Odzuck 2020

Title: "Hobbesian Eugenics"

Eva Odzuck


Does the office of the sovereign include eugenic legislation (and if so, what would it look like)?

It can be illuminating for our understanding of contemporary problems in bioethics to use a Hobbesian perspective for Applied Ethics and Public Policy decisions (see Courtland 2017). But the reverse can also be true: Confronting Hobbes with pressing questions from current bioethics — such as genetic enhancement in times of Crispr-Cas — can be illuminating to acquire a deeper understanding of the premises and implications of Hobbes’s political philosophy.

In my paper, I aim to show that we can learn important things about the office of the sovereign and about Hobbes’s political philosophy as a whole if we approach Hobbes from contemporary discussions about (liberal) eugenics and transhumanism. My paper is structured as follows:

In a first step, I’ll show how bioliberals and transhumanists, in defending their positions, frequently refer to Hobbes. We’ll see that often, Hobbes’s famous definition of the natural state is used to defend a manipulation of nature / of the natural genetic endowment as necessary. Beyond, transhumanists and bioliberals refer to „the safety of the people“ as the sovereign’s primary task and argue that this also includes the fight against (genetic) illness and/or the task to perform genetic enhancements.

In a second step, I’ll analyze Hobbes’s works with respect to the question whether the office of the sovereign does (necessarily or potentially) include eugenic legislation. I’ll concentrate on Hobbes’s most explicit statement of this issue in the Elements of Law 2.9.3, where Hobbes discusses “ordinances concerning copulation“ and the „improvement of mankind.“ In addition, I will consider other passages (of the Elements, Leviathan, and De Cive) that are important for understanding the nature, goal, and scope of the sovereign’s office. In this step, I’ll also discuss recent literature about Hobbes and the welfare state and about Hobbesian economics.

In a third step, I’ll answer the question of my paper. I’ll argue that a certain form of eugenics is a logical consequence of the Hobbesian premises – but that, nevertheless, some efforts of modern transhumanists to defend their positions with Hobbes’s help rest on a misunderstanding of Hobbes’s political theory. I’ll conclude that the question of eugenics can work as a magnifying lens for Hobbes’s political philosophy since it illuminates the puzzling coexistence of liberal premises and illiberal conclusions in Hobbes’ political philosophy.

Draft Paper

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