Twenty-five years ago, it was still possible to believe that eugenics as such, extending to the elimination of “undesirable” people, was the object of universal disapproval. It has now become clear that it is coerced eugenics, practiced by the state, that has been rejected, not eugenics per se. 
When it is a matter of individual choice, on the other hand, eugenics is now not only permitted, it is commonplace, and legal and encouraged in several countries. The recourse to abortion when the Down’s Syndrome gene has been identified clearly illustrates this trend. In France, for example, when this is the case, abortion is the choice ninety percent of the time.
Since it is individual choice that legitimates the practice of eugenics, the debate must first focus on individual choice. At this fundamental level, we realize that we have to look at the pro-life and pro-choice camps back-to-back and, in so doing, establish the bases for a reconciliation. The American electoral campaign of Fall 2008 was very instructive in this regard. Without a doubt, it is in the US that the divide on this matter is the deepest and the most public. The differences in views that exist elsewhere are, in the US, magnified to the point of becoming caricatures, and they are made a spectacle of around the world. Consequently, we are tempted to use these views as the specific example in a reflection to which we wish to attach a universal significance.
In adopting the principle of the informed choice of the individual, the Democrats took a position in favour of abortion and, indirectly, eugenics. This substitution of individual choice for respect for life as the basis for judgment does, however, contradict another position firmly held by Democrats: respect for nature and its harmony within the perspective of sustainable development. There was a similar contradiction on the Republican side: Sarah Palin appeared on television holding a baby affected by an intellectual disability, a baby whose survival would have been, in the other camp, subject to the choices made by individuals. This same Sarah Palin does not, however, hide her hunting weapons, nor her bear skins, and she defends with conviction as the “American way of life” those things most hostile to nature and consequently to life, including human life. In both camps, one is at one and the same time for and against life, but not the same life. Each group reveres individual choice but its primary use is different, one group wanting first to ensure their plans for their lives; the other wanting first to achieve their plan to dominate nature.
There were many Democrats as committed as Republicans to the life of children affected by a disability, just as Republicans are not all indifferent to the plight of endangered species, to the environment, and to the quality of the air they breathe. The symmetrical tableau that we are painting thus has its limitations. It is, all the same, sufficiently close to reality that we may use it to see in relief the element common to the two positions: excessiveness, lack of moderation.
Excessiveness should be the simplest thing to understand and define. It is everywhere, around us and in us: the excessiveness of the athlete who imperils his body’s integrity in order to break a record; the excessiveness of factory farming that hastens the erosion and the slow death of the humus, the organic constituent of soil, in the service of a temporary increase in production; the excessiveness of the driver whose car consumes ten times more energy than necessary given what it is used for, etc. Always more, always faster! This is the excessiveness of the PLUS sign. But there is also excessiveness on the MINUS side. Always fewer constraints, fewer responsibilities, fewer obligations. And always, no matter what the sign, excessiveness sweeps away the obstacles that it encounters. This is why individual choice, independent of all natural or divine law, is its ally.
Is there in this a trait of human nature? This is how some immediately interpret the story of Adam and Eve. In an earthly paradise, they had everything, but it wasn’t enough. Apart from humans, moderation seems to be the rule. The growth of a plant is limited by the nature of the soil, by other plants, by insects, by mammals. The most evolved animals, including birds, have a territory, rites, and rhythms that are themselves also limits. But here is an interesting exception. Given free access to reserves of oats, horses will eat until they die. Only the small horse that looks like a pony or a donkey knows to limit itself to meeting its needs, probably because it is closest to the most primitive archetype of its species. Are human beings thus degenerate animals? Is this the cause of human excessiveness? In the twentieth century, an important German philosophical school, that of Theodor Lessing, adopted this hypothesis.
Excessiveness was so disquieting to Greek philosophers that they identified it with evil, calling it hubris. They compared desire to a bottomless barrel, which led them to compare human life to the punishment imposed on the Danaides. For having betrayed their husband, these young women were condemned, for eternity, to pour water into a bottomless barrel. Thucydides, the historian, after having observed and analysed a number of wars, wrote: “In relation to the gods, we believe through tradition, and in relation to man, we see from experience that always, nature demands that all beings use all the power they have.” Simone Weil brought her enormous depth to this idea with the following comment: “Just as does a gas, the soul tends to occupy all of the space given it. A gas that would withdraw and leave a void would contradict the law of entropy. To not use all the power that we have would be to leave a void. This is contrary to all laws of nature: grace alone would make it possible.”
More than grace has allowed humanity – until now – to circumvent these laws. It has, instead, been the limitations of the technical means which humanity had at its disposal. Science and technology have abolished this limitation. The unlimited appetite for power has at last found technical means that are themselves infinitely perfectible. This is why the atomic bomb engenders such terror in humans. This is also why global warming arouses the same terror. We all see the excessiveness in the fact that we have extracted, in a mere 100 years, the oil it took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate. We also know that excessiveness brings with it the Nemesis, nature’s revenge when the limit has been passed.
We said that individual choice is the ally of excessiveness, at least when it is made an absolute, if it expresses itself without submitting to transcendent laws, natural or divine. Look at children; they have been created in our image. There is a perfect equation between the toy they choose and the desire that governs them. It is clear in their case that the choice is the mask of the desire, and that it is to their desires that human beings are enslaved before they are slaves to an authority or a law, natural or divine. This is why, in the great philosophical tradition, freedom would be associated with knowledge and transcendental principles more than with choice. To Descartes, the freedom of indifference, that which we call individual choice today, is the basest kind of freedom. According to Spinoza, we believe we are making a free choice because we are unaware of the causes that determine that choice.
This tradition is still alive, even in North America, where we so easily confuse the ultimate end, happiness, with the satisfaction of childish desire. The tradition is, however, entirely peripheral, in comparison to the official philosophy of the right to happiness through the unlimited satisfaction of desires-choices. Far from breaking with this philosophy, Barack Obama has been one of its most eloquent defenders: “We will not allow either hostile states (that control oil), nor terrorism, nor climate change to put the brakes on our fundamental right to pursue the quest for happiness.”
With technology adjusting itself to all our desires in order to satisfy them more and more fully, and choice being always at the service of desire, the opportunity for excessiveness – either on the Plus side or the Minus side – is omnipresent in our lives. It is technology that allows us recourse to a surrogate mother in order to bring into the world a child that another woman has conceived, but doesn’t want or isn’t able to carry. Excessiveness of the Plus sign! It is this same technology which allows us to prevent the birth of a child carrying the gene for Down’s Syndrome. Excessiveness of the Minus sign!
This combination of desire/choice and of the technology that is the source of all our riches will also appear to be the cause of all our unhappiness as the inevitable Nemesis makes her presence felt. This is already happening, in disquieting fashion, through global warming, pollution of the air and water, which is becoming more and more scarce, by chemical poisons of all kinds that spread through the environment.
We said at the start that in bringing the pro-life, pro-choice debate to this fundamental issue of individual choice and of the excessiveness from which it cannot be dissociated, we establish the base of a reconciliation. Such a reconciliation would presuppose a return to moderation, a consent to limits that would apply to all aspects of our life and would lead us to have respect for all forms of life. If today we reject the “imperfect” child, it is, fundamentally, because the child painfully forces us back to a limit that we have learned to detest and to reject in every area of life. In a different context, where we would rejoice to live within limits, where we would have understood that the true infinite is found within limits, this same child would appear to us as the very symbol of our reconciliation with nature, and we would love him or her more for this reason.
Conversion is impossible without grace, says Simone Weil. This is not a reason to despair. There are many reasons to hope. More and more people are struck by the absurdity of a life lived in an endless obsession with more of this and less of that. In large cities, more and more people seem happy to live without a car or happy to refuse a promotion in order to devote more time to their families. We can also see signs, in agriculture, of a rapprochement between consumers and producers, signalling a strengthening of the ties of life within specific regions. The simple act of seeking pleasure in a good meal with friends rather than in a big performance is a sign of a promising shift from quantity to quality. Among those who are seeking change are many partisans of reversing the trend to growth for its own sake. Side by side with the old guard who always want to go faster, there is a new group which subscribes to the cult of slowness, another way of moving from quantity to quality. If the end of the story is going to be a happy one, it will have to be achieved within the rubric of a voluntary reconciliation with nature, whose limits our ancestors certainly respected more than we do, although they had no choice in the matter.
In philosophy, the gradual shift from rebuke of state-sponsored eugenics to approval of individual eugenics is one of the most fraudulent sleights of hand that we might imagine. What is this? What was horrible crime committed by Hitler’s state – would it have been a worthy action if the choice had been made by Hitler-as-an-individual and if this same Hitler-as-an-individual had limited himself to preaching by example? All this to say that neither nature, nor reality in general, nor God, for those who believe in him, enter into the determination of good and of evil, which only are what they are because of individual choice. In other words, I do not choose something because it is good in itself; it is the fact that I choose it that makes it a good thing!
To make choice the foundation of everything, to subordinate the laws of life to one’s personal plan for life, this is the “extreme sport” in philosophy, the last step of the last emancipation with – to a horizon that is coming closer – the final overcoming of the final limit: the triumph over death. But what will happen when individual aberrant choices add up so that they constitute a majority opinion? Is this not precisely what happened in Germany in the 1930s? To assign excessive importance to individual choice in contrast to a transcendent rationality is to commit oneself to a path whose the ultimate criterion is quantitative.