosophical analysis of the process.

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Genetically Modifying Utilitarianism. (2019, Aug 07). Retrieved July 20, 2024 , from

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