Demise of Eugenics Focus of Lawrence University Biomedical Ethics Series Address

Duke University Professor Allen Buchanan will offer an alternative perspective to the popular views of the demise of the American eugenics movement and discuss the role of ethics as a discipline in the final installment of Lawrence University’s 2004-05 Edward F. Mielke Lecture Series in Biomedical Ethics.

Buchanan, professor of public policy studies and philosophy at Duke University’s Terry Stanford Institute of Public Policy, presents “What Was Really Wrong with Eugenics” Wednesday, May 11 at 7 p.m. in Lawrence’s Wriston Art Center auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.

The product of a late 19th- and early-to-mid 20th-century effort to produce superior human beings through selective breeding, the eugenics movement promoted a legislative agenda that favored legalized sterilization of the genetically flawed or socially unacceptable and prevented racial and ethnic groups from mixing.

Buchanan believes the standard view that eugenicists were utilitarians who cared little for justice and individual rights is flawed. He will argue instead that eugenicists appealed to familiar moral principles, but that they systematically distorted the application of these principles by embedding them in a web of false factual beliefs.

Buchanan also will discuss the role of scientific experts in eugenics and the public’s deference to their judgment, positing ethics as a discipline must be reexamined to avoid similar mistakes in the future. According to Buchanan, ethics should be as concerned with understanding the role of social institutions and practices in producing and transmitting factual beliefs that can either help or hinder moral judgment and reasoning as much as it is with articulating moral principles and critiquing moral justifications.

Buchanan has written or co-written six books, among them “Ethics, Efficiency and the Market” and “From Chance to Choice,” which examines ethical issues raised by the growth of genetic technology and discusses the need for justice and fairness in using such advances.

He served as the staff philosopher for the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, from 1980-83 and was a principal author of the commission’s two book-length reports on ethical issues in genetics.

Buchanan spent four years (1996-2000) as a member of the Advisory Council for the National Human Genome Research Institute and is currently the director of the Consortium on Pharmacogenetics.

Buchanan, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of North Carolina, joined the Duke faculty in 2002 after previous appointments at the universities of Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin.